19 September 2010

Honestly serving a dishonest Master

25th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Blackfriars, Oxford/Oxford Oratory

If you pay any attention at all to American politics and the so-called “culture wars” that rage across my country's media landscape, then you have no doubt heard an oft-repeated distinction, a highly dubious distinction. Candidates for political office when confronted with the need to proclaim their religious allegiances will often say that they are “deeply spiritual” but “not all that religious.” This same distinction is sometimes couched in slightly different terms when suspicion is cast on the role that their religious beliefs might play in how they will govern. While clinging to the obvious need to appear mainstream in a deeply religious nation and at the same time squelch any fears that sectarianism rules them, candidates will confidently proclaim that they are “personally religious” but “publicly secular.” In other words, what they believe to be true about their relationship with God will not be allowed to influence how they behave once given political power. Predictably enough, it is almost always Catholic politicians who are forced to confess their willingness, their eagerness to take on a heart and mind divided between Caesar and Christ. Though it should be disconcerting to Americans that we are soothed by a politician's willingness to sell his soul for votes, we nonetheless demand that he do just that. What's more disconcerting is how many and how often politicians—especially Catholic politicians—meekly submit to this brutal abuse of their consciences. What do they make of Jesus saying, “No servant can serve two masters. . .You cannot serve both God and mammon”?

Our Lord lays down this unambiguous, uncompromising law of service in the context of a story meant to highlight the nature of trustworthiness. Who is worthy of being trusted? Who deserves the faith we might be persuaded to place in them? He says that those who can be trusted with small matters can be trusted with larger ones. Anyone who betrays our trust in the smallest matters cannot be trusted with matters of greater importance. Lest we think that this is some piece of pedantic advice, he adds, “If you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth?” His point is this: if you cannot be honest when everyone around you is lying, then why should anyone trust you when everyone else is telling the truth? Your integrity as a witness to the truth will not survive if you are eager to compromise when the situation appears to demand your surrender. You serve the Truth or you serve the Lie. You cannot serve both.

For Catholics living in liberal democracies that purport to embody God-given, natural human rights, our Lord's stark choice is unsettling. As our Holy Father recently noted to the politicians gathered at Westminster Hall, western democracies are becoming increasingly aggressive in promoting the demands of atheistic secularism. Prominent among these demands is the removal of all religious discourse from the public square. The argument seems to be that any alleged good that religious belief might bring to the civil discussion is far outweighed by the tendency of religious believers to do violence to the rights on non-believers. Since religious belief, the argument goes, is an intensely private, purely spiritual endeavor, believers cannot be trusted to act for the common good. Not only are believers simply wrong to argue against abortion and wrong to argue against same-sex “marriage,” their willingness to make such arguments and their eagerness to suppress the right to an abortion and the right to a same-sex “marriage” is evidence enough that believers are determined to use political power to impose their private religious preferences on those who do not share in these preferences. Such oppression, such domination can be prevented by demanding that those who hold political power renounce any intention—no matter how small—of pulling from their private spiritual beliefs when making political decisions. But even this is not enough. Mammon, like God Himself, is not satisfied with half-measures. In order to protect basic human rights in a liberal democracy, religious belief and religious believers must be banned from the public square—silenced, if not outright eliminated altogether. And thus, believers—especially Catholics—are made to squirm before the threats of Mammon in order to serve the common good.

Drawing on a theme dear to John Cardinal Newman, our Holy Father said to those gathered at Westminster Hall, “Without the corrective supplied by religion. . .reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. . .Religion. . .is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation.” If we would take our place at the table and make a vital contribution to the national conversation, then we must do so as those utterly given over to the service of Christ. Our service cannot be limited to submitting ourselves to the dubious distinction between innocuous spirituality and rigid religiosity. We cannot serve Christ through his Church by surrendering to the secularist premise that our faith is purely private and therefore inadmissible as evidence against radical social experimentation. God will not be served in a democracy by compromising our natural right to speak from a faithful heart, to reason with the mind of Christ, and to act in charity for those most in need. Our Lord is best served, he is only served when we speak the truth in love. . .even if so speaking means the loss of everything and everyone we hold dear. We can serve the truth or we can serve the lie. We cannot serve two masters. 

Earlier, I noted that Jesus presents us with the stark choice between God and Mammon in the context of a story about trustworthiness. Who is worthy of being trusted? The one who deals honestly with dishonest wealth. Liberal western democracies are expert at creating dishonest wealth, not only financial wealth but political wealth as well, enormous power and enormous influence. As faithful servants of Christ, we are charged with dealing honestly in culture saturated with dishonest wealth. If we will remain honest among so much dishonesty, we must make Christ and his Good News the rock-bottom foundation of our every thought, our every word, our every deed. Paul makes it clear to Timothy that God wills that everyone be saved “and come to knowledge of the truth. For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as ransom for all.” This must be our contribution to the conversation occurring in the public square. Nothing less. Part-time honest is nothing more than full-time dishonesty. We can serve the public without becoming publicly servile. 

I will end with an exclamation from our Holy Father's sermon delivered at Westminster Cathedral: “How much we need, in the Church and in society, witnesses of the beauty of holiness, witnesses of the splendour of truth, witnesses of the joy and freedom born of a living relationship with Christ!”

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