October 7, 2015 // Uncategorized

Where is the conscience of the world? Where is the conscience of our nation?

The following is a copy of the homily delivered by Bishop Rhoades at the Red Mass on October 6, 2015, in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Fort Wayne:

The Gospel we just heard is from the famous farewell discourse of Jesus, His teaching to the Apostles at the Last Supper, which is contained in five chapters of Saint John’s Gospel. These chapters are a rich source for prayerful reflection. The passage from chapter 15, which we just heard, is one that can give us much consolation and strength when we experience criticism, rejection, or even persecution for standing up for our faith and witnessing to Christ in our increasingly secularized culture. “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first,” Jesus says to the disciples and to us. “No slave is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”

It wasn’t much later that the apostles experienced what Jesus predicted. In the reading today from the Acts of the Apostles, we heard about the persecution of the apostles before the Sanhedrin. They had been forbidden from teaching about Jesus and bearing witness to His death and resurrection. They did so anyway. Peter and the apostles said to the high priest those famous words: “We must obey God rather than men.” What happened to them? They were flogged and ordered to stop speaking in the name of Jesus. They were then released. But what did they do?  Saint Luke tells us: “all day long, both at the temple and in their homes, they did not stop teaching and proclaiming the Christ, Jesus.” They were men filled with the Holy Spirit’s gift of fortitude and courage. They would not obey an unjust order, even if it meant suffering or even death.

We see this same courageous faith in the lives of so many Christian martyrs through the centuries whom we honor as saints. At this Red Mass, we remember your patron, the patron saint of lawyers, judges, and statesmen: Sir Thomas More. He had the same spirit at his trial as Peter and the apostles had at their trial: the spirit of faith and obedience to God and conscience expressed in the words of the apostles: “We must obey God rather than men.” And in the words of Saint Thomas More: “I die as the king’s loyal servant, but God’s servant first.” He would not take the Oath of Supremacy ordered by King Henry VIII. He would not violate his conscience by recognizing the king as head of the Church or by recognizing his invalid marriage. For this, he was beheaded. I imagine Saint Thomas More took consolation from the words of Jesus: “No slave is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”

Today’s Gospel also may remind us of the persecutions carried out by ruthless totalitarian regimes in the 20th century and the many who suffered or died for the faith under Nazism and Communism. And now in the second decade of the 21st century, we see a resurgence of persecution of Christians and those of other faiths in various parts of the world. Recent research shows that 70% of the world’s population live in countries with high restrictions on religious beliefs and practices. Atrocities are committed against peoples and institutions of all the world religions, yet 80% of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians and approximately 150,000 Christians are killed for the faith every year. The age of martyrs did not end with the Emperor Constantine. It is still with us.

Pope Francis has spoken often about the killing of Christians by terrorist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, atrocious inhuman and incomprehensible persecutions, before which so many powers in our world remain silent and indifferent. These terrorist groups, as you know, claim that they are serving God when they kill in his name, but as Pope Francis says, “they do not truly know God.” Think about those words of Jesus in today’s Gospel: “the hour is coming when everyone who kills you will think he is offering worship to God. They will do so because they have not known either the Father or me.”

My brothers and sisters, we must not be among those who ignore or are indifferent to our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ. We must pray for them and urge action for their protection, for those living in those dangerous parts of the world and also for those who have escaped and are now poor refugees seeking a home. In the midst of these challenges, Pope Francis has asked: “Where is the conscience of the world?”

When we think about the challenges to religious liberty that we face here in the United States, they don’t compare to the intensity of the religious persecution in places like Iraq and Syria. In fact, persecution is probably too strong a word to describe the violations of religious liberty that we face. But they are violations nonetheless and these violations are growing, making it more difficult to live our faith without interference or marginalization.

We are blessed to live in a country that has traditionally protected religious freedom because of the First Amendment to our Constitution. Americans traditionally have cherished religious liberty. As Catholics, we hold it to be a fundamental human right, one that is rooted in the very dignity of the human person.

