A Wake-Up Call

came from Mother Nature. I have suffered a serious attack of 6’4″-and-Don’t-Know-When-to-Say-When Disease. Back pain so severe that I have spent three days shuffling around like a maimed daddy longlegs–after some boys plucked a couple legs off, in a sick frenzy of animal experimentation.

I hope to fight on for the Lord tomorrow. But please be patient with me. I have suffered this kind of Easter-octave debilitation before and have returned with all my vim and vigor restored. But I am not getting any younger. After all, Francis is my fifth pope. A lot of people have lived and died without so many popes.

I am going to have to slow down a little. Giving two beautiful parishes the illusion that each has its own pastor, when, in fact, there’s only one forty-something nerdnik behind the curtain–a man couldn’t have a better pastime. But the wizard, after saying, “Pay no attention!” relented. Please let it be noted: Father Mark loves Francis of Assisi and St. Joseph. Not going anywhere. Mass schedule will not change. Just needs to slow down a little and let the blossoms bloom by their own power. And if I was short or impatient with you during Lent 2013, please forgive me.

mlk birmingham jail cell

…Speaking of Easter-octave activity: We just had the 45th anniversary of his assassination, and this year we mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Easter confinement in the Birmingham City Jail.

He wrote a letter there, responding to a statement by local clergymen which asked the Civil Rights movement to slow down. That letter had been signed by a Catholic bishop. King fraternally disagreed with his brother clergymen.

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may want to ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

mlk-jailNow, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.

To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality…

Segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong…. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law…I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.

This year the vice-president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference will visit Birmingham and the very jail cell in which Dr. King languished (now preserved in the Civil Rights Institute). I had the privilege of visiting it myself in February.

One of the great ironies of the past fifty years: As we have seen, Dr. King’s argument in his letter turns on his appeal to the natural law, the fundamental principle of justice which gives authority to any man-made law (and which denies authority to any man-made law which contradicts justice).

Our Pope Emeritus Benedict repeatedly pointed out to different law-making bodies of the Western world that their authority drifts aimlessly these days, having been severed from it source: God and His laws. (How will the poor justices of the Supreme Court possibly resolve all the problems laid before them last week without referring to God and His laws? How could anyone understand the original principle of deference to state authority in the area of regulating marriage without the presupposition that God’s fundamental laws have to guide state regulations?)

Anyway, Dr. King championed the cause of justice because he believed in God and His unalterable laws. May we do likewise.

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