Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

My obligation to teach the Church’s moral and social doctrine

By ARCHBISHOP WILTON D. GREGORY, Commentary | Published April 14, 2016  | En Español

Each week I receive many letters and emails that touch upon a wide variety of topics. While many are deeply private, some of the issues in those communications are quite public and relate to highly controversial topics. A number of these messages actually cancel each other out since they propose diametrically conflicting opinions on the very same issue.

These letters reflect the reality that Catholics are not a monolithic community of persons in thought or viewpoint. Some of the concerns that come to my attention are quite liberal in their orientation, while others are equally conservative in tenor. Yet the authors of those messages that suggest totally opposing opinions generally believe that they represent an honest description of the Church’s teaching and tradition on that topic.

The Church’s official teaching on any particular matter for some people can present a challenge. It may demand that they reflect upon some deeply held opinions. The Church—especially through the guidance of the last few pontiffs and the bishops of our nation—has highlighted the unchallengeable dignity of the human person from the first moments of life within the womb to his or her final breath. They have also underscored that same human dignity in reference to the poor and marginalized—including those who are immigrants (documented and undocumented alike) or prisoners sitting on death row.

Increasingly, the Church’s official stance has been to ask all nations to abandon the death penalty—an appeal that Pope Francis addressed directly to the United States Congress during his recent visit. Yet we here in the state of Georgia have executed three people during the early months of this year, with another one awaiting execution this week. Certainly many local Catholics support the death penalty, and therefore they find themselves at odds with the teachings of both St. John Paul II and Pope Francis along with the U.S. bishops who have called for its abolition.

Immigration is another neuralgic topic that has Catholics lining up on opposing sides even as the Church’s official teaching and moral position call for comprehensive reform of our laws, which clearly are not adequate to the task of protecting our national security nor respecting the dignity of those seeking to find better lives for themselves and their families in our nation. Both values are categorically important, and there is much disagreement on how best to achieve them.

Some people might suggest that these issues are too politically charged for the Church to take such a public stance. That same posture has been used in the past in reference to the rights of workers and the aspirations of the Civil Rights Movement—to mention only a couple of the more controversial issues of the recent past.

The simple fact is that our Catholic faith must inform public policy in ways that advance the common good. Central to that obligation is the highly disputed issue of religious freedom—the right and responsibility for the Church to be free to exercise her faith without constraint or interference by government or social structures. In preserving and defending our own religious freedom, we cannot trample upon the rights and privileges of others—even those with whom we have serious and fundamental differences.

Catholics have always been a diverse group of people, and only the uninformed have thought that we walk in lockstep when it comes to public policy—though we do seem to be so much more divided on some issues than ever before.

What has changed is our ability to express our opinions widely and instantly through social communication options that were not a part of our history. Thus, my office hears from people who may not in the past have had the means or felt the freedom to tell me their opinions. While it may complicate my service as Archbishop, it certainly points out where my work is cut out for me so that the Church’s moral and social doctrine is far better understood and more widely accepted.