“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this CONSTITUTION for the United States of America.”
My dear brethren in Christ, the children sitting in these pews, playing in our parks, and sleeping in their mothers’ wombs, in all their innocence, their purity of heart, and their childlike faith, are the “posterity” to which this Preamble to the Constitution is referring. And we are called not just by this Constitution, but also by our Church, to “secure the blessings of liberty” to this posterity, a liberty that has slowly been eroding and is in danger of disappearing. This was why our bishops called for a Fortnight of Freedom this summer. From June 21 to July 4, you were asked in your parishes to increase prayer and fasting for religious liberty.
Now, there are many people in this country who believe that the pulpit is no place to talk about politics, but, thanks be to God, we are Catholics, and that is not a Catholic mentality. Our Catechism teaches us, “submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one’s country” (CCC 2240).
I can guarantee you that no politician would ever cry foul because a priest preached from the pulpit that one is morally obliged to pay taxes—especially since the Supreme Court told us this summer that we have a whole new tax now. In the same vein, no politician should cry foul when a priest preaches from the pulpit about voting and defending one’s country.
Our first lady affirmed this very point on June 28. Speaking to members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Michelle Obama said, “And to anyone who says that church is no place to talk about these issues, you tell them there is no place better—no place better. Because ultimately, these are not just political issues—they are moral issues. They’re issues that have to do with human dignity and human potential, and the future we want for our kids and our grandkids.” That is precisely the teaching of the Catholic Church; these are not just political issues, they are not even primarily political issues, they are first and foremost moral issues, hence the pulpit is exactly the right place to bring them up.
Now, consider for a moment what this teaching means. When we do not do something that we are morally obliged to do, we are committing a sin of omission: “I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do.” Hence, it is at least objectively sinful not to pay taxes, not to defend one’s country, and not to vote when we have that right. That is how strongly our Church makes this connection between religion and politics, between our beliefs and how we exercise those beliefs in the public square.
There is a legitimate separation, to be sure, but there is also a legitimate union of the two. When Thomas Jefferson wrote his famous “Wall of Separation Letter” in 1802, he was writing it to the Danbury Baptist Association to assure them of their religious freedom, to assure them that the state would not interfere with their God-given right of religious expression, that is, to protect the Church from the state, not to protect the state from the Church. His letter, which led to the “separation” clause in the Bill of Rights, was meant to allow every religion to express its views freely and publicly, in other words, to include the voice of every religion, not to exclude the voice of every religion from the public square.
To add the Catholic voice, the American bishops write a document on faithful citizenship every four years. For this election cycle, they wrote, “In the Catholic Tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation. This obligation is rooted in our baptismal commitment to follow Jesus Christ and to bear Christian witness in all we do” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship). The hands that we toil with, the hands that we pray with, and the hands that we vote with are the same hands. Hence, we are to bear Christian witness in all those arenas.
If Catholics are morally obliged to vote, then every priest is obliged to preach about it. Because a priest’s vocation, his duty, his whole purpose for preaching is to help people form their moral consciences.
And if it is a well-formed Catholic conscience that obliges us to vote, then, logically, we ought to vote in accordance with that Catholic conscience, that is, vote in a way that is consistent with our Faith, vote into office those representatives who truly represent our beliefs—not just give it lip-service, but truly represent it. For, as we heard earlier, our obligation to vote comes from our “co-responsibility for the common good”—the common good of ourselves and our posterity.
It is an awesome responsibility to have the power that we as citizens possess in this country, the power of self-governance. I think this realization was what prompted Thomas Jefferson famously to quip: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is good.”
It is regrettable that we now live in a society that is trying to drive God out of our government. Because our government is a representation of the people, a godless government comes from and leads to a godless people. Without God there is no hope. And without hope, there is no true freedom, no “blessing of liberty [for] ourselves and our posterity.”
This is why the Catholic vote is so important. Catholics have always believed that the supreme Ruler of the world, the Lord of lords and the King of kings, is Jesus Christ. This means that all temporal rulers, all worldly governments, and all civil leaders derive their authority from God, and, hence, are limited in their exercise of that authority by Him.
As Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia has pointed out, we see this very clearly in our Lord’s admonition to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Many people like to use that teaching to support a false notion of separation of Church and state, but recall why that coin belonged to Caesar. It was because the coin bore the image of Caesar that it belonged to him. Therein lies the true message, because Caesar bears the image of God. We are all created in the image and likeness of God, including Caesar, which means that Caesar belongs to God. Hence, that teaching does not affirm the false interpretation of separation of Church and state, the interpretation that does not allow one to bring his religious convictions into the public square. On the contrary, it teaches us the importance and necessity of bringing our faith into the public square. For it reminds our present-day Caesars that they belong to God, that they, too, are bound by his laws.
