When It Comes to Public Policy We Must Share Faith

In the late fall, the Catholic bishops of this country publicly entered, as a body, the political debate over national health care by addressing members of Congress to set forth certain basic moral concerns.

These contacts had several results. One result was that, to some extent, they galvanized or coordinated with pro-life views held by members of Congress. These members of Congress stated their opposition to any national health care provision that included coverage for abortions.

As the bishops' statements, and as the reactions to the health care proposal, became public, I devoutly hoped that the consequence would be a focusing upon abortion precisely in terms of what abortion actually is. We must get away from ancillary, or secondary, arguments such as the ''right to choose.'' The Church opposes abortion not because it wishes to deny women any right, or because it is obsessed with sexual matters, but because very simply and inevitably, abortion is the willful destruction of human life.

Whether or not the events of four months or so ago brought this basic reality about abortion onto center stage is open to question. I hope that all that was said by all concerned at the time contributed to a wider, more concentrated and deeper discussion about abortion. Time will tell.

Another result, hardly unexpected, was widespread criticism of the bishops for daring to comment on the enactment of laws. This criticism was nothing new. Denouncing the American Catholic bishops for giving opinions on the morality of one public issue or another has occurred before.

However, the history has been uneven. Personally, I can remember the days when, in the Civil Rights Era, proponents of equal rights for all people studiously sought open comments by bishops, and these same advocates of revising policy and custom at the time festooned their banners and spread prominently across the pages of their journals remarks by Catholic bishops who befriended the cause for civil rights.

Just as eagerly, the words of bishops questioning the morality of the war in Vietnam were encouraged by opponents of the war, and when bishops criticized the war on moral grounds, their words were joyfully welcomed and publicized. No one called ''foul'' at that time in the name of separation of church and state.

Yet, last year, when bishops looked at national health care in moral terms, more than a few condemned the bishops as outrageously stepping over the high wall of separation between religion and government. Certainly, part of the reason behind these denunciations was the fear on the part of supporters of abortion on demand that the bishops might indeed influence public policy so that abortion would not be included in health care benefits.

This part of the criticisms cannot be diminished, or overlooked. The pro-abortion lobby in this country is intense, organized, resourced, and hardly as objective and reasonable, or genuinely committed to the right of each person to choose a course of action for himself or herself, as they might insist that they are. We can never forget that not uncommonly among these strident friends of abortion on demand are people who would deny to health care professionals, and to institutional providers of health care, the right to follow their consciences, if their consciences cannot accept abortion.

Likely at no time in American history would the entry of Catholic bishops as a group, or individually, into discussions about laws and customs have been met placidly and without denunciation from some place. Yet, it might be that today is different. Is it because the pro-abortion lobby is much more vigorous and unyielding than were those in days past who were determined to see that laws granting rights to workers not be enacted? The efforts to achieve recognition in law of the rights for workers were long and bitter. The Church took its stand, in fact more constantly and with greater determination than any other national institution of similar size and influence. Nevertheless, the cry that the separation of church and state was being threatened by the Church's involvement in the cause for human rights for workers was not so general or so strong.

In any case, I for one was pleased that the bishops addressed the issue. They spoke not in terms of politics or economics, but as voices of traditional morality. History has taught a lesson, although now, as in the past in so many other societies, when nations and peoples forsake the rule of traditional morality, they do so at their peril.

Also -- and I am quick to raise this point when the bishops' comments regarding the morality of any aspect of health care are raised -- in this country our Church has earned its place at the table of national debate on such issues. Historically, and still today, our vast network of social services and hospitals has bought us a seat at this table. We have earned the right to comment, not just because we have expended untold amounts of money -- and Catholics have given their very lives in providing health care -- but also because countless numbers of American lives have been extended and enriched by our formal presence in the healing arts.

