Dear Brother Bishops:
At the opening session of the recently concluded Roman Synod on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church, Pope Benedict XVI reflected on Psalm 118, that magnificent chorus praising the law, the order, that unites us to God. “The Word of God,” the pope said, “is solid, it is the true reality upon which to base one’s life. Let us recall the words of Jesus: ‘… Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away’… It is words that create history, it is words that give form to thoughts … the Word of God is the foundation of everything, it is the true reality. And to be realists, we must truly count on this reality.”
The Holy Father offered these reflections in the face of bank closures, the collapse of giant corporations, the uncertainty of political regimes, with full awareness of the insecurity and suffering of so many around the world. His words echoed what he had told us in our own country last April, when he constantly directed our thoughts and actions toward the Word of God made flesh, whom the pope called “Our Hope.”
The pope invites us to place our hope in what lasts forever. We have recently finished a contest for the presidency in which both candidates invited us to hope in change. Perhaps that is the difference between a vision that looks at what is ultimate and one that, by the very nature of things, is most concerned with what is less than ultimate. No political order conforms fully to the kingdom of God. Separation is built into our faith itself, yet we can hope and work and pray that things political and economic not impede or contest the things that are of God.
We come to this assembly in the interim before a new presidential administration takes office in our country. Symbolically, this is a moment that touches more than our history when a country that once enshrined race slavery in its very constitutional order should come to elect an African American to the presidency. In this, I truly believe, we must all rejoice. We must also hope that President Obama succeed in his task, for the good of all. The odds against success are formidable. We are internally divided and, in a global order, we will be less the masters of our economic and political fate.
‘We can rejoice today’
Nevertheless, we can rejoice today with those who, following heroic figures like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were part of a movement to bring our country’s civil rights, our legal order, into better accord with universal human rights, God’s order. Among so many people of good will, dutiful priests and loving religious women, bishops and lay people of the Catholic Church who took our social doctrine to heart then can feel vindicated now. Their successors remain, especially among those who quietly give their lives to teaching and forming good and joyful children in Catholic schools in African American and other minority communities.
We can also be truly grateful that our country’s social conscience has advanced to the point that Barack Obama was not asked to renounce his racial heritage in order to be president, as, effectively, John Kennedy was asked to promise that his Catholic faith would not influence his perspective and decisions as president a generation ago. Echoes of that debate remain in the words of those who reject universal moral propositions that have been espoused by the human race throughout history, with the excuse that they are part of Catholic moral teaching. We are, perhaps, at a moment when, with the grace of God, all races are safely within the American consensus.
We are not at the point, however, when Catholics, especially in public life, can be considered full partners in the American experience unless they are willing to put aside some fundamental Catholic teachings on a just moral and political order. The hubris that has isolated our country politically and now economically is heard, but not usually recognized, in moral arguments based simply and solely on individual moral autonomy. This personal and social dilemma is not, of course, a matter of ultimate importance, for America is not the kingdom of God; but it makes America herself far less than she claims to be in this world.
At our meeting last spring, we heard statisticians tell us that the Catholic Church is a laboratory for our society. What the church looks like today, in her ethnic composition, her economic situation, her generational cohorts, the entire country will look like in 25 to 30 years. This gives Catholics a perhaps prophetic perspective on our society’s life and concerns. In Holy Scripture, a true prophet’s life is always marked by suffering. What is of major importance to us, as bishops of the church, is that the church remain true to herself and her Lord in the years to come, for only in being authentically herself will the church serve society and its members, in time and in eternity.
In working for the common good of our society, racial justice is one pillar of our social doctrine. Economic justice, especially for the poor both here and abroad, is another. But the church comes also and always and everywhere with the memory, the conviction, that the eternal Word of God became man, took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, nine months before Jesus was born in Bethlehem. This truth is celebrated in our liturgy because it is branded into our spirit.
The common good can never be adequately incarnated in any society when those waiting to be born can be legally killed at choice. If the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision that African Americans were other people’s property and somehow less than persons were still settled constitutional law, Mr. Obama would not be president of the United States. Today, as was the case 150 years ago, common ground cannot be found by destroying the common good.
This is the 50th year since the calling of the Second Vatican Council by Blessed Pope John XXIII. The pope looked at a divided world and hoped that the church could act as Lumen Gentium calls us, as the “sacrament of the unity of the human race.” Those who would weaken our internal unity render the church’s external mission to the world more difficult if not impossible.
Jesus promised that the world would believe in him if we are one: one in faith and doctrine, one in prayer and sacrament, one in governance and shepherding. The church and her life and teaching do not fit easily into the prior narratives that shape our public discussions. As bishops, we can only insist that those who would impose their own agenda on the church, those who believe and act self-righteously, answerable only to themselves, whether ideologically on the left or the right, betray the Lord Jesus Christ.
Our episcopal conference is given us in the church’s canon law so that we might have an instrument for shaping spiritual unity, for creating the bonds of affection that help us to govern in communion with each other, especially in a divided world and in a church that knows dissent from some of her teachings and dissatisfaction with aspects of her governance.
As we all know, the church was born without episcopal conferences, as she was born without parishes and without dioceses, although all these structures have been helpful pastorally throughout the centuries. The church was born only with shepherds, with apostolic pastors, whose relationship to their people keeps them one with Christ, from whom comes authority to govern the church.
Strengthening people’s relationship with Christ remains our primary concern and duty as bishops. We extend that pastoral concern, especially at the beginning of a new administration and a new Congress, to Catholics of either major party who serve others in government. We respect you and we love you, and we pray that the Catholic faith will shape your decisions so that our communion may be full.
We meet amidst enormous challenges to our church, our country and our ministry, but that is, to some extent, always the case. Sometimes I’ve been tempted to think that bishops should be given, at their consecration, not crosiers but mops! What we are given before the crosier, if you recall, is the Word of God in written form, held above our head so that it may permeate our spirit.
With you, I pray that all the topics we consider in our meeting now and all we do in the difficult days to come will be done together in the charity of Christ, who is the source of our unity and our strength. In so governing, in calling all to join us in listening to the incarnate Word of God from within his body, the church, what we do now will have consequences for eternity; and we will be good shepherds to our people, good servants in our society and good disciples of Our Lord.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago