Remarks of Bishop Wilton Gregory at the Forum
"Great Voices of Faith in a Time of Crisis"
34th Annual Congressional Black Caucus
September 10, 2004
Thank you very much, Congressman Rangel and Congressman Lewis, for the invitation to speak to this distinguished group of individuals this morning. I am both happy and proud to join you today you as an African American who found faith, fulfillment and ideals in Christ Jesus when I embraced Catholicism as a young man in Chicago. I stand before you as the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Belleville in Illinois and as the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and I am very grateful to have this opportunity to share with you some of the essentials of the faith that I hold dear and love with all my heart.
As a matter of faith, the Catholic Church is concerned for the good of every human person and teaches that every person's dignity is God-given and inalienable. Sadly, I can tell you from personal experience that not every Catholic lives up to our teaching on the dignity of each person. That is one of the great challenges that we Bishops face on a daily basis: when our own people – or even we ourselves – contradict or do not live up to what we profess, thus causing confusion and cynicism about the faith that should be a mark of our character in everything we do.
But I can witness that, whatever the failings of individual Catholics, Catholic teaching embodies the highest values to which society must aspire if it is to be fully human. This is true across the wide range of issues important to all of us here – human and civil rights; economic policy and how we treat the least fortunate among us; war and peace; the sharing of our abundance with others not of our national community, whether they be immigrants or those suffering in their own lands.
Because the great variety of faith communities in our beloved country share so many of these same values, we have been able to work together in broad religiously based coalitions to make our nation's social policies more humane. Since religious faiths have contributed so much to humanizing our society, it is essential that religion remain a positive force in our social order and not be allowed to be perceived or misrepresented as a divisive power in our world today.
In the wake of 9/11, we in the religious community have a special obligation to unite in being bearers of hope in a society which is suddenly and deeply plagued by fear. One has only to travel by plane to be vividly reminded each time of the new atmosphere in which we live. Fear is a useful emotion if it causes us to take reasonable and necessary precautions for our safety. It is a useless emotion if it becomes the paralyzing center of our existence, locking us into a state of suspicion and keeping us from living out the Lord's commandment that we should love our neighbors as ourselves.
For us religious leaders to deliver a message of hope is crucial, because it will be a defeat for our nation if a new atmosphere of fear and mistrust were to choke the oxygen out of the God-given concern that each of us must bear for one another, especially the underprivileged and the deprived; a commitment that we Catholics call "Christ's preferential love for the poor."
It is appalling that, in our nation with its material abundance and opportunity, we find, along with those who are poor because – for whatever reason – they will never be gainfully employed, the "working poor." The "working poor" want to work and do have work, but are still poor. We must foster the means by which people not only can find work, but work which lifts them and their families out of poverty.
One essential way to combat poverty – and many other social ills as well – is to foster and strengthen the family. The family must be the first refuge and source of hope in time of difficulty. Those of us in the black community are only too familiar with how the destructive forces of infidelity and divorce, drug dependence and crime have weakened the family as the bedrock of society. Given the fragility of the family today, this is clearly a time when we must protect and secure marriage, the foundation of the family, as the God-given reality that it is: the faithful, exclusive, lifelong and loving union of a man and a woman.
In this context, I want to mention a special concern that we must have for the struggles that those single parents who head households must face each day in raising a generation of responsible, well-educated, and hopeful young people. As a man who grew up in a single parent home that was enhanced by the blessed presence of a grandmother who worked as a domestic to help raise and educate her grandchildren, I know the value that support for quality education means in those demanding situations. Let me say this – and I know that all of you do not yet agree with me on this point: our nation should support good education wherever it is found – whether private or public – as so many nations around the world already do. We should not continue to restrict, in principle or in practice, the rights of parents to make educational choices for their children, and I commend the example of the District of Columbia as a model for us to accomplish this.
Matters on which the bishops' Conference and all here share a deep concern, because of the impact these issues have on America's being a just and humane society, are availability of jobs, just compensation for work, guaranteed health care in an era of spiraling costs, and fighting the ever present temptations to racism.
And considering that we are a nation of immigrants, it would be particularly tragic if the necessary security measures intended to screen out the few who would do us harm also result in excluding many who can and would otherwise have an opportunity to better their lives and make a real contribution to our society.
Fear should not obscure the basic truth that a society can measure its own spiritual well being by the extent to which, in keeping with God's eternal law, it cares for those who are powerless and have no voice to speak for themselves. The poor, the immigrant, the sick and the prisoner are all people whom Jesus would have recognized in his own time here on earth as being deprived of a voice. Sadly many of these sisters and brothers lack a voice even today, and we must be his voice raising the concern for them that he once raised and continues to raise today through those of us who believe in him.
On this very point, in the last 30 years, we Catholics, along with many in our society of other faiths and of no faith, have felt obliged to raise a prophetic voice reminding our society that "the least" of our brothers and sisters include those who have been denied the first and most fundamental right of all – the right to be born into the human family. Every human being, from the moment of conception, when human life begins, to that of natural death, is a being endowed with unique rights by God himself. As with the poor, the immigrant, the sick or the prisoner, having no voice does not mean that the unborn have no place among us, no rights to be defended. We are all obliged to defend those rights.
Finally, as a nation whose leaders have declared a war on terrorism and which has been in two shooting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States needs to be deeply and immediately concerned about issues of war and peace, about the means and goals of war, and about the loss of life among both combatants and non-combatants. We need to be concerned as well about the role which we ought to play in the family of nations. The Catholic bishops continue to maintain that war is always a last resort and that peace among all nations is the goal which we must seek. In fact, at the time of the invasion of Iraq, we expressed our grave concerns about the concept of a preemptive war. However, given the present reality, we have called upon our leaders not simply to abandon Iraq, but, with the collaboration of the wider world community, to help the Iraqi people build a stable, pluralistic, democratic, and prosperous Iraq.
"War never again" was the simple yet profound challenge that Pope Paul VI raised in the United Nations in 1965. Nearly 40 years later, his successor, Pope John Paul II, continues to echo that sentiment and is now the world's most tireless champion of peace with justice. May the words of Paul VI be written in each of our hearts so that they direct our every effort in our relations with one another.
Thank you very much and God bless you!