Catholics and this American Moment
By Deacon Keith Fournier
© Third Millennium, L.L.C.
It is the last Sunday before Lent in the Catholic Church, a season during which we are all, in a special and protracted way, called to repent and turn from sin. This Wednesday is called "Ash Wednesday." I will join with other clergy and, after first having ashes placed on my own head, place them on the heads of the faithful, marking a sign of the cross and proclaiming: "Remember, You are dust and to dust you shall return" or "Turn from sin and believe in the Gospel." I remember as a little kid that people knew we were Catholic because we had those ashes on our head. They are a sign of repentance and a call to public witness.
Christians throughout the world will enter into a 40-day period of repentance - not including Sundays because they are the day we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, which the early Christians called the "eighth day", the beginning of the New Creation. This Lenten Season will end on Holy Saturday, the day before the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a time during which all of our Liturgical readings and our practice of piety will draw us to both interior and exterior reflection on the great truths of the Christian faith, including our Baptismal call to holiness and its implications, including the call to follow Jesus Christ into the world, and in our real, day to day life to carry forward His redemptive mission. We will fast, do penance and be encouraged to empty ourselves by giving alms. We will be exhorted to give ourselves back to the Lord and to live our lives as He did, on behalf of others.
Lent is observed for 40 days, exclusive of Sundays. That is the length of time Moses stayed in dialogue with the Lord, receiving both the instructions for building the Tabernacle and the Ten Commandments. The Israelites wandered for forty years in the desert, being made ready to receive the land of promise as a part of their universal mission to reveal God's plan to the entire human race. Our Lord Jesus spent 40 days fasting and praying in the desert before embarking on his earthly mission. In order to more closely unite ourselves with Christ, we will imitate Him in fasting and prayer so as to be made ready to celebrate the climax of his passion on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday, the great Paschal mystery. All of this is to equip us to change and to carry forward His redemptive mission as the Body of Christ on earth; to be His Church on mission..
I believe that this Lent, 2005, presents a particular challenge and opportunity to Catholics in America. It is to that challenge and opportunity that I address this particular reflection. As one who has spent my entire life in authentic ecumenical work, I have high regard for other Christians and their communities. However, many of those communities do not have a developed body of teachings on social issues. Catholics do. Thus, among Christians in America at this moment in history, we are particularly obligated. After all "to those to whom much is given, much more will be required"
An American Moment?
Not only is today the last Sunday before Lent in the Catholic Liturgical calendar, it is also "Super Bowl Sunday" in America; a unique secular event that brings people together around sport, family and celebration. I look forward to being numbered among them, rooting for my boyhood team with my wife and my last child left at home, my son. There is so much that is wonderful about being an American. Particularly, the extraordinary freedoms we all enjoy.
The American and world news is filled with talk of the Inaugural address, the election in Iraq and growing discussions on the American role in world. One commentator I read wrote of what he called the "American moment."
Are we really living in an "American moment"?
This has been an interesting few weeks for me.
I have had time to reflect on a number of events that have occurred in a unique sequence. This is partly because I have been ill with the flu. However, I think there is more to it than that. I suggest that the sequence of events is not accidental but rather presents an opportunity for some needed reflections concerning the particular role of Catholics in this American moment.
Just last month we remembered the thirty second "anniversary" of Roe v Wade. We also heard a profound (disturbing to some) Presidential Inaugural Address, followed by a State of the Union Address. We witnessed what many said would never happen, an Election in Iraq. And today, we received a blessing from the successor of Peter; however it was read by an Archbishop because our beloved Pope, John Paul II, is still hospitalized, quickly approaching that day that we know is soon to come when he will be called home to the Lord.
All of these are factored into my reflection on the role of Catholics in this unique American moment.
Catholics in America
On the day before the sad commemoration of Roe v Wade I participated in a symposium sponsored by the National Clergy Council. The panel of leaders from various Christian churches and traditions considered America's international role and foreign policy. It had been some time since I had participated in this kind of event. It was dominated by Evangelical Protestant Christians. I have spent much of my life working and walking alongside of evangelicals in the great human rights struggle of our age, the right to life and the freedom to be born.
