October 11, 2022 // Bishop's Column: In Truth and Charity

Moral Truth Must Guide Legal Code

The following is the text of Bishop Rhoades’ homily at the Evening Red Mass on Monday, Oct. 3, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Fort Wayne, and Wednesday, Oct. 5, at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Notre Dame.

We unite in prayer at this Red Mass to invoke the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, upon all of you who serve or are preparing to serve in the legal profession and also upon those who serve in public office. We do so with faith in the words of Jesus to the disciples in today’s Gospel, that He would ask the Father and the Father would give them another Advocate to be with them always, the Spirit of truth. Jesus says that the world cannot accept this Spirit of truth because it neither sees nor knows it. These words are rather disconcerting, that the world cannot accept the Spirit of truth, but we must understand that here “the world” refers to humanity as it is alienated from God. Those who are alienated from God reject His revelation and remain spiritually blind. But Jesus assures His disciples that they will know the Spirit of truth because the Spirit will be with them and in them. And so we pray today, as disciples of Jesus, with the confidence that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, whom we have received in Baptism and Confirmation, is with us and in us. We need only open our minds and hearts to His sevenfold gifts and to His guidance in the truth.

Truth is a very controversial topic today, as you know. People refer to his or her truth, my truth and your truth. With such rampant relativism, it is no wonder that our society is so polarized culturally and politically. Relativistic individualism judges that every individual is the source of his or her own values. How dangerous this is for the future of our democracy and our social wellbeing and peace, especially when there is no consensus regarding moral truth. Just consider the great divide among Americans on the issue of abortion. 

We rejoiced at the judicial victory this past June with the Dobbs v. Jackson Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. We rejoiced that an historic error was corrected – the supposed constitutional right to abortion. The majority rightly found that Roe v. Wade departed from the text of the Constitution and from valid precedents. But the primary problem with Roe v. Wade, from a Catholic perspective, was that it departed from natural justice, from the truth revealed by God about the dignity of every human person from the moment of conception. Roe v. Wade discarded the fifth commandment of the Decalogue: “Thou shalt not kill,” a commandment that was not only revealed on Mount Sinai but is a norm of natural justice written in the human heart. In this light, I would say that the Dobbs’ decision was a great judicial victory, but not a cultural victory. It was a judicial victory – the Supreme Court rightly judged that Roe v. Wade was an exercise of raw judicial power that had taken away the right of the legislature and the people in our democratic republic to protect innocent human life. But it wasn’t a cultural victory, as evident by the angry and vicious reactions in much of the media, by protests in the streets, and efforts in many states, and even in the U.S. Congress, to legalize abortion on demand. In a democracy in which the majority rules almost absolutely, norms of natural justice can still be violated. We will have states like our own that will mostly defend justice for the unborn, but others will not. In many states, the right to life can and will still be denied for the unborn in the name of a distorted notion of freedom as absolute autonomy. This happens when culture, and, in our case, Western culture, is untethered from its roots in the moral truths which previously guided it, truths pursued on the wings of reason and faith, the norms of justice expressed in the Word of God who imprinted them in the hearts of those He created in His image and likeness. 

We heard in today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans a warning about God’s judgment based on the law. Jews who received the law through Moses will be judged in accordance with that law. St. Paul says that “those who observe the law will be justified.” But what about the Gentiles who do not have the law that was revealed to Moses? St. Paul writes: “They (the Gentiles) show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them” on the day of judgment. There were Gentiles who observed the prescriptions of the law, despite having no explicit knowledge of the Ten Commandments. This is because there is a natural moral awareness, for example, norms of natural justice, known by the light of reason. As you know, this passage from Romans, chapter 2, is an important text for the Church’s teaching on natural law. 

There is the real possibility for human beings of different cultures, religions, and traditions to discern good and evil, the fundamental principles and norms for moral behavior. But this has become increasingly difficult with the spread of a culture that limits rationality to the positive sciences and abandons the moral life to relativism. Yet, the Church insists on the natural capacity of human beings to obtain by reason the knowledge of the fundamental norms of justice in conformity with human nature and the dignity of the human person. But we also recognize that this natural capacity is wounded by sin. This wound is pretty evident in our society today. “The precepts of natural law are not perceived by everyone clearly and immediately” (CCC 1960).   

The Ten Commandments, the Decalogue, were a gift from God, a light offered to the people of Israel and to the world so that we can better perceive the precepts of natural law. The Christian tradition sees in the Ten Commandments a privileged and always valid expression of the natural law.  St. Augustine wrote that “God wrote on the tables of the Law what men did not read in their hearts.”  Basically, sinful humanity needed this revelation to have “a complete and certain understanding of the natural law” (CCC 2071). St. Bonaventure wrote: “A full explanation of the commandments of the Decalogue became necessary in the state of sin because the light of reason was obscured and the will had gone astray.”  We see this light of reason obscured today and people, especially young people, led astray by various ideologies and the currents of relativism, secularism, and materialism that abound in Hollywood, media, corporate America, and even in our schools, especially in many colleges and universities. 

With the decline in religious faith and practice in our country, there is a corresponding crisis of moral culture. Many people have not even been taught the Ten Commandments or, even if they have, they may still be skeptical regarding their truth due to the cultural influences I mentioned that question or deny the existence of objective moral truth and law. The Church faces cultural pressures from those who view our teachings as an abrogation of freedom or as an imposition of the Church upon free society (for example, our teachings about abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, about sexuality, marriage, and gender). Of course, we respond that freedom should not be reduced to individual autonomy. Our nobility as human beings does not come from our capacity to choose, because we can choose evil, but it comes from our capacity to choose wisely and to live according to the choice of what is good, which is to obey the law of God written in our hearts, including the Ten Commandments. When we choose to disobey the moral law, we will not flourish as human beings. Similarly, when political society and civil law disregard essential truths about the human person and the common good of society, we will not flourish as a nation. “The natural law provides the indispensable moral foundation for building the human community” and “provides the necessary basis for the civil law” (CCC 1959).

I encourage you as disciples of Jesus Christ who serve in the legal profession, in the words of St. John Paul II, to defend objective moral norms as “the unshakeable foundation and solid guarantee of a just and peaceful human coexistence, and hence of genuine democracy,” He taught that “a climate of moral relativism is incompatible with democracy.”  One of the great and important tasks of the Church today is to remind everyone of the essential bond between freedom and truth. Yes, we rejoice in the Supreme Court decision Dobbs v. Jackson. I pray that we will rejoice some day in a new culture of life and true civilization of love. The Ten Commandments are a good place to begin as we seek to bring about a renewal of moral goodness, solidarity, and genuine freedom in our nation. 

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