The Catholic tradition of the Red Mass dates back to the year 1245, when the Bishop of Paris brought together the lawyers and law students working in his city to pray that the Holy Spirit would bless them with wisdom and good counsel. The Church has been praying for holy and virtuous lawyers for eight hundred years. Maybe another eight hundred years will finally do the trick!
As attorneys, your call is to serve the Lord in the life of the mind and in the forum of civil government and public life. Each of you has the privilege of formation in the fundamental contours of American public life and law. With that privilege comes the obligation, indeed the vocation, to be leaders in American public life and discourse.
The Second Vatican Council, in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, declares that since the lay faithful are “tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer.” Your task is to shed light on the contours of our public life and to bring to bear, both in legal and political structures, the light of Christ the Redeemer.
To many people, the idea of public life transformed by Christ the Redeemer is an uncomfortable thought. We have an instinctual discomfort with the intersection of faith and public life because we’re trained according to the mantra of “separation of Church and state.” The common perception of most Americans is that faith is “supposed to be” the private relationship we share with the divine. We’re told this unique relationship is expressed most appropriately in worship and quiet devotion. To be sure, worship and private devotion are certainly components of faith. But faith is also meant to be lived in a public way, not “hidden under a bushel basket.”
My friend and mentor Archbishop Chaput often says: “faith is personal, but it is never private.” And as attorneys, you certainly understand the value the Founding Fathers themselves placed on the role of religious life in the public sphere.
Religion and Public Life
The Constitution establishes a prohibition against the erection of a state church or religious institution. It does not establish a prohibition against public religious expression or activity. In fact, while the Constitution establishes a freedom from religious oppression by a state Church, it also establishes a freedom for religious expression in the free exercise clause. The two concepts go hand in hand, because they reflect the experience and the perspective of the Founding Fathers.
Many early Americans knew firsthand the consequences of persecution by a state-sanctioned church or established religion. The Puritans who settled New England, the Catholics who settled Maryland, and the Jews from Eastern Europe who settled South Carolina all knew that for a democracy to thrive in America, an established state church should be avoided. But the goal was not aggressive or mandated secularism. None of the Founding Fathers believed that they should relinquish their religious perspectives when they entered Independence Hall. For many of them, it was their own religious perspective that drove them there to begin with! The goal of the First Amendment was precisely to protect active religious believers in public life.
This is a unique and often misunderstood facet of the American experiment’s genius: the recognition that religious institutions can be contributors to public morality and civic judgment precisely through the protection of largely unimpeded religious activity.
We should work hard to preserve and protect that notion. The Founding Fathers believed that it was essential for maintaining the social contract underlying the US Constitution. This is the reason why John Adams wrote in 1797, “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Public religious faith provides the ability to make moral judgments, which are rooted in a sense of the common good, rather than individual good. To borrow from Tocqueville, “where education and freedom are the children of morality and religion. . . democracy. . . makes better choices than everywhere else.” A religiously informed sense of the common good allows us to make better choices for public governance.
What Is the Purpose of Law?
St. Thomas Aquinas offers some insight into precisely why this is. In his Treatise on Law, St. Thomas outlines a vision for legislation that is rooted in the end, or telos, of law. The idea is that law is established to achieve a social purpose, to recognize and promote a particular virtue, for the sake of the good of the entire community. Law is the fruit of a reasoned attempt to achieve a common good and, as such, it seeks to transform those who are bound by it.
Law, for St. Thomas, is transformative. It sets us free to choose the common good by forming us in its service. “For law to be good,” St. Thomas observed, “it makes us good.”
The challenge in any democracy, particularly our contemporary US democracy, is identifying and agreeing upon what common good the law should pursue. It is dispiriting to believe that law exists merely to protect ourselves from one another—that the common good we pursue is a basic certitude and guarantee that we won’t kill each other. Our common good is more than just protection from barbarism.
In fact, law can free us to pursue more for ourselves. Law can point us in the right direction and help us to achieve it. That direction is the common good: the human flourishing of every member of our society.
Religious faith, and Christianity in particular, provides an external standard of justice and truth, as well as a clear sense of authentic human dignity. Promoting human dignity is the common good. Promoting the family is the common good. Protecting truth and preserving justice is why we make law. We need to bring that perspective to bear in the public square.
Fighting the Dictatorship of Relativism
In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI warned that we are marching toward a “dictatorship of relativism.” With no sense of truth, with no sense of common purpose or common good, the Holy Father says that we are simply “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine.” The dictatorship of relativism is the prevailing uncertainty, ambiguity, and confusion that we face in our culture today.
Here in Nebraska, we are facing a cultural crisis. The current judicial fight over marriage is a symptom of secularist ideology devoid of an understanding of the common good. It is a consequence of a culture with no sense of common justice or civic purpose and no sense of the great gift and importance of family life.
If the American experiment is to survive, it needs Christianity—and the influence of all religious believers. And if our legal system is to survive, it needs your influence. Our obligation is to work to restore a sense of the common good and a sense of the transcendent in American public discourse. If law continues to be an agent of self-interest, we will see more instances of religious persecution and family disintegration. On the other hand, if law helps us to identify, proclaim, and seek a common good, then we will have turned the tide and served the vision of the Founding Fathers.
Law can be transformative. Law can demonstrate the meaning of words like justice, truth, and freedom. Law can return us to virtue. As a nation, law can help us to choose the good.
Let me conclude with a story from American history that continues to fascinate me. Some of you may remember a Steven Spielberg film from a couple of decades ago, “Amistad.” It was a true story about a dozen or so African men on trial for rebelling against slave traders who had abducted them. “Amistad” was the name of the slave boat. They won their case, and it became an important milestone in the abolition movement.
The attorney who defended the Africans before the US Supreme Court was John Quincy Adams, our nation’s sixth president and son of John Adams, our second President and one of the nation’s Founding Fathers. He was the only president who served in Congress after his term ended. Accounts of the trial show that Adams repeatedly appealed to a copy of the Declaration of Independence that was hanging on a pillar before the high court justices.
At one point, Adams declared: “In the Declaration of Independence, the Laws of Nature are announced and appealed to as identical with the laws of Nature’s God—and as the foundation of all obligatory human laws.” Adams argued that if the rights of these African men were not given to them by God, then they could be taken away at the whim of other men or by the government. To deny the principles expressed in our Declaration, Adams argued, “reduces to brute force all the rights of man. It places all the sacred relations of life at the power of the strongest.”
John Quincy Adams was right. The Founding Fathers believed that religion and the laws derived from religious belief had a fundamental role to play in public and political life. Without it, they feared their noble experiment would fail. It isn’t too late for our noble experiment to succeed. But that depends on your courage, your commitment, and your trust in Jesus Christ.
James Conley is the Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska.