On November 20, 2009, a coalition of Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical Christian clergy, ministry leaders, and scholars from across the United States announced a 4,700-word declaration that addresses concerns about the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and the rights of conscience and religious liberty.
In a summary statement, the authors and signers of the document—dubbed the “Manhattan Declaration”—make a commitment to uphold fundamental truths “about justice and the common good” as “followers of Jesus Christ”:
Christians, when they have lived up to the highest ideals of their faith, have defended the weak and vulnerable and worked tirelessly to protect and strengthen vital institutions of civil society, beginning with the family.
We are Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical Christians who have united at this hour to reaffirm fundamental truths about justice and the common good, and to call upon our fellow citizens, believers and non-believers alike, to join us in defending them. These truths are (1) the sanctity of human life, (2) the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife, and (3) the rights of conscience and religious liberty. Inasmuch as these truths are foundational to human dignity and the well-being of society, they are inviolable and non-negotiable. Because they are increasingly under assault from powerful forces in our culture, we are compelled today to speak out forcefully in their defense, and to commit ourselves to honoring them fully, no matter what pressures are brought upon us and our institutions to abandon or compromise them. We make this commitment not as partisans of any political group but as followers of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
The signing of the declaration was the culmination of several months of dialogue among this diverse group of religious leaders, a hundred or so having met in Manhattan in September 2009 to consider an initial draft, which was then entrusted to a drafting committee. The committee consisted of Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries and the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and a member of First Baptist Church in Naples, Florida; Timothy George, a Southern Baptist and founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University, and a senior editor at Christianity Today; and Catholic Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.
INSPIRATION AND TIMING
When asked what had prompted the creation of the declaration, Robert George replied that it was a case of “many people independently and simultaneously perceiving the need for something.” That “something” became “a statement by Christians across the historic lines of ecclesial difference to defend important principles that are today under severe challenge.”
The three co-drafters believed that the need for such a statement was urgent “due to many factors,” according to George. Those factors included: “President Obama’s promise to the abortion lobby to expand the availability of abortion, paying for abortion with taxpayer dollars; the threat that conscience protections would be eroded [by] pressure to expand the availability of abortion and the possible redefinition of marriage; and, the movement [supporting] assisted suicide and so-called voluntary euthanasia.”
Interviewed by the Baptist Press news service, Robert George said that those signing the declaration “see a genuine increase in the threat, especially on the sanctity of life front. That’s the result of the federal government having an administration that is deeply committed to legal abortion and [government funding] and a majority in both houses of Congress that shares that commitment…. We could have said many of the things that we are saying today a year ago, but some of the things we are saying today have an urgency to them as a result of the [Obama administration].”
Although these three primary issues “do not constitute the entirety of Christian moral concerns,” these are the “threshold issues on which everything else we do is related,” co-signer Timothy George said. The other issues—concern for the poor, peace in the world, and so forth—“are all related to the three issues we are talking about today,” he explained.
At the press conference where the declaration was released, fellow signer Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia spoke to the gathering, saying, “The principles we together proclaim and defend in the Manhatt an Declaration are foundational norms of justice and human rights.” He said, “While they are true Christian principles, they are not the unique preserve of any particular Christian community or of the Christian tradition as a whole.”
Cardinal Rigali stated that although faith in Jesus Christ “reveals their full meaning and significance,” these are principles that “can be known and honored by men and women of goodwill, even apart from divine revelation,” as they are “principles of right reason and natural law.”
According to Rigali, “Loving concern for the common good…requires that we lift our voices in defense of life,… marriage, and…freedom of conscience and religion,” which are not “sectarian causes, any more than the cause of racial justice championed by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was a sectarian cause.”
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver was among the 14 Catholic bishops who signed the declaration. He was asked in an interview with the Catholic News Agency if the document, as its critics claim, violates the separation of church and state and is an instance of Christians telling the government what to do.
“In the United States, citizens ‘tell government what to do’ all the time. It’s called democracy,” the archbishop responded. Religious communities, religious leaders, and individual believers are not barred constitutionally from taking a “vigorous role” in public debate, he said, adding that the American system depends on them doing so.
“In order to survive, our democracy requires citizens to advance their beliefs energetically and without apologies in the public square,” Chaput stressed. “Our rights and liberties are never really guaranteed by words on a piece of paper. We guarantee them ourselves, under the sovereignty of God, by struggling for what we believe.”
“Now and always, we need to trust in God; and then we need to act. Right here, right now, in this country, the work of organizing and struggling in the public square for what we believe belongs to us. That means all of us, and each of us,” Chaput said.
A THREAT TO RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, DC, who also signed the declaration, is dealing directly with a threat to religious freedom and right of conscience in his archdiocese, due to the legalization of same-sex marriage in the District of Columbia.
