In revealing himself, God was not merely concerned with sating our curiosity. His revelation sheds no special light on algebra or quantum mechanics. Instead, like a marriage proposal, it is an invitation—to intimacy with him, to love. And love finds expression in action. So what matters is “faith working through love” and “faith without works is dead.” Faithful love at work. That is why God gave us revelation, and the martyrs died in faithful witness to it. That is why the Church convenes councils, issues edicts, and endures bitter disputes and even ridicule to preserve her finest details. Christian doctrines have consequences. Every element of the faith, even the tiniest, has some meaning for Christian love, for a life of caritas.
This applies to the whole Church, not just the individual. Both are called to be Christ to this world. Both must carry out his mission of loving witness to the truth. And for both, that mission—like God’s own saving action—extends to every domain of life. This includes the social and political, though, of course, it is not exhausted by them. Here I wish to touch on how the faith—both its doctrinal content and its flourishing in society—illuminates and serves the common good.
If we seek a Christian vision of the foundations of political society, we must begin with the Christian understanding of the person, the “beginning, the subject, and the object of every social organization,” as Gaudium et Spes tells us, and as the wisest among the ancient Romans taught. And for a Christian anthropology, there is no better starting point than the opening pages of Genesis. There we find three core principles: the dignity of human life, of marriage, and of freely chosen friendship with God (or what we would today call “religious freedom”).
All are crucial for social thought informed by our faith, and this year Americans are starkly reminded of threats to each: This past January marked the fortieth memorial of the Supreme Court’s decision violating human dignity in Roe v. Wade ; soon that same court will consider the very meaning and definition of marriage; and currently there are dozens of legal challenges pending in defense of religious liberty.
My argument here is that erroneous teachings even about what might seem merely an academic matter—namely, the relationship of faith and reason—may have exacerbated the threats we now face, and that a recovery of the truth in this area might, against all appearances, have important political consequences.
In Genesis, we find, first, the declaration that God made man in his image and likeness. Until its appearance, God has been freely choosing, making, and judging things good. So the “image of God” in man has rightly been interpreted by St. Thomas and others to refer to our spiritual powers: our freedom, our intellect and will, our powers of moral deliberation, judgment, and choice. But with Christ’s revelation we learn something new about God, and thus about ourselves, made in his image. We learn that God is triune and that we, thus, are made for communion.
What sort of communion? Well, we know that God is not plural; he is one. But neither is he unitary. God is a trinity of persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The divine persons do not lose themselves in their unity. Rather, it is their very unifying relationships—the Father’s begetting the Son, and the Holy Spirit’s proceeding from them—that define their identities and express their equal dignity.
Just so, we are not atoms in a zero-sum struggle to survive, as Hobbesian individualism supposes. Nor are we mere means to social ends, as collectivist ideologies hold. Images of a triune personal God, we are personal and social beings, equal in dignity, who are fulfilled as persons in relationship with other persons.
And these doctrines have consequences. If a just order should foster not a faceless aggregate of interests but a communion—in which persons are not absorbed but thrive as equals—then the right to be at all, the right to life, must be “the first of the fundamental rights,” as Blessed John Paul II taught. Is there a more radical denial of equality and solidarity than excluding a class of human beings, be it the unborn, the frail elderly, the physically disabled, or the mentally handicapped, from this right, the condition of enjoying any other?
So we cannot justify exceptions to the right to life, for the unborn or otherwise, by appeal to the common good. After all, a community must exist in its integrity before its good can be fostered. The right to life defines and preserves the community whose good we would promote. Some would justify legally permitting abortion while using social policy to try to reduce its incidence. This, too, denies our fundamental and radical equality by depriving some persons of the basic legal protections that we favor for ourselves and those we deem worthy of equal protection.
A second fundamental principle is the dignity of the most basic social unit: marriage, the foundation of the family. Like each person, marriage bears the divine image. Genesis itself draws the link between the dignity of man and the dignity of marriage: “In the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” For conjugal love, like divine love from the beginning, creates and sets in order. The first married couple is the seed of all social order: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it.”
But what is marriage, this first and foundational society? The Genesis account suggests a certain incompleteness in man and woman, and says that “for this reason, a man shall . . . be joined to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh.” Now clearly, men and women complete each other with respect to procreation. So the “one-flesh” union of marriage refers to the embrace of conjugal love and the children it brings forth. But that which is one in flesh and family life should not “be put asunder”: So marriage also demands lifelong and exclusive commitment.
