God gave us minds and the power to make good choices. He put us on the earth, in the rough-and-tumble of this time in history, in all the particular circumstances of our particular lives. He put us here for one reason: so that we can grow into the saints He made us to be. We grow by learning and by making choices—learning the truth and choosing good over evil.
We human beings have a wonderful power: we have the power to act. Not “act” as in Charleton Heston, Eddie Murphy, Colin Firth, and Meryl Streep. I mean “act” as in: to do something, like shaking someone’s hand or making a pizza.
We do have an audience: God. He sees it all, and He knows all. He pulls for us always to do what is right. He sends us countless helps to avoid doing evil. He longs to reward us in the end for serving Him faithfully. But He respects our freedom enough that He will let us destroy ourselves forever by sin—if we so choose.
So we do not act alone: God sees, helps, loves. Also, we generally do not act alone as individual human beings, either. We participate in undertakings that involve groups large and small. Undertakings like: choosing friends in school, or working for a company, or supporting a candidate for public office, or investing our money.
This means that we bear ultimate responsibility not just for what we do individually, but also for what we choose to co-operate with.
This document includes a paragraph making the distinction between conscientiously objecting to a just law and refusing to obey an unjust law. One may conscientiously refuse to serve when drafted, but the draft is not unjust.
Okay. But isn’t a law requiring abortions unjust? Unjust to the unborn? None of the unborn are Catholics, but they all have the right not to be killed. Isn’t a law requiring proof of U.S. citizenship before receiving medical care–isn’t the law unjust to the medical patient, regardless of his or her religion?
ERGO: Religious freedom for Catholics is not the central issue. The central issue is justice for defenseless human beings.
I recognized myself as a hopeless “act-based” moralist. Hopeless because I can’t really see what we will be judged on in the end, other than our acts and omissions. Will we be judged on the “symbolic power” of the t.v. shows we watch? Only insofar as we chose or did not choose to watch them.
So I am hopelessly act-based in my moral analysis. And I am irredeemably individualistic about it. I can’t quite figure how I could be judged for something I unknowingly co-operate with in a remote manner, especially if the law binds me to do so. And how could I fail to be judged for intending to co-operate with something evil, even if I simultaneously engaged in symbolic gestures supporting the good people I know?
But then something dawned on me.
The Church must be considered a proper moral agent, in Her fulfillment of Her mission. The Church does good and avoids evil. Those who guide Her make decisions regarding what She does. Because of this, when She is mis-guided and errs culpably, She bears a corporate responsibility.
(Obviously, she never errs in teaching faith and morals as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. But She can act immorally as, for instance, as the Archdiocese of Boston, or as Father So-and-so, or as St. Such-and-such School.)
The Catholic Church in the U.s. exists as a moral agent. She acts in all Her official “Catholic” institutions. And everyone who calls him or herself Catholic co-operates with Her.
Thinking along these lines, an irredeemable act-based, hopelessly individualistic moralist can assert, with a clear mind, that we cannot co-operate with evil, even if the civil law stipulates that we must.
Still not sure about First-Amendment litigation. But at least now I can conceive of who exactly the plaintiff would be.
Maybe you, too, find it difficult to keep the central elements of this controversy in focus. With all due respect for ecclesiastical authority–and for all authorities on medicine, public health, and health-care finance—I would like to undertake an analysis.
I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church. (Matthew 16:18)
Let us begin with two basic principles of common sense.
Principle #1: Obeying God is the key to life. Life can be confusing and difficult enough as it is. But willingly to disobey or ignore God—that is the path to utter disaster. With God, we find peace. Without Him, nothing—not even the greatest worldly successes—can give us peace.
Principle #1 derives from the fundamental role of faith in a stable life. Common-sense principle #2 derives from the fundamental role of reason.
Principle #2 goes like this: Anyone who claims to tell you God’s will for your life is probably wrong and could very well be dangerous. To put it another way: God is God, and we human beings are not. Of one thing we can be sure: When it comes to God’s Almighty mind, we are not familiar with it.
Principle #1 teaches us that living as if God did not exist leads to disaster. #2 shows us that mistaking the word of man for the Word of God also leads to disaster. Obeying God brings pece. But obeying another human being as a substitute God? Misery.
So, now we have two solid principles of common sense. But, Houston, we have a problem. Obey God. Doubt anyone who claims to speak as an oracle of God. Where does this leave us?
