The Integration of the Spiritual and the Temporal for the Sake of Authentic Freedom and Sound Democracy
Wednesday of the 29th Week in Ordinary Time, Year “1”
We have come together in this church as those who have dedicated their lives to the service of the law, a gathering of people who studied and worked hard to prepare for a career in the legal profession, to dedicate their lives to interpreting and applying the law, and to protect and promote the importance of the law for the sound governing of our society. And what does St. Paul tell us in the first reading for our Mass today? “You are not under the law”! So, what is the point of it all?
Role of Law
Of course, St. Paul immediately qualifies that statement. Not being under the law does not mean freedom for sin, but rather, for righteousness.
I believe that the meaning of freedom is one of the greatest crises we are facing in our time. This is most especially so in a country such our own, which is such a great innovator and champion of democracy. The whole point of democracy is freedom, to guarantee freedom for its citizens. However, this cannot work unless the citizens of the democracy are virtuous, that is to say, they exercise freedom responsibly, for the common good, lest it degenerate into license. This, in fact, is the very purpose of the law: far from impeding freedom, the law is necessary precisely to preserve freedom.
For this to work, though, freedom must be grounded in a higher truth, a higher truth to which the citizens must conform themselves. This is a truth of our human nature that the founders of our nation understood very well. This is why our second president, John Adams, could say, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” And it is why even Thomas Jefferson – whose most distinctive mark, after all, was not his religious devotion – could say, “Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed the conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever.” These words are inscribed on his memorial in Washington, DC.
This idea, though, goes back way further than the founders of our country. St. Thomas Aquinas spoke of knowledge of the truth as being a participation in eternal law, which is unchangeable. He then develops this idea as applied to the effect of law. He tells us:
… it is evident that the proper effect of law is to lead its subjects to their proper virtue; and since virtue is that which makes its subject good, it follows that the proper effect of law is to make those to whom it is given, good …. For if the intention of the law-giver is fixed on true good, which is the common good regulated according to Divine justice, it follows that the effect of law is to make people good …
Law, then, is necessary so that society may be ordered in accordance with divine justice. Only in this way will the law be effective in providing for the common good, in that such law will help to make the people of the society good, it will encourage their growth in virtue. Such a society will be one in which people have a special concern the poor, the marginalized and the vulnerable, a society which will make sure to vindicate the rights of those who cannot speak for themselves.
Slaves of Righteousness
With this in mind, the teaching of our Lord in today’s gospel should especially make us sit up and take notice. He speaks here about the steward. Note what a steward is: the steward is the servant – or, as in the case of biblical times, the slave – who administers goods, but not his own, but rather those of his master. The master expects the steward to do so in a responsible way, so that he will return them to him with an increase. Nonetheless, the steward remains a slave like the others, subject to the condition of a slave. A slave belongs totally to the master. A slave has nothing – possessions, time, or anything else – for himself. It all belongs to the master.
This social reality of that time is reflected in the teaching of St. Paul: “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” What this really means is that we all have to live our lives according to some philosophy of life, some standards of conduct; we all will be slaves of some basic operating principle of life. The choice, according to St. Paul, is either sin or righteousness. The former confuses freedom for license, and when left unchecked will undermine human flourishing, ultimately destroying the individual, at least morally, and often – precisely because of this – in material ways as well, such as financially, in terms of physical health, in one’s relationships, and so forth. But when this becomes the basic operating principle of a society as a whole, it harms common good and society’s proper ordering, resulting in untold suffering – poverty, violence, lawlessness.
The latter – the choice of righteousness – accepts the discipline of virtue, subordinates the lower desires to the obedience of faith, and so strives to conform one’s life completely to the demands of divine justice – completely, not holding back, in every dimension of life, even and especially the hard parts. This is the idea, as St. Paul says, of using the parts of our bodies as “weapons for righteousness.” The human person is integral, we do not exist in compartments. Christian discipleship means giving our entire self completely to God, without holding back: body, mind, spirit. Being a slave to righteousness means being truly free, because it is freedom from sin.
The Obedience of Faith
This necessarily means that we cannot, we must not, make false separations and conveniently “compartmentalize” our lives, separating the demands of faith from how we live our life in public; or divorcing morality from policy, or conscience from action. This is not imposing our religion on others; rather, it has to do with natural truths regarding justice and human dignity, universal principles which therefore are not confined to religious doctrines. Yes, our religious doctrines do confirm them, build upon them, and help us to understand them better, but they are knowable outside the confines of specifically religious doctrines.
We are not, then, imposing the doctrines of our faith on others; rather, our faith demands from us an unconditional commitment to respecting and promoting these universal principles of natural moral truth. To falsely separate this commitment from our faith life would mean not being a slave of obedience for righteousness; it is not true Christian discipleship, Christ is not the basic operating principle of our lives, directing our actions and informing our decisions.
