WASHINGTON — “Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience,” a joint statement of Catholics, Orthodox and evangelicals, affirms the need for civil disobedience in the face of unjust laws.
More than 140 Christian leaders issued the declaration Nov. 20, pledging renewed zeal in defending the unborn, defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and protecting religious freedom.
The 4,700-word statement was signed by 14 Catholic bishops, Orthodox and evangelical Protestant leaders and other Catholics. The document pledges the group’s “obligation to speak and act in defense of these truths” and stressed that “no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence.”
Drafted by Princeton jurisprudence professor Robert George, Beeson Divinity School’s dean, Timothy George, and Prison Fellowship founder Charles Colson, it offers a template for the civil rights of traditional families and the unborn.
Robert George gave credit for the idea to Colson, who, along with other evangelicals and Catholics, saw a need to speak with a common voice on moral questions, particularly those at the foundations of the common good. “We are deeply committed and have a common mind when it comes to the sanctity of human life, in all stages and conditions, the dignity of marriage and religious liberty and the rights of conscience,” George said. “Out of those conversations in September, we decided to see if we could get Catholic, evangelical and Orthodox leaders together to make a common statement and give a common witness.”
One of the document’s original signers is Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., who learned about the statement at a marriage summit in Manhattan at the invitation of New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan.
“I was very much impressed by its threefold commitment to the sanctity of life, the effort to preserve the beauty and truth of marriage and to insure religious liberty,” said Archbishop Kurtz, who is the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee on Marriage and Family.
But not everyone is as impressed.
The American Life League says that while it will not sign the declaration, it will not publicly criticize it either. Sources complain that the organization is troubled by what it sees as inconsistent language about abortion and same-sex “marriage.”
Archbishop Kurtz is not troubled by these perceived flaws: “In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II said that we can never be satisfied with imperfect legislation. We know that abortion is wrong. Is it possible for a good Catholic to support a bill that has limited gains — restricting abortion — and John Paul said that if the legislator is pro-life and makes it known and if he is committed to continuing to work toward legislation to correct this, then it would be morally possible, in fact, required, to support that legislation. Some people look at imperfect legislation like it is a final state of affairs. Obviously, they are misinterpreting the strategy.”
“The reason I signed the declaration is because I felt it is a solid pro-life statement. I wouldn’t sign it if that wasn’t the case,” said Archbishop Kurtz. “We have a commitment to working hard in these three important areas. This declaration speaks from the convictions held by its authors and signers — and it is something worth fighting for, and it’s a recognition that our resolve needs to be stronger.”
If the declaration’s language is imperfect, it is not because its authors sought to avoid controversy. It openly acknowledges the shortcomings and imperfections of Christian institutions, denounces embryonic stem-cell research, admits the failure of Christian institutions to uphold the institution of marriage, and recognizes that there are people with homosexual attractions without attempting to explain the causes.
Another original signer, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, said he prefers not to focus on civil disobedience because it is usually a last step, albeit sometimes a necessary one.
He said he signed it because the document speaks the truth about justice, faith and the common good.
“I think that some of these issues are threatened by the spirit of our age, and I thought it was wonderful that a group of leaders from various faith traditions were willing to take a clear and uncompromising stand on these points,” he said.
Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, founder of Ignatius Press, expressed hope that the declaration will have a positive effect.
“I hope that anyone with an open mind reading it will be persuaded by it and that would include legislators,” he said. “It’s a magnificent document. It’s a beautiful expression of fundamental principles and a wonderful weaving of clear, evangelical, biblical and the Catholic contribution of respecting natural law.”
George said the impact of this statement will come from the empowering convictions of its signers.
“We govern ourselves. Of course we have an impact. If something has an impact on us, then it is reflected in the attitudes and behaviors of our elected representatives,” he said. “We’re not subjects under a king. This is a democratic republic. If we energize people and can persuade people of the historic truth of these teachings of the faith and natural law and energize them to act on them, it will have a consequence.”
The sheer number of signers has surprised and humbled George (there were more than 216,000 at the time of this writing): “I had hoped that Christians from various traditions would sign on, but I’ve really been surprised and gratified at how overwhelming the response has been.”
“I think people have been hoping, praying and waiting for a common statement of Christian leaders on these foundational issues,” George said. “When people were given the opportunity to stand alongside and join their signatures with these great leaders, they jumped at the chance.”
Robert Kumpel writes
from Valdosta, Georgia.
You can read and sign the “Manhattan Declaration” by going to