Catholics and Evangelicals have stood together in solidarity on behalf of those whom Mother Teresa rightly called "the poorest of the poor", children in the first home of the whole human race, their mothers womb. I was out "ahead of the curve" in this emerging social and religious phenomenon. I have written extensively about the truth that we are obligated by our common baptism and faith to walk together, and that there exist between us wonderful ties that bind us together in the Lord Jesus Christ in the missionary call of all Christians in this age.
I had forgotten just how deeply certain expressions and notions concerning the "Christian influence" in American history have pervaded American evangelicalism...until this panel. Let me be clear, before I address the issue, I love this Nation. I am grateful for the freedoms I have as an American to love the Lord, to practice my faith in the Church of my choice and to raise my family in such a wonderful Nation, filled with true opportunity and dedicated to freedom.
However, I am a Catholic Christian. We Catholics did not come over on the Mayflower. We have therefore (at least most of us), not accepted the growing trend of equating the founding of this Nation with the founding of a "Christian nation". There is no doubt that there were Christian influences in the founding and that there were Christians among the founders. Thank God! There is so much that has been set forth in the founding principles of the "American Experiment" that has become an example to many other Nations. However, one has only to look at one of those founders, Thomas Jefferson, to find another influence, the philosophy of the so-called "Enlightenment" which sowed the seeds of every "ism" that has warred against the Church -and the truths that she proclaims- for centuries.
Additionally, the Catholic experience in America has sometimes been different than our Christian friends from Protestant church traditions and communities. Though the anti-Catholicism in the American founding dissipated, it only fell below the surface and has resurfaced at various times in American history. For example, the "Know-Nothing party", which flourished between 1852 and 1856, hated immigrants and Catholics. America was the home of a nativist movement that had grown in reaction to immigration, especially from Ireland and Germany. This influx brought with its teeming masses many Catholics who were also "yearning to be free". The movement was popularly known as the "know-nothings" because its members answered "I know nothing" when asked about their anti-Catholic aims.
It has been some time since I have heard so many calls for Americas' "return to being a "Christian Nation"" as I did during that symposium that afternoon.
What disturbed me was not the use of the term, which I think is historically debatable, but what sometimes lies behind it. There seemed to be emerging in the panel discussion a tendency to equate American foreign policy with some kind of new "manifest destiny." This was tied further by some participants into the Second Inaugural address and the Christian faith of George W. Bush, which I believe is real and sincere. There was little discussion (except from me and one other panelist), of our duty to first be Christians, standing as a prophetic community, assessing all policies, both at home and abroad, in light of the eternal principles and insights that have been given to us through Jesus Christ, are revealed in the Natural law and are confirmed by Revelation.
I shared with my fellow panelists that, though I was also inspired by the President's speech on freedom, we as Christians must understand and proclaim the full truth about freedom. We have been set free by the One who is the source of all truth. Freedom must be exercised in reference to the truth. We must choose the good if we desire to bear freedoms' fruits, such as authentic human liberation and flourishing. Otherwise, we will find ourselves advancing what Pope John Paul II has called the "death of true freedom." I warned that we could also be deluded, along with many others, by a siren song, what he called a "counterfeit notion of freedom." I could tell that my comments were being received with a mix of responses.
"In this Nation we love we must face some very hard facts. False ideas of freedom as a "right" to do whatever one chooses in a moral vacuum are being propelled by a false notion of the autonomous self as the measure of all things. A plague of license masquerading as liberty has characterized these mistaken notions of "freedom." Freedom has been reduced to a notion of doing whatever one "chooses", including the intentional killing of children in the womb. The idea of "choice" as a "right" to do what is wrong never promotes true freedom. It inevitably leads to profane forms of slavery and will bring about the demise of the entire system of rights which is the basis of our free society.
