I come before you as a pastor who cares deeply about your work as Catholic legislators. We do not always agree. I have tried to be a clear teacher and a decent pastor here in our nation’s capital. I offer some brief reflections that may nourish and challenge you in your vital responsibilities. I draw on the remarkable first encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI, God Is Love (Deus Caritas Est). Since it contained no condemnations and generated little secular controversy, the media mostly ignored it. At a simplistic level, as someone suggested, its message seems almost as trite as a Beatles song: All You Need Is Love, by John, Paul, George, Ringo and Benedict. But this encyclical letter is far more demanding and profound.
Love is a word often overused and sentimentalized. Yet, with the eyes of faith we see love as the ultimate calling of our lives, the ultimate measure. Love is both a noun and a verb. Love is something we receive and something we are called to doevery day, in countless ways.
At the beginning of his encyclical, the pope quotes a passage from the First Epistle of John, God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him (1 John 4:14). Our Catholic faith assures us that God’s love was made visible and walked among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In the words of our pope: Jesus united into a single precept the commandment of love for God andlove for neighbor. Since God has first loved us, love is now no longer a mere command’; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us (No. 1).
The incredible assertion of our Christian faith is that God loves each of us without exception. But God’s love is demanding. It requires a response; it stretches our horizons beyond our comfort zones. God loves not just those we love, but all his children, especially the poor and the powerless. God loves not just the people of one nation but the peoples of all nations.
In my five years in this archdiocese I have seen the love of God at work in very different ways and places. I have seen the presence and the absence of love in corridors of power and corners of soup kitchens; at the White House and among those who have no house and live in shelters. I have served two Washingtonsthe capital where you live and work and another Washington, where people without power struggle to live and work in dignity. They do not make speeches or write laws, but they bus our dishes, drive our cabs and clean our restrooms. I have seen people with little reach out in love and care to others in their responses to one another and in their responses to the great tragedies of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.
The church in Washington expresses the love of God in our care for the least among us, who we believe are Jesus in our midst. We heal and comfort the sick, provide legal aid to the poor, welcome immigrants, shelter the homeless, educate the young and reach out to those who face a difficult pregnancy alone.
In his encyclical, the pope speaks of the three essential activities of the church: the administration of the sacraments, the proclamation of the word and the service of charity. He makes what may seem to some to be a startling assertion, but is in fact an ancient truth: The church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the sacraments and the word (No. 22). Love of God necessarily involves love of neighbor.
Witnessing to Faith in the Halls of Power
I have also witnessed faith and hope in the halls of power. I have seen members of Congress struggle to do the right thing and to stand up for human life and the innocent unborn child, for the poor at home and abroad, for working families and immigrant workers, for peacekeeping and reconstruction of war-torn societies. But what moves me most is when I see people crossing the bridges between this city of power and privilege and the city of poverty and deprivation in ways that enrich all of us.
People like you and me need to cross often between these two Washingtons. We need to see and touch and be seen and be touched by those in need. It will help us act more faithfully and choose more wisely. Jesus told us in the 25th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel that our salvation depends on it. And the pope teaches, Love of neighbor is a path that leads to the encounter with God, andclosing our eyes to our neighbor also blinds us to God (No. 16).
You may be wondering what all this talk about love has to do with your roles as public officials. In a word, everything.
Regarding your vocation as political leaders, Benedict writes: The just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics (No. 28a). He quotes St. Augustine, who suggests that a state which is not governed according to justice would be just a bunch of thieves (No. 28a). That’s pretty harsh language.
He goes on to say, Politics is more than a mere mechanism for defining the rules of public life: its origin and its goal are found in justice, which by its very nature has to do with ethics (No. 28a).
Pope Benedict is not naïve about the challenges faced by politicians. He acknowledges that achieving a just world requires asking: What is justice? Answering this question correctly is difficult because, in his words, our human reason is nevercompletely free of the danger of a certain ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests (No. 28a). Here in the midst of political polarization and interest-group paralysis we know these dangers are not empty abstractions or distant fears.
We know our institutions have been damaged by corruption, ethical lapses and moral compromises. I do not think this is because many legislators are bad people; it is because good people are caught in situations that can blind us to doing the right thing. I am not here as a judge, but as a friend to share these burdens and offer encouragement. The church itself has been deeply wounded by our own scandals with huge pastoral, financial and moral consequences. We have to own and overcome this damage in order to repair and restore trust. We each have to return to God’s mission of love, reminding ourselves and others that we are more than our institutional failures.
