Setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience… A Consideration of the Church’s Role in the Public Square

In much of the heated public debate on the HHS mandate (that the Catholic Church pay for contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization) and over gay “marriage,” there is a strain to the conversation, that somehow, the Catholic Church is trying to force people to follow what she teaches.

To think that we have such power is fanciful, but the charge comes up a lot and in different forms. Consider the following comments I gleaned from the combox of a Washington Post article submitted by me and the Archdiocese of Washington on the topic of gay “marriage.” These are just a few excerpts that illustrate that some see us as trying to use power to force others to do what we want. (I have added a few responses in Red just because I can’t resist):

  1. Translation [of your article]: Of course we do not want to make you a Roman Catholic, only that you will be governed by the pope in Rome…. He, and we, don’t have that power.
  2. Inasmuch as we can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God, everyone should be free to follow their own path as individuals. You are. I don’t have the power to force you to do anything. But you are going further than “following your own path.” You are asking for legal recognition of something that has never been recognized before. Expect a little push back. Further, the Catholic Church does not only appeal to God and the Bible but also to Natural Law because we recognize that not everyone sees the Scriptures with the kind of reverence we do.
  3. When it comes to owning a business that accepts public funds and which will employ believers of every stripe as well as non-believers, the owners have no right dictating the choice of others Actually is the Government that is dictating choice. In the HHS mandate, only the government has the power here to compel and punish non-compliance, and they are saying that we must give contraceptives free to anyone who asks for them. The “mandate” says that Catholics, and anyone who objects to sterilization, to abortifacients and contraceptives, (for it is not only Catholics), must pay for them whether they like it or not. As for Gay “marriage,” it is once again the Government that is requiring everyone to recognize what has never been recognized before, that same-sex couples are “married.” And, by gosh, if we don’t recognize them and treat them as married then we will be decertified from adoption services and have to stop providing marital health benefits for our married employees (as happened with Catholic Charities). So there IS a lot of forcing going on here, but it isn’t the Church. We don’t have that power, the State does. And frankly that should make everyone sober, even those who don’t agree with us on these specific issues. EVERYONE ought to be mighty concerned when the State seeks to compel people to act against their conscience.
  4. Just one more example why one should never vote for a Roman Catholic politician who would more likely march in lockstep to the dictates of the Church than follow constitution. Whew! Dream on, we have the opposite problem. Very FEW Catholic politicians live their faith when it comes to political agendas. And if they do, they, like anyone else, they have to face the voters every few years. Further, why is it wrong for politicians to follow, say, environmental agendas, or homosexual agendas, or social justice agendas, but it is WRONG for them to follow religiously inspired agendas? Since when do people of faith have no voice or seat at the table in the world of politics? Are we not citizens who have the right to petition the government for redress etc?
  5. This is about the Catholic church demanding that people who do not have any allegiance to that church or its dogma live by its rules. We don’t have this power. It is the State (and you?) who are instituting that we pay for what we consider wrong. Why should I have to pay for your contraceptives? Why should you simply demand to get them free?
  6. Today, they are gunning for the gays. Next will be your birth control. We don’t have this power. What we are asking is that we not be compelled to pay for things we consider wrong and sinful.
  7. In pushing your definition of marriage on to all other people and churches, you are in fact trying to ensure that Catholic law remains state law. We don’t have this power. As citizens, and for principled reasons rooted in Scripture and Natural Law, we argue that the law that Has ALWAYS been the law in this land, remain unchanged. We have a right as citizens to be part of the political process. One side is going to win, right now it looks like the pro-gay marriage folks. How would you feel if I said, “You are pushing your definition of marriage and trying to make it State law?” Why don’t we just admit that we both have a right to be in the public square and advocate for what we think is right? I think you’re wrong headed and confused about marriage and your type  loves to call me intolerant and bigoted. I’ll see you at the ballot box. Oh! but wait a minute! Here in DC your advocates on the DC Council would not allow a referendum. And, gee, when we do win at the ballot box as we have in several states, your side runs to a judge and tries (usually successfully) to overturn the will of the voters. Hmm….who is throwing power around here? Who’s pushing whose definition on whom? Hmm…?
  8. the church will be better off the more that it gives up its hold on political power. What power? If we’re so powerful, why is the moral meltdown so advanced? Again, are you simply striving to say we should have no voice in the political process? We have a right as citizens to try and influence outcomes, just like you. Frankly we haven’t been very successful lately. I’d love to find out where all this political power we theoretically have is hidden.

OK, well you get the point. A LOT of people think we have a lot more power than we do. Frankly it’s laughable to think think the Catholic Church has all this power. We can’t even unify our own believers. I have written before (with love) that unifying Catholics is like herding cats! I would to God that we could really unify around anything. Then we might be a political force to be reckoned with. And as citizens we would have every right to be such a force. But as it is, we are (sadly) a rather divided lot, even on abortion. I can assure you , most Catholic politicians do NOT have a hotline to the Vatican or take even a scintilla of advice from the Pope or Bishops. And even if they accidentally agree with the Pope or the bishops, for most of them, it is because the politics make sense, not that the faith has “compelled” them. No, don’t worry too much about the “power” of the Church.

That said, I have already commented above (in the red remarks) that Catholics, as citizens of the Untied States of America have the same rights as any other citizen to petition the government, to seek to enact laws that reflect our values and concerns. But we have no more or less power or voice than any other citizen of this Land. We, like others, often band together with coalitions. But again, if this is somehow wrong, then why is it not wrong for feminists, or environmentalists, or unions, or advocates of any number of hundred of other causes to do the same? We are Americans with rights. And people of faith have just as much right to be in the public square and the public conversation as any one else.

Some of the commenters in the Washington Post Combox, not listed here, wanted to recite grievances from the Middle Ages about Church power then etc. Why not leave the 14th Century politics in the 14th Century, and let’s stay in the 21st Century. There was a LOT of bad stuff in the old days. It wasn’t just the Church, governments too were different then. Modern democratic republics were unknown in those days. Today the political landscape is different. And if the Church ever did have all the power (and some of the claims are exaggerated and the Inquisition is often cartoonishly portrayed) that is not the case today. For our purposes we are in the 21st Century West.

Finally, I think a quote from St. Paul rather well distills what we, as a Church, and as believers, seek to do in the public square of America. More than acquire power (which is not easy in a wide and pluralistic culture), we seek to commend ourselves, and our message to everyone’s conscience. St. Paul says,

Rather, renouncing secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the Word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly, we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God (2 Cor 4:2)

Yes, frankly we do have vigorous disagreement with secret (and not so secret), shameful practices. And we will not, in order to be popular or conformed to these times, distort or misrepresent the Word of God. Abortion is wrong. Fornication, adultery, and homosexual acts are wrong. Divorce, and chosen single parenthood, and so called gay “marriage” are wrong. Contraception, sterilization, embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia, wrong, wrong wrong.

But I cannot force you to obey me. Rather I commend myself to your conscience. And even if Scripture will not be acceptable to you, I will have recourse to Natural Law. I, indeed the whole Church, will continue to commend myself to your conscience. And even though the gospel is currently “out of season” (cf 2 Tim 4:2) and you laugh at me and call me names like intolerant, bigoted etc., I will continue to commend myself to your conscience.

As long as I live I will speak the truth in love. And however you choose to understand me I will continue to speak. You may wish to call me hateful. I am not. I invite you to conscientiously consider what I say. I cannot command you, so do not fear me. But I do commend myself to your conscience.I will meet you in the public square, for that is my right as much as yours. But in the end, mandates and forced adherence are not in my power. I commend myself to your conscience, I do not, I cannot,  command you.

Here’s a video I put together of the World travels by the Pope as seeks to commend himself to everyone’s conscience. Johnny Cash supplies the musical theme: “I’ve Been Everywhere!”

31 Replies to “Setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience… A Consideration of the Church’s Role in the Public Square”

  1. It’s unfortunate that at some point we abandoned the teaching of subsidiarity and embraced the notion of social justice which was promoted by those who were only interested in their own political power and the Catholic vote.
    For many years, the left has played the church like a fiddle and now we see where it led. It doesn’t look too good for us….for any of us; the Churched or the un-Churched. Our government has become so big it has taken on a life of it’s own and can tell us exactly what we can and cannot do. The secular humanists have won this battle….but the GOOD news is, they will NOT win the WAR. We know who wins!
    Let those with ears hear and eyes see; the battle belongs to the Lord and HE WON. There are two sides; the side of God/good and the side of satan/evil. Which side we choose will make an eternal difference and NO, not all roads lead to God…Jesus said the ONLY way to the Father is through HIM.
    It is time for Catholics to decide will they be in the group of sheep or the group of goats….the wheat or the chaffe…as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord and HIS Church!

  2. Msgr. Charles, I commend you for writing the article in the newspaper. I hope some of the comments you received were more supportive of your views and those of the Church than the examples you included. I’m glad you have the courage to say the truth plainly, and you do it so well. Thank you.

  3. Love the commentary, Monsignor, and LOVE the video! Thanks be to God for clear teachers like you!

  4. Thank you for your continuous courage in defending the Church and Her teachings.

    I am so concerned about the fact that an American Cardinal today evidenced something of a defeatist attitude. He said that if the mandate is not rescinded, in a few years there will be no Catholic hospitals.

    The bishops should not cower. The rescinding of the mandate will only give our enemies the power to attempt to impose the mandate again.

    The passing of another conscience law will do the same. The current federal conscience law can be rescinded or, as in the case of this current administration, ignored.

    It is time not to cower. It is time to seize the moment and fight the good fight by putting all the Church’s energy into a First Amendment challenge which will allow the Church to FREELY EXERCISE its religious prerogatives in the public square.

    If we do not do this now, we will not have another chance. This administration is going to appoint the most liberal and partisan Supreme Court judges. However, given the recent ministerial exception case and the fact that it was a nine judge unanimous decision, we have a chance now.

    I beg you Monsignor to use the power of your pen to further defend our Faith and our God given rights in this country and push for a vigorous defense of our Church’s rights in the public square.

    As an afterthought, could I please also ask that you encourage the bishops to explain to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, the teachings of the Church on Her willingness to tolerate certain behaviors in the society which she disapproves, ala St. Thomas and others.

    As a forty year veteran of the pro-life effort, I have been hoping for such a vigorous approach for years. It is way past time.

  5. Ann Marie said:

    “It is time not to cower. It is time to seize the moment and fight the good fight by putting all the Church’s energy into a First Amendment challenge which will allow the Church to FREELY EXERCISE its religious prerogatives in the public square.”

    I say Amen! I would add that should it fail, Catholic hospitals should not close, but continue to operate and openly defy any legal demand to provide evil goods or services. That way we will find out if the public lacks the stomach for physically forcing Catholic hospitals to shut down and the regulation becomes an unenforced dead letter, or if they will double-down on a wicked regulation and use force, in which case no Catholic can remain under the delusions that society hasn’t de facto declared war on the Church.

    1. Yes, Amen. We will have to see which may the bishops lean, whether civil disobedience, or by closure. I have not had time to review Cardinal George’s statement today, but it would seem he is laying out for others to see that the Catholic Hospital system is a BIG part of the healthcare system here in the US and that a huge vacuum would be created if the Govt moves to decertify us.

    2. That is, if the Catholic hospitals — which are increasingly being run by lay (i.e. secular) boards — do in fact remain Catholic, if they in fact remain faithful to the Church. I would expect that many (as some have already) would instead sever their ties with the Church, just as many of the Catholic clergy chose to side with King Henry over the Church.

      If that happens, then the secularists will have essentially stolen the hospitals from the Church. A few years ago in this area, there were big legal disputes over the ownership of church properties when certain Episcopalian congregations wanted to break away from the national Episcopalian organization. Expect the same kind of battles here.

