The Church and the Public Square

While we Christians are taught to be “in the world” but not “of the world,” we are encouraged by our faith – indeed required by it – to change the world. This is what it means to be the “light” that guides, the “yeast” that leavens, and the “salt” that brings out the best in the world around us. We who live in the United States have a special responsibility in this regard for we live in a nation which, although imbued with religious ethic, is by constitutional design free of any religiously determined regulation. Our civil laws are known to be the product of democratic legislation and not of divine revelation.

When it comes to the morality it espouses our faith reflects natural law. For the most part our legal system – at least so far – does as well. But, natural law, probably because it has been championed by religions for millennia and is not “man-made,” is increasingly under attack and disparaged as a threat to liberty. We believers, of course, recognize natural law as the foundation of order, and we do so more because it is “natural” than because it is “religious.” But, no longer can we assume that natural law, until now uncontested, will continue to enjoy its position of preeminence.

The question then is: how, without “shoving our religion down the throats of others,” do we as committed Christians and as concerned citizens respond to the specious implication that the separation of Church and State requires the severance of civil and natural law?

The answer is advocacy. And, the tools for advocacy are made abundantly available by the dozens of State Catholic Conferences that exist in this country. A particularly fine example is the Maryland Catholic Conference, which was established over 40 years ago.

The Maryland Catholic Conference advocates for the Church’s public policy positions before the Maryland General Assembly and other public officials, and represents the bishops in those dioceses situated with the state, the Archdioceses of Washington and Baltimore and Diocese of Wilmington. As its website explains ( “There are received truths that are recognized by all people of good will and that are shared across all faiths and cultures. The most basic truth is the dignity of the human person … The Church has a legal right and moral obligation to defend these truths throughout our culture, including in the public policy arena.

By providing printed and digital media and by being a resource of episcopal writings, the Conference tirelessly promotes awareness of the basic themes of Catholic social teaching. It does this be reiterating both for its Catholic populace and for their elected officials the bishops’ stand on such critical issues as the dignity of the human person, the sanctity of the family, the dignity and right to work, the preferential option for the poor, solidarity and respect for creation.

One of the principal responsibilities of bishops is to teach. The root for the word ‘magisterium’ is the Latin word for teacher. Even in the days before instant and ubiquitous digital communication ignorance of the law was no excuse. Today, with episcopal guidance so readily available at the click of a mouse, the only excuse for ignorance is indifference – hardly a justification. Here is where the Maryland Catholic Conference’s newsletter is so valuable. Cleverly titled “Conference Call,” the newsletter informs, unites, and catalyzes its readers, providing them with a clearer understanding of their faith and how it relates to public policy.

Our country is not a theocracy. As citizens, we respect everyone’s right to practice any or no religion. We abide by laws passed not by clerics but by representatives elected by us. For Christians, advocacy is not placing the Church in the public square. It is, however, – or should be – placing our faith there. If our faith is an inseparable dimension of our personal identity, how can we not do so? Otherwise we would not be fully present in the public discourse in which as citizens we are obliged to participate.

With regard to the advance of the Kingdom, there is something ironic in the role advocacy plays. Why, after all, would an omnipotent Creator and Redeemer need us to champion the cause of Truth? As we ponder the ‘why’ let us be grateful we have the Maryland Catholic Conference to show us the ‘how.’

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  1. Thank you for helping me to reflect on advocacy from another angle. Paul VI said that the divorce between faith and culture is the great tragedy of our time. Since he wrote those words, an increasing number of secular societies seem determined to excise religion from cultural expression and even from their own history. Yet, advocacy does not place the Church in the public square, because it is already there, regardless of how some might wish otherwise. Advocacy keeps the “light” on the Church and, as much as possible, the eyes of the public square focused on it.
    I would suggest that education is the hand that holds the light. It can lay the foundation for a more just society, a fact you alluded to when you referred to the magisterium. Not only education about faith, but about culture and justice, can go a long way to support the work of advocacy. I refer you my own blog post of this week: “Egypt and Media Mindfulness” at
    Thank you, again, Dana!

  2. Well articulated Dana. Thanks. I would add two other observation. 1) In addition to the work of the state conferences the work of the USCCB in Congress and the participation of numerous religious orders and Catholic organizations in the public debate is significant and 2) Advocacy with the leaders and sharteholders in corporations is increasingly important because of the powerful influence tha corporations have on the political and legislative process and on the values and priorities of communities where they operate.

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