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Address of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick to the Plenary Assembly of the CCCB, 17 October 2006

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Your Eminences, Your Excellencies, My dear brothers in Christ,

I know that I don’t have to tell you how truly honored and privileged I feel in being invited to address you.  I have had the joy of getting to know many of you, at different meetings, either in Rome for gatherings or when we meet together at the Supreme Council of the Knights of Columbus.  It has always been a great moment to stand with you and to sing the splendid melody and stirring words of O Canada.  I truly admire your spirit and your dedication.  I wish that I could help in resolving all the questions that come to each of us in this challenging and vital sphere of Church, State and politics.  We are having difficulty resolving them in my own country and even though experts tend to be more expert the farther they are away from home, all I can do is tell you what we are doing and hope that it brings some light into your own already enlightened discussions.

Let me put into context what I would like to do this morning.  First of all, I want to give you a very brief overview of how the United States came to be where we are today in our Church-State relations.  Secondly, I want to explain how the Task Force on Catholics in Political Life [of the United States Conference of Bishops (USCCB)], which I was privileged to chair, came into being and what was the result of its work.  Finally, I would like to raise the question of the priority of values which we all face and give you, probably more than anything else, my own reflection on them.  And so, let us begin.

The history of the relationships between Church and State in the United States is something which could take not just an address, but a whole course of studies to present fairly and adequately.  I will not pretend to do this in a short presentation, but it is obvious to me, and I think to scholars who write on this subject, that the initial intent of the writers of the American Constitution was not to negate religion, but to make sure that no particular religion would be enshrined as the state religion of our country.  The Founding Fathers had had experience of this in England.  A great many were members of the Anglican Church, which was the established Church in England.  They realized that other Protestant denominations were present among them and, indeed, among the early leadership of the nation.  There were also other schools of thought present in the early American intelligentsia, some of whom – like Jefferson’s – were not totally convinced of the value of any particular organized Church, although it seems clear that they did have a belief in God and a willingness to see others exercise that belief according to their own consciences.

To fast forward several generations, we have seen the extraordinary growth of a school of thought in our country that is not in favor of establishing a State religion, but to a remarkable extent seemed in favor of establishing a certain State non-religion.  By that I mean that there has become established in our country more and more in the past century what may properly be called a secular religion or a religion of non-religious tenets.  This enshrinement not of openness to any religious point of view, but of a strange hypochondria at the inclusion of any religious point of view, seems to have become more and more the basis of American political life in the last century.  (That is why, incidentally, the sudden appearance of religious motivation in American political life in this last decade has been little less than a tidal wave of change.)

Obviously, getting back to my story, this anti-religious construct makes no sense to us.  You cannot make decisions without ethical values, even if they are State decisions.  Decisions that affect the national welfare of a nation cannot be arrived at without the use of ethical and moral principles and, at the very basis, these tend to come from religious values.  Religion, therefore, is always going to be a part of our history in that it affects the culture which affects the principles which guide the decisions of government.  Since it is, therefore, always part of the individual’s ethical perception, the values of the society would always be present.

Those values were obvious.  They proscribed murder and the taking of an innocent life.  For the first two centuries of our history this obviously included the prescription of taking the life of an innocent child in the womb by abortion.  It included the prohibition of euthanasia.  It would obviously have precluded the possibility of human cloning, of stem cell research that would involve abortion and of other problems of this nature.

Combined with the right of liberty, it would enshrine the right to food and drink, the right to speak and write according to one’s conscience, the right to believe in a God or not to believe, the right to marry and to have a family, the right to own property – even the right to bear arms – and ultimately, as one develops the position logically, the right to a living wage, the right to be educated and the right to live in peace.  These values are also enshrined in the social teaching of the Church.  They define the roles of the State, the Church and the political sphere.  Pope Benedict XVI defines it clearly for us in his first Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est.  Allow me to cite two paragraphs (no. 28, a):

The just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics.  As Augustine once said, a State which is not governed according to justice would be just a band of thieves:  “Remota itaque iustitia quid sunt regna nisi magna latrocinia?”  Fundamental to Christianity is the distinction between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God (cf. Mt 22:21), in other words, the distinction between Church and State or, as the Second Vatican Council puts it, the autonomy of the temporal sphere.  The State may not impose religion, yet it must guarantee religious freedom and harmony between the followers of different religions.  For her part, the Church, as the social expression of Christian faith, has a proper independence and is structured on the basis of her faith as a community which the State must recognize.  The two spheres are distinct, yet always interrelated.

Justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics.  Politics is more than a mere mechanism for defining the rules of public life: its origin and its goal are found in justice, which by its very nature has to do with ethics…. From God’s standpoint, faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself.  Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly.  This is where Catholic social doctrine has its place: it has no intention of giving the Church power over the State.  Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith.  Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just.

The Church’s social teaching argues on the basis of reason and natural law, namely, on the basis of what is in accord with the nature of every human being.  It recognizes that it is not the Church’s responsibility to make this teaching prevail in political life.  Rather, the Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest.

This teaching will be important for us as we go on to consider the practical difficulties of the Church-State relationship in the area of practical politics.

Let me give you just a few more sentences from Deus Caritas Est, which will help us in our later discussion:

Building a just social and civil order, wherein each person receives what is his or her due is an essential task which every generation must take up anew.  As a political task, this cannot be the Church’s immediate responsibility.  Yet, since it is also a most important human responsibility, the Church is duty-bound to offer, through the purification of reason and through ethical formation, her own specific contribution towards understanding the requirements of justice and achieving them politically.

The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible.  She cannot and must not replace the State.  Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.  A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church.  Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.

Almost three years ago, I wrote the leadership of our Bishops’ Conference to suggest that it would be wise if some group in the Conference would consider the relationship that we as Bishops and teachers in the Church should have with Catholic politicians who are not always with us on the major issues that face the Church in our time in our country.  Actually, it was a document of the Holy See which gave us the impetus to enter this whole question.  Issued on November 24, 2002, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it was called A Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Public Life.  A key point in this document stated, “It must be noted that a well formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.”  I knew that the Presidential election was coming and, of course, we did not know who the candidates were going to be.  As it turned out, the nomination of a Catholic as the candidate of the Democratic Party made the concerns even more important for us to consider.

When the leadership of the Conference decided that my suggestion was useful and something which they should follow through, they adopted the ancient principle that no good deed ever goes unavenged and decided that I would be the Chair of this Task Force.  It was an imposing group, since the Bishops who are the elected Chairmen of all the public policy committees of the Conference itself were asked to serve on it.  This meant the Chairmen of Education, Pro-Life Activities, Migration, International Policy, Communications, and the Domestic Committee, which I chaired at that time, together with the Chairman of the Committee on Doctrine.

The Task Force took up its responsibility quickly and seriously with the help of very generous and thoughtful staff.

First, we surveyed the Bishops on what their own policies and practices in this area were and how the Task Force could be helpful.

Second, we consulted with leading moral theologians and canonists on what the Church teaches and how canon law might guide us.

Third, we met with representatives of our State Catholic Conferences and Catholic leaders retired from politics to draw on their experience, wisdom and advice.

Fourth, we contacted other Episcopal Conferences and asked how they deal with similar challenges in their countries.

Fifth, and perhaps most significantly, we were in regular contact with the Holy See seeking their advice and guidance.  The Holy See has been both sympathetic and supportive of our efforts.

To single out for comment only one of these procedures, when we American Bishops looked around the world to see what the experience of other Churches in dialogue with the political arena had been, and wrote to several of the Episcopal Conferences which we felt might have some insights to share with us, the replies were interesting.  Many of them responded rather quickly.  Some said they had nothing on this subject, but would love to see what we would come up with.  Others said they were working on something that they felt would be necessary in their own situations –  but they would love to see what we had come up with.

Whatever the answer to our query might have been, it always added, “We would love to see what you have come up with!”  We were encouraged by the responses to see how important it was for us to delve into these mysteries and to try to come up with some ideas which could be helpful to the Church as a worldwide family, but even much more important, to the faithful that we serve.

Because these matters were so sensitive, and because just about every group of American Bishops making their ad limina visit to Rome that year spoke to the Holy See about the question, we thought it was wise to consult directly with Cardinal Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  I outlined to His Eminence the positions we were taking and the program which we were going to present to the Conference of our Bishops as they met in Denver.  I found him to be most helpful and in accord with the reflections and directions that we had developed and helpful too in enabling us to focus on the situation at hand.

