About ten years ago my wife purchased for me a box set of some of former Beatle George Harrison’s more obscure albums. Having listened to them countless times since, one line from a lesser known song stays in my mind as a good description of the world we live in. The lyric “It’s all up to what you value” often rings in my head, as neighbors, work colleagues, even family members see the world so very different from those who have faith in Christ and his Church. What a devoted Catholic may place infinite value in is seen by others as of minor importance to the extent they are even aware of what the Catholic is talking about. What one values in many ways determines everything else.Last spring I had the privilege of participating in a debate sponsored by a Democratic Party organization on church/state separation issues and on the role of religious faith in civic life. Speaking from the perspective of a Catholic who believes there is nothing of greater importance that striving to live the will of God in every facet of life, it was striking how those on the other side of the debate, who I honestly believe to be persons of good will, thought it was a minor matter to use the power of government to force people to choose between violating their consciences as informed by their faith or subjecting themselves to severe sanctions from the state. These same people thought it entirely reasonable to marginalize faith to some sort of private spiritual expression that could somehow be separated from actions as a public citizen or a participant in the economy. How to reconcile that rational people of apparent goodwill would be so willing to demand that persons violate their religiously informed consciences so to comply with some “public good” and would desire that religious faith be confined to private worship. An answer may be the radically different relative value that is placed in religious faith by many moderns. For the devoted Catholic, our faith in Christ and living that faith is the pearl of great price that can never be given up. For many others today their faith, if any, may be far down their personal hierarchy of what’s important, where political affiliations, community acceptance or even devotion to an athletic team may rank higher when the rubber hits the road.When frustrated or angry at the assaults on faith we increasingly see I try to remind myself that often those doing so have no idea what they are doing. For those with no faith in Christ or some diminished man created version of Christian faith, what they understand faith to be is such a poor imitation they cannot conceive what they are asking others to compromise. If you have never held the pearl of great price it is difficult if not impossible to understand why it is so important to others. A first step to sharing with others what God has to offer them is to demonstrate what value we place in our faith. Our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and other places in the world are paying the highest price for their faith as we speak. While not facing anything like that in the United States, we nevertheless seem to be moving into an era where a higher price for one’s faith may be demanded. While tragic in many ways, it is an opportunity to show that we are prepared to pay whatever price is asked. A harvest of those seeds of sacrifice may be for some of those outside the Church to wonder if what they have thought of great value is a bill of goods compared to the pearl of great price offered by Christ and his Church.
Quid Est Veritas? What is truth? The words of Pontius Pilate could serve as the defining phrase of our time. It often seems like we live in the age of lies and truth has been lost. Perhaps the most admired athlete of the last twenty years, Lance Armstrong, with millions of almost worshipful fans, finally admits that he was cheating by using banned substances when he won all of his Tour De France victories. The top rated network news anchor reveals that his often told story of being in a helicopter when it was shot down over Iraq was made up. The bestselling author of a “A Million Little Pieces," a supposedly non-fiction book about how he pulled himself out of addiction without the help of God, makes the obligatory Oprah Winfrey appearance and owns up that his story was really fiction. The above pop cultural examples are just individuals lying about relatively small matters. Then there are the societal lies, where truths that only yesterday were accepted by virtually everyone may no longer be publicly stated without risk to careers and friendships. The truths that provided the foundation for society are chipped away and what was once condemned is now celebrated. It is not always easy to avoid despondency and raise children in a world that sometimes feels like a giant carnival side show (Lewis Carroll meets PT Barnum nightmare), where so much around us is part of a big lie and so few speak the truth about matters both small and great. There is also the added twist that in this side show many of the carnival barkers believe their own falsehoods, and fewer and fewer even know what the truth may be. As we move into lent and journey towards holy week, it comes to mind that the fundamental divide in our world between truth and falsehood can be seen by looking at Pilate’s palace on Good Friday. Pilate, in many ways a perfect voice for an age of lies, says “what is truth?” The Lord had just said to him the words that serve as the answer to that question - that search for the truth in a world of lies - “what I was born for, what I came into the world for is to bear witness of the truth. Whoever belongs to the truth, listens to my voice.” The Lord told us that the devil is the father of lies and his work is apparent all around us. But Christ’s voice speaking the truth is always there if we listen. What a privilege to be able to speak to him in prayer and hear his voice in the word and take his body in the Eucharist. While he did not know it, Pilate answered his own question, what is truth, when he presented to the crowd our scourged king, who was wearing scarlet robes and a crown of thorns, and said to the crowd, “Ecco Homo,” “Behold the Man.”
