August 1, 2015
Memorial of Saint Alphonsus Liguori
Bishop and Doctor of the Church
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
"… We stand in the midst of a great cloud of witnesses."
These words taken from the Epistle to the Hebrews, Chapter 12, verse 1, quite aptly characterize the reality of the human condition. No matter how we might try, even those who work so hard to live in complete anonymity, we all are being observed on the stage of life from the very time that life begins and through all the years following as we pursue our courses of study, choose vocations and enter into the adult world. From birth to old age, we all stand amidst a great cloud of witnesses and daily we allow ourselves to be judged, evaluated, selected and even rejected, to be acclaimed and sadly at times to be defamed. We live in a world that watches and analyzes everything we do, how we act and what we say.
Among those standing amidst a great cloud of witnesses are those chosen and elected to govern our country, a reality so very evident during political campaigns, which now are capturing the media’s attention. How often we pray that God the Father will bestow His gift of the Holy Spirit upon those called to serve the causes of justice, love, peace and mercy. Their mandate is to guard and to guarantee freedom and the fundamental right to religious liberty for all citizens of any faith. Those who make, apply and execute the laws and policies by which we are bound hold within their hands the power to control, free, condemn, judge, exonerate and penalize peoples. Great is the responsibility they bear in developing and applying laws, which so intimately touch the lives of others, to determine the course that lives will take and to mark the path of another’s journey!
The great cloud of witnesses rightly expects from legislators and government officials the best possible environment, one that truly respects and elevates the dignity of the human person within the context of our culture — a term and a concept understood in many ways but ultimately referring to the situation encompassing our lives, our traditions, languages, heritage, laws that govern us, and finally what we believe, whom we worship, who is our absolute guide. Faith, one’s creedal belief, cannot be separated from culture, it cannot be ignored, and still worse it cannot be violated by the laws, legislation and jurisprudence that exist within a culture.
In his essay, "The Christian Vision in T.S. Eliot’s Social Criticism," Michael M. Jordan, in commenting upon Eliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society, writes: "Eliot’s essay has essentially one subject and theme: religion should be the basis of culture and community. In other words, a healthy culture must have a religious base, and the religion must be based in a community" (Michael M. Jordan, STAR Magazine, May/June 2005). In that same essay, Jordan quotes T.S. Eliot’s celebrated work, The Rock, in which the poet cries out:
You, have you built well, have you forgotten the cornerstone?
Talking of right relations of men, but not relations of men to God.
How well the poet understood that God is the heart and foundation of all life since He is its very author. So it is only right and just that laws governing His creation be guided and inspired by Him. For as we move through this life, He is the first among the great cloud of witnesses to observe us and the One who ultimately will be our judge.
Speaking of culture and religion, our Holy Father Emeritus Benedict XVI, addressed these words to a group of bishops from the United States who were in Rome for their Ad limina Apostolorum ("To the threshold of the Apostles") visit on January 19, 2012:
"One of the most memorable aspects of my pastoral visit to the United States was the opportunity it afforded me to reflect on America’s historical experience of religious freedom, and specifically the relationship between religion and culture. At the heart of every culture, whether perceived or not, is a consensus about the nature of reality and the moral good, and thus about the conditions for human flourishing. In America, that consensus, as enshrined in your nation’s founding documents, was grounded in a worldview shaped not only by faith but a commitment to certain ethical principles deriving from nature and nature’s God. Today that consensus has eroded significantly in the face of powerful new cultural currents which are not only directly opposed to core moral teachings of Judeo-Christian tradition, but increasingly hostile to Christianity as such" (Consistory Hall, Thursday, January 19, 2012).
As Pope Benedict XVI understood, our Founding Fathers, firmly intent upon preserving the prized gift of freedom — encompassing religious liberty — were unafraid to receive their guidance from the Lord. Samuel Adams wrote: "The right to freedom is the gift of God Almighty… the rights of colonists as Christians may best be understood by reading and carefully studying the institutes of The Great Law Giver, which are to be found clearly written and promulgated in the New Testament" (The Rights of the Colonists, 1772). Likewise, others espoused these same principles. Alexis de Tocqueville, considered by many to be a keen analyst of American life, came from France in 1831 to study the penal system in the United States. Among his many thoughts, we find the following: "Despotism may be able to do without faith, but freedom cannot." It appears that de Tocqueville understood that faith gives birth to and sustains freedom. Maybe knowingly or unknowingly his own voice joined that of the psalmist in proclaiming that happy, indeed, "is the nation whose God is the Lord" (Psalm 33:12).