      And even if the Catholic hospitals remain Catholic and in communion with the Church and the Catholic faithful who built and established those hospitals, were they ultimately to close their doors, even for a day or two, rather than comply with some anti-Catholic mandate, don’t be surprised if the government uses that as an excuse to come charging in and seize the hospitals, appropriating them to government ownership.

      Make no mistake, King Henry is not done.

  6. I’m sure there are plenty of bigots and ignorants out there about the Church’s teachings and its right, as a body, to participate in political processes. I do think, however, that many people today object on principle to ANY institution that claims a role in political processes – Congress, political parties, and outside the US, the EU, World Bank, and so on. Neither do people want to accept any principled restrictions on their individual freedoms. I believe that these twin phenomena are direct results of our political systems that concentrate power in the hands of a few. No wonder people run the other way! No wonder people want to be left alone!

    1. Yes, agreed. But I also think the Church receives some special venom from those who misconstrue the First Amendment. They are a still small but very vocal group who generate special hostility toward religious views and groups, a hostility that goes beyond what you describe. I think however you are right is seeing that there is also a bigger picture.

  7. Excellent article Monsignor.

    I would add this when we are thinking about numbers. You hear that Catholics make up twenty percent of the population, sounds like a lot. But only roughly twenty-five percent of those go to Mass weekly, which would be the minimum to be even considered a practicing Catholic. So really, practicing Catholics only make up five percent of the population, and then of course, even in that five percent there are divisions.

    Our power is much smaller than we think, and it will be getting even smaller in the future. We will lose many, probably all, of these battles, but we must remain true to ourselves.

    1. Yes, as I say as well, our vast “power” is limited by many things. Yet it remains an interesting feature of anti-Catholics and secularists that we are going to try and “force” them to keep our “rules”

  8. It is baffling how anyone can look at the facts of life in the United States today and somehow extract that the Church is forcing anyone to do anything. CNN never said word boo about the March for LIfe in Washingotn, DC but scrapes up a daily article that is anti-Catholic or at least anti-Christian. I could give you a pretty good list of the people I would force to do a couple of the teachings. Before that though I would prefer that God make me conformt o the teachings so I wasn’t forced to make hard decisions to avoid sin. Free Will has its downside in that each individual before God must chose to act according to His will or suffer the consequences. It appears to me that modern man is not satisfied with Free Will alone we want Free Will without consequences and no one saying anything mean to us or even forbid all else I shouldn’t have to pay for it myself.

    1. People forget that first God gave us free will, when God saw that we abused it, He gave us 10 Commandments to live by. Sadly a lot of our biggest protesters are fallen away Catholics, they can do as much damage as those who do not believe in Christ as God the Son. Some Jews and Muslims will vote for an abortion politician even though they themselves would never have an abortion, so what they are saying is “I would never have one, but they can have as many as they want” forgetting that by voting for that politician they are putting blood on their hands from the aborted baby. Others claim to be for civil rights, but cannot be for civil rights and be for abortion, because slavery, concentration camps and abortion all have in common that they did not care for the most helpless in society. As bad as they all are, abortion is the worst because with abortion there is no next generation whereas people survived slavery and concentration camps and we hear about them from their children and grandchildren.

  9. It is my understanding that the HHS rule now requires insurance companies, and not employers, to bear the cost of contraceptives.

      1. Some readers may not be familiar with a “self-insured” v. a “fully-insured” health plan.

        Under a “fully-insured” health plan, the insurer (such as Kaiser Permanente or Blue Cross Blue Shield) administers the provisions of the health plan and pays for approved claims. Some aspects of plan design (such as what services are covered and what may be charged for co-pays) may be governed by state regulations. Health premiums are at least partly based on the claims experience of the insurer’s overall book of business.

        Under a “self-insured” health plan, an insurer may administer the plan, but the cost of the claims are paid by the employer. Plan design is generally NOT governed by state regulations; the employer is fairly free to design its health plan as it sees fit. Health premiums are based on the claims experience of the particular employer.

