“What do you people of faith think you bring to our society?”
That’s what I was asked while on a panel at a university a few years ago. The topic of the discussion was “The Role of Faith in a Pluralistic Society,” and it was a self-identified atheist who taught at the school who raised the question. While he was referring to a wide range of faith traditions, I responded out of my Catholic faith and as a public representative of the Church. The Church, I said, brings what it has always brought: an invitation to faith; an encounter with Christ; a way of living based on the Gospel; and guidance in building a truly good and just society.
My thoughts return to this exchange as we approach Thanksgiving, a holiday that reminds each of us of both the importance of freedom of faith and the role organized religion played in the founding of our nation.
Yet the Christian way of life and the Gospel vision of right and wrong, virtue and God’s love seem today eclipsed by an overarching shadow of “secularism, individualism and materialism,” as Pope Benedict XVI put it during his 2008 visit to this country. It’s a shadow so pervasive that today many never even hear the truth, richness, and joy of the Gospel of Christ. Pope Benedict told us, “While it is true that this country is marked by a genuinely religious spirit, the subtle influence of secularism can nevertheless color the way people allow their faith to influence their behavior.”
We hear even more directly from Pope Francis in his challenge to us to renew in our hearts the joy of faith in the face of contemporary culture. In his apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, he says:
The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard.
Cultural and societal changes have gone through a quantum leap in the past 15 to 20 years. As an example, look at the secular tsunami that washes away cultural landmarks such as marriage, family, common good, and objective right and wrong. To sense just how far we have stumbled, one need only consider what passes for “breaking news” nowadays: a lack of fundamental respect for the dignity of life; a seemingly relentless campaign to redefine constitutional religious liberty to mean nothing more than freedom to worship in the sanctuary of your choice; the codification of politically correct redefinitions of marriage, family, abortion, and religious freedom into law; and criticism of those who fail to support these re-definitions as purveyors of “hate speech.”
Even Catholic institutions are not immune. Just recently, on the campus of Georgetown University, a Catholic student group faced something that would have been unthinkable a couple of decades ago: being designated a hate group for professing the Catholic faith and its definition of marriage.
“Love Saxa,” a group that advocates for marriage between a man and a woman, came under fire from campus LGBTQ groups, according to The Hoya, a Georgetown student publication. A member of the student government argued that Love Saxa’s definition of marriage and relationships violated university standards by fostering hatred or intolerance.
Fortunately, the university administration upheld the student-run advisory board’s judgment that the public expression of the Catholic faith that marriage is between a man and a woman is neither hate speech nor discrimination. But what remains troubling is that we have come so close to allowing a few determined social engineers to silence the rest of us.
So we can expect people of faith today to be called frequently to account, to answer the question posed to me: “What do you bring to our culture, to our society?” The implicit assumption is that whatever answer we give will be unacceptable. Let our answer surprise them: People of faith offer much to our society by way of helping to feed, clothe, and care for our most vulnerable neighbors; creating organizations that help share society’s blessings, financial and otherwise, with the less fortunate; running institutions that open their doors to those who wish to be welcomed and loved for who they are and the God-given gifts they wish to share. What we contribute to our culture and society are acts that bring to life for the world around us the values of the Gospel and the life-changing tenets of our faith: charity, love, and grace.
While such messages may not be popular in today’s culture, they are needed, especially in this season for giving thanks. Our voice will not be silenced just because we hold out the challenge to a better way of living. After all, efforts to eradicate such voices in the 17th century are what led to the voyage of the Mayflower and sowed the seeds of freedom in this land that we all should cherish and protect.
His Eminence Cardinal Donald Wuerl is Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington.