Bishop’s Note: In light of recent events that threaten religious liberty in our country, I want to share with you the following op-ed piece that I wrote for The (Toledo) Blade June 26, 2004, soon after I became your bishop. Sadly, the concerns I expressed back then are more justified than ever.
In 1831 Ohio was one of the states visited by a man whose journey and subsequent reflections have earned a permanent place in American history. I am referring to Alexis de Tocqueville and his book “Democracy in America,” which continues to be invoked today in serious discussions about the nature and direction of our society.
The first thing that struck Tocqueville about the United States in 1831 was its “religious atmosphere.” He wrote: “Thus while the law allows the American people to do everything, there are things which religion prevents them from imagining and forbids them to dare.”
As Stephen L. Carter points out in his book “The Culture of Disbelief,” Tocqueville realized that religion taught virtuous behavior, which is essential if liberty is to be ordered to the common good.
By bringing a moral dimension to issues, religion helped ensure that majority rule would not deteriorate into an immoral tyranny. Religion in America also created an allegiance and devotion among its adherents that counteracted the tendency of government to swallow up all aspects of life.
Now, 173 years later, it is still true that “the law allows the American people to do everything.” “Everything” may seem an exaggeration, but we live in a country where the limits of personal autonomy are constantly being pushed further.
However, what was true in Tocqueville’s time is still true today. Just because we are free to do everything does not mean we should.
We must therefore ask: Does religion in America still provide restraint so that liberty does not turn into license? Does religion still exercise a strong role — according to the beliefs of each religious body — to teach virtuous behavior, to insist on the moral dimension of issues, and to create an allegiance and devotion among its adherents that prevent the government or modern mass opinion from becoming overpowering?
I cannot presume to speak for other religious bodies in our country. I can only speak for myself as a Roman Catholic bishop. And what I see is not encouraging with regard to the future role of religion for the well-being of freedom in our society.
For simply teaching what the Catholic Church has always taught, and expecting Catholics to abide by the teachings of the faith they claim to profess, the Catholic bishops of the United States are not only attacked but vilified.
I am thinking in particular of teachings on ordination, abortion, artificial contraception, divorce, homosexual acts, etc. These doctrines are denounced, even though most, if not all Christian churches (and many other religions, too) upheld these same teachings for centuries.
When I say that the bishops are “vilified,” I use the term advisedly. Earlier this year an op-ed piece in The Blade stated among other things that “our nation is measled (sic) with bishops fixated, lockstep, on the crotch politics of abortion and gay marriage.” Bishops are “men who suppress their sexuality” and “bigots for denying women ordination.”
The immediate source of the writer’s wrath was the bishops’ insistence that politicians who claim to be Roman Catholic adhere to Catholic teaching by not ignoring, misrepresenting, or contradicting that teaching. It remains to be seen what the wisest course of action might be in dealing with this problem, but every bishop has a solemn duty to ensure the integrity of church teaching and to uphold it, especially within the Church.
Granted, many people, even some who call themselves Catholic, do not accept those teachings.
But have we come to the point where political candidates or an opinion poll or dissenters can rewrite the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or the teachings of any other religious body?
Or prevent Catholic bishops or other religious leaders from exercising their religious authority over their community’s members in accordance with the fundamental beliefs and laws of that community?
As a Roman Catholic, I believe in the truth of what my Church teaches as a source of virtue, morality, and authentic human freedom for all people.
As a religious leader, I therefore bring those beliefs to the “public square” on the difficult moral and social issues of our day, and I fully expect others who call themselves Roman Catholic to do the same.
In the spirit of Tocqueville’s observations, I believe our nation and its liberty are well served by the voice of a religion that refuses to define morality solely by opinion polls and that expects its adherents to practice what they profess to be.
If religion is to play its essential role in preserving our country’s freedom, then its pleas for virtue and morality ought to be met with reasoned argument and moral reflection, not vilification, contempt, or exclusion from the “public square” for daring to state what it believes.
This article was originally published in The Blade June 26, 2004. Reprinted with permission.