A Lenin in America, 2005

During the meeting of the Conference of Bishops in Chicago last month, a TV reporter asked me if I believed that the religious faith of a politician should be private and have no influence on the judgements that he or she makes as a public figure. I answered that the very nature of religious faith lies in its being a total response to God, influencing every dimension of a believer's life. The reporter mentioned President John F. Kennedy, who once indicated that he embraced a total separation of faith and politics during his campaign for the presidency. I wasn't quick enough in the press conference to point out that President Kennedy had also added that, should a conflict arise between his religious faith and his public responsibilities, he would resign from public office. That statement at least saved JFK's personal integrity, although it didn't solve the problem.

A Chicago journalist who was raised Catholic later wrote about my comment on faith and politics with some alarm; but I don't understand why any American would want to live in a country where religious faith must remain entirely private and where public life and the decisions which shape it must be free of any religious influence. We have known such a state in our lifetime. It was called the Soviet Union. Lenin, the founder of the governmental organization of the Soviet Union, put freedom of religion into the Soviet Constitution. What it meant in practice, however, was that anyone could believe what he or she wanted, so long as they kept quiet about it and it never in any way influenced public life, which was entirely secular to the point of being atheistic. One could even go to Church in the Soviet Union, since the government saw to it that a few Churches remained open. But religion was entirely confined to one's own mind and heart and to a Church building. Faith was private and was systematically excluded from influencing public life. It's odd to hear Lenin's solution in the minds and mouths of American journalists.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution stops the government from establishing an official religion or state church, such as they have in England, Scotland, Norway and Denmark. Evidently those countries manage to be free without the institutional separation of Church and State. There are, however, no state churches in Catholic countries, and I don't know any Catholics in the United States who hanker after one here. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does protect the free exercise of religion, however, and says nothing about excluding religious faith, including Catholicism, from public life. To speak of every influence of religion in public matters as a "Church-State" problem is to misuse the English language. When a person of religious faith comes to decisions about public policy in the light of that faith, the Church is not institutionally involved with the State nor vice versa. The faith of citizens is, however, involved in their public life, as it should be. If a religious person abstracts from her personal convictions when it comes to politics, such a person violates her own conscience and is not to be trusted.

Our American solution presupposes, of course, that the State does not control all of public life. We are supposed to have limited government. That principle has also been weakened in recent decades as more and more dimensions of human experience come under government control, especially through the Courts and regulatory agencies at every level of government. The Supreme Court has taken on a role so disproportionate in our government and now has such an influence over daily life that the current argument over nominations to the Court has the importance of a life or death decision. As, in fact, it is. "There ought to be a law," the old saying has it. Those who demand legal solutions to every human problem, however, have no right to complain that our lives are ruled by judges and lawyers.

It strikes me that our approach to pluralism in race and culture furnishes the paradigm for approaching religion in public life. If someone suggested that an African-American had to keep his race confined to his house and wear white face in public, the suggestion would be immediately condemned as racist and bigoted. A healthy public life welcomes diversity in public and then figures out ways to share differences among peoples so as to enrich everyone. The question of religion is more complicated, of course, because religion is a way of life with moral demands which overlap with law and politics. But the solution is not to put religion in a private closet, because that imperils the freedom of everyone. American "separation" of Church and State is supposed to encourage the practice of religion as part of the common good, respecting every difference and oppressing none.

Sometimes I think that the fear of religion going public is really a fear that someone or some event will tell us to change, to convert. A call to change one's ways is an insult to those wedded to the status quo. A religious challenge can be more easily ignored by simply labeling it unconstitutional. Religious people and institutions, however, cannot quietly acquiesce in their own marginalization from public life. The nature of faith forbids that solution.

The Church, as we all should know, is celebrating a special Year of the Eucharist, declared by the late Pope John Paul II to extend from October 2004 to October 2005. Along with private devotion and family prayers and services in churches, the Archdiocese is sponsoring a public procession with the Blessed Sacrament on August 5. The Knights of Columbus have chosen to celebrate their own Eucharistic Congress here in Chicago on August 4 and 5, and we have been graciously invited by this exemplary fraternity to help plan the conclusion of their Congress. After a Mass at 11:30 a.m. in the Hilton, the Knights will escort the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament from the hotel to Buckingham Fountain, where Catholics of the Archdiocese are invited to join the procession around 1 p.m. We will carry the Blessed Sacrament in procession through Grant Park to the Petrillo Music Shell for Adoration and Benediction until 3 p.m.

You can consult the posters and bulletins you will find in your parishes for more information and for ways to get downtown without hassle. Pray for good weather, since there is a Chicago tradition of raining on Eucharistic processions. Come and make Lenin, wherever he is, sad and the Lord, really present in the Blessed Sacrament, happy. God bless you.

Francis Cardinal George, OMI


Cardinal Francis George is the Archbishop of Chicago.

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