Sunday, October 28, 2012

Homily, 30th Sun O.T. Year B: The Priest and the Moral Implications of a Vote

On the Sundays in the month of October and November we hear our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. This New Testament letter beautifully describes Jesus Christ’s own Priesthood, and by extension the Catholic Priesthood. For example, on the first Sunday of October we heard how the priest is able to relate to his people because he has suffered as they have, “therefore he is not ashamed to call them brothers.” On the second Sunday, we heard that priests are to preach the Word of God, even if that Word is quite penetrating. The Word of God must be “living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.” Preaching such a penetrating word is challenging to the priest as well! Often when I preach, I’m thinking of myself first and foremost, and the ways in which I need to pursue ongoing conversion. Last Sunday’s reading from Hebrews said, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested.” That reading ended with a consoling encouragement for you and I when we are challenged by the Gospel: “Let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.” Finally, in today’s reading from Hebrews, we learned that “every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” No one takes this honor upon himself, the Letter continues, “but only when called by God.”

So, as we have walked together through this beautiful Letter to the Hebrews we have seen that Jesus Christ and each of his priests are to each of you a brother; a preacher of a penetrating Word that gets at the heart of matters; one able to sympathize with the need to be challenged in order to grow in holiness, and one who is called by God to stand before Him as your representative. It is with this mandate and honor that I wish to say a word about the moral implications of the presidential election coming up… now only a little more than a week away.

My job is not to tell you who to vote for or against. I wouldn’t want you to tell me who to vote for so I won’t do that to you. But, what I am called to do is help and guide you toward making moral decisions. All of our actions are either morally virtuous, morally neutral, or morally sinful. As your priest, as your Associate Pastor, my vocation to teach, sanctify and govern most certainly includes preaching about morality. It is not wrong or illegal to speak about politics in Church if we focus on the morality of politics rather than partisanship. We can certainly talk about morality in Church.

A vote is a political act, but it is also a moral act. And a Catholic should vote not according to partisan politics but most importantly according to Catholic principles and a well-formed Catholic conscience. Our votes have moral implications because votes are powerful things that that can often either do good or do harm. With our vote we are capable of enabling and supporting the moral or immoral acts of politicians who have great power and influence over God’s people. The power of a vote becomes more and more apparent the tighter and tighter our elections become.

In order to help us wade through the morality of the issues at stake in a presidential election, the Catholic Church in America gives us a helpful document called “Faithful Citizenship” which is a guide for Catholics on how to exercise their faith not only in their private or interior life, but in their political life as well. Unfortunately, some commentators have taken this document out of context in order to justify putting all issues on the same moral plane. But, the truth is that there is a hierarchy of issues and it stands to reason that those that directly affect life should be on top while those that indirectly affect life should fall beneath them. The document does do a good job of explaining this hierarchy. It also explains well how some political issues have to do with intrinsic moral evils, things that are essentially sinful and can never be justified. Other issues may concern things that are evil under some circumstances but can be justified in others. There are some things that faithful Catholics must always reject, for example, abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, and attempts to redefine marriage This doesn’t come from me; this is clear, faithful Church teaching. Besides these, there are other issues that faithful Catholics can disagree on or that aren’t absolutely or essentially evil, for example, capital punishment in rare circumstances, the proper response to poverty, and how to address unemployment or healthcare.

This year’s version of the Faithful Citizenship document is indeed very helpful, and I think the strongest version of it yet. It relies heavily though on another document from the Church in America that hasn’t gotten as much press or attention. It is called, Living the Gospel of Life. Let’s take a look at this. This is a little lengthy but I think it lays out nicely the proper approach that a faithful Catholic should take to the election coming soon. Listen to how uses the image of a house to illustrate the various issues at hand. Some issues form the frame and the walls of the house, while others form the foundation. It says:

Adopting a consistent ethic of life, the Catholic Church promotes a broad spectrum of issues… Opposition to abortion and euthanasia does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing and health care. Therefore, Catholics should eagerly involve themselves as advocates for the weak and marginalized in all those areas. Catholic public officials are obliged to address each of these issues as they seek to build consistent policies which promote respect for the human person at all stages. But being “right” in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the “rightness” of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community. If we understand the human person as “the temple of the Holy Spirit” – the living house of God – then these [issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, etc.] fall logically into place as the crossbeams and walls of that house. [But] all direct attacks on innocent human life, such as abortion and euthanasia, strike at the house’s foundation. Neglect of these issues is the equivalent of building our house on sand. Such attacks cannot help but lull the social conscience in ways ultimately destructive of other human rights.

The earlier teaching of our beloved Holy Father, Blessed John Paul II, on the Vocation and Mission of the Laity, has a similar message. He said, “Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights -- for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture -- is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition of all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination." Again, this doesn’t come from me, this comes from the Church.

We have seen clearly and consistently from our shepherds that the house of issues, like the temple of the Holy Spirit, should be respected for what it is. It would be unreasonable and maybe even sinful to vote for some issues as if they were the foundation of the house when they are really only the walls or crossbeams; or to put the foundation on the top of the house and the roof on the floor; or to build the whole thing on sand.

Again, I am not telling you who to vote for or against. What I am doing is challenging you, and me! to vote not according to party affiliation first and foremost, but instead according to Catholic principles and a well-formed Catholic conscience, a conscience informed by the Church’s clear and consistent teaching concerning the hierarchy of issues, the intrinsic moral evil of some issues, and the legitimate disagreement that can be had with other issues.

One of the candidate’s party platform, as described at its recent national convention, contains multiple intrinsic moral evils, the other one, as described at its convention, does not. I don’t need to tell you which one is which. Remember, a vote is a powerful thing that can have a morally good, neutral, or evil effect and so it reflects on our morality as well. Bishop Paprocki, the bishop of Springfield in Illinois put it very succinctly back in a September 23 column in his diocese’s newspaper: “think and pray very carefully about your vote, because a vote for a candidate who promotes actions or behaviors that are intrinsically evil and gravely sinful makes you morally complicit and places the eternal salvation of your own soul in serious jeopardy.”

Remember too, what we heard together about the priest described in the Letter to the Hebrews. I am preaching this in order to be for you a “brother”, your “representative before God,” someone painfully aware of his own need to be challenged in the moral life. I know that for some this homily has been quite affirming. For others it may be as Hebrews described a couple weeks ago: “sharper than a two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow.” But I’m not being your true brother, your true representative before God if I fail to speak about moral issues both when it is easy and when it is hard. When the moral life gets hard we don’t just leave each other alone. We pray for each other, we challenge each other, we support each other. And together we “confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.”