When our government officials deny that truth, when they become so schizophrenic that they believe they can divorce their public actions from their private beliefs, when they deny that their authority and our dignity come from the Creator, then they have no business representing us or this country. For our liberties and our rights are given to us by God, and not by men. Our founding fathers keenly understood this principle and formulated it in those most eloquent words so familiar to all Americans: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The Creator gives us our rights, not a president, not a congress, and certainly not “nine unelected lawyers” (in the words of Justice Antonin Scalia).
This is the principle that ended slavery; it is the principle that can end legalized abortion and the manipulation of innocent human life in a Petri dish; it is the principle that can stop the legalization of euthanasia and human cloning; it is the principle that can defend marriage between one man and one woman; and it is the principle that can stop the erosion of our religious liberty.
As Catholics, we do not vote for parties, but for principles. We do not concern ourselves with political conservatism or liberalism, but with people’s dignity and their God-given rights, which means that some issues are more foundational than others.
In 1998, the American bishops framed it thus: “[B]eing ‘right’ in such matters [racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care] can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community” (Living the Gospel of Life 23).
In 2008, Archbishop Gregory interpreted those words in this way: “Catholics must support the just care of the poor, the rights of workers, the dignity of people who immigrate to a new nation, the conservation of the environment; we must assess the very complex economic issues, seek to provide affordable health care for people who do not enjoy that security, and foster the more humane treatment of those who are imprisoned…. However, before and prior to all of those vitally important concerns, Faithful Citizenship places the issue of Life itself. All of those other matters are of no consequence for those who are not granted the first right— the right to be born” (“What I Have Seen and Heard,” Georgia Bulletin, October 30, 2008).
In the words of our Declaration of Independence, without the right to life, there can be no right to liberty or the pursuit of happiness.
This is where the current issue of religious liberty intersects with the ongoing life issues. With every right comes an obligation. If someone has a right to something, then someone else has an obligation to give it to that person. If someone has a right to an education, then someone else has an obligation to educate him—we call that person the parent. If someone has a right to property, then everyone else has the obligation to not steal from him. And if someone has the right to an abortion and contraceptives, and even contraceptives that induce abortions, then someone else has an obligation to provide for that abortion and those contraceptives. And our government is telling us that even if it goes against your faith, even if it goes against your conscience, you have to pay for it. You have to pay for it. You cannot be a faithful, practicing Catholic in America. You cannot be a Catholic in America.
A government of the people, by the people, for the people requires that the people, including their Caesars, be governed by a higher power, by a higher authority, by the Supreme Judge and Ruler of the world. This is why popes used to crown kings in Catholic Europe, to remind them that they too have a heavenly king to which they must submit. Once they forgot that, the pope had the authority to excommunicate them—in essence, kicking them off their thrones and relieving them of their temporal authority.
We have that same power today with our vote—to kick out of office and to deny office to those who do not uphold these Catholic, and, as we have seen, American principles.
With all that I have just said, though, please do not get me wrong. Being American and being Catholic does not make us American Catholics. Do not let the media fool you. There is no such thing as an American Catholic. To call oneself an American Catholic is to answer the question: “What type of Catholic are you?” To which we respond that we do not qualify our Catholicism. For our Church is a divine institution, founded by Christ, and guided throughout the ages by the third person of the Holy Trinity. Nations fall, but the Church perdures unto eternity. We do not qualify our Catholicism, because to do so is to qualify our faith, to qualify our allegiance to our Creator, to qualify our love for our heavenly Father. What we qualify is not our Catholicism, but our Americanism.
We are not American Catholics. We are Catholic Americans. To call oneself a Catholic American is to answer the question: “What type of American are you?” To which we respond that our patriotism is tempered by our faith, our love of country is subordinated to our love of God, our decisions in the body politic and our actions in the public square are all determined by consciences informed by faith. That is what kind of Americans we are. We are Catholic Americans.
Of course, what makes this country great is that all these ideas and ideals are built into our founding principles, because the First Amendment to the Constitution prevents the government from prohibiting the free exercise of religion—at least it used to. Whether it will continue to do so depends upon us.
On June 28, in his now famous opinion, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “It is not [the job of the Supreme Court] to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices” (National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, Opinion of Roberts, C.J.). That means it is our job to make the right political choices in electing our representatives.
This November, we are going to be asked, once again, to exercise our civic duties. The Church teaches us to take these duties very seriously, because they are duties that will either secure or forfeit “the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
Through the intercession of the Immaculate Virgin, our patroness, may God help us in our decision.
This essay was originally delivered as a homily for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, August 5, 2012, at the Roman Catholic Church of St. Monica in Duluth, Georgia.