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Archbishop Wenski's homily at Red Mass

Message to Catholic legal professionals, given June 2, 2010

Homily by Archbishop Thomas Wenski
Red Mass
June 2, 2010


Today's Red Mass -- invoking the guidance of the Holy Spirit on the officers of the court -- unites us to a long and noble tradition which recognizes the sovereignty of God over all human claims to sovereignty. Our own experiment in constitutional democracy embraced this tradition since its very beginnings. For example, one of the foundational documents of our republic, the Declaration of Independence, states: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights….”

The red color of the vestments worn by the clergy this evening recall the fire of the Spirit which descended upon the early Church and which has remained with her and will remain with her until the return of Jesus Christ. This flame red color signifies the courage -- which is the Spirit’s gift to the disciple -- as he goes forth into the world to witness to Jesus Christ. This Jesus is God's own last word on the truth about God and on the truth about man.

The color of our liturgical apparel is flame red for courage; but also it can be described as blood red -- for red vestments are also used to mark the feast of our martyrs. The word "martyr" itself comes from the Greek and means simply "witness". The martyrs are those whose unwavering commitment to the truth about God and man in Jesus Christ led them to accept even death. For martyrs believe that there is a fate worse than death. They accepted to die rather than to betray the one who is the Truth, the Way and the Life.

As officers of the court you have a most worthy patron in St. Thomas More, chancellor of King Henry VIII. The martyrdom of this lawyer and confessor of the faith earns our admiration and should inspire our imitation even as we seek his intercession before Jesus, the Just Judge of the Living and the Dead.

Through his intercession, may the Holy Spirit give you in your mission, as Catholics and as professional people who are sworn officers of the courts of our land, the aid of his seven-fold gifts so that you, like Thomas More, will have the courage of your convictions and thus be faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ.

St. Thomas More suffered martyrdom because he refused to accede to the King Henry the VIII's unjust and overreaching demand that loyalty to him and the State should precede More's loyalty to God and the Church. Thomas More refused to betray the truth revealed in Jesus Christ about God and Man -- and the right relationship of man to his God. A man of a strong Catholic faith, he refused to betray his conscience. This conscience was not a capricious one; but one formed by reasoned faith and faith filled reason. "I am," he said, "the King's good servant; but God's servant first."

Today, we live in different times, of course. But the particular shape -- or the peculiar shape of our times -- was born of the convulsive breakup of Catholic Europe that took place of course during that span of time in which Thomas More lived. More was a man of his times. He was a Renaissance man as was, of course, Machiavelli. But Thomas More's witness was precisely in his refusal to go along with the spirit of those times.

His witness is also one much needed in our contemporary society. We need that witness of "acting in the truth" that characterized More's life and his death. We need that witness especially today when objective moral principles and truth, understood as necessarily larger than us, are removed from the domain of public life, leaving the public square, as it were, naked. Today, with the irrationality that so much characterizes our post modern society and with the sophistry that so often today passes as jurisprudence, a radical secularism threatens to replace a healthy secularity in civil society. In such a state of affairs, justice becomes increasingly Machiavellian -- or simply the utilitarian imposition of the will of the strong.

How important, then, that that same Holy Spirit which guided Thomas More, guide us today when our contemporaries and we ourselves are often tempted to consider deceit, selfishness and subordination of the common good as legitimate means for winning political office or professional advancement.

During the Great Jubilee Year 2000, the Servant of God, Pope John Paul II, declared St. Thomas More as the patron saint of politicians. He did so because the Holy Father believed that political life can be -- and should be -- a legitimate vocation, that is, a path to holiness. And your service in the legal profession, your service as officers of the court, is likewise a path to holiness, a true vocation in which you are called to live out the implications of your baptism.

Two of John Paul II’s encyclicals are worthy of special mention today as we ask God’s guidance for you and all officers of the court. Splendor Veritatis -- that encyclical which concerned the proper relationship of truth and freedom -- along with Fides et Ratio -- on the relationship of faith and reason -- are important milestones in the contemporary Church's dialogue with modern society, which has lost its moorings and is adrift in a sea of relativism and subjectivism.