It potentially leaves us altogether paralyzed. In order to obey God and find peace, we have to know God’s will. But how are we going to know it? We also have a solemn obligation to doubt anyone who says, “God wills that you do what I say!”
See the problem? This problem has confounded many noble minds. It has troubled many earnest souls. It has mystified some of history’s giants.
Should we bother with the burgeoning “Shakespeare was Catholic” literature?
Peter Milward’s Shakespeare the Papist kept me company last summer. Until I ran out of patience with its inconclusive, fantastical arguments. A subjective analysis of some plays does not an historical proof make.
To summarize: historical documentary evidence about the Bard’s private life demonstrates nothing conclusive about his personal religion. Internal evidence from the plays, like Claudius kneeling down to confess his sins in Hamlet, proves…nothing about Shakespeare’s personal religion.
Now Archbishop Rowan Williams opines that “Shakespeare was probably Catholic.” This is about as convincing as Oprah Winfrey asserting that the shot that killed Kennedy probably did not come from the grassy knoll.*
May God be praised! The real joy lies in the Bard’s oeuvre itself.
Can the genuinely ‘Catholic’ position on Shakespeare be: not to claim lamely that Shakespeare was Catholic but rather to rejoice simply that Shakespeare was awesome?
Like the way in which the Bard created Leontes’ convoluted, suspicious character by using over-wrought vocabulary and syntax in Winter’s Tale…
…Leontes is beginning to grow jealous of the friendship between his queen and his old friend Polixenes. So the king asks his servant Camillo if he has noticed anything:
…Was this taken
By any understanding pate but thine?
For thy conceit is soaking, will draw in
More than the common blocks: not noted, is’t,
But of the finer natures? by some severals
Of head-piece extraordinary? lower messes
Perchance are to this business purblind?
Leontes asks Camillo these contorted questions in the second scene of the play. When Leontes reappears in Act V, his strange, jack-in-the-box way of speaking also returns.
One of the courtiers urges king Leontes to marry a second time, but the dead queen’s friend Paulina forbids it. Leontes replies:
Thou speak’st truth.
No more such wives; therefore, no wife: one worse,
And better used, would make her sainted spirit
Again possess her corpse, and on this stage,
Where we’re offenders now, appear soul-vex’d,
And begin, ‘Why to me?’
When Leontes learns that Polixenes’ son Florizel has come to Sicily to visit, he asks, with his characteristic stiltedness:
What with him? he comes not
Like to his father’s greatness: his approach,
So out of circumstance and sudden, tells us
‘Tis not a visitation framed, but forced
By need and accident. What train?
A few lines later, Leontes reveals the mystery of his studied manner of speaking. He urges his courtier Paulina not to refer to Polixenes:
Prithee, no more; cease; thou know’st
He dies to me again when talk’d of: sure,
When I shall see this gentleman, thy speeches
Will bring me to consider that which may
Unfurnish me of reason.
To put oneself forth as a sober man of reason while, in fact, you are a burbling cauldron of jealousy, guilt, and remorse–this might lead a person to speak with Leontes’ robotic patter.
Maybe Shakespeare was Catholic. Certainly he was a veritable god.
* Just an analogy. I am not familiar with anything Oprah Winfrey ever actually said.
[This sermon will mainly interest the Catholic residents of Henry and Franklin counties, Virginia. I offer it here for anyone interested in “the spirituality of parish clustering.”]
Amen, amen, I say to you, the hour is coming and is now here when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.
We all know what they say about death and taxes. Sure things. But Christ has revealed that the death of our bodies will not last forever. When He comes again in glory, all the dead will rise from the grave. And we won’t have to pay taxes then, either. The federal government will be shut down forever.
In other words, everything about life as we now know it will pass away, and eternity awaits. This of course changes our whole perspective. The things we deal with now are not the ultimate reality. We have no lasting city here, just a way-station.
Moses asked the people of Israel a question: “What great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?”
When Moses asked this question, it was rhetorical. The Israelites knew the answer: “There is no such nation! The Lord has chosen us and made us a light to the Gentiles!”
Moses asked this rhetorical question some three and a half millennia ago. What would we say, if he posed the same question to us now?
What would we say if Moses asked us Catholics of Franklin County, Virginia, or the Catholics of whatever city or county: “What nation has so just a law as the Sacred Tradition entrusted to the Catholic Church?”
I guess we would say, “Well, we Catholics are proud, patriotic Americans. We thank God for the American rule of law, and we wouldn’t have things any other way.”
