In recent years we have witnessed attacks on the traditional Christian understanding of the sacredness of life and of the nature of marriage. We have witnessed challenges to religious freedom. Often, as these threats have appeared, Catholic Church leaders have sought to challenge them.
In many cases a momentum has developed to drive the efforts to change laws or to alter traditional customs and practices and the Church arrives too late to do much. It is often a rearguard action, which does little more than slow down the change.
It is also a problem when issues that affect society as a whole are only confronted by one Christian Church. Others may be in sympathy but there is no co-ordinated effort to present the Christian position.
This question was addressed in New York in November last year where a gathering of various Catholic, Evangelical, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican leaders met to address what they in common recognised as basic challenges that they faced in American society.
These Church leaders set out to produce a document that expressed their commonly held positions on a number of key issues. The agreed statement came to be called, The Manhattan Declaration and was announced on 20 November 2009.
The three principal authors were Chuck Colson (former Nixon adviser, now active Christian advocate in social issues), Robert George (a Catholic, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Princeton University) and Timothy George (Professor, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University).
The 4,700-word declaration was signed by 152 Christian leaders and since its publication many other leaders have added their signatures to it. The Declaration presents a united Christian position that seeks to defend the sanctity of human life, the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife, and the rights of conscience and religious liberty.
The Declaration begins with an appeal to Christian history that reflects the social commitment of Christianity. Though acknowledging fail- ures and shortcomings, the document argues that Christians have nevertheless defended the weak and vulnerable and worked tirelessly to protect and strengthen the vital institutions of civil society, beginning with the family.
The Declaration also reaffirms fundamental truths about justice and the common good which it emphasises are not only Christian ideals but are of concern to all citizens.
The key ideals, which concern human life, marriage and religious freedom, are truths about the nature of human life and ensure the protection of human dignity. They are the basis for the well-being of society. These three ideals, The Declaration states, are inviolable and non- negotiable.
The Declaration warns that these truths are under assault from powerful forces in society and announces the intention of Christian leaders to come to the defence of these truths. These truths cannot be abandoned or compromised, the leaders declare.
The Declaration then specifies the content of these ideals.
As to the sanctity of life it states that human life - particularly that of the unborn, the disabled, and the elderly - continue to be threatened as legislation is introduced into parliaments by groups wanting to redefine and change traditional beliefs about the sacredness of human life.
Various lobby groups with particular ideological commitments constantly try to expand access to abortion, allow embryo-destructive research, and decriminalise assisted suicide and euthanasia. Our society is being burdened by those, who in the words of Pope John Paul II, foster 'the culture of death' (Evangelium vitae).
The Declaration expresses a clear commitment to the protection of every human being 'at every stage of development and in every condition'. The Declaration states, 'We will refuse to permit ourselves or our institutions to be implicated in the taking of human life and we will support in every possible way those who, in conscience, take the same stand'.
Marriage at risk
Next, it notes that marriage and family have been wounded by the growth in promiscuity, the increased incidence of infidelity and by high divorce rates and now it is at risk of being redefined.
Such a reshaping of the meaning of marriage will seriously subvert, not only the environment for nurturing of children, but will seriously weaken society. In every society marriage and family are the bedrock that sustains the health, education, and welfare of all. The Declaration points out that where marriage erodes, social pathologies rise.
It argues that 'the impulse to redefine marriage is a symptom, rather than the cause, of the erosion of the marriage culture'. Societies, as they move away from their Christian roots, lose an understanding of the meaning of marriage as embodied in our civil law as well as in our religious traditions.
If we allow our society to surrender to these pressures it would mean severely reducing the possibility of restoring a sound understanding of marriage. It will inexorably separate the marriage relationship from its procreative dimension and the understanding of family will be seriously diminished.
We are then reminded that 'marriage is not a 'social construction', but is rather an objective reality - the covenantal union of husband and wife - that it is the duty of the law to recognise, honour, and protect'.
Thirdly, on freedom of religion, the Declaration observes that this, along with the rights of conscience, are now gravely jeopardised. The threat to freedom of conscience is evident in efforts to weaken or eliminate conscience protections for healthcare institutions and professionals.
Anti-discrimination legislation is being used to force religious institutions, charities, businesses, and service providers either to accept (and even facilitate) activities and relationships they judge to be immoral. The alternative placed before them is to comply or go out of business.
Christians have always believed in law and respect for civil authority. They consider a democratic society as a most appropriate form of civil government and are grateful for the opportunity to participate in the political process. However, Christians cannot be required to act against their conscience, the document affirms.
Line in the sand
The Declaration concludes boldly, 'Because we honour 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, 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'.
The document adds, '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'.
This Declaration draws a line in the sand. The fact that it is not just a statement by the Catholic Church, but has support from the powerful Evangelical movement in the United States, as well as from Orthodox and Anglicans, makes it a statement of Christian commitment to defend the social structures against disintegration. In itself it is a powerful political instrument.
The Manhattan Declaration offers a guide and challenge to us in Australia. Can we, too, define our position as Christians on the key issues of life, marriage and religious freedom and present a united front to legislative authorities?
Bishop Julian Porteous is a Sydney auxiliary bishop.