October 12, 2011 | The Long Island Catholic Vol. 50, No. 23 | BISHOP WILLIAM MURPHY
Homily given by Bishop Murphy at the annual Red Mass of the Nassau County Catholic Lawyers Guild, October 4 at St. Joseph's Church, Garden City.
This annual gathering to invoke the Holy Spirit to inspire and guide the men and women dedicated to the service of the law and justice is always an opportunity for me as leader of this local Catholic Church to greet you and to express to you the high esteem and the sincere recognition of the Church and of me personally for the roles you fulfill for Nassau County and for the well being of our fellow citizens in the context of the common good.
The thoughts I wish to share with you are occasioned by some of the issues and challenges we face in American society as a whole and New York in particular. They have found a certain inspiration — and if I may be so bold — confirmation in the address Pope Benedict made to the Bundestag in Berlin less than two weeks ago on September 22. For this latter reason, I asked that we might begin our Liturgy of the Word with the reading about Solomon’s encounter with God as he began his tenure as king and law giver for the chosen People of Israel. In this encounter God loved him because he was not a man of blood and warfare as was David, his father. Offering Solomon whatever he wanted, God truly rejoiced that he chose not riches or power, honor or pleasure but rather asked God: “Give your servant an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.”
In the cacophony of political argument that characterizes today’s American scene, I hesitate to think how the pundits and the commentators of the media, and the polls among the citizenry, would react to such a statement. In many quarters it would be discounted as a violation of Church and state. In most it would seem an unjust intrusion of religious language into a secular society. And that is sad for me to have to say.
Sad, not just because as a bishop of the Catholic Church I am convinced that life in this world when separated from God ultimately turns in on itself and becomes self-destructive. Sad it is as well because it is the equivalent of a denial that there is a realm beyond our own means and devices that can illumine human living and contribute to human flourishing in ways that would be recognizably good for persons individually and for the society as a whole.
You have heard me say before that for some time I have been convinced that, as a society, and in our legal and governmental affairs, we are experiencing a threefold crisis, of nature, of conscience and of truth. Power today, ceding to pressure groups or eager for political success, can easily lose sight of the true goal of law and of government: the pursuit of justice for the freedom, safety, and flourishing of the human person and the society as a whole. When the desire to win the case is the only objective and the pressure to please or enable temporary majorities the only political standard, the “will to do what is right and the understanding of what is right” can easily be eclipsed. As St. Augustine said in his defense of the state, “Without justice, what else is the state but a great band of robbers.”
Pope Benedict in Berlin acknowledged the pluralism of today’s secular society and the principles of democracy including majority rule. He also is aware, as am I, that the positivist approach to law and justice today is almost always separated from its original sources of what we in the Catholic Church call divine and natural law. Without questioning today’s reality, indeed affirming the positivist approach as an “important dimension of human knowledge and human capacities,” can we not ask if there is not at times need to have access to something more, something that corresponds more fully “to the full breadth of the human condition?” We do say of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that “we hold all these truths to be self evident …” On what basis are they self-evident? The fact we say it? The fact that all agree to it? But to the second anyone can truly say that they don’t agree and many, if they don’t say, act quite contrary to what our founding fathers proclaimed as self-evident.
Put another way, Pope Benedict asks, “How do we recognize what is right?” The Church does not propose revelation. The Church has always opted for reason and intelligence but a human reason and intelligence open to something greater than merely a majority of opinion or a majority of pressure or power. Here I would return to my earlier observation of the importance of recognizing nature, conscience and truth as binding on us all, not in an absolutist sense but as realities that go beyond our capacity to manipulate nature, our determination to demand what we want as a so-called right of conscience and our assertion that there is only subjective truth.
Freedom of religion
In 1948 the UN promulgated and almost every state in the world affirmed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 affirms “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom to manifest that religious belief alone or with others, in public or private, in teaching, practice, worship or observance.” For some time we Catholic bishops have been alarmed by encroachments on this right in other countries but increasingly in our own. We are witnessing the restriction of the legitimate space for religious expression as well as practice through some judicial decisions, some legislation on a national and a state level and, most recently, in the implementation of laws by new regulations from agencies charged with making specific what was general in the legislation. More and more the state is granting to religious persons and institutions not even exemptions. Now they are called “exceptions” defined in the narrowest terms. Just last week the President of the USCCB has established a new Committee of our body created expressly to address the issue of religious freedom for all religious groups in our contemporary American society.
If human rights are granted by the state and not a given we all have by virtue of our humanity, then they are no longer human rights. The development of human rights has a complex history but at its base is found the conviction that there is a Creator God, recourse to Whom is the guarantor that our human rights not become subject to any state, democratic or totalitarian. The Lord Himself called us to be guided by God’s Spirit who would be our advocate. With the pope, I would cite the great cultural development of the interchange of ideas about human life and flourishing that are the fruits of the cultures of Jerusalem, Greece and Rome. What he and I would maintain is that this cultural discovery has universal validity that calls us all to recognize that the pursuit of justice through a state of law demands of us all that we respect human nature, human conscience, truth and goodness as criteria for the good of society. This introduces an element of humanity that may not be codified but which can be exercised by those who recognize the truth of nature and humanity, of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
If today God invited us to make a request, what would we ask for? To cite the pope: “I think that, even today, there is ultimately nothing else we could wish for than an ‘understanding heart’ — the capacity to discern between good and evil and thus to establish true law, to serve justice and peace.” In this way you and I and all who serve society in the field of the law, will become witnesses to truth and serve the best interests of our professions and build up our communities, our state, our nation and, indeed, the whole world. Amen.