Homily at Annual Red Mass
St Thomas More, Co-Cathedral
Opening of the Legislative Session of State of Florida
March 3, 2004
Tonight, at this annual Red Mass, we invoke the help of the Holy Spirit on the work of our public officials in all branches of government. We do this as men and women of faith; but also, as elected officials, as civil servants and officers of the court, and as citizens. We do so with no apologies – for while such a public display of religious faith by political officials might seem strange in the now old Europe that sprung from the secular republicanism of the French Revolution, it should not be strange to find American citizens unselfconsciously at prayer. After all, we inhabit a country that has been described as “a nation with the soul of a church”.
Our founding fathers got something right – which their contemporaries in continental Europe did not. They got it right when they secured religious freedom for themselves and their posterity by recognizing in the Bill of Rights a distinction between religious authority and state power. Church and State would be separated. There would be no religious test for public office. The State would not be the arbiter of religious claims. That would be left to the individual conscience of each citizen.
However, their intent was not to exclude people of religious faith from the public square – rather they intended that people of all religious faiths be included in that public square. Our founding fathers in separating Church from State did not mean to separate religion from society nor did they wish to inhibit religion from prospering. Listen to what George Washington said about religion in his farewell address: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports…. Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation deserts the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
The difference between the America proposition and the laicist regimes of Europe was that the State and Church did not see themselves as rivals but as partners – partners in a healthy dialog to encourage the integral development of the human person and harmony in society. The religious liberty, that is the right of every person, does not mean that government must be insulated from religious values. Indeed, the participation of God-fearing people in the formulation of our nation’s laws and policies was welcomed and encouraged.
Today, however, the role of faith in American life is increasingly under attack. Public institutions whether in government or the media have been notoriously unfriendly to faith, and hardly ever take account of the role that religion plays in the lives of most Americans, except to criticize it. More and more the price for admission to public life is to check one’s faith-based values at the door. If St. Thomas More, martyred for his uncompromising devotion to his conscience informed by faith, is the role model of a politician who seeks to integrate his religious values with his commitment to public service, then today’s self described Catholic politician who in making a false distinction between his “private” beliefs and his public responsibilities votes pro-abortion can take as his patron, Pontius Pilate. He was personally opposed to the execution of Jesus but could not see himself imposing his morality on the mob. At least, though he washed his hands, Pilate did not dare to take communion.
While often described as a secular nation, the United States could be more correctly described as an interfaith nation. Its founding principles acknowledge the presence of a Supreme Being from whom certain inalienable rights are received. Our government is based on the worldview that God exists. One could say that the existence of God is a first principle of our form of government. God is the one who endowed us with those inalienable rights. The Church embraced this Novus Ordo Seculorum when at Vatican II the Council Fathers said: “The principle of secularity is legitimate in itself if it is understood as the distinction between the political community and religions.” Guadium et Spes But secularity is not secularism.
Secularism “…radically excludes the presence and action of God, who is spirit, in the world and all above in man.” Dominum et Vivificantem Sprung from the bad seed of continental Europe’s Enlightenment of three centuries ago, it has sprouted roots in contemporary America society – where in popular culture a morality based on desires is rapidly displace a morality based on the truth of things. In recent months and weeks, we have witnessed several disturbing events in that incubator of American popular culture that is California. These events indicate that many in our political elites have abandoned the idea of the ordered liberty of our nation’s founding to the “liberte” of the Jacobins: we have seen – a federal court banning the pledge of allegiance – unless the words, “one nation under God”, are deleted; a state court ordering that Catholic institutions be forced to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees in violation of their religious precepts; and a municipal government in violation of laws passed by the people affirming marriage as a union between a man and a woman issuing marriage licenses to homosexuals.
Pope John Paul II said at the United Nations in 1995: “Detached from the truth about the human person, freedom deteriorates into license in the lives of individuals, and in political life it becomes the caprice of the most powerful and the arrogance of power. Far from being a limitation on freedom or a threat to it, reference to the truth about the human person – a truth universally knowable through the moral law written on the hearts of all – is, in fact, the guarantor of freedom’s future.”
We must recognize that it is impossible to come to terms with a proper understanding of morality without a serious reflection on the transcendent meaning of life, a reflection on “the truth of the human person”. If average citizens and public officials fail to reflect on this transcendent meaning, morality can lose its moorings and become nothing more than the policy decisions of the people in power.
The secularist project, in seeking to organize society without reference to God, without reference to the transcendent destiny of man, only ends up in organizing society against man and alienates man from himself and from his fellows because it denies something of the full truth about man,. Such was the history of the ideological materialism of Marxist societies. And such is the present reality of the practical materialism of consumer societies where the break-up of the family, drug abuse, promiscuity, abortion are symptomatic of modern man’s alienation from himself, of modern man’s hopelessness even in the midst of affluence.
Today, men and women of faith in public life must engage their contemporaries once again in a renewed dialog. The stakes are high. For as the Vatican Council taught: “man cannot find himself except through a sincere gift of self”. Man finds himself when he transcends himself in a gift of himself to others – and to the Other.
We have something to say. We have a Word to share – that word is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ – as our Holy Father is so fond of repeating – reveal to man not only the truth about God but also the truth about Man, for Christ is true God and true Man. Our dialog is not about seeking to impose a creedal definition on any citizen; but, we do offer a proposal towards a fuller understanding of the truth about the human person and of his God-given dignity and freedom. This understanding is born of faith but it is not unknowable to human reasoning. We can offer our contemporaries a view of man which is certainly in conformity with our founding fathers’ belief in nature and nature’s God. We can offer a view of man that allows him a means to find himself.