        The so-called “compromise” on birth control is at best a shell game, and frankly is a bald-faced lie. Fully insured plans will not eat the costs of the coverage; they will pass those along to employers in the form of higher premiums, employers may be paying indirectly for birth control, but indeed they are paying. Of course employers with self-insured plans ARE paying directly, no “ifs ands or buts” about it.

  10. The Church is powerful because it holds the truth and as long as one institution and one voice proclaims the truth, tyrants will know fear. This why Christianity is ruthlessly suppressed under communism, Islam, etc. – fear that even one Christian voice will destroy them.

  11. The hospitals are closing because we cannot stay open, because 1] they are trying to force us to perform or assist at abortions when we don’t desire to do so; 2] they are not giving us any help financially and we can’t keep them open; 3] and many fallen away Catholics are not giving any money either using the bad Priests as an excuse to not donate leaving us unable to keep serving the people and they know that will let them get away with suicide, eliminating the elderly and weakest of society, abortion, and limiting medical care to those who can’t afford it while dictating to doctors who should and should not get treatment. As for changing gay unions to gay marriage, what will they call it when a bi-sexual want to be united to a man and a woman; a father/daughter union; a man with five wives; a woman with four husbands; three couples married to each other and so on. Of course regardless of the laws they make, we all must realize that each one of us can be for Christ or Anti-Christ. That decision they can no force any of us to make, we have to make it on our own and the way we live and vote and live our lives will let God know where we stand on that issue.

  12. Mike says
    “It is my understanding that the HHS rule now requires insurance companies, and not employers, to bear the cost of contraceptives.”

    A couple of points Mike, first this is misleading because the Insurance Companies will pass the cost on to the purchaser of insurance so it is a shell game. Even worse this “accommodation” fig leaf as it is, only applies to institutional Catholic entities. So that leaves someone like me out. I am a Catholic, I have been an employer and would potentially be forced to purchase directly something that the Church teaches is gravely sinful. It does not look like private individuals who want to take the Church seriously are going to get much “accommodation”. This rule basically tells anyone who is seriously Catholic, you must either sin or not run a business in the public square. This is not about denying anyone who rejects the Church teaching on contraception anything. They are free to purchase contraceptives, if they so choose. It is mandating some people to pay for other peoples choices. This is tyranny plain and simple.

    But that’s the object of this game I think. Those who are doing this do not care about “contraception” ( birth control pills cost about 30 dollars a month, the other contraceptives usually cost even less) This is not an issue about access to the God forsaken contraceptives. I suspect anyone who is working can afford the dollar a day that contraceptives cost. One insures against costly risks. ( Being hit by a truck and big hospital bills, house burning down, car getting totaled. Insurance is not meant to cover routine expenses. Insurance covering contraceptives makes as much economic sense as mandating car insurance cover oil changes. (leaving the moral issues aside) . The thing is Obama surely knows this. This is purely about putting the boot on the neck of the Church.

    This is an appalling and a direct violation of the First Amendment. Anyone who has the least doubt about this should read Thomas Jefferson ( of “separation of Church and State fame” letter to the Ursuline nuns of Louisiana in 1804. Jefferson assured the nuns that American was the kind of place were the nuns would be supported in their work, due to the positive effects their charitable efforts had on our society and America’s respect for religious liberty. He would personally guarantee their protection. He also signed treaties with the Kaskaskia Indians to pay for a Catholic priest and a Church to meet their religious needs, and paid out of US treasury funds for Christian Missionaries to the Cherokee and Wyandot Indians. This “wall of separation” is a leftist, secular lie. We should recognize this mendacity for what it is.

    1. Problem with your first line is that most Catholic agencies are self-insured. Also, to use Bishop’s Lori’s analogy, the President’s “solution” is like telling a Jewish deli that he MUST sell ham sandwiches, and when he objects, saying, “OK, you don’t have to sell them, but you must allow us to set up a kiosk in your deli that sells them.