When the city council voted in favor of this new law in December, it left the archdiocese and members of other religious denominations in a quandary as to how they would “continue to provide services without compromising the tenets of their faith,” as Wuerl wrote in a November 2009 article in the Washington Post before the law was passed.
Wuerl explained, “The new requirements by the city [which compel] religious organizations to recognize samesex marriages in their policies could restrict our ability to provide the same level of services as we do now.”
The District now requires Catholic Charities to certify its compliance with city laws when applying for contracts and grants needed to offer homeless services, mental health services, foster care, and more. “Since Catholic Charities cannot comply with city mandates” which recognize and promote same sex marriages, “the city would withhold contracts and licenses,” Wuerl stated. The Archdiocese of Washington announced in February that Catholic Charities would drop its adoption and foster care services—which had been receiving $2 million in city contracts annually—as a result of the new legislation.
But beyond the complications of complying with city mandates for contracts and grants, Wuerl is concerned about the overall effect that same-sex marriage is having on our society. In a November 2009 article on “How Essential is Family Life?” Wuerl states, “our secular society’s denial of the intimate connection between sexual activity and the marriage bond is responsible for most of the unraveling of family and, therefore, community life in our time.”
Wuerl explained that once it is established that “sexual activity is solely for personal satisfaction and has no particular relationship either to a committed bond of partnership or to the education and raising of children,” the result is “an ever-growing number of children who cannot identify in any meaningful sense with their parents, and parents who are not in any realistic sense participants in sustaining, educating, and developing their offspring.”
THE PRICE OF UN JUST LAWS
With other dioceses fighting samesex marriage and assisted suicide legislation, as well as the on-going issues of abortion, contraception, and other conflicts affecting Catholic health care institutions, there is more pressure on Church leadership and institutions—and on individual believers— to conform.
Robert George, in a December 2009 interview for National Review Online, said that as Christians, “we believe in the rule of law.” However, gravely unjust laws “that seek to compel people to do things that are unjust do not bind in conscience.” Christians believe that “one must be prepared to pay a price, sometimes a very high price indeed, for refusing to do what one’s conscience tells one is wrong,” George explained.
He gave examples of pro-life obstetricians and gynecologists who face laws compelling them to perform or refer for abortions, or else lose their employment. Their obligation, he concluded, is to abandon their jobs. The same reasoning would apply to Catholic hospitals and clinics being compelled to perform or refer for abortions or close their doors. Their obligation would be to go out of business, he stated.
“Of course, this would be a tragedy,” George commented, “especially since these institutions do such wonderful work in providing health care to the poor. But the legal imposition will leave them no choice.”
In his recently published book Render Unto Caesar, Archbishop Charles Chaput describes the conundrum for people of faith today.
“As Catholics, how can we uncouple what we do from what we claim to believe without killing what we believe and lying in what we do? The answer is simple. We can’t,” Chaput writes, adding, “How we act works backward on our convictions, making them stronger or smothering them under a snowfall of alibis.”
With the number of people who have signed the declaration online multiplying into the hundreds of thousands, Chaput believes that the financial hardships of the last year have focused people’s attention on “how fragile their security is, and what things in this life— and the next—really matter.”
The archbishop also believes that some public policies “have become ascendant over the past 14 months, [troubling] a great many religious believers and other sensible people.” This has led to “the success of the Manhattan Declaration, which caught even the signers by surprise,” and hints at “a much broader discontent about the direction of our culture.”
In a recent e-mail to the many people who have signed the declaration, the organizers of the effort ask for help in reaching their goal of one million signatures, comparing it to “one million people standing arm-in-arm in defense of the most vital moral truths in our society.”
The organizers report that signers Cardinal Rigali, Archbishop Wuerl, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville have urged their brother bishops to spread word of the declaration throughout their dioceses, encouraging their clergy and faithful to study and sign it. Both Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit and Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix have already organized grassroots efforts supporting the declaration. Gatherings of evangelical Christians supporting the document have occurred across the country, and many evangelical pastors have referred to the Manhattan Declaration in their sermons.
Given the existence of long-standing organizations fighting abortion, assisted suicide, and same-sex marriage, the question has been asked: are the efforts to support the Manhattan Declaration redundant?
Archbishop Chaput isn’t concerned, stating that the great value of the declaration is to “re-energize good people who had become dispirited.” The archbishop said he would “borrow a lesson from Luther,” comparing the Manhattan Declaration to “nailing the right kind of moral theses to the door of our public leadership.”
Even though “some duplication of effort will always happen,” Chaput believes “the main thing the declaration has already accomplished is to get a lot of good people to refocus and get back into the struggle for a healthier culture. That’s huge.”
The final sentences of the Manhattan Declaration sum up the document’s almost revolutionary sentiment:
Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.
The complete text of the Manhattan Declaration can be found at the wesite www.manhattandeclaration.org.
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