Such a view can stand as a necessary corrective to the reductive definitions of a secularism that denies that man exists for anything else but death. As I said, the stakes are high. For the convinced Christian today, flight from the world or surrender to the world cannot be options. For if we flee from the world – including the world of politics – we would just relegate ourselves to second class citizenship. If we surrender to the world, we would lose our identity as Christians – not to mention our immortal souls. Though, on pilgrimage to an Eternal City, as a people of faith, we are called to be – not against the world, not of the world, but for the world. Indeed, our belief in a transcendent destiny does not distract us from engagement in the affairs of the world. It commits us to making the world a better place. The proud tradition of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy carried on by the Church for two millennia is testimony to our commitment to human solidarity. We believe that our earthly life is not a dead end; but, a road that leads somewhere. We commit ourselves to maintain that road – so that the obstacles place along that road by sin – personal and structure – do not keep us or our fellow human beings from arriving at our eternal destination.
Catholic social teachings – reasoned proposals about the nature of man and his dignity in society – are an important resource we can share with our contemporaries in this necessary dialog in the public market place of ideas that is our democratic political process. These teachings, developed by the modern popes in the last hundred years, provide an invaluable contribution to an understanding of the truth about the human person. Catholic social teachings recognize that God is the source of those rights deemed inalienable and since they were not granted by men or by states they cannot be abrogated either by men or by states.
While these teachings are sometimes complex and their reasoning sophisticated, I think that they can be summarized in one phrase: No human being can be reduced to being just a problem. For the reductive reasoning that permits us to see someone made in God’s image and likeness as just a problem will also allow us to apply to this “problem” solutions, even final solutions. Catholic social teachings witness against making any person or class of persons problems. There are no problem pregnancies but unborn human beings – children that must be welcomed in life and protected in law. So that that retarded child, the enfeebled old man, they are not inconvenient problems to be solved but people with dignity, with rights that are to be respected. Terri Shiavo is not a problem, she is a person. That Mexican farm worker – not a problem, not a commodity but he is a person who does not forfeit his rights and dignity because of the lack of papers or political patrons. The refugee seeking on our shores conditions worthy of human life, is a modern day Lazarus at the porch of Dives. We cannot allow ourselves to see him or her just as problems – because when we do – as we did in October 2002, we end up taking five year old girls in frilly dresses and locking them up. Even that condemned prisoner on death row – for all the evil of his crimes, he remains a person – a person for whom we , Bishops, will continue to seek commutation of his sentence to life imprisonment rather than execution – because we think that this serves human dignity – his and ours – better than the death penalty as applied today.
As men and women of faith, you can make a great contribution to the development of public policies and laws that serve the common good if you, building on the body of Catholic social teachings, argue for the priority of the ethical over the technical, of the person over things, for the superiority of the spirit over matter. (cf. Novo Milenio Ineunte)
In the first millennium of Christian faith, the Church in fidelity to the gospel she had received had to engage the world with the question: who is God? The great councils of that era were convened and new expressions faithful to the tradition were promulgated and explained. Indeed, each Sunday, we recite the Nicene Creed given to us by the Church of that era. In this third millennium, the quest at hand is: who is man? And those who are today trying to exclude the voices of faith from speaking in the public square, do so – not because of our theology, our “God-talk”. When Catholic belief is criticized, ridiculed or scorned today in our secular press – they scorn us not so much for our God language. They don’t really care if we believe in the Real Presence, or in the Holy Trinity. They scorn us – and wish to exclude us for our anthropology, our “Man-talk”. Abortion, euthanasia, cloning, fetal experimentation, refugee rights – this is not just religious talk, it is human talk. And a citizen, we have aright to make our proposal of what best serves the human person.
As men and women of faith involved in public life you can help create a human environment that helps and does not hinder man to find himself through the gift of himself – a human environment that promotes and protects freedom from external coercion from state or other entities in order to favor the conditions in which the gift of self can be freely made, a human environment that reflects the truth about human nature as created by God and there also to assure the authenticity of the gift – for only manifestations of self-giving that correspond to that truth will tend to that communion of persons to which humanity is directed. To give of himself, a person must develop first self-control. This happens in the family. And the data is in – children are hard-wired to be best raised by a mother and a father who are married to each other. Therefore, it is so important that public policy protect the family and promote marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
Today, as we survey the moral landscape of our nation, we can see that the failure to be truly human – to find ourselves through the gift of ourselves – has social consequence. Our police forces, our social services agencies, our schools, our courtrooms deal with these consequences every day. In a renewed dialog with our fellow citizens we must ask how douse our society’s forms of social organization, production and consumption help or do not help us to offer this gift of self and thereby to establish solidarity between people? Bad ideas – based on incomplete or erroneous concepts of the human person – will translate into bad public policy and generate bad consequences. And good ideas – based on the truth of the human person, will translate into good public policy that does not contradict the moral law written on the human heart and will generate good consequences.
Jesus taught us that the truth will make us free. Obedience to the truth about God and the truth about man is the first condition of freedom. Veni, Creator Spiritus. We invoke the help of the Holy Spirit – for the Spirit is the antidote to materialism shortsightedness.
In this evening’s first reading, Jonah went to the city of Nineveh and said to its citizens: “Can we talk?” As citizens – and as men and women of faith – we also need to reopen a dialog in American society about who is man. America, can we talk? The King of Nineveh listened and he covered himself with sackcloth and said in the ashes. “Who knows”, he said, “God may relent and forgive…so that we shall not perish.”
Is anybody listening today in America?
Bishop Thomas Wenski
Bishop of Orlando
Homily at Annual Red Mass
St Thomas More, Co-Cathedral
Opening of the Legislative Session of State of Florida
March 3, 2004