This winter and spring, the bishops of the US are making their quinquennial "ad limina" visits to the Holy See. Pope Benedict is greeting them in groups, although it appears he's not giving formal addresses to every group. So far he's given two formal addresses (November and January), both of which are just outstanding. He's really pushing the "new evangelization" in both these talks.
I looked at his first address a few weeks ago. His second one, today, is even more clear and direct.
At the heart of every culture, whether perceived or not, is a consensus about the nature of reality and the moral good, and thus about the conditions for human flourishing. In America, that consensus, as enshrined in your nation’s founding documents, was grounded in a worldview shaped not only by faith but a commitment to certain ethical principles deriving from nature and nature’s God. Today that consensus has eroded significantly in the face of powerful new cultural currents which are not only directly opposed to core moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but increasingly hostile to Christianity as such.
That "consensus about the nature of reality and the moral good," and that "commitment to certain ethical principles," on which our country was founded, are broadly Christian and Biblical, in the sense that they permeate most branches of Christianity, and don't depend on a certain doctrinal framework or tradition of biblical interpretation. But they're also, in quite another sense, specifically Catholic - namely, in the sense in which the Catholic intellectual tradition (especially, e.g., Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, Bernard, Bonaventure, Thomas, Scotus) unpacked and articulated that consensus and that commitment. Catholic tradition ties that content to the liturgy, partly in how we think about the Eucharist and the sacraments, partly in our art, architecture, and music. This helps protect that consensus and commitment from cultural drift, at least to an extent: lex orandi, lex credendi. So, surprising though it may be, the Catholic Church has retained a more generous grounding of that cultural base for the right understanding of our own country: For her part, the Church in the United States is called, in season and out of season, to proclaim a Gospel which not only proposes unchanging moral truths but proposes them precisely as the key to human happiness and social prospering (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 10).
He immediately shifts, then, to the obvious double threat. What harms the liberty of the Church, harms this consensus, and therefore harms the liberty of our country and everything built upon it.
To the extent that some current cultural trends contain elements that would curtail the proclamation of these truths, whether constricting it within the limits of a merely scientific rationality, or suppressing it in the name of political power or majority rule, they represent a threat not just to Christian faith, but also to humanity itself and to the deepest truth about our being and ultimate vocation, our relationship to God. When a culture attempts to suppress the dimension of ultimate mystery, and to close the doors to transcendent truth, it inevitably becomes impoverished and falls prey, as the late Pope John Paul II so clearly saw, to reductionist and totalitarian readings of the human person and the nature of society.
With her long tradition of respect for the right relationship between faith and reason, the Church has a critical role to play in countering cultural currents which, on the basis of an extreme individualism, seek to promote notions of freedom detached from moral truth... The Church’s defense of a moral reasoning based on the natural law is grounded on her conviction that this law is not a threat to our freedom, but rather a “language” which enables us to understand ourselves and the truth of our being, and so to shape a more just and humane world. She thus proposes her moral teaching as a message not of constraint but of liberation, and as the basis for building a secure future.
The "life, liberty, and happiness" prized by the secular world still rests on something outside of itself. Without a vertical view of reality, in which all the creatures made by God have a hierarchy of inherent dignity and moral value, there can be no real consensus about the nature of things, nor any effective shared commitment to right morality. Therefore the Church must be free to speak about these two things (nature of reality, and morality) in public. She has a unique point of view, a unique gift of understanding to offer.
As the early history of our country shows, this is not a doctrinal gift; non-Catholics can appreciate it too, and build the secular world in a godly way, alongside us. The Church’s witness, then, is of its nature public: she seeks to convince by proposing rational arguments in the public square. The legitimate separation of Church and State cannot be taken to mean that the Church must be silent on certain issues, nor that the State may choose not to engage, or be engaged by, the voices of committed believers in determining the values which will shape the future of the nation.
So how shall we work for the liberty of the Church? First, by knowing the nature of the problem and its stakes. In the light of these considerations, it is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres. The seriousness of these threats needs to be clearly appreciated at every level of ecclesial life. Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion.
Second, by catechizing and evangelizing with authentic faith and tradition: Here once more we see the need for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture and with the courage to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society. The preparation of committed lay leaders and the presentation of a convincing articulation of the Christian vision of man and society remain a primary task of the Church in your country; as essential components of the new evangelization, these concerns must shape the vision and goals of catechetical programs at every level.
And third, refusing to let pass by in silence the counter-witness of compromised faith: In this regard, I would mention with appreciation your efforts to maintain contacts with Catholics involved in political life and to help them understand their personal responsibility to offer public witness to their faith, especially with regard to the great moral issues of our time: respect for God’s gift of life, the protection of human dignity and the promotion of authentic human rights. The bishops have to lead on this point, of course, but all of us need to be supportive, in three ways. First, we need to make sure we're not offering that kind of counter-witness locally. Second, we need to cheer on the bishops for all their good leadership, so that they know they're not isolated or overreacting when they have to correct false witness publicly. And third, we can call out those examples of counter-witness among our own communities. All of this must be done with charity, of course, which is difficult because politics doesn't reward charity, which it sees as weakness. But that's a weakness in which we can glory with Christ.