Mass for the Opening of the Legislative Year 2017

Law, Government and the Common Good delivered by Bishop David Kagan


I wish to welcome all of you this evening to our Holy Mass and our gathering afterward and to thank you in my own name and that of Bishop Folda, and in the name of the entire staff of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, for your good service to all of us, the citizens of North Dakota who have chosen you to represent us and to act on our behalf to advance the common good of all.

My sermon this evening is not meant to be an academic lecture on law and government but I offer you, our legislators, a frame of reference for what you do from the Roman Catholic Church’s moral and social teachings. Historically, the Catholic Church’s moral teachings have their source in both the Old and New Testaments – the Ten Commandments of God and the Lord Jesus’ definitive teaching of the Great Commandment and the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount respectively.

The Church’s social teachings are the direct result and the good fruit of a right and faithful living of its moral teachings. There is no disparity or dichotomy between loving the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving your neighbor as yourself. The beauty of this objective and timeless truth is that it applies to every person no matter his or her belief or lack of belief. The Church teaches: “Man participates in the wisdom and goodness of the Creator who gives him mastery over his acts and the ability to govern himself with a view to the true and the good” (CCC 1954).

This truth is part and parcel of who we are as persons; it is of the very stuff of being a human being who lives in time and in a specific place in direct and indirect relationships with other human beings. This truth is of the natural order and rule of our lives which we can know and understand by our own reason and experience. In fact, the common denominator for the Church’s moral and social teachings is each of us, the person possessed of a dignity received from the Creator which, lived in society in relationships, is to be protected, defended and fostered by the society itself. This rule of our lives is termed ‘natural’ not in reference to irrational nature but because reason on which it is based properly belongs to human nature, to us as persons (cf. CCC 1955).

Here is the intersection of what the Church calls the “common good” and the rule of law. For the Church, “law is a rule of conduct enacted by competent authority for the sake of the common good” (CCC 1951). Saint Thomas Aquinas refers to this law as “an ordinance of reason . . .” Thus, for the Church, law is reasonable and justified and therefore good, when it exists to order the common good and the inverse is just as true for the Church. Law is unreasonable and unjustified and therefore bad when its existence creates disorder and diminishes the common good. For the Catholic Church, there is a necessary and essential connection between reason and law and between law and reason. When this connection is altered, damaged or broken, the common good suffers and therefore, persons suffer.

The Church’s understanding of the ‘common good’ as expressed in its genuine social teachings has always been based on and oriented to the dignity and progress of persons. It states clearly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: ‘The order of things must be subordinated to the order of persons, and not the other way around’. This order is founded on truth, built up in justice, and animated by love” (CCC 1912).

Law and government have a real, natural and reasonable affinity for each other and succeed in facilitating the life of justice and virtue, peace and security, that is, the common good, for those whom they serve when they are the means to the end of protecting and fostering the common good, and not the end in themselves. As elected public officials charged with governing, the best measure for crafting good laws is always their measure against what is objectively true and good for each person and all persons governed.

Good laws, that is, those which create a rule of conduct for the fostering of the common good of all, make for better citizens who have their rights protected but also know and understand their mutual responsibilities in the exercise of their rights.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the common good can only be attained through fostering ‘respect for the person as such’, facilitating the fulfillment of his duties and protecting his proper freedoms and rights; fostering the ‘social well-being and development’ of the community in its material and spiritual aspects; and fostering ‘peace’ which is “the stability and security of a just order” (CCC, 1907-1909).

May our good God give you every grace to enact and amend our laws based on what is true and good. You have our prayers as well as our gratitude and respect.