We are in a struggle for the very definition of the word freedom in this Nation we love - right at a time when our President has inspired us to achieve freedom's highest goals and to serve other Nations by helping them to find and fulfill its promise. Only an authentic exercise of human freedom will lead us along the path to human fulfillment as well as to building a truly just social order. Choosing the good and the true is the core of what constitutes authentic freedom. Only human persons can be free because only human persons have the capacity to make choices
Human freedom is a "good" of the person. It must be exercised in relationship to truth and in conformity to an objective moral order. The exercise of freedom is to be placed at the service of the person, the family and the common good. Freedom is not an abstract concept. The fulfillment of the call and vocation to the right exercise of human freedom is found in the free choice of the good and the free gift of self to others in love.
This all has implications on the application of this Presidents call to freedom to the individual, the family, the community, the society and in our international relations as a Nation."
Finally I warned "that as a good of human persons, freedom must be chosen. By its very nature freedom cannot be forced on anyone. Freedom is not muscular. It invites. It draws. It attracts. It persuades. It does not coerce"
Well, at that point you would have thought that I had questioned inspiration of the Bible, at least if you were to judge by the looks on the faces of some of the other participants.
Catholics and this American Moment
This experience reaffirmed within me the absolutely essential role that Catholics in America must now play in providing leadership at every level. True, many are speaking of an "American moment." However, what happens during that moment has a lot to do with how we respond by building a new culture of life and civilization of love.
The Catholic Church has a fully developed body of social teaching tradition. This social teaching of the Catholic Church is not simply for Catholics, other Christians or "religious people." It contains within its' rich treasury tremendous insights drawn from centuries of Christian reflections and the lived experiences of millions of Christians. These have been preserved by a teaching office that we Catholics call the "Magisterium" of the Church. These teachings touch upon such essential issues as the dignity and nature of the human person, the truths about marriage and the family, authentic human freedom, and our obligations in solidarity to one another and especially to the poor, the needy and the vulnerable in our midst. These insights are not politically "right" or "left", "liberal" or "conservative". They are simply true.
They are also desperately needed in this "American moment" if we are to rise to that moment and to build a truly just and free society at home as well as to encourage and assist those who are doing the same throughout the world. However, these insights must first be understood. They must also be taught and proclaimed. Finally, they must be embodied in a new generation of leaders who offer themselves in selfless service in the task of developing good public policy on the national and international level.
Let me mention just two of the difficulties impeding this task:
First, some Christian friends in other traditions have no developed social teaching. Partly this is a result of the Christian community having been so dreadfully divided. Others do, and it should be welcomed into the discussion. However, in certain segments of American evangelicalism, there has been little development of social and political theory to draw upon in informing political, cultural and social participation. There has also been little Christian philosophical and intellectual reflection. In some circles, such reflection has even been viewed as a part of a "problem", giving rise to anti-intellectualism. As a result, ideologies that at root are antithetical to Christianity have sometimes been, in a sense, "baptized". By that I mean that they have been given "Christian sounding" polemical support.
For example, classical Christian theology and philosophy has always proclaimed that we were created for communion with God and one another and that we are called to give ourselves away in love to God and to others. We cannot become the persons we were created to be without the gift of self to others. Thus, freedom has an essentially social dimension. The Christian vision of the human person- and thus of human freedom- must always consider the person in relationship. It cannot embrace the isolated Hobbesian or enlightenment individual as the measure of freedom. To do so is a serious error.
Secondly, there is a problem among some Catholics. Many do not even know that Catholic social teaching exists or that it has any real relevance to the current social, economic or political climate in America. Or, in another version of the same problem, others know it exists but have decided to let a small group of "elites" tell them "what it really means", rather than reading it for themselves and drinking from the well of wisdom that the tradition has to offer prayer, study and reflection. Finally, there is a small contingent of folks who still attempt to hold Catholic social teaching captive to old political ideologies of the "right" or the "left."
It is time for faithful, dynamically orthodox and fully informed Catholics to lead a new movement for authentic social and political action that starts with the truths taught by the Church and then approaches the important work of influencing social and public policy. Not one that starts with a set political ideology and then attempts to use Catholic social thought as some form of "proof text" to support its own agenda.
