As we were reminded last month, when as a nation we laid him to rest, Ronald Reagan loved to refer to America as a city on the hill. It’s a powerful image – one taken from the Scriptures and he used it powerfully, though perhaps a bit imprecisely.
Today’s first reading refers to Jerusalem , and Jerusalem , a town built on top of Mount Zion , was perhaps the original ‘city on the hill”. But, for the prophets and later the apostles and the Early Fathers, Jerusalem stands for the City of God , and not a City of Man.
As St. Augustine pointed out in a Book he wrote as he watched the Roman Empire collapse around him, we, Christians, are citizens of both, the City of God and the City of Man. Today, July 4 th, we do well to thank God that the City of Man where we dwell is the United States of America and not the Rome that sent Christians to the lions.
God has indeed shed his grace on this land of ours. We enjoy many blessings here, not the least being our freedom of religion, guaranteed by the Constitution’s First Amendment – the State is prohibited from interfering in the religious practices of its citizens, there is to be no test for public office, etc.
Yet there are inevitable tensions for any City built by men, even a city that shines, as it were on a hill, as a beacon of liberty like our United States of America . For any City built by fallen men will unavoidably reflect man’s fallen nature.
200 years ago slavery was written into the constitution and of course women could not vote. More recently, the right to abortion has been read into our Constitution by our Supreme Court judges.
Having a dual citizenship – one in the City of Man by birthright or naturalization, the other in the City of God through baptism can bring about tensions. No surprise here –but thank God that our forefathers, in establishing our republican form of democracy, did not pretend that they were building heaven on earth. In the 20 th century, dreamers of that ilk – men like Stalin and Hitler and Castro – ended up making their nations hells on earth. Our Founding Fathers got it right in setting up a limited government –with checks and balances -in order to provide ordered freedom for its citizens. Even what has come to be called “separation of Church and State” although these words are not found in the constitution, was to limit the power of the state over purely religious affairs. In other words, it was meant to keep the State from dictating to the Church. It did not mean that government must be insulated from religious values, or the separation of faith from society. Indeed, from the beginning the participation of God-fearing people in the formulation of our nation’s laws and policies was welcomed and encouraged. Unlike those governments promoting a secularized heaven on earth, here in the United States , up until recently, the State and Church did not see themselves as rivals but as partners – partners in a healthy dialog to encourage the integral development of the human person and harmony in society. While today intellectuals and pundits often describe the US as a secular nation, our country could be more correctly described as an interfaith nation. Our founding principles acknowledge the presence of a Supreme Being from who certain inalienable rights are received. Our government is based on the worldview that God exists – and his existence is the first principle of our form of government: he is the one who endowed us with those inalienable rights.
No wonder, Ronald Reagan could describe with such exuberance and confidence America as that City on the Hill. However, today in America , the role of faith is increasingly under attack. Public institutions whether in government or the media hardly ever take account of the role that religion plays in the lives of most Americans, except to criticize it. And more and more the price of admission to public life is to check one’s faith-based values at the door. When we speak about abortion or rights of immigrants, we are accused of imposing our religious views; when we call for parental rights and choice in education, we are told that we are violating the separation of Church and state. If we defend the traditional understanding of marriage, we are accused of being intolerant. Religion is a private matter, we are told.
As Christians and Catholics we are guided by the words of Jesus who teaches us “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God”. But in doing so, we understand that Caesar does not stand apart from God but is also subject to God. For this reason, Peter and the other apostles defied the civil authorities of their day who tied to prohibit them from preaching with the words: “We must obey God rather than men”.
For the earliest days of Christianity, the Church has taught that unjust laws cannot bind our consciences. But our consciences can and must challenge such unjust laws less we become complicit in their evil. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., used to say: The Church is not meant to be the master of the State, nor is the Church its servant, the Church must be its conscience.
Thank God for the black Churches of 1960’s who became the conscience of America and helped bring to an end the shame of Jim Crow and racial discrimination. The Civil Rights movement of the 60’s was in its inspiration and leadership a religious movement. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist preacher. The marches were staged from Churches, and the marchers were for the most part Church members.
This fact is conveniently forgotten today. Many of those same people who would rightly applaud their accomplishments today would criticize bishops and priests for speaking out on the moral issues of our day. They want to impose their beliefs on us! How dare they – don’t they know about separation of Church and State?
We cannot privatize our beliefs – this is not our Catholic faith, nor are we as Americans required to do so.
