The following homily was delivered by Bishop Rhoades at the Red Mass on Respect Life Sunday, October 3, in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Fort Wayne. A substantial part of this homily was also contained in the Bishop’s homily at the Red Mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, University of Notre Dame, on September 27th.
Red Mass — October 3, 2010
Today the Church throughout the United States celebrates Respect Life Sunday. And today we also celebrate here in our cathedral the annual Red Mass, asking the Holy Spirit to guide our civic officials, judges and lawyers, and all those who serve in the legal profession. It seems quite providential that we are celebrating the Red Mass on Respect Life Sunday since the defense of human life and dignity is one of the fundamental responsibilities of those in public office and in the legal profession. Indeed, it is a responsibility of us all. We are all called to be our brother’s keeper, to respect life, to love our neighbor, and to recognize Jesus in the least of our brothers and sisters. When we fulfill these responsibilities, we should say as Jesus taught in today’s Gospel: “we are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.”
In this homily, I would like to reflect on some fundamental principles concerning truth and freedom, law and morality, in light of our celebration of this Red Mass and Respect Life Sunday.
There is a strong tendency in our culture to consider the moral law as something in conflict with human freedom, when, in fact, God’s law promotes human freedom. It does not reduce or do away with human freedom. A problem we increasingly encounter in our culture today, perhaps most clearly exemplified in “pro-choice” rhetoric, is a misunderstanding of freedom. Our American culture highly values freedom. Our nation was founded on the principal of liberty. Our nation’s history has been marked by battles to defend freedom. But today the notion of freedom has been distorted in many ways under the influence of philosophies of relativism and subjectivism. Our founding fathers never considered freedom as independent from moral truth. They recognized freedom’s dependence upon truth, particularly the truths of natural law, which they called “self-evident,” the law written and engraved in the soul of every person by the Creator.
When freedom is understood and promoted as license to do whatever we please, even evil, it is no longer genuine freedom. Human freedom finds its authentic and complete fulfillment precisely in accepting the truth of the moral law given by God. Sadly, some currents of thought today even question or deny the existence of moral truth and of universal and unchanging moral norms.
For its very survival, democracy needs a solid moral foundation. The natural law is the necessary basis for civil law. There can be no freedom apart from or in opposition to the truth. A completely individualistic concept of freedom contradicts its very meaning and dignity. How often the great Pope John Paul II reminded us that “when freedom is made absolute in an individualistic way,” it “negates and destroys itself” and becomes “a factor leading to the destruction of others.” This happens “when it no longer recognizes and respects its essential link with the truth.” Pope John Paul taught that “this view of freedom leads to a serious distortion of life in society.” Of course, we see this happening in society when the original and inalienable right to life is denied or not safeguarded. Pope John Paul wrote in his great encyclical The Gospel of Life that “to claim the right to abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, and to recognize that right in law, means to attribute to human freedom a perverse and evil significance: that of an absolute power over others and against others. This is the death of true freedom.” The democratic ideal, he said, is betrayed in its very foundation when it does not acknowledge the dignity of every human person. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have spoken of the dangers of moral relativism, in which everything is negotiable, even the most fundamental human rights. Moral relativism undermines the common good which the state has the role to defend and promote.
The Church has always taught the necessity of civil law being in conformity with the moral law. Recall the famous teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas who wrote that “human law is law inasmuch as it is in conformity with right reason and thus derives from the eternal law. But when a law is contrary to reason, it is called an unjust law and becomes instead an act of violence.” No human law can claim to legitimize crimes against human life and dignity. Saint Thomas taught that if a human law is somehow opposed to the natural law, then it is not really a law but rather a corruption of the law. We are rightly proud of our nation and its tradition of the rule of law, yet the Church reminds us that “the very foundations of a state based on law are undermined when the state does not place its power at the service of the rights of each citizen, and in particular of the more vulnerable” (CDF, Donum Vitae).
Two weeks ago, Pope Benedict XVI beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman during a Mass in Birmingham, England. In his homily, the Holy Father said that “in our day, when an intellectual and moral relativism threatens to sap the very foundations of our society, Newman reminds us that, as men and women made in the image and likeness of God, we were created to know the truth, to find in that truth our ultimate freedom and the fulfillment of our deepest human aspirations.” Cardinal Newman’s passion for the truth is an example for us today.
The Lord calls all of us to embrace the truth about the dignity of human life created in His image and likeness. He calls us to love and honor, protect and defend, the life and dignity of our neighbor, especially when it is weak or threatened. This must be the concern of judges, lawyers and public officials, of laity and clergy, of Church and state. Unconditional respect for human life and dignity is the foundation of a truly free society. In the words of Pope John Paul II, “there can be no true democracy without a recognition of every person’s dignity and without respect for his or her rights.”
In our society today, it often takes courage to stand up for the truth about the sanctity and inviolability of human life. Let us heed the words of Saint Paul from our second reading today: “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control. So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord… but bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.” May the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus called “the Spirit of truth,” guide and strengthen all of us to serve the truth with courage and to bear our share of hardship for the Gospel of life!
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