In short, marriage fulfills the spouses as one flesh—in a partial but real way, not merely metaphorically—and is itself fulfilled by procreation. It thus calls for total commitment. Or in the Catechism’s language, it is “ordered toward the good of spouses and the procreation and education of offspring,” as a “partnership of the whole of life.” And while Christ made it a sacrament, he reminded the Sadducees that marriage had this structure “from the beginning,” that is, by nature.
So the core of marriage is not determined by human laws or conventions. But laws and conventions can recognize and support it, or obscure it. For decades in the West, the vision of marriage as a truly common good—for family and the whole of life—has been eclipsed. Many have come to view it instead as merely a means to the individual’s emotional satisfaction. This failure of understanding obscures the harm of pornography and cohabitation. Once internalized, it tends to produce declining marriage rates and rising rates of divorce. And it effaces any ground of principle for rejecting so-called “open marriages,” or laws that equate the partnership of two persons of the same sex (or three persons or more) with authentic marriage. Whatever satisfies emotionally is permitted, and even given legal recognition, because marriage is regarded as nothing more than a tool of such satisfaction for atomistic individuals.
Just as Christian doctrines have consequences, so do false teachings. And the experience of the last several decades shows us the consequences of false teachings about marriage: broken hearts and homes, spouses betrayed, children abandoned by father or mother and slowed or derailed from the path to healthy maturity. And when these things befall large segments of the next generation, every other social institution is impaired. For all associations—including the Church herself—depend on formation that only the marriage-based family can reliably provide.
Thus crucial for the political as well as spiritual common good, marriage must be defended. The latest attack on its structure—the proposal to redefine it to eliminate the requirement of sexual complementarity—must be resisted. Only with the basic definition of marriage secured can we hope to begin reversing the numerous baleful consequences of a widespread misunderstanding of marriage as simply an affective bond.
This cause has united Catholics throughout the West with Jews, Muslims, Evangelical Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, Mormons, and even people of no faith. The chief rabbis of France, England, and Italy have joined the pope in defending the truth of marriage. Here in the United States, the ecumenical efforts of the hundreds of thousands of signers of the Manhattan Declaration have been joined by books like What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George.
Witnessing to this truth in an age so opposed to it has had the effects of brave witness in any age: deepening our loyalty to the Lord, sharpening our understanding and love of his ways, and promoting genuine unity through noble common cause with our separated brothers and sisters. It has also brought suffering and even persecution for some brave witnesses, and it will bring more. Yet we must not abandon our witness, however costly it becomes.
We find in Genesis a third principle of political consequence in the thrust of the first three chapters: Having made Adam and Eve for their own sakes, God walks in solidarity with them in the garden but leaves them free to reject or spurn his friendship.
The Second Vatican Council solemnly taught the human person’s right to “the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters.” It declared that, within the bounds of public order, no one is to be coerced into acting contrary to his beliefs in religious matters. And it identified the basis of this right in the dignity of the person and in the goods or “values” of religion itself. Because of man’s rationality and freedom, coercion, which nullifies what would be an act of human friendship, poses the same threat to religious acts. For such acts, in the council’s words, by their “very nature, consist before all else in those internal, voluntary, and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God.”
But religious liberty extends beyond the freedom to believe and worship as one chooses. For as the council also points out, both man and religion are by nature social. So it is not just individuals that must be immune from coercion, but also communities of faith; not just in private, but in public; not just in secret assent, but in open witness; not just in sacred assemblies and rites, but in “educational, cultural, charitable, and social organizations” and services.
The council reinforces its teaching on religious liberty by appeal to revelation: All throughout salvation history, it reminds us, God seeks the “reasonable and free submission” of man. Christ himself was meek and humble. He patiently invited and attracted. He insisted on letting the cockle grow with the wheat until the time of harvest. He came “to serve and to give his life as a ransom for the many.” He would not “break the bruised reed, nor extinguish the smoking flax.” And his apostles learned from him, spreading his gospel and building up his Church by loving and faithful witness, not force.
But the same council makes clear that religious liberty is not simply a matter of revealed truth, unknowable by rational reflection; it is established by reason. And yet, again like the first two truths we examined, it is under attack today, here and elsewhere. Most saliently, of course, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has mandated that employees at most religious institutions be eligible for coverage of contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortion-inducing drugs through their employer-provided insurers, in such a way that employers effectively (if not officially) cover the cost.
The American bishops have been united in strong opposition, and dozens of institutions have filed suit. Hundreds of scholars, professionals, and leaders of the Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, and Muslim communities have also shown their support in a statement called Unacceptable, which the University of Notre Dame’s Carter Snead led the effort to create.