Who is imposing his views – the bishop that reminds his people what the obligations of Catholic life entail? Or, the supreme court of Massachusetts that by judicial fiat overturns the common understanding of marriage held for millennium in order to allow same sex couples to attempt marriage.
When we act as citizens, we do not impose our views. The Church has no army, she has no police force to impose her views; all the Church can do – all we can do as members of the Church and at the same time as members of an earthly City is make our proposition. We don’t impose, we propose – and hopefully in the give and take of the democratic process, we can convince our fellow citizens of the wisdom of what we propose and thereby affect changes in law and custom.
As Catholics we cannot opt out of the political system. In the first place, if we allowed ourselves to be cowered into keeping quiet, in “staying in our place”, we would reduce our elves to being “second class citizens”. In the second place, opting out is not our Catholic way. Opting out would be a failure of charity, a failure to render the service of sharing the good news to our brothers. In our Catholic tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue; and, participation in the political process is a moral obligation.
As Catholics we should remember the words of Mary at the marriage feast of Cana . She spoke to the servants and told them: “Do what he (Jesus) tells you.” She was the first disciple. And she shows us how to be disciples. In today’s gospel, Jesus chose 72 disciples and sent them out to every town he intended to visit. And what did they say but to tell the people to do what Jesus tells them. And today we too are sent. We have a proposal to make about what constitutes a good life. We have something to say. We have a word to share – and that word is Jesus.
In today’s gospel the disciples are sent to proclaim the Kingdom. In other words, they are sent to proclaim the good news of a New City to which we have been called in Jesus Christ, to the New and Eternal Jerusalem of which the Church is its sign on earth.
Jesus does not promise them an easy road. He throws them to the wolves so to speak. “I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.”
Nor does Jesus promise them easy success: “Whatever town you enter and they do not receive you, go out and shake its dust from your feet”. Mother Teresa, beautified last October by the Pope, was fond of saying: God does ask not us to be successful just faithful. And when Jesus sent his disciples out two by two he forbade them to carry what would be for their contemporary’s signs of success. “Carry no money bag, no sack, and no sandals.”
In the United States , thanks to our system of government that has created conditions for freedom and prosperity, we Catholics have become rather successful. Most of us are children or grandchildren of immigrants. We’ve come a long way. But today, we Catholics are called to be not just prosperous citizens, not just successful citizens, but faithful citizens.
The apostles carried no money, no big stick, – they just offered peace. And so, today, as Catholic by bringing our faith into the marketplace, the ballot box and public square, we not impose our views on anyone – we make however a proposition, a proposition about what is the good life.
In the early 1960’s, a Jesuit Father, John Courtnay Murray, wrote a book entitled, We hold These Truths. In it, he outlined the compatibility between Catholic teachings and the democratic experiment. His thinking led to Vat document on religious freedom and a new attitude. In America , Catholics discovered that the Church did not have to be an official religion in order to prosper.
But in the 1960’s, a prayer decision, in 1970’s abortion decision, in 1980’s, pornography….Now we see increasing attempts to marginalize religion – the Separation of Church and State now is seen as separation of religion from society.
In the history of our nation, it was never easy to be a Catholic… If today, we face prejudice from secularist elites, we have also faced prejudice from Protestants. In the 1920’s in rural Indiana one preacher was railing against, that when a stranger got off the train they grabbed and almost lynched him. They thought he was Pope Pius XI in disguise. He wasn’t – and fortunately he was able to convince them, who he was, a corset salesman from Chicago .
What does America need from the Catholic Church today? It needs for us Catholics to be truly Catholic – that’s the best contribution we can make, for in being the best Catholics we can be the best citizens. During WWII, my father’s generation proved that you could be Catholic and American. He was born in Poland , grew up here as an immigrant just like those Mexicans up the road. He and other ethnic Catholics honorably served in our nation. And I would say that today in Iraq , Catholics are overrepresented. And, in secular NYC, where NY times has hardly ever a kind work for Catholic teachings, as the memorial services brought home so clearly, the majority of the policemen, firefighters and emergency workers were Catholic.
In today’ second reading, St. Paul tells us to boast of nothing but the cross. As Catholics, let us witness to the Cross. Because of the cross we are saved: this good news is comforting – but it is not comfortable. Perhaps, we have spent too much effort in making our religion comfortable so that we can get along in society. But our task as disciples is not to change our religion but to change the world.
Most Rev. Thomas Wenski
Bishop of Orlando
Homily at St. Ann, DeBary, FL