      1. “Problem with your first line is that most Catholic agencies are self-insured. Also, to use Bishop’s Lori’s analogy, the President’s “solution” is like telling a Jewish deli that he MUST sell ham sandwiches, and when he objects, saying, “OK, you don’t have to sell them, but you must allow us to set up a kiosk in your deli that sells them.”

        Msgr Pope: Yes this is true as well. Yet another reason why the “Accomodation” is a charade ! I think my point is that even if this was not the case, even if the mandate on the institutional entities was removed, it would not be enough. Individual Catholics who are employers and who are under the same moral obligations as the institutional Church should not be mandated to fund contraceptives. This neglected group is not even getting the illusory comprimise. A lot of the discussion centers around Catholic schools, hospitals etc. All very valid but the mandate is a moral problem for individuals, Catholics who happen to be restaturant owners, groups of doctors, dentists, auto mechanics, builiding contractors, anyone who happens to run and own a small business that employs enough people to be affected by the mandate, are all adversely affected. This demonstrates the malignant weapon that Obama care really is, and why in a society that is becoming hostile to religion in general, giving the federal government enormous grants of power even for some ostensible good is a big mistake. If we were living under St. Louis IX of France it might be different, but not now.

  13. Msgr. Pope – Your article came at the perfect time for me, as I’ve been engaged in a back-and-forth over the past few days with several extended family members regarding the issue of religious freedom as it relates to the impact of the HHS mandate. On one hand it’s heartening to see the solidarity among the U.S. Bishops and the myriad of faithful who have stepped up to defend the Church. On the other hand, it is disheartening to see people I know and love who are so blinded by political party affiliation, that they don’t even see what’s a stake in this debate. Pray that the truth and the light overcome the lies, deception and darkness surrounding this issue. Amen

  14. I’m going to have to disagree. It may not be the role of the clergy to make a serious effort to move public policy covering the whole population, but it *is* the role of Catholic laity to do this, and the Church is not just the clergy, or even the clergy + the religious.

    Should we be pushing that Catholic Charities be allowed to perform adoption services that do not acknowledge “gay marriage”? Not just that — we have a duty to push that the myth of gay marriage disappear from the law.

    Should we be pushing that Catholic pharmacists not be required to sell contraceptives and Catholic institutions not be forced to underwrite contraceptives? Not just that — we have a duty to push for a society in which contraceptives are despised and not easily available. (History shows that full elimination of such contraband is not really possible.)

    The clergy have a duty to preach the truth, and the laity have a duty to conform society to that truth. For a generation, neither clergy nor laity have, on the whole, done their duty. If we love our country, if we love our neighbors — if we love our own souls, we must get to work.

    Monsignor, when someone says, “If you stand for [some Catholic teaching], then we are enemies,” don’t respond with, “Oh, it’s not that bad. It’s not like we are trying to change the country or the culture, or if we had any chance of success if we did try. We’re not really enemies.” Instead, say, “All right, then; we are enemies. That puts me under a special obligation to love you and to pray for you, just not for the success of your cause.”

  15. Howard: it is the role of both the clergy and the laity to push for a rightly ordered political society. First off the clergy are also citzens so they have just as much role to argue the case for a just order in society as anyone else. In fact they should. Historically the most success is when the effort is synergistic. So it is helpful if the clergy reassures the laity that they are fighting a just fight and backs and supports their efforts. Sometimes they need to awaken the people to a need for such an effort.

    1. True, but the laity can do more on this than the clergy can, in part due to our larger numbers, and in part because it is more fully our role to be “in the world”. So, for example, the Church, not the State, prohibits priests from running for or accepting positions in secular government.

  16. What happened to separation of church and state? Speak from the pulpit to remind Cathoics of Rome’s stance? Perfect. The Church, though I may disagree with some things, has the right and the duty to keep Catholics of advised of the teachings of the RCC. But to actually have petitions for signature? Too politicized for me. This straw broke the camels back. This 58 year old cradle Catholic is leaving….

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