Washington — In a U.S. visit, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told officials at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops not to lose sight "that the voice of the Catholic church must be heard in the public square."
"Otherwise we risk that our democracies are reduced to a vocabulary of truth, which is exclusively pragmatic and positivist," he said Tuesday at the USCCB headquarters in Washington.
He also told staff members and directors: "You are not bureaucrats but disciples! You are engaged in a noble, often hidden ministry of service."
The cardinal noted that even though conference employees might experience frustration while engaged in "behind the scenes work," they should recognize that their "service to the apostolic ministry of the bishops is invaluable" and their work helps "apply the teachings of the universal church to the local situation, equipping the bishops with the resources they need to be effective pastors."
He also stressed the USCCB has "an important role to play giving voice to America's conscience," which he said was demonstrated in the conference's promotion of Fortnight for Freedom -- a period of prayer and fasting to raise awareness of challenges to religious liberty.
"I merely want to encourage you by sharpening the sense of irony that it is often religious leaders which call a so-called 'secular democracy' back to its founding principles," he said, adding that "It is not healthy for a supposedly free society built on firm values and virtues to overlook the role of conscience or to fail to offer it appropriate protections."
Müller said he was united with USCCB officials "in a certain support role" since conference employees support the U.S. bishops and his work supports the ministry of the pope.
He said that Pope Francis often emphasizes in his morning Mass homilies the theme that "the church is a community of faith and not simply an NGO [nongovernmental organization]." That understanding, the cardinal said, should provide the "motivation and context" for the USCCB's work.
This is particularly reflected in the church's role in health care, he said, noting that the doctrinal congregation recently responded to a "dubium," or formal question, by the USCCB concerning Catholic health institutions and associations that include non-Catholic member institutions.
The congregation's response, he said, begins with a reflection on Sts. Cosmas and Damian, "two physicians who, in their care for the sick, offered prophetic witness to their faith in Christ Jesus."
The cardinal said reflecting on the example of the two saints is a good way to look at why the church is involved in what it does, such as providing health care, education or charity work.
"Of course, it is because the love of Christ impels us," he answered, adding, "We do what we do because of our faith in the Lord and his saving Gospel."
Müller stressed that "even more to the point, what we do is a proclamation of that Gospel," which is why, he said, "Catholic health care institutions must express the healing ministry of Christ and the inviolable dignity of each and every human person created in the image and likeness of God."
"No matter how good or noble the founding motivations for other hospitals and institutions may be, they are not meant as an expression of Gospel fidelity. There must be something qualitatively different in the experience of care at a Catholic institution."
He also said the same motivation must be behind Catholic schools. "There are a host of good reasons for society to want to educate its young people. But we teach as Jesus did, and our educational mission springs from the heart of the church and therefore in fidelity to the church."
He stressed that the emphasis on proclaiming the Gospel needs to be at the heart of all church ministries.
"We defend the unborn, and welcome the immigrant, and promote affordable housing for the poor, and decry violence ... all that we do is an expression of our faith in Christ and his church," he said.
"The challenge is making our initiatives and programs perceptible as such."