It did not take long after Pope Francis first emerged on the balcony at St. Peter’s last spring for uneasiness to emerge for many who were accustomed to only being unnerved by developments in the secular world. When being devoted to the orthodox teachings of the Church can make one an object of ridicule or cause one to be labeled a bigot by the wider culture, certain reported comments of our Holy Father and his method of approach at times towards those who disagree with Church teachings or who have fallen away has been perceived by some as pulling the rug out from those who have done their best to be loyal children of the Church. To feel in any manner that the Pope may not be backing up those who have striven to be the Church’s unfailing supporters can be more painful and even frightening than anything the fallen culture around us may dish out. In recent months, against this backdrop, no passage in the Gospel has stayed in my mind more than the parable with the popular but incomplete title the “Prodigal Son”. It was not until I was an adult that I really heard the first words of Christ in this story, “There was a man who had TWO sons.” This parable is as much about the older son, who stayed home, as it is about the lost prodigal son. When the lost son was headed home, but still a long way off, his father took pity on him, ran to him, threw his arms around him and kissed him, before the lost son even had a chance to say anything. The image of the father wrapping his arms around his lost son comes to my mind when Pope Francis compares the Church to a field hospital where you heal an injured person’s wounds first and then talk about everything else. When one finds oneself in the position of the lost son this story of God’s grace and love is of great comfort, but the same parable can be convicting when the thoughts of the older son, who was so angry he would not even go in where his father was celebrating with his brother, become one’s own. Sometimes it can be easy to say, like the older brother, “through these many years I have served you and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.”I have heard in Pope Francis’ words and seen in his actions, the father who had to seek out his older son and tell him, ”Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this brother was dead, and is alive, he was lost, and is found.” Sin has not gone away, repentance has not gone away, doctrine has not gone away, but Pope Francis, as a father, inspires to try to be a brother different than the angry older brother, a brother who instead will run like his father and put his arms around his lost brother.
As the Supreme Court began this year’s term, it chose not to hear appeals of a number of lower court cases that had thrown out certain state laws upholding marriage as between one man and one woman. The decision not to hear these cases was a cause of disappointment by some who hoped the Supreme Court would reverse these decisions. With the beating defenders of traditional marriage have taken in the courts in recent years it is understandable for defenders of marriage to hope the Supreme Court may throw a lifeline and at least permit those states that want to preserve marriage to do so. However, while the Supreme Court has yet to rule on whether a state may limit marriage under the law to one man and one woman, a reading of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision striking down a portion of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act or “DOMA” reveals that the hoped for reprieve for marriage from the Supreme Court is most unlikely to be forthcoming. At least from the current makeup of the Court. It has been my experience that many who did not have the good fortune – or perhaps misfortune – to sit through a first year law school course on Constitutional Law are able to move through life with the comforting assumption that many of the most consequential decisions of the Supreme Court are based on something other than the subjective moral determinations of the justices. I still recall sitting in my classroom at Catholic University as the scales fell from my eyes reading such landmark cases as Griswold v. Connecticut (right to contraception) or Roe v. Wade (right to abortion), seeing the Court pull new “rights” out of thin air, and, with an audacity that would have made a roman emperor blush, announce their own moral views of what was right or just as somehow inherent in the words of the Constitution and not subject to legitimate civic disagreement. Part of DOMA declared that, under Federal law, marriage would only mean the legal union of one man and one woman. In the 2013 case of United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court, in declaring this portion of DOMA unconstitutional, held that those who voted for DOMA were motivated by a desire to harm couples in same-sex marriages. As Justice Antonin Scalia stated, in his strongly worded dissent in the case, the Court has formally declared anyone opposed to same-sex marriage as an enemy of human decency. Having already so held, is it realistic to believe the Supreme Court will find the various state legislators and voters who have enacted laws trying to uphold marriage to have done so with more admirable goals?A thousand Supreme Courts cannot alter marriage as instituted by God no more than they can judicially modify the laws of gravity. However, as citizens of the United States, it is important to look to the future with open eyes. It is not just commentators and other shapers of public opinion who label those who uphold marriage as motivated by a desire to harm others. The position of the Church on this issue has already been declared beyond the pale of reasoned disagreement by the highest American court. To uphold traditional marriage is not to love marriage as given to us by God. To uphold traditional marriage is not to love those trapped in self-destructive behavior. By the words of the Supreme Court, to uphold traditional marriage is to want to harm those in a so-called same-sex-marriage and thus is not a legitimate basis for law. Those who stand by the Church’s teaching have been told they have no place at the table of the legislative process on this issue. In his dissent Justice Scalia advised to wait for the other shoe, meaning state laws upholding marriage also being knocked down by the Court. Some, including Chief Justice John Roberts, have stated the Court has not gone as far as it may appear and give rise to the hope that state laws upholding marriage may have a chance at survival. Regardless of which is right, we have to face at least an immediate future where remaining true to the Church’s teaching is to be declared by law to want to harm others. The ramifications of this in so many areas of law remain to be seen but there should be no doubt that giving to God what is God’s will come at a price under the law for many.