Stewards of Democracy
This is a truth we need to be reminded of frequently. It is no surprise, then, that the Church does gives us such reminders, such as the “Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life” issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith eleven years ago now. It is still quite relevant to our situation today. The Instruction points out how the atrocities which were witnessed in the twentieth century resulted from this very separation, and how the twentieth century proves the falsehood of what it calls “the notion that there is no moral law rooted in the nature of the human person, which must govern our understanding of the human person, the common good and the state.” We may think that we are far from such regimes and ideologies, but the Instruction cautions us against this, even those of us who live in a democratic society. It tells us, “democracy must be based on the true and solid foundation of non-negotiable ethical principles, which are the underpinning of life in society.”
What happens when democracy is no longer based on this true and solid foundation? The powerful few take over, uninhibited in imposing their will on the masses. If there can be any doubts about what happens when we take faith and God out of the social picture and violate those ethical non-negotiables, a cursory review of the history of the century we have just left behind should be enough to teach us of the horrendous consequences of doing so. Disordered societies breed reigns of terror.
St. Thomas More
This, then, is the grave responsibility of those entrusted with creating, applying and interpreting the law in a society: to do so in accordance with divine justice and eternal truth, to reflect the very justice of God. This is always difficult because of the inner struggle it involves, the spiritual discipline needed to renounce those selfish tendencies in order to grow in virtue and righteousness. But I believe it is even more difficult nowadays when the social and cultural institutions of society no longer support this principle as they once did.
It is noteworthy that Blessed – soon to be Saint – John Paul II, in the Apostolic Letter by which he proclaimed St. Thomas More the patron of statesmen and politicians, holds St. Thomas More up as an example for our time. He says that he was a man who never compromised despite being subjected to various forms of psychological pressure, and so “he taught by his life and his death that ‘[the human person] cannot be separated from God, nor politics from morality.’” Saint Thomas More – lawyer, statesman, politician – was canonized alongside a member of clergy, Bishop John Fisher, the only member of the hierarchy in England to resist the pressure of the king to violate the communion of the Church for his own personal motives.
A lawyer and a priest were canonized together, in 1935, exactly 400 years after their death. That may seem like a long time, yet the timing was not lost on Pope Pius XI, who realized what was happening in the world at his time. That is why, during the ceremony of canonization, he referred to them as “grand lighthouses set up to shine and enlighten in the ways of God”. He asserted, moreover, that everyone can imitate their martyrdom because there are ways to do so other than by blood, for example, fidelity to conscience and fulfilling one’s duty exactly and faithfully, no matter how difficult. But if the example of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher was timely and necessary back then, let us listen to what G.K. Chesterton said about the lawyer-saint even before his canonization, in 1929: “Blessed Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying, but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years’ time”. We are now over three quarters of the way there, and I would say that Chesterton’s prophecy was right on the mark!
A lawyer and a priest were canonized together: all of us here in this church, priests and lawyers, need to take heed. We are the ones who have been “entrusted with much”: much responsibility for the good of our society, for a social order that reflects divine justice, and also much in the sense of the gift of faith with which our Creator has endowed us. And our Creator will, then, require much from us: the integrity of faith lived out in every dimension of our lives, using our freedom for righteousness, being slaves of obedience to God and rather than the self-aggrandizing pursuits of wealth and power. We will be held accountable for the stewardship of this responsibility: accountable to the One Who has created us with the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the very basis of those non-negotiable ethical principles which underpin life in society. And make no mistake: there will, for sure, be a price to be paid for fidelity, in some form or another. Besides the spiritual discipline needed to renounce selfish pursuits at the expense of others, in the times in which we are living it may very well be a price inflicted upon us from without. In such a circumstance, it will take courage to resist, and the price to be paid may well be very high, such as in one’s economic status, career advancement, or good name due to calumny and character assassination. It will especially take courage when fellow believers in positions of leadership and service in the community diverge from these non-negotiable ethical principles.
A lawyer and a priest were canonized together. We each have a patron saint to help us, to emulate and who now prays for us to God face-to-face. But God has also blessed us with role models we have known, in our own lives, to inspire us to live our callings well and faithfully, indeed, who inspired us even to begin thinking about pursuing our respective calls in life. We all knew such people in our lives who have helped to bring us where we are today, and for them we give thanks in this Mass.
There is one in particular, though, whom we especially wish to thank and honor; one who especially has been a great example of the lesson our Mass today teaches us: Bill McInerney. It is a joy for us all to honor him at this Mass with the well-deserved St. Thomas More award. He is a true example of a life well lived, of a wise and generous steward of the gifts God gave him. God certainly has given him many gifts, of intellect, unbounded energy, deep faith; and, he is very well-connected! He has used all of these gifts as a wise steward, returning them to God with increase, with an abundant increase.
Most of all though, I’m sure that Bill would say that his most precious gift of all is his family, and most especially, his beloved wife Mary. We are so happy that they are with us here tonight, to accept the St. Thomas More award for Bill in his absence. Congratulations!