Fighting the Good Fight, 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), October 24, 2004

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Thirtieth Sunday in OT, Year C
October 24, 2004
Sir 35:12-14,16-18; 2Tim4:6-8,16-18; Lk 18:9-14

1) Toward the end of his second letter to his spiritual son, Timothy (today’s second reading), St. Paul rejoices that he had “fought the good fight, … finished the race, … and kept the faith.” He had fought his entire life. At first he had fought against the Church, presiding over the stoning of the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:58), heading into homes to rip out Christians and throw them into prison (Acts 8:3), even heading to Damascus with orders to try to extirpate Christianity in that city (Acts 9:1-2). But God wanted him fighting on His side. And after his conversion on the road to Damascus, that’s precisely what he did. He fought for Christ. He fought for the Church he founded. Five times he received a brutal thirty nine lashes from the authorities. But he got up and continued to fight. Three times he was beaten to a pulp with rods. But he got up again. He was stoned, practically to death, and dragged outside the city of Iconium, but after he had recovered, he continued the race. Three times he was shipwrecked, and once spent a whole day and night adrift at sea (cf. 2Cor 11:24-26). People were hunting him down to assassinate him (Acts 9:23-24). He was thrown into filthy prisons, but even with his hands and feet bound to chains, he fought on. He knew the fight was worth it and he was faithful until the end.

2) Each of us, as Jesus’ followers, is called to fight the good fight and to keep the faith until the end of the race God gives us to run. We, like St. Paul, like Jesus, will have opposition. But the fight is worth it. The fight, in fact, makes us worthy. There are many areas of our lives in which we are called to fight for Christ. The one on which I would like to focus this weekend is fighting the good fight as Christian citizens in civic and political life. As a priest, as your priest, I would be guilty of pastoral malpractice and neglect if I didn’t try to shine the light of the Gospel on the serious moral choices we and our fellow citizens will be making on November 2.

3) There are many today who want Christians to be pacifists in the political sphere. They want Christians to commit to a unilateral cease fire, to lay down their arms and not bring the great gift of Christian moral clarity to the public sphere. This is because they know that if Christians ever began to fight for Christ and his principles in public life like St. Paul did, the impact would be enormous. The Archbishop of Denver, Charles Chaput — who is one of the most articulate, straight-shooting and prophetic shepherds in the country — wrote a brilliant, incisive and moving op-ed in the New York Times on Friday about the need for Christians not to succumb to the false prophets trying to persuade us to restrict our faith to Sunday worship. Much like Jesus’ words, he also names the hypocrisy of those who claim that their faith should have no impact on their political decisions. His words deserve to be shouted from the bell-towers and pulpits of churches across the country. Please listen to the words of this modern St. Paul (from his brief article, “Faith and Patriotism,” Oct 22, 2004), which I will read in full:

The theologian Karl Barth once said, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”

That saying comes to mind as the election approaches and I hear more lectures about how Roman Catholics must not “impose their beliefs on society” or warnings about the need for “the separation of church and state.” These are two of the emptiest slogans in current American politics, intended to discourage serious debate. No one in mainstream American politics wants a theocracy. Nor does anyone doubt the importance of morality in public life. Therefore, we should recognize these slogans for what they are: frequently dishonest and ultimately dangerous sound bites.

Lawmaking inevitably involves some group imposing its beliefs on the rest of us. That’s the nature of the democratic process. If we say that we “ought” to do something, we are making a moral judgment. When our legislators turn that judgment into law, somebody’s ought becomes a “must” for the whole of society. This is not inherently dangerous; it’s how pluralism works.

Democracy depends on people of conviction expressing their views, confidently and without embarrassment. This give-and-take is an American tradition, and religious believers play a vital role in it. We don’t serve our country – in fact we weaken it intellectually – if we downplay our principles or fail to speak forcefully out of some misguided sense of good manners.

People who support permissive abortion laws have no qualms about imposing their views on society. Often working against popular opinion, they have tried to block any effort to change permissive abortion laws since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. That’s fair. That’s their right. But why should the rules of engagement be different for citizens who oppose those laws?

Catholics have an obligation to work for the common good and the dignity of every person. We see abortion as a matter of civil rights and human dignity, not simply as a matter of religious teaching. We are doubly unfaithful — both to our religious convictions and to our democratic responsibilities — if we fail to support the right to life of the unborn child. Our duties to social justice by no means end there. But they do always begin there, because the right to life is foundational.

For Catholics to take a “pro-choice” view toward abortion contradicts our identity and makes us complicit in how the choice plays out. The “choice” in abortion always involves the choice to end the life of an unborn human being. For anyone who sees this fact clearly, neutrality, silence or private disapproval are not options. They are evils almost as grave as abortion itself. If religious believers do not advance their convictions about public morality in public debate, they are demonstrating not tolerance but cowardice.

The civil order has its own sphere of responsibility, and its own proper autonomy, apart from the church or any other religious community. But civil authorities are never exempt from moral engagement and criticism, either from the church or its members. The founders themselves realized this.

The founders sought to prevent the establishment of an official state church. Given America’s history of anti-Catholic nativism, Catholics strongly support the Constitution’s approach to religious freedom. But the Constitution does not, nor was it ever intended to, prohibit people or communities of faith from playing an active role in public life. Exiling religion from civic debate separates government from morality and citizens from their consciences. That road leads to politics without character, now a national epidemic.

