Pope to American Bishops: Secularism Threatens Liberty, Church Must Respond

Pope Benedict

Pope Benedict

Freedom detached from moral truth, said Pope Benedict XVI in a recent address to American Catholic Bishops, reflects an “extreme individualism” that requires response from the (Catholic) Church. This is an argument not limited to Catholics alone (see: “Has Europe Lost its Soul” by Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks) and includes the Orthodox as well (see: “With the Rise of Militant Secularism, Rome and Moscow Make Common Cause“).

“The Gospel,” said Pope Benedict, “proclaims unchanging moral truths,” as indeed it does. If those truths are not proclaimed, particularly in the cauldron of moral confusion that characterizes Western Culture today, then we can conclude that fidelity to the Gospel does not exist. This is a hard saying but true: if religious leaders remain silent on the moral issues that have become flashpoints in the culture, then it is time to question whether they really comprehend this gospel that they say they guard.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be conflated to a political ideology or any other human contrivance. If any structure seeks to contain the Gospel — to claim the Gospel as the justification for whatever the goals of that structure might be, then that structure will face obliteration. The rock falls and crushes anyone who seeks to possess it. This includes ecclesiastical structures as well. If a Church leaves off the Gospel and seeks instead its self-perpetuation and the inevitable accommodation with the dominant culture that this calculation requires, it will face judgment. If it remains unrepentant, it will die.

Source: The Vatican

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Dear Brother Bishops,

I greet all of you with fraternal affection and I pray that this pilgrimage of spiritual renewal and deepened communion will confirm you in faith and commitment to your task as Pastors of the Church in the United States of America. As you know, it is my intention in the course of this year to reflect with you on some of the spiritual and cultural challenges of the new evangelization.

One of the most memorable aspects of my Pastoral Visit to the United States was the opportunity it afforded me to reflect on America’s historical experience of religious freedom, and specifically the relationship between religion and culture. 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.

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). 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. Our tradition does not speak from blind faith, but from a rational perspective which links our commitment to building an authentically just, humane and prosperous society to our ultimate assurance that the cosmos is possessed of an inner logic accessible to human reasoning. 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 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.

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. Many of you have pointed out that concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices. Others have spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.

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.

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. As the Council noted, and I wished to reiterate during my Pastoral Visit, respect for the just autonomy of the secular sphere must also take into consideration the truth that there is no realm of worldly affairs which can be withdrawn from the Creator and his dominion (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 36). There can be no doubt that a more consistent witness on the part of America’s Catholics to their deepest convictions would make a major contribution to the renewal of society as a whole.

Dear Brother Bishops, in these brief remarks I have wished to touch upon some of the pressing issues which you face in your service to the Gospel and their significance for the evangelization of American culture. No one who looks at these issues realistically can ignore the genuine difficulties which the Church encounters at the present moment. Yet in faith we can take heart from the growing awareness of the need to preserve a civil order clearly rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, as well as from the promise offered by a new generation of Catholics whose experience and convictions will have a decisive role in renewing the Church’s presence and witness in American society. The hope which these “signs of the times” give us is itself a reason to renew our efforts to mobilize the intellectual and moral resources of the entire Catholic community in the service of the evangelization of American culture and the building of the civilization of love. With great affection I commend all of you, and the flock entrusted to your care, to the prayers of Mary, Mother of Hope, and cordially impart my Apostolic Blessing as a pledge of grace and peace in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Pope Benedict XVI


  1. There are days where you just have to pause in silence and appreciate the gift of Pope Benedict. He says more in a couple of paragraphs than the EP and GOA has said in 20 years.

    Consider this also, in years long gone, Orthodox factions could always present the Roman papacy and words like papal as dirty and full of all kinds of abuses to be shunned. These folks could say look at our Orthodox Church and its concilarity compared to these Roman Pope’s and their autocratic rule. However, for those of us under 40 we really have known only two pope’s John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Our generation of Orthodox Christians no longer sees the papacy and words like papal as words and ideas to be shunned. We do not see Roman Popes as autocratic rulers or dictators. In fact, the opposite is sometimes true: We wonder why Orthodox bishops cannot be like these two popes who are indeed a gift to humanity.

    • Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

      Good words Andrew, right on the mark. For those of us over forty who have been waiting (often in vain) for this kind of moral critique from Constantinople and a few other places, Benedict shows how and why it must be done. Moscow knows this of course and will, as a result, emerge as the leader of Orthodoxy world wide. Cynics will argue their increasing dominance is the result of size and wealth. I think it is because they have been chastened by their failures before Communism and are determined not to let it happen again, particularly as the light dims in Western Christendom.

    • Geo Michalopulos :

      Andrew, sometimes it’s good to listen to the young (I take it you are under 40). The first pope I remembered was Paul VI. I’m sure a good man but not the most vibrant personality. Even though I was young, I got the impression he was going through the motions. Maybe he was beaten down by the nonsense of the 60s and rebellious priests like Andrew Greeley and Hans Kung. I dunno.

      But I digress. My point is that I see your point. The differences between John Paul II/Benedict XVI and what came before is stark. BTW, I’m NOT impressed with John XXIII (aka “Papa Pinko”). What I get out of JPII/BXIII is moral clarity and boldness.

  2. macedonianReader :

    Wouldn’t be a hoot if PopeBenedictXVI declared a return to Julian Calendar as a slap in the face to secularism/consumerism in the West. That would throw us Orthodox for a loop 🙂

  3. cynthia curran :

    Well, the Julian Calendar was created by the Pagan Julius Caesar. Orthodox favored it because the Byzantines used it since they were apart of the Roman Empire.


  1. […] (AOI Observer).Freedom detached from moral truth, said Pope Benedict XVI in a recent address to American Catholic Bishops, reflects an “extreme individualism” that requires response from the (Catholic) Church. This is an argument not limited to Catholics alone (see: “Has Europe Lost its Soul” by Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks) and includes the Orthodox as well (see: “With the Rise of Militant Secularism, Rome and Moscow Make Common Cause“). […]

Care to Comment?