Conflicts arise for us when laws are enacted, statutes are mandated, or court decisions are made that violate fundamental tenets of our faith. We accept the rule of law. We take seriously our obligation in conscience to follow the civil laws of our country and the rulings of the courts. But when the civil law or court decisions are contrary to the demands of the moral order, contrary to the divine and natural law, to the fundamental rights of persons, or the teachings of the Gospel, we face a dilemma. Traditionally, we have had religious liberty protections in such matters, allowing us to “render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” We have been able to voice our objections in the public square. We have been able, for example, to protest Roe v. Wade and speak in defense of the right to life of the unborn. And we have not been forced to subsidize abortions with our tax dollars or to do abortions in our Catholic hospitals. But now, these protections are under attack. The HHS mandate, for example, forces us to facilitate, albeit through a circuitous route, abortion-inducing drugs via our health plans. And there are new efforts underway right now to force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions in certain situations.

There are many other examples I could give of current threats to our religious freedom, especially in the aftermath of Hodges v. Obergefell. Again, like in Roe v. Wade, we have a Supreme Court decision that violates the divine and natural law, this time, by redefining marriage. We’ve seen and will see many attempts to force the Church and individuals to recognize same-sex unions as marriages. How far this will go, I don’t know. There are already dioceses in our country being sued for not allowing persons in “same-sex marriages” to teach in our schools. The Church is accused of bigotry and discrimination. Yet, the Church vigorously defends the true dignity of all persons, regardless of their sexual inclinations. We oppose unjust discrimination against persons with homosexual inclinations. But our culture doesn’t understand or accept the critical distinction we make between the homosexual inclination and homosexual conduct. And it certainly doesn’t understand or accept the divinely revealed truth about human sexuality, its meaning, and purpose. A culture of hedonism objects to Catholic sexual teaching like a culture of materialistic consumerism objects to Catholic social teaching. The throw-away culture lamented so often by Pope Francis objects to the Church’s defense of the environment, and even more, to our refusal to consider unborn children as disposable commodities or their parts as available for sale. As Pope Francis asked in the context of the persecution and killing of Christians in the Middle East: “where is the conscience of the world?” I ask in the context of the actions of Planned Parenthood, “where is the conscience of our nation?”

I worry about the threats to our freedom to run our schools and other institutions in accord with their Catholic identity and mission. I think, for example, of the harassment experienced here in our diocese and elsewhere when our schools take seriously the moral precepts of our faith and require our teachers to support the Catholic mission by their words and example.

There are some who are determined to silence the voice of the Catholic Church in the public square. Their radical secularism is in reality a new form of totalitarianism, one that seeks to marginalize the role of religious bodies, the Catholic Church being the biggest target. They want to reduce religious liberty to freedom to worship. This marginalization of the Church refuses to recognize that religion is a positive driving force for the building of civil and political society and ignores the Church’s contribution to society, to justice, and to the common good.

I ask you, my brothers and sisters in the legal profession, to join in the Church’s efforts to protect our right to bring our principles and moral convictions into the public arena, to protect our constitutional freedoms against those who seek to mute our voice or limit our freedom. “The Church through its institutions must be free to carry out its mission and contribute to the common good without being pressured to sacrifice (our) fundamental teachings and moral principles” (Introductory Note to Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship). We must resist efforts to force our Catholic ministries — in health care, education, and social services — to violate their consciences or stop serving those in need.

At Independence Hall just ten days ago, Pope Francis reminded our nation that while “religious freedom certainly means the right to worship… by its nature, it transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families.” He spoke of “the modern tyranny that tries to reduce religious freedom to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square.” This is what we are increasingly experiencing here in the United States. I heard one bishop call it “soft despotism,” thus distinguishing it from the hard despotism of tyrants who suppress religious freedom by using religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, as we see, for example, in the Middle East.

Your patron, Saint Thomas More, fell victim to a “hard despotism” for refusing to consent to Henry VIII’s takeover of the Church. Christians in the Middle East today are victims of a hard despotism. What we are increasingly experiencing in the United States is the soft despotism of efforts to reduce religious freedom. In the face of despotism, hard or soft, we can look to the example of St. Thomas More, his integrity and courage. I pray his example will inspire you and his prayers strengthen you in living your noble profession in a way that is consistent with your faith.

At this Red Mass, we petition the help and guidance of our Advocate, the Holy Spirit. May the Holy Spirit give us the strength, courage, and joy of Saint Thomas More so that we will never be ashamed of the Gospel and, in situations of injustice, be able to say with the apostles: “We must obey God rather than men.” And let us continue to pray for our brothers and sisters who are suffering persecution, even the threat of death, for their fidelity to Christ. May the Holy Spirit keep them strong and protect them!

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