Faith And Hope For An Uncertain Time
illusions about earning the honor you’ve given me tonight. But I am very grateful to be here for a couple of reasons. First, because Bishop Quinn is a friend, and I hold him in great respect. And second, because throughout my ministry as a bishop, I’ve admired the work of Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary. The priests and people who serve and support it make it a source of hope for the Church. So thank you for giving me an excuse to be with you.
I’ve said many times that I love history. I love it because it’s the great wrecker of human vanity and arrogance, but also a great wellspring of human hope. History reminds us that we’re never as smart as we think we are, and the devil is full of surprises. Fortunately, so is God. And that means neither pride nor despair is ever excusable for a Christian.
The historian Donald Creighton once said that history is a record of the encounter between character and circumstance. I like that image. To put it in biblical terms, God is good and loves us profoundly. But he also gives us our freedom, and that means we can either build up or tear down the world with our choices. Each of us is the subject and author of history, not merely its object. Which means that what we do when we leave here tonight matters.
Nearly 80 years ago, in 1940, the Jesuit scholar John Courtney Murray gave a series of three college talks. For his theme, he chose the “concept of a Christian culture.” After his death, his Jesuit brothers fused his talks into a single essay called “The Construction of a Christian Culture.” It’s a modest word change. But that title – the construction of a Christian culture – is a good place to focus our thoughts today.
Most people who remember Father Murray know him for his work on Vatican II’s Decree on Religious Liberty. In his 1960 book We Hold These Truths – which has never gone out of print – Murray also argued the classic Catholic case in defense of the American experiment in ordered liberty.
But for me, Murray’s real genius is tucked inside his words from 1940. Murray saw that a deep religious truth is at the basis of democratic thought, namely the unique dignity of human nature; the freedom of the human soul; and the fundamental equality we share as children of God’s love.
He also saw that building a culture is mainly a spiritual task, because culture has its home in the soul. As a result, in Murray’s words, “all [of] man’s cultural effort is at bottom an effort at submission to the truth and the beauty and the good that is outside him, existing in an ordered harmony, whose pattern he must produce within his soul by conformity with it.”
Those are beautiful thoughts. They’re also true. The trouble is, they bear little likeness to our real culture in 2019. Murray spoke at a moment when the word “gay” had more connection to joy than to sexual confusion; and when the word “truth” could be used without ambivalence or irony. Times have changed.
We all sense that some important things have gone wrong with our country, starting with its moral compass. And some of the same problems have penetrated into our own thinking as Catholics – I mean our thinking about sex, marriage, family, who God is, what truth is, and other issues — because the Church is never fully insulated from the culture in which she lives. But listing problems and then complaining about them achieves very little. More importantly, as Murray would say, it isn’t a Christian response. If Jesus tells us to be leaven in the world, and to make disciples of all nations – and of course, he does — then we have missionary obligations. And those duties include the renewal of our country’s best ideals.
The good news, which is also the sobering news, is that our current problems aren’t unique. There’s a passage in the Old Testament from the Book of Judges that’s worth re-reading as we ready ourselves for Holy Week. It says that after Joshua led God’s people across the Jordan and secured the Promised Land, “[Joshua] dismissed the people, [and] the people of Israel went each to his inheritance to take possession of the land. And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work which the Lord had done for Israel.” But after Joshua died, “and all that generation were also gathered to their fathers; [then there] arose another generation, after them, who did not know the Lord or the work which he had done for Israel” (2:6-7, 10).
The people of Israel forgot their God because they weren’t taught. They weren’t led with passion and courage and clarity. They settled in. They became comfortable. They assimilated. They worshiped new gods with alien names. It’s a pattern that should sound familiar, and if it doesn’t, we haven’t been paying attention. The Book of Proverbs tells us that without vision, the people perish (29:18), and we can see that lack of vision playing out right now in places like Germany where the Church is rich in money and resources, but her soul seems nearly dead. The same can happen here. The same is happening here. The difference is that we can still do something to shape the outcome.
To the degree we try to fit into a culture that’s more and more hostile to what Catholics have always believed – which is what we’ve been doing for decades now – we repudiate by our actions what we claim to hold sacred with our words. No person, and no Church, can survive for long with divided loyalties. But that’s exactly where we find ourselves. If American Catholics no longer know their faith, or their privilege of discipleship, or their call to mission – then we priests and bishops, and parents and teachers, have no one to blame but ourselves. We can’t control changes in technology or demography or the tides of our economy, and the new challenges they create. But we can control where we put the passion and energy of our hearts.
We serve the truth by telling the truth as joyfully and persuasively as we can. Sunday is the day we celebrate the Risen Christ, the real source of our freedom and joy — and this coming Sunday, Palm Sunday, is among our greatest feasts and the beginning of our liberation. Christian faith in the Risen Jesus converted an empire; and whatever our nation once was, today it risks becoming more and more obviously a new Rome with all of the inhuman flaws that implies. Our faith changed the course of history and gave meaning to an entire civilization. And in the Risen Christ, God is now calling us, right now, starting with those of us here tonight, to do the same.