Fair answer. But: Is it enough for us Catholics just to blend in peacefully? Hasn’t the Lord given us something that no one else has–and aren’t we supposed to do something with it?
I don’t mean that we should be presumptuous. In many places, we are surrounded by good and gracious non-Catholic Christians who deserve our admiration. At Francis of Assisi in Rocky Mount, we are no holier a motley crew of sinners than any other church community in these hills.
But, at the same time, we cannot deny our spiritual birthright. Our church is not one ‘denomination’ among many. Our parishes form tiny little branches of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, founded by Christ, governed by the successor of St. Peter, and endowed with a unique inheritance.
Our Catholic inheritance of spiritual, moral, intellectual, and artistic riches outstrips the patrimony of any other group of people on the face of the earth.
Franklin County has its proud heritage. Virginia has its proud heritage. Our Protestant brethren have their proud heritages. But: You could put Ben Franklin himself, with Jubal Early and Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, and Billy Graham—you could put them all together in the Virginia State House, or the front steps of Monticello, or in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, or in Westminster Abbey in London or Geneva or wherever—you could sit all those luminaries down in one grand room, and it would be a thoroughly impressive group.
But if St. Francis himself walked in, or St. Therese, or St. Thomas Aquinas, or Michelangelo, the whole group would be eclipsed. If St. Augustine walked in, or St. Paul, or St. Peter or John, or our Lady, all these luminaries would bow their heads in respect.
And then there is the Blessed Sacrament. Franklin County, Va., abounds with wonderful and beautiful things. But there is only one place between Roanoke and Martinsville where you can be in the same room as Jesus Christ Himself. There is only one tabernacle with a sanctuary lamp burning. Our non-Catholic neighbors, good as they are, would be better off if only they knew that Jesus is here with them in the Blessed Sacrament.
So…Are we Catholics humble sinners who presume to be no better than anyone else? Yes. But: If we take stock of all that the Lord has given to us, we have no choice but to shout out like the Israelites: “There is no nation on earth like ours!”
The Solemnity of Easter lasts for eight days–a week and a day, from Sunday to Sunday. It is the biggest feastday of all, too big for just twenty-four hours.
On the eighth day of Easter in the year 2000, Pope John Paul II declared that this day is ‘Divine Mercy Sunday.’ He declared this while he was canonizing St. Faustina Kowalska, the nun who had seen the vision of Jesus with rays of merciful love pouring out from His Heart.
When the Pope declared that the eighth day of Easter is Divine Mercy Sunday, he noted that none of the prayers or readings of the Mass needed to be changed. From the beginning, from the first eight days after our Lord rose from the dead, the Solemnity of Easter has been the feast of divine mercy.
When the Lord Jesus spoke to the Apostles after He rose from the dead, He commissioned them to preach His message. The message is: Repent of your sins, and be forgiven!
The Apostles obeyed. When St. Peter preached to the citizens of Jerusalem, he addressed the very people who had stood in front of Pontius Pilate’s praetorium and clamored for Christ’s crucifixion. St. Peter spoke to these enemies of Christ and said, “You denied the holy and righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. The author of life you put to death…Repent, therefore!”
Dear brothers and sisters: If we want to keep this holy feast, the feast that lasts for a week and a day, the feast of the Lord’s Resurrection, the feast of Divine Mercy—if we want to keep this feast in sincerity and truth, then we must acknowledge that we are the very citizens to whom St. Peter spoke.
The Israelites marched into the midst of the sea on dry land, with the water like a wall on their right and their left.
We Christians are marching to the holy mountain, where it is always springtime.
To outfit us to march forward, the Lord initiates us through the sacraments. We must be washed, anointed, and fed.
Easter is a good time for us to recall and thank God for the sacraments that have made us Christians.
On October 18, 1970, I was baptized by a well-meaning non-Catholic, non-priest at New York Avenue Presbyterian church. My parents were kind enough to carry me to the font, and they saw to it that I was in church every Sunday for the next 17 ½ years. I am grateful.
But there was still some unfinished business. On Holy Saturday night, 1993, I was confirmed and given Holy Communion for the first time by Father Ed Ingebretsen in Dahlgren Chapel at Georgetown University.
Seventeen years ago this morning, I woke up washed, anointed, and fed for the first time in my life.
It is good to be Catholic.
No one—not the Washington Post or the New York Times, not CBS News or CNN, not Geraldo Rivera or Sinead O’Connor—no one is going to tell me that it is not good to be Catholic on Easter Sunday.