We take courage from the fact that God is love. Pope Benedict tells us that when political reason is blinded, God can help:
Faith liberates reason from its blind spots. Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively.... This is where Catholic social doctrine has its place: it has no intention of giving the church power over the state. Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just (No. 28a).
God’s Love in the Public Sphere
Your relationship with the God who loves you and all others, and your knowledge of the church’s social doctrine, which outlines the demands of God’s love in the public arena, can help you fulfill your mission as a Catholic in public office.
In applying its social doctrine the church does not seek, according to Benedict, to make this teaching prevail in political life. Rather the church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insights into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest (No. 28a).
God’s love has given lay people the mission of building a just and peaceful world, a culture of life and love. The pope insists: The mission of the lay faithfulis to configure social life correctly, respecting its legitimate autonomy and cooperating with other citizens in accord with their own competencies and responsibilities (No. 29).
The church has a complementary role. Our pope teaches: The church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the state. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice (No. 28a).
What animates the church’s social doctrine? Love. What ultimately gives meaning and direction to your work as lawmakers? It is love. How are the social demands of love known? They can be discovered in prayerful encounter with God who opens us to a love for others and to the social demands of our faith.
There are many demands of love on my heart. They begin with respect for all human life, beginning first and foremost with protecting the lives of innocent unborn children in America and also extending to the lives of children needlessly dying of hunger and disease in Africa. The demands of love call you and me to courageous and compassionate action in many areas of family, economic and cultural life, to work for greater justice and peace in a world broken by war and the denial of religious liberty and human rights.
Three Tests of Love
I close by addressing three tests of love. First, the other Washington I spoke of is where many immigrants live. Most do not live in the capital, but they work there. They cook and serve our meals, clean our homes and offices and build our roads and bridges. We need to build a bridge for them. The people who have come to our nation are the stranger the Scriptures call us to welcome. They have names and faces. Because walls and stronger criminal penalties cannot stop truly desperate people, we need not just one response but several working together. Our nation should take appropriate steps to control our borders, establish a just guest-worker program with protections for workers, provide a real path to earned legalization for those who are here contributing to society, and take urgent steps to combat the global poverty and despair that drive people here in search of a better life.
Second, I dream of a just and lasting peace in the Holy Land. I find myself and our church in a unique placea steady friend and strong supporter of Israel and a committed and determined advocate for the Palestinian people and their right to a viable state. I remember being on a panel with two women, an Israeli and a Palestinian. Both had lost a loved one to the conflict. Their message: Do not take the side of the Palestinians; do not take the side of the Israelis; take the side of a just peace for both peoples. I urge you to do the same.
It is not right, nor is it in the interests of Palestinians or Israelis, for the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian territories to deteriorate further. Effective ways must be found to deliver urgently needed assistance to the people. We are right to call on Hamas to renounce terrorism, recognize Israel and accept previous agreements. It is also right to call on Israel and all the parties to refrain from actions that impede a negotiated two-state solution, a secure Israel and a viable Palestinian state. Walls may provide short-term security, but they cannot bring long-term peace; they can also institutionalize injustice and resentments. Determined, persistent and creative U.S. leadership is needed to help build bridges between two aggrieved peoples weary of endless violence.
Finally, I urge you to restore greater civility to the political discourse of our country. Many of you have been the targets of attack ads and vitriolic political speech. Even as a bishop, I have experienced similar public attacks.
One example: A group (this one was on the right, but it could have been on the left) took out a full-page ad to condemn me because I would not deny Communion to some Catholic public officials. Then they placed an ad attacking all the bishops for our refusal to do the same. Then they ran an ad calling for Pope John Paul II to remove me and the then-Cardinal Ratzinger for our lack of fidelity to their particular vision of faith. As time went on I felt I was in better and better company, especially after the conclave.
We need robust and principled debate on the difficult issues of our day. But we must break out of the war-room tactics, the daily recriminations, the impugning of motives. We could start with, Thou shall not bear false witness. We have to build bridges to common sense in pursuit of the common good, even when this requires crossing partisan and ideological divisions. Would it be naïve to ask why Catholic political leaders could not take the lead in rejecting the politics of polarization? We must restore civility to public discourse so that we attack problems and not one another.
My service as archbishop has been a great honor and joy. I know that you will give my successor, Archbishop Donald Wuerl, the same kind consideration that you have given me. May God’s love light your way and be with you always.