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Interview: Cardinal Donald Wuerl Discusses Importance of Religious Freedom

Interview: Cardinal Donald Wuerl Discusses Importance of Religious Freedom

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C., recently shared with The Christian Post his thoughts on religious freedom in the U.S. and the need for religious persons to secure that freedom in U.S. culture.

Wuerl is the author of the recently published book Seek First the Kingdom: Challenging the Culture By Living Our Faith.

CP: In your book Seek First the Kingdom, you mention a ceremony to unlock the doors of St. Mary County chapel. You liken that ceremony to how it is better to keep the doors of religious expression in public life open. How can Christians of all traditions help undo an American culture that seems to be once again "locking the doors" of religious freedoms?

Wuerl: The great American tradition is one of pluralism, not exclusive secularism. The strength of our country is reflected in the contributions that we all make to the common good. Faith-based entities have provided education, health care, social service and a host of other benefits to the nation, to the common good of all. We should not today begin to close the doors in favor of a rigid, narrow, exclusively secular outlook on life.

People of faith should be able to have confidence in their right to freely express and live their beliefs. Today they must be vigilant in asserting that right in the public square. On a personal level, Christians of all traditions should be engaged in the national debate and formation of policy around matters that are not denominational but go to the core of who we are. They can enter the public dialogue by communicating with their representatives, testifying before government bodies, and writing to media outlets with faith-informed outlooks. American culture can be changed if the faithful speak up for what they believe.

CP: How is the Catholic Church making its members aware of the growing issue of religious liberty and equipping them to tell "the rest of the story" in relation to the sanctity of marriage?

Wuerl: The church teaches and attempts to convince and persuade all of the truth of her position. It is important today, for example, to understand that marriage and family have deep roots in natural law, human experience and history. Words have meaning. We are not free to change the basic meaning of reality for political convenience. "Marriage" is the word that throughout human history has been used to designate the act of commitment of a man and a woman to join together in a partnership for life directed towards their mutual support and the generation and education of children. This is what marriage means and has always meant.

The Catholic Church has taken several practical steps to highlight the importance of religious liberty. For instance, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has established an Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty; my fellow Maryland-serving bishops and I released a statement in November 2011 calling attention to the perilous state of conscience rights in this country; and most recently, four Catholic bishops joined with leaders of numerous other religious communities in signing an open letter to all Americans highlighting the connection between religious liberty and the preservation of the traditional definition of marriage.

Similarly, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has created a website, "Marriage: Unique for a Reason" (, that explains fully the church's teaching on marriage. In addition, the Archdiocese of Washington publishes teaching material entitled, "Marriage Matters," which explains various facets of Catholic doctrine regarding marriage. The goal of all of this is to inform and support the faithful so they'll have the confidence to make their voices heard on a range of issues that also involve religious freedom.

CP: In Seek First the Kingdom, you write that the "right" of same-sex unions should be tempered with the right of conscience. However, conscience protections written into Illinois' Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act failed to protect Catholic Charities foster care services. In fighting for religious liberty, is asking for the right of conscience and religious exception enough to protect religious freedoms?

Wuerl: It should be, if those statutes are written in a way that truly respects religious liberty. Unfortunately, as in the case of Illinois, religious exemptions can be written so narrowly as to make them meaningless.

Recently, though, in a decision widely considered to be one of the most important rulings on religious liberty in decades, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the right of religious organizations to choose whom they appoint to teach their faith and carry out their mission. The case, Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the reinforcement of Constitutional protections for religious organizations come at a critical point in the cultural debate over religious freedom.

There is plenty of room for all of us to interact and participate in the life of this country. The freedom to be able to offer education, human services, and health care in accordance with our own identity as a church should not be denied us simply because there may be the perception of a political majority who favors a new understanding of the American tradition of pluralism.

Catholic programs and organizations serve everyone. No one is turned away because of their gender, sexuality, race, religion, ethnic background or social condition. However, there are some things that Catholics simply do not do. For example, when someone comes to a Catholic health care professional or facility seeking to abort their child, the church simply can not assist them – not because of questions of race, creed, ethnic background or social circumstances, but because it violates our belief that all life is sacred. It is not an act of discrimination to say, "We do not do that." It is a recognition of the sanctity of one's own conscience.

No one should be forced to violate one's conscience nor should anyone be forced out of service of the common good because there are some things their conscience tells them they cannot do. In the history of our country, we have always had room for people to exercise their conscience and still serve the common good.

CP: Following Cardinal-designate Dolan's September 2011 letter, how does the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty plan to address government policies that infringe on the exercise of religious freedom in adoption and health care services in 2012?

Wuerl: At the heart of our effort will be to teach and to help people understand that religious liberty is a foundational right in America. We have to remind people of the history of this "first freedom" and what the impact will be if it is lost.

Wuerl serves on numerous national and international bodies within the Catholic Church. Cardinal Wuerl's titles include chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, chancellor of The Catholic University of America and chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' (USCCB) Committees on Doctrine and on Evangelization and Catechesis.


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