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Separate, not Silent, Church   

William Goodwin

Catholics with an intellectual faith can and should use their religious beliefs to inform their practical decision making.

Kweisi Mfume is the president and chief executive officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. A longtime politician with experience at the local and national level, he has been influential in defending and protecting minority rights. Imagine, then, if he publicly announced his opposition to affirmative action, that he had become best friends with Trent Lott and adopted a Ward Connerly approach to all racial politics.

With this in mind, turn to the Catholic Church in the 21st century. The Church, embattled by an increasingly secularized culture, faces a similar crisis to the institutions discussed above. Many beliefs of the Church, such as the sanctity of marriage, are extremely contentious in the current political clime, just as such issues as affirmative action are the topics of much debate.

Just as the NAACP wants its members to represent its beliefs, so too does the Church. When prominent Catholics in positions of great influence flout the Church's teaching without providing a comprehensive argument for their disagreement, it can cause great confusion and misunderstanding among other members.

For its understandable and necessary efforts to prevent such confusion, the Church has won unmerited criticism and the label of theocratic. The recent statement calling on Catholic politicians to vote in accord with their professed belief is not an overbearing interference of church with state, but rather an appropriate attempt by church leaders to prevent confusion and adequately represent the Church to the public.

The Vatican, lately, has fallen into greater disfavor than usual with many critics. Addressing the issue of gay marriage, Church leaders effectively said, "Put your vote where your mouth is." That is, if you are publicly recognized as a Catholic and in a position of great influence, kindly do not directly undermine the moral teaching of the Church.

Now, such a statement carries a lot of weight. Countries across Europe have granted at least some of the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, most recently Croatia. The Balkan state was particularly of concern to the Vatican, as it is predominantly Catholic. In response to the international trend, the Vatican issued a document titled "Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons."

This document added nothing to the moral teachings of the Church and in no way deviated from any previously articulated doctrine. It restated the Church's current understanding of the issue, that marriage should be distinctly maintained as solely between man and woman, and then urged all Catholics to act and vote accordingly.

Not surprisingly, this aroused much ire globally. The Church's stand on this matter is a hard and difficult one, though not irrational or poorly thought out. However, the cries for separation of church and state that went up immediately did seem odd.

The Catholic Church takes marriage very seriously. It goes so far as to denominate marriage as a sacrament, of which the Church has only seven. One sacrament deals with transubstantiation, another with the forgiveness of eternal suffering for mortal sins, and still another prepares you for death.

Judging from its company, the institution of marriage is something of phenomenal importance.

The motivation for the Church's statement is twofold. First, it has an obligation, a moral mandate as an institution dedicated to providing moral and ethical guidance, to ensure that its members are informed.

Second, it has a clear interest in protecting the institution of marriage and maintaining its singular nature. So, at once, it is serving those who look to it for counsel and doing its best to preserve what it believes to be right.

However, it's easy to see how the direct call to politicians to vote on a specific issue could be construed as exceeding the moral imperative and intruding into an arena where the Church doesn't belong.

Such a mistaken impression does a disservice to the Church's beliefs and the Vatican's intentions. The religious doctrine espoused by the Vatican is not merely some product of the ether, an amalgam of age-old mumbo jumbo. It's the latest iteration of a constantly evolving intellectual tradition, firmly routed in serious philosophical and theological thought.

Moreover, the Vatican itself, in a previous document ("Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life"), made no mistake about what it was trying to effect. "The Church does not wish to exercise political power or eliminate the freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding (these) questions. Instead, it intends ... to instruct and illuminate the consciences of the faithful, particularly those involved in political life."

Accordingly, Catholics with an intellectual faith can and should use their religious beliefs to inform their practical decision making.

In the political arena, a politician who identifies himself as Catholic means something: he serves his country and will view political decisions through a distinct moral lens. It's insulting to an intelligent person's faith to expect a complete divesture of religious belief from his real-world interactions.

The issue of gay marriage and same-sex civil unions is extremely complicated and merits much debate and discussion. However, the Church cannot suspend its moral guidance while discussion continues. Its reiteration of a long-held belief is the natural function of the institution and not a dangerous political maneuver.

The Vatican and church leaders have made their best estimation of the issue. One may differ strongly in opinion, but that does not mean the Church does not have the right and obligation to serve its members to the best of its ability.


William Goodwin. "Separate, not silent, church." The Daily Trojan Vol. 150, No. 10 (September 9, 2003): 4-6.

This article reprinted with permission from The Daily Trojan and William Goodwin. The Daily Trojan is the student newspaper on the University of Southern California.


William Goodwin is an sophomore majoring in the classics at the University of Southern California. Second-eldest in a family of nine, William was raised in a Roman Catholic family in Pasadena, CA, and home-schooled until high school. While attending Loyola High School near downtown Los Angeles, he became and remains involved with Opus Dei. He is a university Presidential Scholar as well as the recipient of a National Merit Scholarship. While his career plans center around journalism, he recently completed the first session of Officer Candidate School (Platoon Leaders Class) with the United States Marine Corps in Quantico, VA.

Copyright 2003 The Daily Trojan



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved