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Why States Can't Be Neutral on Values

Perspective From Auxiliary Bishop Porteous of Sydney

SYDNEY, Australia, NOV. 29, 2004 (Zenit) - Auxiliary Bishop Julian Porteous presented this text as part of the theologians videoconference on the topic "Church and State." The Oct. 29 event over Internet was organized by the Vatican Congregation for Clergy.

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The State Cannot Be Neutral With Respect to Values
Bishop Julian Porteous

Our most important relationships are formed not for personal advantage but so that we can give and receive love and thus build up "the fraternity that men are to establish among themselves in truth and love" (Catechism of Catholic Church, No. 1878; also see "Gaudium et Spes," No. 24).

Societies are best thought of as attempts to spread love throughout the general population, and in particular to offer love to the most needy (see John Paul II, "Centesimus Annus," No. 10, on the option for the poor, confirming the teaching of Leo XIII at "Rerum Novarum," No. 125). Thus society is not value-free but is "essential to the fulfillment of the human vocation" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1886).

There are many ways of sharing love in society, for instance, providing health care, supporting families, expanding access to work, protecting important freedoms, and so on. The state has special duties to ensure that all of these areas are properly attended to, and that law and authority are exercised for these purposes alone. Pope John XXIII in "Pacem in Terris" (No. 46) stated: "Human society can be neither well-ordered nor prosperous unless it has some people invested with legitimate authority who devote themselves as far as is necessary to work and care for the common good."

Justice and love require that the state works for the genuine good of each person -- this is the "common good." The common good thus acknowledges that "the human person ... is and ought to be the principle, the subject, and the end of all social institutions" ("Gaudium et Spes," No. 25).

This means that the state can never be purely neutral about values. For the state exists solely to ensure that the value of persons is recognized, the vulnerable are protected, and the common good is promoted.

In our world, the question of neutrality usually arises when people argue that the state should not favor any one set of values over any other. For example, people may be happy for us to be Catholics in our private life but do not want us to bring these values into the public world.

But we cannot keep our Catholic beliefs and consciences for our private lives. The Lord himself and the constant teaching of his Church require us to speak up for the poor, support marriage and family, provide a voice for the voiceless, defend innocent life: "As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40). We cannot evangelize unless we are free to argue and work for Catholic wisdom in these key social areas.

The modern democratic state promotes the values of secular liberalism and assumes that these values represent a high point of civilization and fairness.

But as Pope John Paul II argues, democracy requires to be underpinned by a framework of morality: democracy's legitimacy "depends on conformity to the moral law" ("Evangelium Vitae," No. 70).

Our hope must be that in place of the tired, old values of 20th-century secularism, societies will reinvigorate the concept of the human person as God's image and humanity's hope.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 1929) says, "Social justice can be obtained only in respecting the transcendent dignity of man." Where the state places the person first, it increases its commitment to the common good. And where the common good is sought in justice and love, persons, and not neutrality, are the true focus of political life.


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