My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
While the term "commons" has been in use for centuries in various ways, the phrase "global commons" in more recent literature signifies the total inheritance of humankind upon which life depends. This includes more than natural resources such as forests, oceans and air. It encompasses our intellectual and cultural heritage — for instance, literature, art and the Internet. Seen in this light, our participation in the global commons is fundamental to being human.
In his article, "A Common Matter," Professor Leo Burke, director of Integral Leadership at the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, accurately reports, "Conventionally speaking, we tend to refer to the private sector and the public sector as the main organizing units of human affairs. In some societies there are other institutions or groupings that play a prominent role, such as the church, the military or civil society. But, by and large — at least in liberal democracies — the private and public sectors predominate."
The marginalization of religion in liberal democracies is a fact, but it is a development that is unfortunate not only for religion but also for the commons. The Judeo-Christian tradition is rooted in communal experience. The people of Israel are not "chosen individuals" but a "chosen people." The laws of the Hebrew Scriptures are directed to regulating the life of the community so that people could live in peace and harmony.
Being Jewish, Jesus built on this foundation. His teaching on the last judgment makes clear that eternal life is promised to those who care for the least among us and eternal damnation will be for those who do not care for them (Matthew 25:31-46). In other words, salvation is not simply a matter of private belief, but of how we relate to each other in this world.
In keeping with this teaching, the Catholic Church has built a massive international network of social and humanitarian institutions. It is reported that the Catholic Church educates 2.6 million students every day at the cost to the church of $10 billion, and a savings on the other hand to the American taxpayer of $18 billion. The graduates go on to graduate studies at the rate of 92 percent.
The church has 230 colleges and universities in the U.S. with an enrollment of 700,000 students. The Catholic Church has a non-profit hospital system of 637 hospitals, which account for hospital treatment of 1 out of every 5 people — not just Catholics — in the United States today.
Internationally, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), headed by Dr. Carolyn Woo, former dean of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business, has 5,000 people providing assistance in nearly 100 countries and reaching more than 100 million of the world's poorest people each year in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, with innovative solutions to tough problems like poverty, hunger, drought, disease and emergencies.
Unfortunately, there are those who see religion as merely a private matter that should be kept out of the public sphere. Such a view fundamentally misunderstands the role of religion. The word "religion" comes from the Latin, re + ligare, which means, "to bind together again." The role of religion is to bind people together.
Of course, pluralism of religions and beliefs presents challenges, but our nation's constitutional protection of freedom of religion is designed to make sure that all religions have a voice in the commons rather than exclude them from the commons.
Some years ago, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor coined the term "exclusivist secularism" to describe a disturbing phenomenon in western societies: the determination of some intellectuals, activists and politicians to scour public life of transcendent religious and moral reference points in the name of "tolerance" and "inclusion."
Dr. George Weigel, a prolific Catholic writer, intellectual and biographer of Pope John Paul II, writes that aggressive secularism "seeks to drive out of the public square any consideration of what God or the moral law might require of a just society. Aggressive secularism was once thought to be a primarily European malady. Then it migrated to Canada. Now it has become a serious problem in American public life." (National Catholic Register, Oct. 21-Nov. 3, 2012, p. 7)
Recognizing this problem, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, has spoken of a "tsunami of secularization" that has swept over modern society in recent decades. "It is almost as if this tsunami, this wave, has washed across everything we live by and simply took most of it away," he said in a speech at the Vatican on October 8, 2012. (National Catholic Register, Oct. 21, 2012, p. 6)
Warning of the consequences of aggressive secularism, Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, wrote on Oct. 21, 2012 in the Catholic New World, the newspaper for the Archdiocese of Chicago, "The world divorced from the God who created and redeemed it inevitably comes to a bad end. It's on the wrong side of the only history that finally matters."
We know as historical fact that the Soviet Union tried atheistic communism less than 100 years ago. It did not survive the century. A commons without religion will be on the wrong side of history and will also come to a bad end unless it figures out how to include people and institutions of faith in the mix. I am hopeful that this can be achieved, but it will have to be done quite intentionally. If people put their minds to it, I am confident that they can be successful in reaping the benefits of faith-based approaches to benefit the commons.
May God give us this grace. Amen.