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Religion Not Just a Private Affair, Affirms Pontiff

Encourages Prelates to Remove Obstacles to Encounter With God

WASHINGTON, D.C., APRIL 16, 2008 ( Benedict XVI says that any tendency to treat religion as a private matter should be resisted, and that faith should permeate every aspect of life.

The Pope affirmed this today in an address to the bishops of the United States at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. His discourse ranged in topics from immigration to the formation of priests. As he left the shrine, the prelates sang him “Happy Birthday,” — the Pope turns 81 today.

The Holy Father emphasized the key role of bishops during his address, asking how, “in the 21st century, a bishop can best fulfill the call to ‘make all things new in Christ, our hope’? How can he lead his people to ‘an encounter with the living God’?”

“Perhaps he needs to begin by clearing away some of the barriers to such an encounter,” the Pontiff proposed.

He explained: “While it is true that this country is marked by a genuinely religious spirit, the subtle influence of secularism can nevertheless color the way people allow their faith to influence their behavior.

“Is it consistent to profess our beliefs in church on Sunday, and then during the week to promote business practices or medical procedures contrary to those beliefs? Is it consistent for practicing Catholics to ignore or exploit the poor and the marginalized, to promote sexual behavior contrary to Catholic moral teaching, or to adopt positions that contradict the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death? Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted. Only when their faith permeates every aspect of their lives do Christians become truly open to the transforming power of the Gospel.”


Benedict XVI proposed further obstacles to this “encounter with the living God,” perhaps particularly faced by Americans. One such barrier is materialism, he said: “People today need to be reminded of the ultimate purpose of their lives. They need to recognize that implanted within them is a deep thirst for God.

“It is easy to be entranced by the almost unlimited possibilities that science and technology place before us; it is easy to make the mistake of thinking we can obtain by our own efforts the fulfillment of our deepest needs. This is an illusion. Without God, who alone bestows upon us what we by ourselves cannot attain, our lives are ultimately empty.”

Another possible obstacle, the Holy Father affirmed, is an overemphasis on freedom and autonomy, which makes it “easy to lose sight of our dependence on others as well as the responsibilities that we bear toward them.”

“This emphasis on individualism has even affected the Church, giving rise to a form of piety which sometimes emphasizes our private relationship with God at the expense of our calling to be members of a redeemed community,” he noted. “If we are truly to gaze upon him who is the source of our joy, we need to do so as members of the people of God. If this seems counter-cultural, that is simply further evidence of the urgent need for a renewed evangelization of culture.”

Public life

The Pontiff further encouraged the bishops to give priority to education and to participate in the exchange of ideas in the public square.

“In the United States, as elsewhere, there is much current and proposed legislation that gives cause for concern from the point of view of morality, and the Catholic community, under your guidance, needs to offer a clear and united witness on such matters,” he said. “Yet it cannot be assumed that all Catholic citizens think in harmony with the Church’s teaching on today’s key ethical questions.

“Once again, it falls to you to ensure that the moral formation provided at every level of ecclesial life reflects the authentic teaching of the Gospel of life.”

In this context, the Bishop of Rome encouraged the formation of families: “How can we not be dismayed as we observe the sharp decline of the family as a basic element of Church and society? Divorce and infidelity have increased, and many young men and women are choosing to postpone marriage or to forego it altogether.

He added: “To some young Catholics, the sacramental bond of marriage seems scarcely distinguishable from a civil bond, or even a purely informal and open-ended arrangement to live with another person. Hence we have an alarming decrease in the number of Catholic marriages in the United States together with an increase in cohabitation, in which the Christ-like mutual self-giving of spouses, sealed by a public promise to live out the demands of an indissoluble lifelong commitment, is simply absent.”

“It is your task,” the Pope told the prelates, “to proclaim boldly the arguments from faith and reason in favor of the institution of marriage. […] This message should resonate with people today, because it is essentially an unconditional and unreserved ‘yes’ to life, a ‘yes’ to love, and a ‘yes’ to the aspirations at the heart of our common humanity, as we strive to fulfill our deep yearning for intimacy with others and with the Lord.”

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