“The Catholic Voice in the Public Square: Sectarian or Civic?” was the title of a lecture given last night at Manhattan’s Church of St. Vincent Ferrer by Helen Alvaré, associate professor of law at the George Mason University School of Law, senior fellow at the Culture of Life Foundation, and former director of the pro-life secretariat of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. At First Things, we are sometimes forgiven for thinking that our authors and friends had shown, by the turn of the millennium at the latest, why the answer is and must be “civic.” But as the flap over the Stupak Amendment reminds us, people need to be reminded. Like Cardinal Francis George, whose book The Difference God Makes is discussed in the December FT’s “The Public Square,” Prof. Alvaré wants us to be more creative about how we remind them
Alvaré noted that the amendment’s passage has prompted calls, on the Hill as well as in the liberal blogosphere, for extruding the bishops’ influence from the public square as “sectarian.” Of course the charge can border on the silly. When Oregon finally passed its referendum for assisted suicide, the margin of victory was provided, says Alvaré, by voters who “were tired of the Catholic Church ramming its theology down our throats.” Think about that: these voters believed the Catholic Church was imposing her theology on them by speaking up for the mere retention of an anti-suicide law that had long ago passed, and had long stood, in an overwhelmingly non-Catholic state. Fortunately, the Stupak Amendment had plenty of visibly non-Catholic supporters, which is why the currently cry of “sectarianism” rings almost as hollow as Oregon’s. The real question is how to enlist and retain allies without the reek of “Catholic triumphalism.
Besides reviewing the advice in Cardinal George’s book, Alvaré suggested that we hammer home two points that ought to be obvious but aren’t: Most Americans are religious in some fashion, and few people are motivated by purely secular considerations to become . . . well, better people. This is why liberalism’s standard prescriptions for addressing various social problems—especially unwanted pregnancies, births out of wedlock, STDs, and family breakdown—just don’t work. The question is not whether religious voices may be heard; the law still says they may. And as we just saw in Congress, they can be heard. The challenge for the darkening future, though, is to mine our Catholic patrimony for language that can appeal to people’s hearts as much as to their minds. Two examples Alvaré gave were Joseph Ratzinger’s theme of conscience as “memory” and Karol Wojtyla’s theology of the body, in which life is defined as interpersonal communion established by mutual self-gift. It’ll be interesting to see whether the secular appeal of such themes can be enhanced in the public square.