I consider Stephen Hand, a noted lay Catholic thinker and writer, to be one of a growing number of prophetic voices in our day dealing with these important issues. A humble, diminutive and unassuming man who works with the "least of these", he is the founder of my favorite internet site, Traditional Catholic Reports. Though I do not agree with everything written on that--or for that matter any--site, I always find myself drawn more fully into the heart of the Church by reading his articles. In one he said the following:
"It is all too clear that what we are living through is not the corruption of those Enlightenment principles upon which this country was founded, but their bitter fruit. The Church existed 1,776 years before the United States. Only Her truth is the manifest destiny we can safely anchor our souls upon. A builder builds in vain who does not set the teachings of Jesus Christ and scripture as his foundation... There is only one answer: we must work and pray to realign America with the Church's teachings....; no other compromise will suffice. Nothing is impossible with God. Anything less than metanoia, conversion, (and that includes converting the U.S. Constitution) is a lie. Church and state must be distinct but not radically opposed; nor may the state fashion a new syncretistic religion of its own with our consent."
Last night I saw one of a growing number of television programs discussing the role of "faith in America"; this discussion now seem to be in vogue. The question of the role of faith in this Nation does indeed need to be thoroughly reexamined.
However, it also needs to be discussed right within the Christian community. It should be Christians who help not only to build a better America but, reaching beyond her borders, to spread authentic freedom to all who choose its path. We are not put here to protect ourselves against perceived or even real hostile forces around us. Rather, we are put here to be the leaven that is kneaded into the loaf of human culture that helps to bring authentic liberation into every segment of that human culture; the arts, politics, economics, the sciences, the academy...the entirety of social and political life. Christianity is not some "outdated" opponent of some new emerging "enlightened" humanism. Rather, Christianity itself is the only true humanism! The Christian faith proclaims that it is in Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, that we find the path to true human freedom and authentic liberation.
The Unfinished Work
Like President Bush, I am a fan of Abraham Lincoln and his speeches, especially the second inaugural. Among his many references to freedom, President Lincoln referred to the "unfinished work of freedom." That is what we really must come to grips with as Christians living in America at this time in history. "To those, to whom much is given, much more will be required..." said the Lord of Freedom whom we follow.
In the midst of all this talk of freedom, we must take our place as a prophetic voice and speak to the vital issues of our age; not as a part of an interest group but as the continued voice of the One who still sets the captives free by speaking through those who carry on His prophetic and redemptive mission.
Where do we hear talk of the "common good", the "universal destination of goods", our "obligations in solidarity", and the "preferential love of the poor", in political discourse or in public life? Why not? Where are those presenting the truth that it is not the isolated individual that is the measure of freedom, but rather that we find human fulfillment and freedom in becoming "persons for others" and giving ourselves to others in love? Where do we hear talk of "good" governance, rather than the charged rhetoric of "anti-government" strains on the right or statist strains on the left? Government is "good" if it reflects the "good"; truly infused with authentic morality! Government is "good" when it is closest to those being governed (subsidiarity) and genuinely compassionate, reaching out to lift up those who are bowed down.
Where do we hear any discussion of building a moral market economy which recognizes that the "end" (in the philosophical sense of purpose) of all human work is not first the accumulation of capital but rather the flourishing of the human person, the protection and assistance of the family and the promotion of the common good? Where are the future economists in the Christian community being formed; those who will start first with the classical Christian understanding of the person, the family, the right use of the goods of the earth, private property having a social purpose, the expansion of participation to all and the belief that a truly "free" market should embrace our obligations to the poor?
Where do we hear those who weep for the children and the innocent victims of all war, with the prophetic courage to question the growing cycle of violence and resort to militarism as a "solution?. Where are the "peacemakers" of our day, the "blessed" of whom Jesus spoke on that Sermon on the Mount?
This is all a part of the "unfinished work" of freedom in our day. It is Catholic social thought that must now take the lead, helping all Christians to put legs on their faith, rooting themselves first in their own two thousand year tradition and then shining the light that will lead to a future of true freedom. It is Christians who must take their place in serving the common good.
A Thomas More Moment?