America’s grounding in the religious faith of its people has always been one of its distinctive marks; the key to its decency and vitality. But that day is passing as our young people leave the Church. And in leaving the Church, they leave behind the reasoning that would otherwise sustain our religious freedom. To put it more bluntly: Our culture in the years ahead cannot and will not value religious freedom if it no longer values religion itself.
We need to understand that, increasingly, the main moral principles of the Declaration of Independence – things about which the Founders could say, “We hold these truths to be self-evident” — are not at all self-evident or permanent to many of our intellectual and political leaders. The natural rights that most of us Americans take for granted mean nothing if there’s no such thing as a permanent human nature – a nature which many of those who seek to rule us, or already rule us, already reject. And that has consequences. As Alexis de Tocqueville warned nearly 200 years ago, democracy too can become “totalitarian.”
We live in an uncertain time; a moment of deep ironies. The inquisitors of today’s developed societies are secular, not religious, and sex is their weapon of choice – a kind of Swiss Army knife of gender confusion, sexual license, and ferocious moralizing against anything that hints of classic Christian morality, purity, modesty, fertility, and lifelong fidelity based on the sexual complementarity of women and men. To put it another way: The real enemies of human freedom, greatness, imagination, art, hope, culture, and conscience are those who attack religious belief, not believers.
Real hope — not empty optimism but the Christian virtue of hope; the virtue Georges Bernanos called “despair, overcome” — is impossible without faith in something or Someone greater than ourselves. Without a loving God, a God who knows and cares for every one of his children, trusting in the future is simply an act of self-deception. The world can be a beautiful place; but it can just as often be brutal and pitiless. None of it has meaning beyond the purpose God gives it. And yet unbelief – whether deliberate and ideological, or lazy and pragmatic – is the state religion of the modern world. The fruit of that orthodoxy is the starvation and destruction of the human spirit, and a society without higher purpose.
This is the logic of the choices that America is already making. But our bad choices can be unmade, and the suffering and darkness and fears that flow from them can be redeemed.
Scripture tells us again and again to fear not. As St. Augustine said in an age very similar to our own: It’s senseless to wring our hands about the problems of our times, because we make the times. We make them every day with our choices and our actions. And if we don’t make the times better with the light of Jesus Christ, then the times will make us worse with their darkness.
I want to close today by going back to John Courtney Murray. Murray is sometimes seen today as being too high on America; too naïve about its flaws; too grand about its possibilities. And he truly did love the best ideals of our country, because those ideals are worthy of honor and deserve our loyalty. But in “The Construction of a Christian Culture,” he also said this:
“American culture, as it exists, is actually the quintessence of all that is decadent in the culture of the Western Christian world. It would seem to be erected on the triple denial that has corrupted Christian culture at its roots: the denial of metaphysical reality; [of] the primacy of the spiritual over the material; [and] of the social over the individual . . . Its most striking characteristic is its profound materialism . . . It has given citizens everything to live for and nothing to die for. And its achievement may be summed up thus: It has gained a continent and lost its own soul.”
For Murray, there is no real “humanism” without the cross of Jesus Christ. And the work of rebuilding, and building better, a modern American culture begins not with violence but with the conversion of our own hearts. This is the only kind of revolution that lasts; the only kind with the power to change everything.
The problem in American Catholic life is not a lack of money or resources or personnel or social influence. These things can be important. But they’re never fundamental. The central problem in constructing a Christian culture is our lack of faith and the cowardice it produces. We need to admit this. And then we need to submit ourselves to a path of repentance and change, and unselfish witness to others. Your diocese, your wonderful seminary, and each of your lives, needs to be an engine of that renewal. That’s our purpose. That’s our vocation. That’s why God made us and put us here. The reality of life in the late years of the American republic is that “we have sought first the kingdom of earth,” as Murray said, “and we begin to discover that in the process, millions upon millions have been disinherited from both the kingdom of earth and the Kingdom of God.”
The true role of Catholics in America is exactly the opposite of what we’ve been doing for half a century or more – compromising too cheaply, assimilating, fitting in, fleeing from who we really are as believers; and in the process, being bleached out and digested by the culture we were sent to make holy.
C.S. Lewis once famously said that Christianity is a “fighting religion.” He didn’t mean a religion of violence. He meant that Christianity is a religion of candor in naming good and evil; zeal in advancing the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and courage in struggling against sin. Your task as Catholic men and women in the years ahead, especially those men who become priests, is to strengthen that spirit in each other — and to instill a desire for Jesus Christ in the friends, family, colleagues and other people you reach with the extraordinary skills God has given you. If you do only that, but do it well, then God will do the rest.
Murray said, “Only when our dwelling is in the heavens can we hope to fulfill our vocation on earth . . . If we do not understand the world and why it was made, what right have we to meddle with it? If we do not know that man is made in the image of God, how dare we . . . attempt to fashion his life?”
The construction of a Christian culture begins by giving our hearts to God, without plans or reservations, and letting him begin the work. It sounds like a small thing. It is a small thing. But as Christians know better than anyone – especially at a seminary dedicated to the woman God chose as the mother of his Son — worlds and empires can turn on the smallest yes.
Thanks, and God bless you.
This item 12126 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org