Without the voice of religion, America is impoverished
If America were to silence the voice of religion, society would be impoverished. What would become of respect for life from conception to natural death? What of helping the poor and needy, people without insurance who rely on Catholic institutions for health care? These were the concerns of Archbishop Timothy Michael Dolan of New York, President of the United State's Conference of Catholic Bishops, which he spoke about with L'Osservatore Romano on Thanksgiving, Thursday, 24 November.
How is the recent economic crisis in the United States challenging the Church regarding the needs of the faithful?
The economic crisis with which we are struggling in the United States, and indeed the world, challenges us in the Church to reintroduce morality. In response to any crisis — whether it be political, economic, spiritual — what we want to do is bring the values of the Gospel. So we bishops are trying to ask the questions, not as economists, not as business men, but as pastors. What would Jesus say about this? First, he would use this as an occasion to remind us that our real treasure is in heaven. And, further, we should never attempt to solve economic difficulties without keeping in mind the needs of the poor, the sick and those on the fringes of society who are hit hardest by the crisis. Trying to be shrewd as Jesus tells us to be in the Gospel, we should use the crisis as an opportunity to teach and to preach the values of the Church. It is time to say that selfishness always leads to trouble, allowing a market to be free of morality or ethics always leads to trouble, trying tobuild an economy without attention to the poor and struggling is always wrong. These are the values that we teach and the time is right for that because people are eager. People want to know what's gone wrong.
How is the Diocese of New York involved in pro-life efforts?
In a way, all of our work in social justice is a pro-life effort. We want to show the world the radiance that comes from reverencing life from the moment of conception until natural death. And, as John Paul II told us on the mall of the United States capital in the fall of 1979, anywhere where human life is cheapened or compromised or threatened the Church will rise up and say no: life is sacred. So everything we do —education, preaching, Catholic charities — is a pro-life activity. The greatest thing we can do, of course, is preach that we are made in the image and likeness of God and that life is so precious now in this world because it intends to last forever. The Church is at her best when we keep the eternal dimension, when we remind people from where they came and where they are intended to go. That is the prophetic role. But we transform creed, what we believe, to deed, what we do. The Church has always been on the forefront of welcoming immigrants, for example. You see the Church helping pregnant women in difficult situations. You see the Church advocating on behalf of mothers and their children, taking care of those imprisoned, of those sick or dying.
These activities are not always noticed because they are not always broadcast. But deep down people know what the Church is doing. Even people who are antagonistic to the Church in my Diocese still cherish what we do for inner city education, food kitchens, etc. Mayor Koch of New York City, not a Catholic, said: "Without the Catholic Church in New York City, I don't know what we would do. It's the glue that keeps us together". That is what is meant by witness. As St Francis says, "Preach, use words if you have to".
Your Diocese helps thousands of people through social services. What are your thoughts about health care and the many uninsured or undocumented persons in the US.?
Our Catholic hospitals welcome people. We don't ask for passports or insurance cards. If we do ask and they don't have them, we still welcome them. However, I would have to say that the demands of the uninsured are so towering today that the Church can't do it by herself. That is why the Church has always been on the side of health care. We believe that it should be universal, which means it also covers the baby in the womb and the dying. So, yes, the Church does provide health care; the Church also advocates for community responsibility in a universal health care.
Religious freedom is a cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution. Recently there seem to be exceptions to this rule. Is it only for reasons of national security or are we seeing the early stages of a new mentality?
I am afraid it might be the latter. We bishops are worried. It's flattering that the rest of world has looked to the United States as a beacon of religious liberty. Usually the Catholic Church in the U.S. 1s on the receiving end of gifts from the Church Universal because we are so young compared to the Church in Rome. But we are grateful to God that we have been able to share with the world a sense of religious freedom. There are those in the United States who no longer believe that is an essential right. We have to stand up and remind them that it is listed first in the Bill of Rights. And, as the Holy Father reminds us, freedom of religion is first because if we loose that, no other freedom is spared. Freedom of religion reminds us that fundamentally our worth comes from beyond us, not from us.
We are worried that there is a philosophical intrusion into freedom of religion and also a programmatic threat to it. Philosophical, first of all, in that many in our culture feel that religion is just some strange personal hobby and that you are free to do what you want worship-wise but you are not free to bring those values to the market place. They want to mute the voice of religion in the public sphere. We would answer that such is contrary to the American dream and that such is also detrimental to America's development; some of the most enlightened movements in the American experiment have been religiously driven: whether that be the revolutionary war itself, whether that be the drive against slavery or the civil rights movement or the pro-life movement. Those are all major transformations that were religiously inspired. If we had put duck tape over the mouths of religious believers, none of those enlightened movements in American history would have materialized.
We also worry programmatically. There are many who are now saying that the Church has to compromise its most cherished principles if it is to carry out its role in charity. For instance, in Alabama the state says you can't feed or clothe or shelter or offer healing to undocumented immigrants; that is a violation of our religion. Our religion tells us to help people, and that is not conditioned by a passport or a birth certificate. We help them. We are also worried about government regulations forbidding the peoples' money from funding programs unless those services include abortion. We just can't do that. In the past, the government didn't tamper with that, they have always respected the primacy of conscience. If the voice of religion is silenced, America is impoverished.
How have the lives of New Yorkers changed since September 11th?
A lot. On the negative side, there is an increased sense of fear and suspicion. We are worried about another attack. On the positive side, we still bask in the solidarity that was expressed from that day. New Yorkers have found a saying: it's not just about 9/11, it's about 9/12. Because beginning the day after, we rebuilt, we came together, we healed, we embraced, we circled around not only in rescues but as a community. New Yorkers have said, never have we felt more one than when we were under attack. And many people would also say that after 9/11 there was a return to God. We noted the tenderness and fragility of human life, God knows what tragedy could come upon us next, life is frail and life is sacred. We wanted to place it in the providential hands of God, because he and he alone is our refuge and our strength.