The question of politicians and political life would be addressed on the level of intellectual and political interest only for so long.  Soon, because of the decision in some dioceses of our country that further steps had to be taken to protect human life, the question of the right to receive the Eucharist became involved.  It was the Communion issue which brought all of this such great publicity.  This became the issue that everyone understood – or thought they understood.  It became ground zero in the struggle to identify “the real Catholic Church” in the United States.  In a sense, I fear it diverted us from the fundamental concern for the life and dignity of the human person that are so central in the teaching of the Holy Fathers.  The denial of Holy Communion became the focal point of the discussion, not the defence of human life and the dignity of the human person.

But the debate continued.  There were some who would continue to say that prudence dictated that denying Communion was improper and the Bishop who did it was not in line with the practice of the Church.  There were others who would say that not to deny Communion was less than Catholic and that Bishops who did not deny Communion were cowards or sycophants or derelict in their duty of teaching.  Neither of these positions is true or acceptable.  The Bishops in their first general statement at the Denver meeting made it clear that you could not be accused of being less than Catholic if you did not deny Communion, nor should you be accused of being lacking in pastoral judgment if you did.

Cardinal Ratzinger’s document also addressed the question of whether a Catholic who votes for a pro-abortion or pro-euthanasia candidate becomes unworthy to receive Holy Communion.  In a footnote, he indicated that there is a difference between voting for someone specifically because of their pro-abortion position and voting for someone for other grave reasons and in spite of his or her position on abortion or euthanasia.  This moved us away from the point of view that would have placed anyone voting for a candidate who is not with us on the life issues as automatically guilty of sin.

Later on, as we learned of the propositions that were approved by the Fathers of the Synod on the Eucharist of 2005, and approved for publication by our present Holy Father, I was so pleased by the treatment of the question of Catholic politicians and the coherence in faith that was called for by the Eucharist.

For us it was important, I believe, because it ratified what we had approved so overwhelmingly in Denver about our own practice and what had been designated as “very much in harmony” with his teaching in the letter which the then Cardinal Ratzinger sent us.

It called us to courage – which we fulfill both by our clear and unquestionable teaching about life and the dignity of the human person – that teaching so close to the heart of Pope John Paul II, and also by our courageous willingness to dialogue with those who do not always agree with us.

It also called us to prudence – that great and powerful virtue for Bishops, as they serve as teachers, guides and shepherds of their people – which was what we voted to approve when we accepted as valid and proper the decision of our brothers who were moved by their own local circumstances to choose their own Eucharistic discipline.

I see this as a call to renew our own fraternal communion and I pray that it may continue to bring us all together in faith and unity and love.

It was important that the Conference of Bishops did not take a stand in favor of or critical of specific policies that were being advanced by different dioceses during the run-up to the election.  In our statement, Catholics in Political Life, issued at the Denver meeting, the Bishops stated:  “Given the wide range of circumstances involved in arriving at a prudential judgment on a matter of this seriousness, we recognize that such decisions rest with the individual Bishop in accord with the established canonical and pastoral principles.  Bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action.”  What was essential to me was that whereas the Conference was clearly willing to respect the right of individual Bishops to make decisions in their areas, it also made clear – and the letter from Cardinal Ratzinger reinforced this – that a Bishop could not be accused of being unfaithful to his pastoral responsibility if he did not enforce a more restrictive policy.  This was a question to be decided on the diocesan level – as indeed, it was, throughout the country.

I want to emphasize that these differences in judgments among the Bishops did not reflect fundamental differences in our commitment to Catholic teaching about human life.  We are all committed to defending human life, especially the lives of unborn children.  We chose different paths on the application of our teaching and Church law.  These differences were exacerbated by organized drives among some Catholic groups and others.  Some Bishops were criticized for a failure of nerve or a failure to adhere to Church teaching because they chose not to deny Holy Communion.  Others were accused of manipulating the sacrament for partisan purposes because they indicated they would deny Holy Communion.  I was a target of some of this criticism.  At first, it disturbed me when a full-page ad was taken out in a local newspaper attacking me.  A short time later, however, at the time of one of the USCCB general meetings, a full-page ad appeared attacking all of the Bishops of the United States for not uniformly denying Holy Communion.  At that point I felt that I was in good company.  Finally, the same groups publicly attacked me together with the then Cardinal Ratzinger, which made me even more convinced I was in good company!

What is the role, then, of the Catholic Church vis-à-vis the political leaders who are Catholics and in a certain sense vis-à-vis the whole political structure?  I believe it is a threefold role.  First, to teach fearlessly; second, to dialogue honestly; and, finally, to act lovingly, so that means to teach with courage, to dialogue with clarity and to act with love, and with a love that implies respect, that implies understanding, that implies compassion, that implies truthfulness.  This is the great question.  How do all these things play out in the context of the American or Canadian political situation today?