Years ago Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote a book entitled "The Catholic Moment". The title of the book still inspires much discussion. Is this really a Catholic Moment - and what does that really mean? I suggest it is. However, perhaps in a different way than some might suggest.
It is a "Thomas More Moment".
Thomas More has been my hero my entire adult life. His witness as a faithful Catholic encouraged me to attend law school, all those years ago, and to dedicate much of my legal career to pro-life, pro-family and religious freedom work. His portrait has hung in every office I have ever had.
However, though his writings are a great source of inspiration, it was his death that won him the place he so rightly deserves as patron of all who serve in political life and public service. Politics and social action are always prophetic vocations for Christians. They require a willingness to embrace with absolute fidelity the teachings of a kingdom that is to come while living and serving a temporal one. They require a willingness to be misunderstood, rejected even by family and friends and, sometimes, martyred. Thomas was killed by Henry VIII, a man who promoted him for years, for refusing to take an oath proclaiming the King as head of the Church.
Thomas was, first, last and always, "...the King's good servant, but the Lord's first". That is the Catholic vocation in this "American moment."
In a letter announcing the decision to name him the patron, Pope John Paul wrote: "...the need felt by the world of politics and public administration for credible role models able to indicate the path of truth at a time in history when difficult challenges and crucial responsibilities are increasing ...Today... strongly innovative economic forces are reshaping social structures; on one hand, scientific achievements in the area of biotechnology underline the need to defend human life at all its different stages, while the promises of a new society, successfully presented to a bewildered public opinion, urgently demand clear political decisions in favor of the family, young people, the elderly, and the marginalized."
He further encouraged the faithful, especially those who work in the arena of governance "to turn to the example of Saint Thomas More, who distinguished himself by his constant fidelity to legitimate authority and institutions precisely in his intention to serve not power but the supreme ideal of justice. His life teaches us that government is above all an exercise of virtue."
Catholics in this "American moment" are called to first, last and always to be Catholic. We need to present a different model than the "religious right", the "religious left" or much of what is currently out there in this "field" of action. Authentically Christian political participation must always be rooted in and subordinate to our baptismal vocation. It must be geared toward serving the "common good" by promoting human life and dignity, the family, authentic human freedom and solidarity with the needy. It should flow from a "redemptive" model of Christian participation, understanding that in and through the Church, Jesus continues His redemptive mission.
On this, the last Sunday before Lent, the prophet in the Chair of Peter is still recovering in a Hospital room in Rome. He had a message for us all that was delivered by Archbishop Sandri:
"Today I speak to you from the Gemelli Hospital where I am staying for a few days under the loving care of doctors, nurses and hospital staff, whom I thank from my heart.
I am most grateful to you, dearest brothers and sisters, and to all those around the world who are close to me, for your sincere and committed affection which I have felt especially strong these days.
To each and all I express my heartfelt gratitude which becomes a constant invocation to the Lord according to your intentions as well as the needs of the Church and the great causes of the world. Therefore, even here in hospital, among the sick to whom go my thoughts and affection, I continue to serve the Church and the entire humanity.
Today is 'Pro-Life Day' in Italy. For the occasion, the Italian Bishops' Conference released a statement in which they focus on the mystery of life as a relationship that requires trust. We must trust life! Silently, unborn children demand trust in life. Children left without a family for various reasons demand trust to find a family to adopt or foster them.I especially think about the beloved people of Italy and all those who care about life that is coming into this world.
I stand with the Italian Bishops who urge Catholics and people of good will to defend the fundamental right to life whilst showing respect for the dignity of every human being.
Mary, Queen of families, help us win the 'challenge of life' which is the first among today's challenges to humanity."
As Catholics living in America, let us hear this call to win the "challenge of life." This Ash Wednesday, as we are once again signed with ashes in the form of a Cross, let us go forth ready to serve by leading. Those ashes are still a sign of repentance and a call to public witness... in this American moment. ______________________
Deacon Keith Fournier is a married Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia who also serves the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy with permission. He is a human rights lawyer and public policy advocate. Deacon Fournier is a graduate of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. He is the Senior Editor and Correspondent for Catholic Online and a contributing editor to TCRNews.com.
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