Ordinary of the Mass
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Mass of the Immaculate Conception - Latin
Mass of the Immaculate Conception - English
Today is the seventh Sunday after
Pentecost, and tomorrow we will offer a votive Mass of the Immaculate Conception
in celebration of American Independence. Since many of you won’t be able to
assist at tomorrow’s Mass for the Republic, I thought I should say a few words
about both days. When I sat down to write this sermon, I was rather surprised
how well the two fit together.
First we have Saint Paul’s letter to the
Romans, in which he exhorts us to put aside our old sinful ways and adopt the
ways of holiness.
What he is saying can be summed up by saying that we must learn to do the things
we ought to do for ourselves, for the people around us, and ultimately to do
what we ought to for Almighty God Himself. We’ll come back to the idea of
“doing what we ought to do.”
In the Gospel, our Lord tells us that
there will be “false prophets”—people who seem to be authorities, but whom we
should recognize as promoters of evil, and whom we must ignore.
We will recognize them by their “evil fruits.” That is to say that we will
recognize them by their evil behavior, or by our reasoning that what they
command will lead to ruin if we follow their orders and suggestions. We will
hear more about the Natural Moral Law today, but suffice it to say that in order
to know whether or not something is good, we need to know the purpose for which
God created it—if it serves God’s purpose, it must be good.
For example the Natural Moral Law would
tell us that a marriage is good if it is open to children and provides the
environment for family members to grow in peace, prosperity and
responsibility—that is, if it is a proper “building block” of society.
Tomorrow, we will celebrate the crowning
achievement of Thomas Jefferson and the handful of other men who wrote the
Declaration of Independence. Now, some will object that Jefferson was not a
Catholic and not even a Christian—Jefferson is better described as a “deist,”
which is to say that he believed that God created the Universe, but had little
to do with His creation after He created it. Jefferson seems not to have
believed in divine revelation or in the divinity of Jesus Christ.
Jefferson did, however, study the life
of Christ for its moral implications, and he did echo Catholic teaching on
natural moral law. We know that Jefferson was influenced by the teachings of
the great scholar of the Counter-Reformation, the Jesuit Cardinal Saint Robert
Bellarmine. In Jefferson’s library was a book that quoted Bellarmine, among
others, and only the passages written by Saint Robert were underlined.
Bellarmine, in turn, drew on Saint Thomas Aquinas who held that even the
governments of pagan peoples could be legitimate if their laws were in general
accordance with the natural moral law. Saint Thomas remains a bit vague about how human
rulers acquire divine authority but clearly states that “all laws, insofar as
they partake of right reason, are derived from the eternal law.”
Government thus derives legitimacy by governing according to the laws of God,
expressed in a universally known natural law.
The Declaration contains numerous
references to the injustices worked upon the American Colonies, which would
serve to classify the Crown as an illegitimate government. But its shining
glory is in stating where rights come from, that they cannot be taken away:
All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with
certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the
pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are
instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the
governed, – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of
these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it….
Jefferson wrote “Pursuit of Happiness.”
Almost certainly, this is the right to securely possess private property. Only
in Jefferson’s time there were people who clung to the notion that people could
own other people, and this kind of ownership was clearly at odds with the
natural moral law tenet that “All men are created equal.” If anyone here wants
to question the ownership of private property as a basic right, I would refer
you to the encyclical of the saintly Pope Leo XIII, Rerum novarum, which
is linked to this sermon on the Parish web-site.
Jefferson wrote of an “unalienable right
to liberty.” Such a man would not confuse liberty with licentiousness—indeed,
all of these rights must be exercised responsibly. Jefferson would have agreed
with what Bishop Sheen wrote:
is not the right to do whatever I please, nor is liberty the necessity
of doing whatever the dictator dictates; rather liberty is the
right to do what I ought. In these three words: “please,”
“must,” and “ought” are given the choices facing the modern world. Of
the three we choose “ought.”
As I said earlier we must learn to do
the things we ought to do for ourselves, for the people around us, and
ultimately to do what we ought to for Almighty God Himself.
Perhaps the Declaration’s most important
acknowledgement of the Natural Moral Law is the “unalienable right to life.”
(“Unalienable” means that something cannot be bought or sold, cannot be taken
away nor given away.) Quite simply, none of the other rights mean anything
without the right to life. Earthly liberty, property, and the pursuit of
happiness are all meaningless to the dead. Modern science demonstrates that
life is a “continuum”—the same human person with the same “unalienable rights”
exists from the moment of conception until natural death. No government can
claim the authority to deny the right to life without admitting its own
illegitimacy, and the opportunity of replacing it with something legitimate.
Quoting Bishop Sheen again:
rights anterior to any State, which the State may recognize but does not
create. The human person and his family, being prior to the State, have
inalienable rights, such as the maximum of personal liberty and economic
wellbeing consonant with the laws of God.
In my years as a priest I have
corresponded with entirely too many people—allegedly traditional Catholics—who
claim that the founding principles of the American Republic are anti-Catholic.
(By the way, many of these same people hold that one cannot be a Catholic
without believing that the Sun goes around the Earth.) So let me quote Bishop
Sheen yet once more:
Americanism, as understood by our Founding Fathers, is the political
expression of the Catholic doctrine concerning man. Firstly, his rights
come from God and therefore cannot be taken away. Secondly, the State
exists to preserve them. “We hold these truths to be self-evident….”
Oh, well. One more thing. The signers
of the Declaration concluded their document:
… with a firm reliance on
the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other
our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
In this election year, we should
actively seek out people who believe in divine Providence…. People who actually
have a “sacred honor.”