For Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, the Church’s ongoing battle for religious freedom in America highlights the need for Catholics to bring their faith into the public square.
In his latest book, the cardinal challenges lay Catholics to participate in the New Evangelization through their daily activities, a task that he describes as particularly important in a democratic society like that in the United States.
Cardinal Wuerl told CNA that the Obama administration’s contraception mandate illustrates an “erosion of religious liberty” that is “one of the most worrisome” challenges ever faced by our nation.
“Never before in the history of our country have we been told you can’t participate in the good works of the common good unless you violate your conscience,” he said.
He asserted that the Church’s ability to serve is being threatened by the HHS mandate, which would require employers to offer health insurance covering contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, even if doing so is in violation of their firmly held religious beliefs.
At the heart of the problem is the government’s attempt to “define what constitutes legitimate expressions of religious faith, Catholic ministry and Catholic ministers,” he said.
The cardinal warned that Catholics must not sit by while their freedom to express their faith is under attack. He encouraged Americans to “speak up” about the mandate and other important issues, explaining that when they do the government hears them and often institutes change.
The connection between Catholic faith and public life is a central theme in the cardinal’s new book, Seek First the Kingdom: Challenging the Culture by Living Our Catholic Faith.
He writes in his book that all those who live in a democracy have a duty to participate in the political processes that elect public officials and develop public policy.
For Catholics, this means bringing their principles and values into the public forum. The convictions of one’s faith should impact his or her public-policy views “because the same person who is a citizen is also, for the most part, a believer, a participant in the life of the Church,” he said.
Unfortunately, Cardinal Wuerl observed, religion’s contribution and place in society are largely dismissed today.
The often-cited principle of “separation of church and state” was not intended to remove religious values from political life, but rather to protect religious freedom in order “to ensure that the voice of religious conviction would always be felt in our society,” he said.
People forget that the Catholic Church has had a place serving the common good for centuries, since “before there was even a Democratic or Republican Party,” he added.
Cardinal Wuerl explained that defending the Church’s fundamental freedoms is one of the ways Catholics can respond to God’s call to manifest his Kingdom in their lives as citizens.
“It is precisely in the day-to-day activities, whether it involves our family, our profession, our work or our ministry, that the presence of the Kingdom is realized,” he said.
With his latest book, the cardinal hopes to encourage the lay faithful “in their vocation to bring about the evangelization and sanctification of the temporal order.”
“The Catholic laity have a role in carrying out the work of the Church and responding to Jesus’ commissioning that we are all to be his witnesses,” he said.
He pointed to Pope Benedict’s call for a New Evangelization and said this makes it an “appropriate time” to highlight the laity’s role in responding to Christ’s commission to witness to the world.
Participating in the New Evangelization, he explained, requires “a deepening of our own faith, a renewing of our confidence in the truth of our faith, and then the outreach of sharing our faith.”
It also means responding to the “great need today to reach out to Catholics who have drifted away from the faith,” he said.
The cardinal called on Christians to resist the temptation to get lost in a world that is becoming “increasingly secular” and to “see in our daily actions the spiritual dimension that is intricately a part of them as we do our part to manifest God’s Kingdom among us.”