Today the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops began its annual November meeting. The following are excerpts from the opening address of the president of the USCCB, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. The full text of the address is available at the USCCB website.
We come to this Assembly in the interim before a new presidential administration takes office in our country. Symbolically, this is a moment that touches more than our history when a country that once enshrined race slavery in its very constitutional order should come to elect an African American to the presidency. In this, I truly believe, we must all rejoice. We must also hope that President Obama succeed in his task, for the good of all. The odds against success are formidable. We are internally divided and, in a global order, we will be less the masters of our economic and political fate. Nevertheless, we can rejoice today with those who, following heroic figures like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were part of a movement to bring our country’s civil rights, our legal order, into better accord with universal human rights, God’s order. Among so many people of good will, dutiful priests and loving religious women, bishops and lay people of the Catholic Church who took our social doctrine to heart then can feel vindicated now. Their successors remain, especially among those who quietly give their lives to teaching and forming good and joyful children in Catholic schools in African American and other minority communities.
We can also be truly grateful that our country’s social conscience has advanced to the point that Barack Obama was not asked to renounce his racial heritage in order to be president, as, effectively, John Kennedy was asked to promise that his Catholic faith would not influence his perspective and decisions as president a generation ago. Echoes of that debate remain in the words of those who reject universal moral propositions that have been espoused by the human race throughout history, with the excuse that they are part of Catholic moral teaching. We are, perhaps, at a moment when, with the grace of God, all races are safely within the American consensus. We are not at the point, however, when Catholics, especially in public life, can be considered full partners in the American experience unless they are willing to put aside some fundamental Catholic teachings on a just moral and political order. The hubris that has isolated our country politically and now economically is heard, but not usually recognized, in moral arguments based simply and solely on individual moral autonomy. This personal and social dilemma is not, of course, a matter of ultimate importance, for America is not the Kingdom of God; but it makes America herself far less than she claims to be in this world.
At our meeting last spring, we heard statisticians tell us that the Catholic Church is a laboratory for our society. What the Church looks like today, in her ethnic composition, her economic situation, her generational cohorts, the entire country will look like in twenty five to thirty years. This gives Catholics a perhaps prophetic perspective on our society’s life and concerns. In Holy Scripture, a true prophet’s life is always marked by suffering. What is of major importance to us, as bishops of the Church, is that the Church remain true to herself and her Lord in the years to come, for only in being authentically herself will the Church serve society and its members, in time and in eternity.