Last fall and early winter saw another issue that will not go away, and that no truly broad Church policy is able to resolve. It is the matter of politicians who, while identifying themselves as Catholics, vote for legislation enabling abortion when they reach the halls of government. The canonical arguments that would preclude bold and direct action, such as sanctions, have their merit. We cannot forsake our entire pastoral philosophy and proven application of Church law just to make examples of these wandering politicians. Still, they are enormous sources of scandal for many Catholics. In another sense, they confirm for others the old notion that Catholic citizens should be silent about their thoughts, if religion is behind these thoughts, and that no citizen ever should allow religion to direct voting or public remarks when it comes to politics.

Religion is not compartmentalized. It is a way of life. Part of the assurance of faith is that the insights and doctrines of the Church are needed for the betterment of society. If we believe that the Church truly teaches the way to justice and peace in this world, why shouldn't we share this information with fellow citizens and do what we can do to see that these teachings occur within our laws?

In any case, the First Amendment gives us all -- and, believe it or not, it even gives to U.S. citizens who happen to be Catholic bishops -- the right to speak their minds openly, to heart's content, and attempt to influence public policy and the operations of government.

In perhaps a related matter, public opinion data is not that encouraging when it comes to public acceptance and practice of organized religion. One study in 2009, not novel however, revealed that after Americans who identify themselves as Roman Catholics, the largest religious body in this country is composed of people who say that they are ''inactive'' Catholics or ''former'' Catholics.

Analysis of the reasons behind decisions to not practice the faith often raises as a cause the clergy sex scandal of some years past. No one can dismiss the very harmful effects of that scandal on the image of the Church and on the image of priests. Look at how it affected many of us priests. Speaking as one priest, I would not dare, nor would diocesan regulations allow me to dare, to place myself in some private contact with a youth. Such contacts in the past, albeit the fact that the overwhelming majority of such contacts were innocent if not beneficial to the young people themselves, were on too many occasions the settings for sin and for harming youth.

So, to some degree, patterns of pastoral practice have changed. Still, did the scandal strike a fatal blow? Not long ago, I had dinner with the rector of a prominent American major seminary. We spoke about the impact of the scandal upon vocations. Of course we do not know, and so we could not discuss, the number of vocations that were lost as a result of this scandal. But, he did speak about the seminarians with whom he works. He said that they have positive thoughts of almost all the priests they have known. These priests are their mentors. These priests' examples led them to consider priestly vocations.

What about the perpetrators? For the seminarians, the vast majority who never were personally abused, the impact of the scandal is reduced by the fact that today's young people live in a culture saturated, to the point of revulsion, not just with sex but with the most unwholesome sex.

So, to summarize, I do not think that the clergy sex scandal, which was awful in its reality and in the effect that it had upon the Church and upon priests, accounts in itself for this drift away from Catholicism.

Instead, I would submit that the problem lies significantly in the general cultural flight from organized religion. For this reason, I find no comfort in the fact that the mainline Protestant denominations are on the wane. It is not a good sign for this society, and it is not encouraging for Catholicism. The decline of mainline Protestantism statistically is not resulting in a corresponding upswing in the number of converts to Catholicism. People, pure and simple, are abandoning organized religion, and the number of these people is many indeed.

Second, we are reaping the whirlwind, I am convinced, of a very bad time in catechetics. Every poll proves this point. People so often, despite quite earnestly identifying themselves as Catholics, know tragically little about what the Church teaches or what Catholic discipleship should be.

Finally, saluting the saints among us, witness may not have been that compelling. It often has not been as public as it should be. To return to the thoughts about Catholic citizens, if we believe that our faith is from God, we must say so, and we must share it.

On February 17, Ash Wednesday, the Church will enter the season of Lent. Its Lenten liturgies of the Eucharist and the Hours are, in my opinion, little less than inspired. Lent calls us all to face the facts of being committed to Christ in baptism and in life. We priests, especially, are called.

Here at Our Sunday Visitor, our readers will be most especially in our Lenten prayer. Pray also for us, and let us together pray for the redemption of the world as we reach to be with the Crucified and the Risen, the Lord of all, the King, the Lamb and the Priest, Christ Jesus. TP