First, we have spoken about teaching fearlessly, teaching with courage, teaching with absolute honesty, and I believe that is what we have tried to do in the Church in the United States.  Everybody knows where we stand.  They know where we stand on abortion, they know where we stand on euthanasia, they know where we stand on stem-cell research.  It has been tremendously clear and basically every one of us has been on the same page.  With regard to dialogue, there is a difference. Some of us have been willing to dialogue with anyone in public responsibility who asks.  This has always been my principle and it has always been my practice.  I think many of us in the Conference of Bishops in the United States have followed that rule.  Whenever someone in public life asks to meet with us we are willing to meet with that person.  We do not compromise, we do not pretend.  We tell them where we stand and yet hopefully we do it in a manner that keeps the dialogue open and that doesn’t close the door.

And here is the paradox, here is the problem and the priority of all our teaching.  As we strive to be one and to proclaim our Catholic identity to a world that is not used to absolutes and often prefers to wallow in obtuse confusions, we must proclaim the truth that Catholic identity does not end with the major issues of life, but it cannot exist without them.  Perhaps of all the things that I want to say to you today this is the most challenging for us.  It is in a special way the basis of all our communication.  Catholic identity does not end with the major issues of life, but it cannot exist without them.  As we deal with others and as we challenge ourselves to ascertain whether we are truly on the same page with each other and in communion with all our brothers and sisters in faith, this must be our understanding.  Catholic identity cannot exist without our constant and courageous adhesion to the major issues of life, but it can never end there.

Most of the disputes we have faced surround this issue of emphasis.  All of us accept the primacy and priority of the defence of life.  As I said earlier, it is the basis of all human rights since one must be alive to enjoy them.  Some of us take the position that while it is essential to ask a Catholic politician to be faithful to the cause of human life, his or her responsibility does not end there.  The defence of human dignity is also a priority for us.  Pope Benedict’s first encyclical gives us support, I believe, in this point of view.  Listen to his words:  “The exercise of charity became established as one of the Church’s essential activities, along with the administration of the sacraments and the proclamation of the word: love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential to her as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel.  The Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word.”

Cardinal Avery Dulles made this same point in a recent interview:  “The Church’s prime responsibility is to teach and to persuade.  She tries to convince citizens to engage in the political process with a well-informed conscience.”  He also cautions that the imposition of penalties comes with some serious risks: “In the first place, the Bishop may be accused, however unfairly, of trying to coerce the politician’s conscience.  Secondly, people can easily accuse the Church of trying to meddle in the political process, which in this country depends on the free consent of the governed.  And finally, the Church incurs a danger of alienating judges, legislators and public administrators whose good will is needed for other good programs, such as the support of Catholic education and the care of the poor.  For all these reasons, the Church is reluctant to discipline politicians in a public way, even when it is clear that their positions are morally indefensible.”

Here is what our Task Force decided to do in the context of these commitments:

First, we committed to help the Bishops teach about Catholics and political life:

Because there is often misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what the Church teaches in these areas, the Task Force has developed and our Conference has published, with the approval of the Holy See, the first comprehensive book of Readings on Catholics in Political Life.  It is being distributed to every Catholic Representative and Senator on Capitol Hill and many Bishops are using it as a basis for formation and dialogue at the local level.  You will be pleased to know that many Episcopal Conferences of other nations have asked for copies.

Secondly, we also committed to help the Bishops promote dialogue and maintain communication:

In order to promote principled dialogue and offer some models, the Task Force has met separately with several Democratic and Republican Catholic members of the House and a significant number of Catholic Republican and Democratic Senators at their request.  These meetings were candid and respectful exchanges on how Catholic faith and teaching should shape the actions of Catholics in public office.  Several of these meetings greatly benefited from the participation of local Bishops of the legislators participating who chose to attend.

Another commitment of the Task Force was to help Bishops develop a policy of not giving awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for actions which fundamentally contradict Catholic teaching.

In order to advance this effort, the Task Force and the Domestic Policy Committee hosted a consultation with leaders of Catholic health care and Catholic charities.  The Task Force and the Education Committee also held a consultation with a number of presidents of Catholic colleges and universities.  We have asked our Committee on Bishops and Presidents to continue this discussion within Catholic higher education.  Central to both discussions was the need for clear, timely and regular communication and consultation with the local Bishop.  We will attempt to offer to Bishops some questions for consideration and some possible clarifications in this area as well.