The policy is unacceptable indeed. First, the government seeks to justify its imposition as a guarantee of basic rights, but there can be no right to assistance in wrongdoing. Second, even setting that aside, government should provide what serves the common good, but helping people to seek sexual activity without consequences, or to prevent or even destroy new life, contributes nothing to the common good. If there is no basis for the state to pursue these purposes at all, it is surely wrong to do so in ways that burden the liberty of conscience of others. Third, many feel bound in conscience to flout this mandate, and such burdens on conscience may be tolerated only when the public good demands it. Yet here the public good demands its abrogation.
Much more can be said, and has been said, about the mandate’s burden on the rights of conscience. But we cannot stop there. For a fourth and more general problem is that the mandate hinders religious exercise and witness. And this can indeed be a distinct problem: Thus, for example, Catholics are not bound in conscience to pray the rosary, yet a ban on doing so would surely burden free exercise and religious witness.
Likewise, the mandate burdens Christian and other religious institutions, whether they ultimately comply with it or close down. In the first case, the state mutes their moral witness by mixed signals; in the second, it curbs their freedom to live their faith by providing vital services to others.
Either way, something is lost. For religious communities are valuable not only for the social services they provide. Even from the perspective of the common good, they are not interchangeable with secular entities. Religious organizations do not just serve their beneficiaries; they fulfill their participants in genuine communion. These and other free associations do not just offer what the state could provide; they also mediate between the state and the individual. They foster the virtues on which depend a well-ordered society and even the state itself.
Indeed, their purpose is not always merely instrumental. The flourishing of our free associations can have its own value, for we are social beings. Solidarity fulfills us. All of this is obscured or denied by a state that hampers religious and other social and cultural enterprises by imposing on them unjustly.
It is due respect for these associations that grounds the principle of subsidiarity. We are most familiar with its negative aspect: that it is unjust “to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do,” in Pope Pius XI’s words. But subsidiarity also has a positive side: Any healthy society requires nested and overlapping forms of free community to thrive, each making its own contribution—by its own initiative and authority—to the common good.
Pope Benedict XVI also put the point affirmatively: “When those responsible for the public good attune themselves to the natural human desire for self-governance based on subsidiarity, they leave space for individual responsibility and initiative, but most importantly, they leave space for love.” Elsewhere he identifies the Church as one of the “living forces . . . alive with love” for which the state must make space. In other words, subsidiarity is implicit in the dignity and inviolability of the individual, the family, and the religious community. These are so many bounds and limits on the state’s authority.
So it is hardly surprising that as these foundations are undermined, the state looms larger; and conversely, that as the state expands into the proper sphere of the individual, the family, and the Church, they are weakened and their dignity is obscured. Or again, that the “contraceptive mentality” against which Pope Paul VI gave lonely warning in Humanae Vitae contributed to the erosion of marital norms, and this erosion in turn raised demand for abortions (abortions that widespread contraceptives were supposed to make “less necessary”).
Now the demand for contraceptives and abortions—and for the deinstitutionalization of marriage—poses ever more grave threats to religious liberty, as we see from the experience of Catholic charities in Washington, D.C. and Massachusetts following the redefinition of civil marriage. Conversely, as religious witness is undermined, so are these other social values and with them the dignity of the human person. The cycle goes on, and will go on until, by prayer, witness, and common action across the lines of theological difference, we have broken it.
And so the most fundamental principles must be defended together, or they will fall together. The ecumenical and interreligious cooperation that began in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade and has been building more recently in defense of marriage, and now of religious liberty, must continue to grow on all fronts. The progress of any of these causes can advance the others. We must work together, and pray together, and be prepared if necessary to suffer together for what is humanly good and morally right.
In his Introduction to Christianity, then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger reflected on what he called “the decision of the early Church in favor of philosophy” and contrasted this with the choices and fate of the ancient Greek religions. He wrote: “Whenever the question arose as to which god the Christian God corresponded,” the answer was always that he did not correspond to any of them but only to “that highest being of whom your philosophers speak.” Among the ancient Greek pagans, by contrast, there grew a greater and greater tension
between the mythical gods of the religions and the philosophical knowledge of God . . . . The ancient religion did eventually break up because of the gulf between the God of faith and the God of the philosophers . . . the total dichotomy between reason and piety. That no success was achieved in uniting the two, that reason and piety moved farther and farther apart, and the God of faith and the God of the philosophers were separated from each other, meant the inner collapse of the ancient religion. The Christian religion would have to expect just the same fate if it were to accept a similar amputation of reason and were to embark on a corresponding withdrawal into the purely religious.
“Total dichotomy between reason and piety.” That, Ratzinger suggested, was the downfall of the Greek religions, and its rejection was key to the Church’s success, from the perspective of intellectual history. Only a belief system that respects man’s rational nature can engage his whole mind, heart, soul, and strength in love of God.