According to the late Pope, the primary origin of today's crisis of morality lies in a rupture of the connection between truth and freedom. Jesus said: you will know the truth and the truth will make you free. Thus, only the frank and open acceptance of the truth is the condition for authentic freedom. Freedom is rooted in the truth about man.

We read in Fides et Ratio: "Freedom and truth go together hand in hand or together they perish.”

Today's climate of moral relativism has invaded our culture -- from academia to the academy awards. It denies any truth character to moral statements. Moral judgments are held to be purely subjective sentiments. The hyper-individualism of our culture gives free reign to the individual will unenlightened and unencumbered by reason. Thus, our therapeutic society values "sincerity" over truth, feeling over reason.

We have gone from "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights….” -- an affirmation consistent with the legacy of our Judeo-Christian heritage -- to the Supreme Court’s Casey v. Planned Parenthood. In Casey v. Planned Parenthood, the Court compounds the folly of Roe v Wade and virtually establishes a new secular religion based on the "right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life".

Thomas More literally lost his head because he refused in conscience to give legitimacy to Henry VIII’s declaring himself Head of the Church of England. Today, we are challenged to bear witness to our tradition of natural law, and our belief in the objectivity and universality of moral norms. As Catholics living and working in an increasing hostile environment, we have to argue that natural law, objective truth, and universal moral norms do offer the best framework for recognizing the inherent dignity and worth of every individual and of the construction of a just society and political order.

This is what John Paul II does in his encyclicals, Splendor Veritatis and Fides et Ratio. It is important to note that the Pope is not trying to impose his beliefs, his morality, nor is he seeking any special privileges for the Catholic Church. This is sometimes alleged by those who would exclude voices of faith from public discourse. This Pope has several times stated that the Church proposes; she does not impose. This Pope has clearly moved away from the ecclesial polity of past centuries which sought to use the state to advance Church teachings and enforce adherence to Church doctrine. No, his is a proposition, an invitation to dialogue, an invitation to rediscover once again the reasonableness of reason itself.

And the stakes are high: society must be engaged in dialogue on the reasonableness of these propositions. Indeed, if any reference to a common truth is ruled out, it still remains necessary to lay down a minimum of norms if human beings are to live together. Without reference to the truth about the human person -- a truth universally knowable through the moral law written on the hearts of all -- “freedom deteriorates into license in the lives of individuals, and in political life, it becomes the caprice of the most powerful and the arrogance of power.”

The only recourse is that of judicial positivism: to seek procedural rules that guarantee equal opportunity for every position represented at the table. But this ultimately leads to a dead end. And our pluralistic society has reached this dead end when it seems to be based precisely on a common agreement to set aside truth claims about the good and to adopt instead relativism governed by majority rule as the foundation of democracy.

The only justice that such a society can attain would supposedly require all parties to give up any claim to absolute truth about the good. By the same token, reason is reduced to pure form and instrument; it no longer has to do with ends and means, which have instead become the province of irrational tastes and arbitrary subjective judgments.

When a democracy bases itself on moral relativism and when it considers every ethical principle or value to be negotiable (including every human being's fundamental right to life), it is already, and in spite of its formal rules, on its way to totalitarianism. The might of right quickly becomes might makes right.

As members of the Bar, you are very close to these issues; you can see the result of the moral relativism of our times in the many issues that come before you. In fact, I would say that the growing instances of jury nullification show the eroding of the consensus expressed by the founding fathers about “the unalienable rights endowed by the Creator”. As Catholics and members of the Bar, I invite you to see yourselves -- with John Paul II, and now Benedict XVI and the Church -- as protagonists of this engagement and dialogue with your peers and with the larger society proposed by John Paul II.

As Catholic lawyers you are called to witness the Church’s faith which you claim as your own -- thanks to God’s good graces -- that "Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling" (Redemptor Hominis).

I challenge you to read, study, reflect upon these two important encyclicals that touch directly on these life defining issues -- truth, freedom, ethics, law, justice -- that you deal with every day. Bring your faith to the intellectual demands of your profession and your intellect to your faith.

Following the example of St. Thomas More, may you also be the King's good servant; that is, may you also be good servants of the court, of the rule of law, by being God's servants first.


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