October 13, 2010 | The Long Island Catholic Vol. 49, No. 25 | BISHOP WILLIAM MURPHY
This is the text of Bishop Murphy’s homily at the annual Red Mass of the Catholic Lawyers Guild of Nassau County, celebrated Oct. 5 at St. Joseph’s Church in Garden City.
When Pope Benedict stood up in Westminster Hall to speak to the leadership of politics, business and academia in Britain last month, he did more than just offer some reflections on issues of the day. He continued a long hallowed tradition of popes and bishops whose responsibilities include entering into a dialogue with the society and the culture to mediate truths held dear by the Church and offered to society for the common good of all who make up that society. Conscious of the common law and parliamentary tradition symbolized by Westminster Hall and its history, the Holy Father did not hesitate to bring a witness of the Church that does desire to propose to a pluralist secular society truths illumined by faith confident that all men and women of good will are open to examining them with the same respect and honesty as they are being offered. That has always been my hope in these few words which annually you give me the opportunity to share with you.
At first glance, this may seem contradicted by Jesus’ own words in the Gospel we have just heard. If the world hates us as it hated our Lord and Savior, should not the proper reaction of Jesus’ disciples and certainly us, the leaders of the Church, be to walk away, turn our backs and save ourselves? Yet the same Lord that same night prayed not that we be taken from the world but that we would be protected by the Spirit in order to live in and to engage the world. That Spirit which we identify as the fire of God’s love inhabiting human hearts and guiding His Church to the truth is never monopolized by us Christians, nor is that Spirit ever limited by our feeble attempts to harness it for the good. It is the same Spirit that the great Jewish prophet Isaiah proclaimed would come to break down barriers, release captives, heal hearts and minds and renew lives. Conscious as we Catholics are that the gift of that Spirit is properly the ongoing power of God’s love for us and His world, we recognize with gratitude and sincerity that His Spirit is given for the good of all the world.
Following the recent examples of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, let me take advantage of Our Holy Father’s address in Westminster Hall to add a few thoughts to his extraordinarily insightful words.
To “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and render unto God what is God’s” is not a formula to erect barriers between the world of religious beliefs and the processes of politics and law. Rather it is to invite a mutual reflection that recognizes that the things of Caesar very much condition the concerns that stem from belief in God and vice versa. Belief in God is not a flight from the human condition but rather a commitment to be immersed in the challenges of our common humanity and the concerns of human community, political and social, for the good of all. “Liberty and justice for all” etched on the Supreme Court building can be found at least as equally maintained by the principles of Catholic social teaching about the sacredness of human life and the inherent dignity of every human being because they are human.
Thus far so good. But the issue becomes more complicated when, in a pluralist society such as ours, claims come into conflict and there must be some criteria other than self interest to resolve them. Appeal to the Constitution and the precedents established by our legal tradition is the normal and extraordinarily beneficial way this has been developed in our own country. But political choices often override legal decisions and even legal decisions can seem bereft of any ethical compass. Where then is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? Hear what Pope Benedict offers on this.
The Catholic tradition of our principles of social teaching “maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation.” It is not our task to dictate instructions to you or even propose concrete solutions from our faith perspective. It is our responsibility, as persons shaped by our faith, to enter into a conversation respectful of all. In that context we seek on our part “to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles.” Implicit in this is a conviction that faith and reason are not antithetical but are inherently related to each other as complementary aspects of human living and flourishing. In fact we would go even further and state that faith needs reason and reason needs faith as healthy antidotes to the tendency of each to veer off in directions that can harm believer and non-believer and thus, neither the secular state nor the organized communities of faith within it receive the help they need from a right relationship of faith and reason.
What do I mean by that? A faith that does not seek understanding can easily become distorted forms of religion that are fundamentalist or sectarian and create serious problems leading to antisocial behavior such as violence. But without the “corrective” supplied by religion, civil society can claim a control of human lives that is exaggerated and end in the kinds of totalitarianisms we witnessed in the last century. Pope Benedict observes, “it is a two way process … I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue for the good of our civilization.”
A concern of mine is a tendency abroad to treat religious faith today as a kind of problem for secular society. It is acceptable so long as it stays private and individual but it is a threat to a secular society if it speaks in the public square or seeks space to express its beliefs through public actions that affirm the faith of larger communities. There can be a kind of inverse intolerance in our society today. We can protect the rights of the smallest and most esoteric of religious groups but are fearful of larger communities of faith such as Catholics, Evangelicals, or Mormons.
Of even more concern are those who use their positions to suggest that Catholics in public roles may exercise their roles only if they deny some aspect of their faith. Instead of the “positive secularism” Pope Benedict has sincerely appreciated, there is a kind of sectarian secularism that seems to think it cannot survive unless both the rights of freedom of conscience and religion and the rights of organized religion are suspect in the public square.
My conclusion is a simple one but I believe makes an important point. We need to have dialogue and mutual respect at every level of our society “between the world of reason and the world of faith.” Certainly that has been the teaching of the Catholic Church through the centuries. It was a saint of the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas, who began his theological lectures at Paris with the question “An Deus sit?” (“Whether God exists?”)
While he did this confident with St. Paul that “we are led by the Spirit of God as children of God and heirs with Christ,” they both knew, as do we, that the Spirit whom we invoke on all of you today is the Spirit of truth and justice to guide us all into the ways of righteousness for the good of us all, for the building up of our society of equal justice and for the common good of all humankind.