And such is our faith. The First Vatican Council said that God gave “external proofs” of his revelation”miracles, prophecies, the Church’s own growth and holiness—to join the “internal helps of the Holy Spirit” as motives of credibility that make the act of faith reasonable. Blessed John Paul II wrote in Fides et Ratio that the truth revealed in Christ cannot contradict the “truths which philosophy perceives,” since truth is one; that we should respect philosophy’s “aspiration” to autonomy since “grace does not destroy nature but perfects it”; and that faith and reason complement one another in the search for God, the font of truth.
But just how do they complement one another? Benedict XVI gave us some indications in his address at Regensburg. There, referring to the aforementioned passage from his Introduction to Christianity written some four decades earlier, he identifies the “rapprochement between biblical faith and Greek philosophy” as an “important step in the history of revelation,” and of the world. Crucial for revelation, because embracing God as Logos allowed the Church to resist the tug of voluntarism. Crucial for the world, because the faith helped sustain man’s hope in reason, in its power to tread where natural science cannot. For centuries, it kept the West from relegating religion and ethics to the “subjective” realm, where they are regarded as mere matters of taste, and consequently “lose their power to create a community,” as the Holy Father warned.
Is this not what we have witnessed in the West for so many decades? Ethics and religion have been relegated to the subjective sphere, and so the basic human goods of life and marriage—and indeed our faith itself—have come to be treated as idiosyncratic myths, like the Greek myths of old. Practice in accord with these truths—moral and religious liberty—has been deemed no match for the so-called “rational” ideals to which the state would subjugate them: personal autonomy unlimited by moral truth, and individual expression undisciplined by respect for the human person’s integral good. As a result, as Benedict XVI warned, religion in public life has lost some of its power to create a community, one whose rights the state recognizes as worthy of respect.
Against these trends, we must reinforce the union of faith and reason in our own time, as the earliest Christians did decisively in theirs. Against the state’s attempts to put reason and piety asunder, to pit faith as a merely “private” good against the state’s favored ends, we must reassert that fundamental truths of moral theology are also a “law written in their hearts,” to which “conscience bears witness.”
And with Benedict, we must remind the world that reason divorced from faith is self-limiting: Just as grace not only coheres with nature but perfects it, so faith not only coheres with reason but preserves it.
For without trust in providence and eschatological hope, it is tempting to suppose that the highest intelligence and will concerned with human affairs are human intelligence and will, and that the only age in which integral human fulfillment could even be approximated is this one. On these grounds, it becomes possible to rationalize what is, in truth, rationally untenable and morally monstrous: to aspire to a technocratic control of all things toward the global good as seen by the state, and by whatever means necessary—including means judged immoral by an ethics of upright willing and personal vocation, rather than hedonistic or messianic efficiency.
By faith, then, we see the transcendent horizon—of human history, and of the personal destiny of each human being made in God’s image and destined for his household—that can motivate us to uphold human dignity without exceptions, even in the hardest cases. By faith, we gain the possibility of redeeming the suffering that the just must endure in a fallen world. And by faith, we add intimate love of God himself to the natural loves that motivate our perseverance.
For these reasons and more, as even secular thinkers like Jürgen Habermas have noted, the Christian vision that some now seek to exile in fact provides the best basis for the liberal state’s broad goals of protecting human rights and the common good without flagging. This point is lost on those who would deny a place in public life for religious faith generally, and for Christian witness in particular. They depict the Church as a force for superstition and prejudice. Yet as history and reason show, the opposite of superstition is not unbelief—but belief in the God who is Logos.
And the opposite of prejudice is not secularism—but fidelity to the God who is love. Just as faith in the God of Abraham opened men’s eyes to the intelligibility of creation, making modern science possible, so does it shed light on our true worth and destiny, making deeper virtue possible. Contemporary secularism is not a neutral alternative, but a latter-day form of the paganism against which the Church has contended from its infancy—a mythology with its own idols and superstitions.
The modern state erodes its own foundations and harms its noblest aims when it undermines the sanctity of life, marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife, religious liberty, and other principles at the heart of Christian humanism—but especially when it uses its power to mute the Church’s witness to these enduring truths. Faith in the Logos who is also Love does indeed promise more than to satisfy our curiosity. It clarifies the demands of justice and love—for individuals, free associations, political orders, and whole civilizations—and uniquely empowers God’s people to live them out, in imitation of Christ himself.
Gerhard Cardinal Müller is prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “Faith’s Political Witness” is adapted for publication from a lecture given at Notre Dame on February 6.