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Moral Duties in a Muddied World

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Vatican City -- In an election season in which the White House has instituted a policy that puts unprecedented limits on the constitutional right to freedom of religion, questions of conscience, duty and spiritual and moral obligation are of critical importance.

A conference at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences had some related thoughts and warnings. The Vatican think tank was founded in 1994 and is meant to facilitate a continuing dialogue between faith and reason, between the social sciences and the social thought of the Church.

To an American sitting in on the conference, some of its sessions amounted to a warning siren.

'A religion of the absence of God is currently destroying and demoralizing the West,' warned Pierre Manent, a professor of the Centre de Recherches Politiques Raymond Aron, describing a world that has little tolerance for religious views it considers merely as outmoded obstacles. 'This is not simply a fashion or opinion trend; it is a genuine large-scale project for governing the world through international rules and institutions, so that nations, losing their character as sovereign political bodies, are henceforth only 'regions' of a world en route to globalization.'

His sounding of the alarm came at the same time as a full-scale examination of budgetary matters began to get under way in the United States. Republican House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan has engaged in a debate over 'social justice' that has long been a wholly owned subsidiary of the left.

This is important and relevant because we do live in a country that has long safeguarded religious freedom, believing it to be a central part of a healthy democracy and just society. But current government policy suggests something else. The Obama administration has demonstrated a marked hostility to the free exercise of religion in the public square.

'Pacem in Terris,' the 1963 papal encyclical that the Vatican City conference evoked, was concerned with world peace. But it recognizes that at the heart of any such endeavor is peace within our hearts: reconciliation about who we are and how we conduct ourselves in the world.

'There is no more powerful source of moral development for everyone than concern for the common good,' Manent explains. But Manent goes on to stress that this concern cannot be legislated from above, cannot be transformed into a rigid set of rules delivered by government fiat -- instead it has to spring from the 'enlarging of our being,' an inward process that moves outward, but needs unfettered freedom in which to manifest.

'If we keep growing government in debt, we will crowd out the civil society -- those charities, those churches, those institutions in our local communities that do the most to actually have a human touch to help people in need,' Paul Ryan recently said, in defense of his budget. 'That's what we want to empower. That's what we want to improve on.'

In an even larger sense, Manent agrees. 'The deployment of the human virtues,' he said, will take 'a unified action regarding the members for which we feel ourselves responsible. ... If we lose that, we will have nothing left to orient ourselves by but a general idea of humanity, which will be powerless to draw us away from the passivity of private life.'

Making these decisions, these moral priorities, requires what Manent calls 'a serious effort of discernment.' As we enter election season, serious moral discernments should be made before we vote: how we should live, what we should be required to do. Keeping the human person at the center of our civic acts is an important part of keeping our freedom intact. Will we heed the warnings?

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