No Task Force or Washington activity can take the place of vital, principled, candid and respectful relationships between a Bishop and Catholic public officials who serve and live in his diocese.  Many of our brother Bishops in the States are indeed reaching out to inform and dialogue, to educate and guide and I hope all will ultimately follow their example.  One crucial and perhaps obvious point in this dialogue with Catholic political leaders is that we are not just another constituent or community leader, we are their pastors and teachers.  Our concern is not politics, nor just particular policies, but their faith and even their salvation.  These dialogues are not about winning votes, but saving souls.

In line with what I have been saying it is interesting to read the letter of the Bishops of England and Wales at the time of the last general election.  They too face the difficult questions of the primacy of the right to life – without which, obviously, there can be no other rights – in the context of the overall dignity of the human person.  Listen to what they say:

The Gospel is radical and challenging. It is a message of salvation.  It is a way of life.  It teaches us to value each person: the vulnerable child inside the womb; the parent struggling with the pressures of family life; the person striving to combat poverty; the teacher inspiring students to seek the truth; the stranger fleeing violence and persecution in their homeland; the prisoner in his cell searching for redemption; the child in a distant land claiming the right to a future; and the frail person facing the frontier of death.

At a general election we are asked to think about the kind of world we want to live in.  As Catholics, we are called to work for a world shaped by the Gospel of Christ.  How you vote is a matter for you alone.  Our aim is to suggest some key issues for you to reflect on in the light of Catholic Social Teaching.

Within the restlessness, fragmentation, moral confusion, and preoccupation with celebrity that are features of modern culture, the lives of many people are still guided by faith and hope in the mystery of God.

We expect politicians to be committed to the common good, but we too have a responsibility to be involved in the democratic process.  As followers of Christ, we are called to personal conversion through prayer and the sacramental life of the Church.  We are also called to work for social transformation through love, compassion, peace, and justice, in our homes, work places, parishes and the wider human family of God.

It is most important that we vote.  It is a duty that springs from the privilege of living in a democratic society.  In deciding how we will cast that vote, the question for each of us is: “How, in the light of the Gospel, can my vote best serve the common good?

Every four years before our presidential elections the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issues a statement which is a Catholic call to political responsibility.  We have been presenting this statement to our Catholic people since 1976, and, as the pre-note states, “The purpose of this statement is to communicate the Church’s teaching that every Catholic is called to an active and faith-filled citizenship, based upon a properly informed conscience in which each disciple of Christ publicly witnesses to the Church’s commitment to human life and dignity with special preference for the poor and the vulnerable.”  The document is called Faithful Citizenship and I am sure that many of you have seen it.  It lists all the themes of Catholic social thought that seem pertinent at the time of its publication and calls special attention to moral priorities for public life.  The most recent document began, as always, with protecting human life and went on to discuss protecting family life, pursuing social justice and practising global solidarity.  It resumes all the positions that the Conference of Bishops has taken in the recent years before its publication.  It is, I believe, an excellent guide, although there are those who feel that it still does not single out the right to life questions sufficiently.

I would like to share its conclusions with you because I think they very succinctly and beautifully express everything that the Church must be and do in these critical times in dealing with the critical issues that face us in our time.

The … elections and policy choices we will face in the future pose significant challenges for our Church.  As an institution, we are called to be political but not partisan.  The Church cannot be a chaplain for any one party or a cheerleader for any candidate.  Our cause is the protection of the weak and vulnerable and defense of human life and dignity, not a particular party or candidate.

The Church is called to be principled but not ideological.  We are called to be clear but also civil.  The Church is called to be engaged but not used.

The call to faithful citizenship raises a fundamental question for us all.  What does it mean to be a Catholic living in the United States in this year and beyond?  As Catholics, the election and the policy choices that follow it call us to recommit ourselves to carry the values of the Gospel and Church teaching into the public square.  As citizens and residents of the United States, we have the duty to participate now and in the future in the debates and choices over the values, vision, and leaders that will guide our nation.

This dual calling of faith and citizenship is at the heart of what it means to be a Catholic in the United States.  Faithful citizenship calls us to seek “a place at the table” of life for all God’s children in these elections and beyond.

I believe that this is true of all of us, and I pray that God will help us be the servant-leaders as we and our people strive to face this challenge with grace and courage.


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