Saturday, June 23, 2012

John the Baptist: The Legacy of Freedom of Conscience (June 24, 2012)


Solemnity of The Nativity of John the Baptist

Gospel Luke 1:57-66, 80

When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child
she gave birth to a son.
Her neighbors and relatives heard
that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her,
and they rejoiced with her.
When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child,
they were going to call him Zechariah after his father,
but his mother said in reply,
"No. He will be called John."
But they answered her,
"There is no one among your relatives who has this name."
So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called.
He asked for a tablet and wrote, "John is his name,"
and all were amazed.
Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed,
and he spoke blessing God.
Then fear came upon all their neighbors,
and all these matters were discussed
throughout the hill country of Judea.
All who heard these things took them to heart, saying,
"What, then, will this child be?"
For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.
The child grew and became strong in spirit,
and he was in the desert until the day
of his manifestation to Israel.

It is fitting today that we honor the birth of John the Baptist. In the long line of those men and women of faith who spoke truth to power, his courage and fearlessness, even in the face of Herod the Tetrarch of Judea should give us renewed courage as we ponder anew our rights and responsibilities to act Christian in a time of moral challenge.
John’s public ministry was suddenly (after about six months probably) brought to a close by his being cast into prison by Herod, whom he had reproved for the sin of having taken to himself the wife of his brother Philip (Luke 3:19). He was imprisoned by Herod and was beheaded.
Imagine that, being imprisoned and eventually beheaded because you spoke out about what a licit and moral marriage was all about!

Jesus had high praise for John. He said “Among those born of woman there is none greater than John.” It was no doubt the example of John in the face of tyranny that gave Jesus courage in front of Pilate, when he said to the Procurator, “You have no power that was not given to you from God”, recognizing that all power, political, military, leadership, influence, is a divine trust to steward, not an excuse for evil, intimidation, or fear.

And today we as Christians are being forced to choose right from wrong, whether to go along because it’s easier, whether to permit evil that does not immediately seem to affect us, whether toleration, relativism, and non-judgmentalism will eventually erode our backbones into moral oatmeal, and one of the things that’s really uncomfortable is that our bishops are forcing us to choose. No more copping out—“well, privately I oppose abortion, but as governor of New York, I’ll support it, or as Senator from California, I will fund it, or as senator from Massachusetts, I’ll take communion on Sunday but push for the government to fund death on Monday.”

It is a good thing that our bishops challenge us. In Dante’s Inferno we read that the hottest fires of Hell are reserved for those who, on the brink of moral precipice, preserve their own neutrality.

But that was not John the Baptist, was it? He was a fearless preacher of the truth, a prophet of the Most High. He was an example worth emulating.

But it’s not always been that way with the church’s leaders. Let’s be honest; at times, in the past, we’ve been terribly led and poorly served by weak-willed clerics, insipid and timid shepherds of God’s flock, willing to compromise with anything and anybody to preserve peace, to gain legitimacy or worldly wealth and approval of the powers that be, who would even tolerate the extremes of wickedness in their own ranks so as not to rock the ecclesiastical boat. Let’s say it honestly; there have been times when our leaders were not worth following.

But it is not at this hour.

At this hour they gently and firmly lead their flock to the same moral questions with which they have wrestled themselves in prayer and in thought—how long and in what context will our hospitals, our schools, our parishes, and our people—retain their Christian, their Catholic identity? As one voice, they have brought us to struggle in our own conscience with God’s will, with the scriptures, with the history of 2000 years of the protection of life, the securing of liberty and freedom for the conscience, and they challenge us today to not only vote our conscience, but to educate it, too.

I know how deeply each of you value and support church institutions which do the corporal works of mercy on a grand scale, hospitals like St. Francis, institutions like our own Catholic Charities, collaborative charitable enterprises like the Marian House. Inspired by John the Baptist, Peter and John who, when told to be silent and no longer speak out in the name of Christ, said in Acts 4:32, “We cannot help but speak”; Inspired by the countless thousands who died rather than have their faith whittled away—“just burn a pinch of incense to the Caesar, call him Lord—everyone knows he isn’t, but just go along to get along”; inspired by St. Thomas More and others who spoke truth to power, we know how important it is for us to defend both the religious freedom of individuals and the religious freedom of church institutions – for the two are inseparably linked.

We surely are not facing the dire brutality that confronted John the Baptist, but our Church and her institutions do find themselves today in perilous waters. For embedded in the HHS mandate is a very narrow governmental definition of what constitutes a church; and if it is not removed, it is likely to spread throughout federal law.

In differing ways, both the Church’s teaching and our nation’s founding documents acknowledge that the Creator has endowed individuals with freedom of conscience. Such freedom goes to the heart of the dignity of the human person.

Religious freedom includes the freedom of individuals to act in accord with their faith but also the freedom of church institutions to act in according with their teachings and to serve as a buffer between the power of the state and the freedom of the individual conscience.
If we fail to defend the rights of individuals, the freedom of institutions will be at risk and if we fail to defend the rights of our institutions, individual liberty will be at risk.

Even if current threats like the HHS mandate were to be overcome, we would still have to face powerful forces which seek to prevent religious faith from exerting an appropriate & necessary influence within our culture. Some would even say that the Catholic Church is a primary obstacle that stands in the way of creating a completely secular culture in the United States. For, as George Washington said in his Farewell Address, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”
We’ll have more to say about this in the months to come.

I will now ask you to pray with me the prayer from our United States bishops at this hour, as a part of our fortnight for freedom. Let us pray:

O God our Creator,
from your provident hand we have received
our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
You have called us as your people and given us
the right and the duty to worship you, the only true God,
and your Son, Jesus Christ.

Through the power and working of your Holy Spirit,
you call us to live out our faith in the midst of the world,
bringing the light and the saving truth of the Gospel
to every corner of society.

We ask you to bless us
in our vigilance for the gift of religious liberty.
Give us the strength of mind and heart
to readily defend our freedoms when they are threatened;
give us courage in making our voices heard
on behalf of the rights of your Church
and the freedom of conscience of all people of faith.

Grant, we pray, O heavenly Father,
a clear and united voice to all your sons and daughters
gathered in your Church
in this decisive hour in the history of our nation,
so that, with every trial withstood
and every danger overcome—
for the sake of our children, our grandchildren,
and all who come after us—
this great land will always be “one nation, under God,
indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
Amen.