In his treatise, "Of Civil Government" (1690), John Locke alluded to this connection between law and its Supreme Maker: "Though this be a State of Liberty, yet it is not a State of License… No one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions. For men are all the workmanship of one Omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker…"
The early architects of these United States saw our nation as being "one nation under God" where the City of God was not in conflict with the City of Man. In his "Farewell Address to the Nation" (published in The Independent Chronicle on September 26, 1997), George Washington proclaimed:
"Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens… Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice?" (No. 27).
It is against this backdrop of our historical preservation of the gift of freedom and religious liberty that we renew our prayers that future decisions of our courts and legislators will protect our religious freedom and will not threaten our right to proclaim and to live our Catholic faith. United with my brother bishops throughout the United States, I ask for your prayers that wisdom and justice may prevail, and that the religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States will be preserved. Religious liberty and the freedom to practice one’s faith guard against compelling an individual to violate his or her conscience — defined in Gaudium et Spes (Vatican II, December 7, 1965, 16) as "man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths" (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1776). And, interestingly, James Madison, author of the First Amendment, described conscience as "the most sacred of all property" (see "ObamaCare and Religious Freedom," Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, then-president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 25, 2012).
A person "is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious" (Dignitatis Humanae, no. 3, §3; see also Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1782).
The formation of conscience has always held a place of prime importance in Catholic theology. The Second Vatican Council clearly emphasized and appreciated the need for each person to follow his or her conscience in making those decisions that affect so many aspects of human existence. This same council carefully noted how the formation of conscience and church doctrine are intimately joined when it stated: "In the formation of their consciences, the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church. (35) For the Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth. It is her duty to give utterance to, and authoritatively to teach, that truth which is Christ Himself, and also to declare and confirm by her authority those principles of the moral order which have their origins in human nature itself" (Dignitatis Humanae, Dec. 7, 1965, 14).
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, also has expressed his deep concerns regarding the protection of religious liberty. In his June 20, 2014, address to the participants in the Rome conference on International Religious Liberty and the Global Clash of Values, Pope Francis noted that preserving the right of peoples to live their religious values is increasingly difficult in our contemporary society "where weak thinking — this is a sickness — lowers the level of ethics in general and, in the name of a false understanding of tolerance, ends up persecuting those who defend the truth about the human person and its ethical consequences." His Holiness emphasized that religious freedom is a "fundamental right of the human person" and a recognition of the dignity of each person’s capability "to seek the truth and adhere to it."
Repeating this same theme on May 7, 2015, Pope Francis, in his address to an assembly of Catholic and Protestant leaders from Europe, stated: "I think of the challenges posed by legislation which, in the name of a misinterpreted principle of tolerance, ends up preventing citizens from peacefully and legitimately expressing their religious convictions."
You and I stand before a great cloud of witnesses, our fellow citizens, our brothers and sisters in the community of faith — those who oppose us and those who agree with us. But preeminent among these witnesses, the very First Witness, the ultimate judge of our actions, is God. Let us then take to heart the words of St. Augustine: "… in everything you do, see God as your witness" (as referenced in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1779). May He find us a people of faith who cherish His gift of life and seek to defend and uphold it in all its stages, from conception until natural death. May charity and the desire for truth characterize our actions and decisions in our chosen vocations. And, in humility, may we seek the Lord’s forgiveness for our own personal failures to follow His will. Rich in mercy, He never abandons us; it remains for us to seek Him out and thereby discover anew His abundant love.
In closing, I beseech your prayers for those in leadership in the church, the College of Bishops, priests, deacons, religious and lay ministry leaders. We truly stand before the great cloud of witness and we are called by our lives of service in the church to live what we profess, what we teach and what we proclaim in union with Christ and His church; we are called to be the witnesses of Jesus to our sisters and brothers in our families, communities, schools, neighborhoods and parishes.
As the shepherd of the diocese, I not only ask for, but truly need your prayers, that in our diocese I will teach the truth in charity, with compassion and mercy, but at the same time accepting the challenges and even the cross, which are woven into the apostolic ministry.
Assuring you of my prayers and invoking the intercession of our patron, St. John Fisher, who was first above all else the servant of God, I remain,
Devotedly yours in Christ,
The Most Reverend Salvatore R. Matano
Bishop of Rochester