Words are cheap. Actions matter. If we believe in the sanctity of life from conception to natural death, we need to prove that by our actions, including our political choices. Anything less leads to the corruption of our integrity. Patriotism, which is a virtue for people of all faiths, requires that we fight, ethically and nonviolently, for what we believe. Claiming that “we don’t want to impose our beliefs on society” is not merely politically convenient; it is morally incoherent and irresponsible.

As James 2:17 reminds us, in a passage quoted in the final presidential debate, “Faith without works is dead.” It is a valid point. People should act on what they claim to believe. Otherwise they are violating their own conscience, and lying to themselves and the rest of us.

4) One of the important ways we live out our faith is when we head to the ballot box. When we vote, we are making a statement to God and to ourselves about what is most important to us. When we pull the curtain behind us at the precinct, it’s similar to our pulling the curtain behind us in the confessional. We are there to confess to God what we value most. Voting is not an act done in a vacuum; it is a moral action, which, like all our moral actions, should be done with the Lord. If we desire to be faithful to Christ, we need to ask him in prayer how we should vote and what are the most important issues to him. If the fundamental reason why we vote for a candidate is the simple fact that the candidate is a member of a particular political party, that’s not worthy of Jesus. If the most important issue for us is which candidate we think will put more money in our wallets or pocketbooks, then that’s not worthy of a Christian. While Jesus Christ is never a candidate for any office, we are called to bring Jesus with us into voting booth and ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” How would Jesus vote in my place? What would be the most important issues to him? What would be the most important criteria he would be looking for in a candidate?

5) It’s hard to believe that Jesus would not consider as absolutely crucial whether a candidate wants to use his office to protect, or to foster the killing, of those made in His image and likeness in the sanctuary of their mothers’ wombs. Jesus once said that whatever we do, or fail to do, to the least of his brothers and sisters, he takes personally (Mt 25:31-46). Every 23 seconds in our land a child made in His image and likeness is killed through abortion. Does anyone think that Jesus would ever support a man or woman who is publicly in favor of such a deliberate killing of those Jesus himself died to save? It’s hard to believe that Jesus would ever support someone who promotes killing human beings to harvest their organs, which is exactly what is promoted in embryonic stem cell research. It’s hard to believe Jesus would ever support a candidate who talks out of both sides of his mouth when it comes to the subject of marriage as an institution between one man and a woman, an institution which God himself gave to humanity in the beginning, and which Jesus raised to the dignity of a sacrament. It’s hard to believe that Jesus would ever support a candidate who would not vehemently oppose the “false mercy” of the euthanasia movement, that seeks to put human beings “out of their misery” much like we do to our pets. It’s hard to believe Jesus would ever support a candidate who is in favor of trying to clone human beings in laboratories, whether out of the egotistical pursuit to make others in one’s own image, or whether out of the even worse motivation to kill those new human beings to harvest their organs or cells to try to cure somebody else. To support a candidate who is in favor of any of these evils would be, as Archbishop Chaput wrote, to cooperate and make ourselves complicit in that candidate’s evil choices. I can’t imagine Jesus’ ever doing that.

6) At all of the entrances of the Church this week, there are reprints of our diocesan newspaper, the Anchor, in which you’ll find in the centerfold a voter’s guide prepared by the organization Catholic Citizenship, headed by former Boston mayor and US Ambassador to the Vatican Ray Flynn. This organization has the encouragement of the Massachusetts bishops. It lists the positions and recorded votes of candidates — from national to local elections — on the issues that the Pope and the US Bishops have identified as among the most crucial moral issues of our times. Please take a copy on your way out and please take it with you to your prayer this week. Jesus has no hands, no feet, no voice now on earth but yours, as St. Teresa of Avila once said. Let him speak through you on November 2.

7) The patron saint of politicians and political life is St. Thomas More, a layman, who was chancellor of England under the reign of King Henry VIII in the 1520 and 30s. He was much beloved by Henry and greatly respected by the British people. Eventually, however, Henry tried to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, to marry his mistress Anne Boleyn. He sought at first to obtain a declaration of nullity for his marriage, but when the Pope said he had no grounds, Henry divorced her civilly, married Anne anyway (despite Jesus’ prohibitions in the Gospel against divorce-and-remarriage), and declared himself “supreme head of the Church in England.” He then passed two laws, requiring the subjects of England to recognize his marriage to Anne and whatever offspring she conceived as legitimate heirs, and to affirm that Henry, rather than the successor of St. Peter, was the supreme head of the Church in England. Thomas knew, in conscience, that he could do neither and consequently he resigned his post. He went from running the kingdom to a pauper. His family suffered drastically from the loss of income. He was eventually thrown into the dank prison of the Tower, where he endured all types of cruelty. But he fought the good fight and kept the faith until the end, when he, much like Jesus, was condemned to death on the testimony of false witnesses. As he was heading up to the gaoler who would decapitate him, he turned to the crowds and said, “I have always been the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” Thomas knew that the best service he could give to his monarch was that which flowed from his Christian principles, never neglecting his conscience to keep or advance a career. It’s the same way for us. If we wish to serve our nation, the best service we could provide would be to help it anchor itself in the principles of right and wrong that come from God. The best way for us to be good citizens of our great nation is for us to be, first, good “citizens of heaven” (Eph 2:19).

8 ) This year, election day falls on All Souls’ Day, when we remember all of the faithful departed. One day in the future, after we join the faithful departed, others will convene to pray for us. Let us pray together that when they do, they might have the chance to say about us, “They fought the good fight, they finished the race, they kept the faith.” May they say, “They were our country’s good and faithful servants, but God’s first.” This will be the means by which future generations will be able to remember us on future November firsts as well.