Good Catholic, Good American
An eminent voice in defense of religious freedom in full


George Weigel

“That offer of friendship with the Lord Jesus is the heart of the New Evangelization to which you, like your predecessor, have called the Church in every corner of the world. The Church exists to respond to the great mission to preach the Gospel ad gentes [to the nations]. In this providential Year of Faith, we shall seek with even greater vigor to give the world the greatest gift we can give it: to share with all humanity the Way, the Truth, and the Life, who gently brings his brothers and sisters to the Throne of Grace, where they find the fullness of their human destiny.

“In accepting this honor of the cardinalate from your hands, we freely pledge ourselves, with the help of divine grace, to be persevering and responsible agents of the New Evangelization, by conforming our own lives more closely to the Gospel so that we may offer our neighbors friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ, King of the universe and the unique savior of the world, the supreme revelation of the truth about God and man.”

Cardinal Harvey’s insight and eloquence do not stop at the sacristy door, however. The day before receiving the red hat, he made brief but striking remarks at the residence of the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, where the chargé d’affaires hosted a reception for the Wisconsin native and his family:

“I’ve been raised to believe and appreciate the adage I learned in Catholic grade school: ‘Be a good Catholic and you can’t help being a good American.’ Our nation was founded on the belief in a Supreme Being to whom all honor is due, and from whom all authority and power descend. We know, of course, that the right to rule is not bound to any one form of government. We have had no divine revelation that the system of government under which we live in America is the only legitimate form of government. But we do know that the American experiment . . . in liberty and justice for all has borne the test of time and has proven to take a privileged place, if not the primary place, in the history of those forms of organizing social life which redound to the good of individuals, of the family, and of society as a whole.

“Foremost among the liberties we cherish as Americans is religious liberty; it is the first freedom, the first of human rights. James Madison, fourth President of the United States and an architect of the U.S. Constitution, explained why this is so [when] he wrote, ‘Before any man can be considered a member of civil society, he must be considered a subject of the Governor of the Universe.’ What he is saying in his 18th-century language is that religious freedom precedes and transcends the power of government.

“In welcoming Ambassador Lindy Boggs to the Holy See in 1997, Blessed Pope John Paul II reminded the new American representative at the Vatican, and indeed all Americans, that ‘the continuing success of American democracy depends on the degree to which each new generation, native-born and immigrant, makes its own the moral truths on which the founding fathers staked the future of your Republic.’ Obviously these words are as true today as they were 15 years ago. Each generation of Americans faces new challenges to test the endurance of the founding principles. Sometimes these challenges are unexpected; sometimes they are unnecessary, especially if our cherished principle of the separation of Church and state is properly understood [as] a relationship intended to bring a blessing to both.

“I take this occasion to join my voice to [those of] many concerned Americans, including and led by the American bishops, in recommitting ourselves to the defense of religious freedom, the first freedom, which surely includes the rights of conscience and the freedom to worship as conscience dictates, but must also include the right of the Church to be itself: to conduct its charitable and educational ministries according to its own self-understanding and according to the moral truths known by both reason and revelation.”

As the contest for religious freedom in full continues in the second Obama administration, all concerned might well keep in mind what America’s newest cardinal called “the right of the Church to be itself.” Government must respect that; bishops, pastors, and Catholics in all walks of life must never betray that, in their defense of the freedom of the Church and the religious freedom of believers. For in defending the conviction that the Church has “the right to be itself,” as do the people of the Church, Catholics are being the best Americans they can be — as a young boy was taught in a Milwaukee Catholic elementary school more than a half-century before he became a cardinal and a new voice in a debate with the most serious consequences for America.

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.