Bishop Hubbard’s Catholics at the Capitol homily

Published on March 14th, 2012

Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany delivered the following homily at the March 13, 2012, Catholics at the Capitol Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany.

Cardinal Dolan recently stated that we are witnessing an unprecedented effort to reduce religion to a private activity, driving religious beliefs and traditions from public life.

Never before, he said, have we faced this kind of challenge to our ability to engage in the public square as a people of faith.

I would like to build upon the Cardinal’s assessment in this homily.

As Cardinal Dolan suggests, there is a great deal of debate these days about the meaning of the First Amendment and the role of religion in the public forum. 

There are some who would seek to remove the religious voice from the public square altogether.  There are others who would limit the presence of the religious voice to the church, synagogue, mosque or temple.

America remains a religious society but increasingly religion is being relegated to our private lives as an aggressively secular culture systematically seeks to exclude religion from all public space.  Religion is deemed acceptable for private life, but, when its adherents seek to gain admittance to the public arena, they are told “to check their bags at the door.”  Under the guise of enforcing an exaggerated notion of official “neutrality,” the contemporary secular milieu actually promotes its own secular outlook to a privileged position in shaping public opinion and public policy.  Under the guise of promoting tolerance, the secularist outlook fosters the very intolerance it claims to abhor.

In other words, there has developed the phenomenon in our national life that would seek to rule religiously based values “out of order” in the public arena simply because their roots are religious.  In this view, pluralism means a public square purged of intolerance – which secularists define as the belief in exclusive truth claims which define right and wrong.  They believe that any religious voice in a pluralistic society, will either infect the body politic with unhealthy doses of fanaticism and ill will, or will contribute to the type of extremism and polarization along religious lines which have plagued Europe and the Mideast for centuries.

Hence, we have the anomaly in this country that in private, religion enjoys an overwhelming majority status, (over 90% of people profess belief in God, and 80% claim adherence to some religion) but in public there are those who seek to reduce religion to a minority status or no status at all.  They would either eliminate religion entirely from the public space, or if it does exist at all in our public affairs, our entertainment, our intellectual and artistic endeavors, it would exist uneasily, disguised on its very best and blandest behavior, preferably as a form of vague non-denominationalism.

Those who appeal to the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state as a means of denying to religious leaders or bodies the right to participate in the public debate fail to grasp the fundamental vision of our Founding Fathers, who established the separation clause, not to silence the religious voice, but to strengthen it; not to fetter religious communities, but to free them to contribute to the public life of our nation.

However, while insisting upon our First Amendment right to exercise our voice in the public forum when entering the public policy arena, I believe that we of the faith community cannot do so by claiming moral superiority for our position simply because we represent a faith tradition or because we quote from the Scriptures or church teaching.  From economic issues through questions of moral ethics to formulation of social policy, the moral dimensions of our public life are interwoven with empirical judgments where honest disagreement exists.  I am convinced, however, that this complexity cannot and should not silence or paralyze religious/moral analysis and advocacy of issues.  However, as people of faith, we owe the public a careful accounting of how we have come to our moral conclusions and must translate our faith based positions into language, arguments and categories which can serve as a basis for civil discourse in a religiously pluralistic society.

Thus, the inclusion of explicitly religious moral values into the public debate is a delicate and demanding task.  Members of faith communities bear a twofold responsibility: to keep the moral factors central in the public argument and to set an example of how this can be done with sensitivity, rationality and courtesy.  In other words, as people of faith we must demonstrate pragmatically that we can keep our deepest convictions and still maintain our civil courtesy; that we can test others’ argument but not question their motives; that we can presume good will even when we disagree strongly; that we can relate the best of religion and the best of politics in the service of each other.  This is what I urge all of us in the faith community to do.

But even if we win the debate of the religious and specifically Catholic voice to be heard in the public square, there is an equally important battle to be won within our church itself, namely, that of the legitimacy of catholic social justice advocacy.

I underscore this point because Catholic social justice advocacy and ministry flowing from the exhortations of the Scriptures, papal encyclicals and bishops’ pastoral letters still remain unknown for many members of our Church, including some clergy and religious.  A recent survey revealed  that less than 40 percent of Catholics are familiar with Catholic social teaching and fail to realize that this teaching is an integral part of our faith heritage – as much a part of our tradition as the proclamation of the word and the celebration of the sacraments.

We, then, must make Catholic social teaching part of the credenda (things to be believed) which then become for the believer a basis for the agenda (things to be done) which the believer must implement.

Other research indicates that not only are many Catholics unaware of the church’s social teaching but that Catholics are the least likely of the various faith groups to participate in civic engagement.  For example, we Catholics write advocacy letters to our elected officials only one third as often as so Protestants.  We are more comfortable in running food pantries, soup kitchens or shelters for the homeless than in advocating with our elected representatives for public policies that will address the root causes of poverty and injustice.

I can give testimony to this reality because for the past 35 years, as chairperson of the Public Policy Committee of the New York State Catholic Conference, I have to meet with the governor periodically or testify before the Legislature.  In doing so, I know full well that when we bishops advocate on behalf of social issues with those in state or federal government, our elected representatives often feel free to dismiss our concerns because they know that frequently we bishops are like generals without armies, and, thus, to ignore our pleadings will not cost them at the polls.

If, then, our Catholic Christian vision of life is to be translated into reality, then, it is imperative that all the members of our Church become aware of the issues confronting our society and world, be educated on these issues filtered through the lens of the Scriptures and catholic social teaching and be willing to let our elected officials know of our support of or opposition to particular public-policy concerns.  And the more credible our witness becomes in this regard, then, I believe, the more attractive our ministry of word and sacrament will be.

And that is why your presence here in the capital and your advocacy with your elected representatives not only today but throughout the year in your home districts or through the public policy advocacy network of the New York State Catholic Conference or the United States Bishops Conference or during this presidential election year through a thorough review of the bishops political responsibility statement, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”, is so vitally important.  It fulfills the vision of Pope Paul VI in his 1967 encyclical, Populorum Progressio that we in the church must shift from a policy that seeks to alleviate the results of oppression to one that seeks to eliminate the causes of oppression.

Building upon Pope Paul’s insights, our present Holy Father Benedict XVI, in his 2009 encyclical, Caritas In Veritate says that such promotion of the well-being of the entire human family is a way which leads us to God.  Indeed, it is the essence of our catholic faith.

It should be noted that many, especially in the media, portray the Catholic community as being concerned only about abortion or issues of human sexuality.  We are proudly concerned about these issues because they deal with the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person.  Indeed, we have addressed this explicitly today in our opposition to the radical reproductive health care act.  But our focus as Catholics is not limited to the unborn, or the right ordering of the beautiful gift of human sexuality or even to our own institutional concerns.  We are also gravely concerned about the education of the young, service to the poor through food programs, affordable housing and employment; through language and legal services and a viable path to citizenship for newly arrived immigrants; and through assistance to inmates making transition from incarceration to reintegration in the community, just to mention a few of the priorities which you have addressed in your various meetings with elected officials today.

These priority issues are just five among the more than 100 issues on the Public Policy agenda of the New York State Catholic Conference.

So for your presence and prophetic witness today at the Capitol, on behalf of Cardinal Dolan and my brother bishops from New York I say thank you.

Thank you for your concern for the poor.  Thank you for your concern for our youth.  Thank you for your concern for our invisible prisoners and vilified immigrants.  Through such concern you are truly the hands, feet, voice and heart of Jesus in our time and in our place and you are fulfilling the mandate Jesus gave us in Matthew 25 to be concerned about “the least among us”.

Therefore, I pray that God will bless you, and reward you abundantly for being such beacons of light, anchors of hope, vessels of caring and instruments of healing, reconciliation and peace in our contemporary church, society and world.

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