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”.
As St. Augustine pointed out in a book he wrote as he watched the Roman Empire collapse around him, we, Christians, are citizens of both the City of God and the City of Man. Today we do well to thank God that the City of Man where we dwell is the United States of America and not the Rome that sent Christians to the lions.
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.
Yet there are inevitable tensions for any City built by men, even a city that shines, as it were on a hill, as a beacon of liberty like our United States of America. For any City built by fallen men will unavoidably reflect man’s fallen nature.
200 years ago slavery was written into the constitution and of course women could not vote. More recently, the right to abortion has been read into our Constitution by our Supreme Court justices. And, of course, our immigration system is broken – inadequate laws rather than stemming illegal immigration makes illegal immigration inevitable creating a new class of undocumented immigrants who could be described not so much as law-breakers as those being broken by the law.
Having a dual citizenship – one in the City of Man by birthright or naturalization, the other in the City of God through baptism can bring about tensions. No surprise here –but thank God that our forefathers, in establishing our republican form of democracy, did not pretend that they were building heaven on earth. In the 20th century, dreamers of that ilk – men like Stalin and Hitler and Castro – ended up making their nations hells on earth.
Our Founding Fathers got it right in setting up a limited government –with checks and balances -in order to provide ordered freedom for its citizens. Even what has come to be called “separation of Church and State”, although these words are not found in the constitution, was to limit the power of the state over purely religious affairs. In other words, it was meant to keep the State from dictating to the Church. It did not mean that government must be insulated from religious values, or the separation of faith from society. Indeed, from the beginning the participation of God-fearing people in the formulation of our nation’s laws and policies was welcomed and encouraged. Unlike those governments promoting a secularized heaven on earth, here in the United State, at least up until recently, 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.
However, today in America, the role of faith in public life is increasingly debated and many seek to sideline those of religious convictions from participation in public discourse. Public institutions whether in government or the media hardly ever take account of the role that religion plays in the lives of most Americans, except to criticize it.
When we speak about abortion or the rights of immigrants, we are accused of imposing our religious views; when we call for parental rights and choice in education, we are told that we are violating the separation of Church and state. If we defend the traditional understanding of marriage, we are accused of being intolerant. Religion is a private matter, we are told.
What would have happened had Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ascribed to such a view of religion? He used to say: The Church is not meant to be the master of the State, nor is the Church its servant, the Church must be its conscience.
Thank God for the black Churches of 1960’s who became the conscience of America and helped bring to an end the shame of Jim Crow and racial discrimination.
The Civil Rights movement of the 60’s was in its inspiration and leadership a religious movement. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist preacher. The marches were staged from churches, and the marchers were for the most part church members.
This fact is conveniently forgotten today. Many of those same people, who would rightly applaud the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement, today would criticize bishops and priests for speaking out on the moral issues of our day. They want to impose their beliefs on us! How dare they – don’t they know about separation of Church and State?
Who is imposing his views – the bishop that reminds his people what the obligations of Catholic life entail – that you cannot be Catholic and pro-choice? Or, the supreme court of Massachusetts that by judicial fiat overturns the common understanding of marriage held for millennia in order to allow same sex couples to attempt marriage.
When we act as citizens, we do not impose our views. The Church has no army, she has no police force to impose her views; all the Church can do – all we can do as members of the Church and at the same time as members of an earthly City is make our proposition. We don’t impose, we propose – and hopefully in the give and take of the democratic process, we can convince our fellow citizens of the wisdom of what we propose and thereby affect changes in law and custom. In this light, the exit polling of last November that indicated many voted according to their concerns about “moral issues” is indeed heartening.
While today intellectuals and pundits often describe the US as a secular nation, our country 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 does not mean a secularism that would “privatize” faith and exclude it from the public square.
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 displacing a morality based on the truth of things. Last year, long before the election, we 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 saw – 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 wholly Other.
We do 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 – reveals 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 structural – 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 by law. So too 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. That illegal alien who crosses the desert seeking 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, we harden our hearts to ignore the human tragedy of the more than 2000 deaths that have occurred on our borders in the last five years; or we excuse or legitimate a vigilantism that takes its inspiration from the Ku Klux Klan of yesteryear.
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)
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 the 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 does 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.
What does America need from the Catholics today? It needs for us Catholics to be truly Catholic – that’s the best contribution we can make for in being better Catholics we can be better citizens – and better public servants.
During WWII, my father’s generation proved that you could be Catholic and American. Catholics of that era – of many different ethnicities – served our nation honorably and in higher numbers percentage wise than their non-Catholic neighbors. And I would say that today in Iraq, Catholics are still overrepresented in our armed forces. And, in secular New York City, where The New York Times has hardly ever a kind word for Catholic teachings, as the post 9/11 memorial services brought home so clearly, the majority of the policemen, firefighters and emergency workers who died were Catholic.
No one should have to apologize for being a Catholic in America today. And no one should question our contributions as citizens to our country. And no one should think that he or she has to abandon faithfulness to Catholic teachings as a price to enter into the political arena. 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 too was personally opposed – personally opposed to the execution of Jesus but could not see himself imposing his morality on the mob.
Rather, we must be witnesses of hope – even in spite of our own failures and sins. The scandals that have shamed and saddened us are not reason for us to give into discouragement or to lose hope. Indeed they call us to a more humble hope – a hope that trusts only in God. Such hope will not cause us to despair when confronted with our own human frailty and sin – indeed such hope can bring us to seek and to find forgiveness.
As Catholics we cannot opt out of the political system. In the first place, if we allowed ourselves to be cowered into “staying in our place”, we would reduce ourselves to being “second class citizens”. In the second place, opting out is not our Catholic way. It would be a failure of charity for, in our Catholic tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue; and, participation in the political process is a moral obligation.
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.