Homily of Bishop Paul Zipfel
for the Biennial Mass for Legislators and Public Officials
January 29, 2009
Ephesians 4, 1-6
Luke 4, 16-22
We gather in this Cathedral dedicated to the Holy Spirit asking for guidance upon our efforts to create and sustain a just society in this legislative assembly. The task of the homilist is to take the rich biblical readings we have heard on justice and the law, and apply them to the practical world in which we live.
Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians admonishes us to live in harmony and justice with one another. Saint Luke presents the image of Jesus who brings glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives, sight for the blind. We in our day are called to work for a just society that cares for the weak and poor, defending the rights of all, not just the privileged.
My brothers and sisters, North Dakota is not a territory cut off from the mainland of human suffering. Here too you have the hungers of the human family. Here, too, children cry for food, and grown men despair of work. Here, too, the old are anxious how they will live and find so few who will love. Here, too, race can make for hate. The young are restless. Alcohol and drugs destroy bodies and souls. Here, too, the powerless lift pitiful hands to heaven, and the middle class tremble to an uncertain future. I pray for you who are our elected officials that you spend your lives in the service of this kind of justice.
You are an incredibly powerful group, because this nation is founded on law. And so, in large measure, this nation is founded on your administration of the law. It is true that our legal hands are not lily white. We look back with shame on a Dred-Scott decision that declared slaves to be property. We blush that in the Land of the Free women have been second class citizens for so long. And we cannot applaud when programs for the poor and the underprivileged are cut back for inadequate reasons or get bogged down because of political infighting. And you must surely cry for those colleagues of yours for whom the law is a game, whose name is victory – where the prize goes to the brilliant and the prestigious, to the crafty and the manipulator.
There are four propositions that have contributed to the loss of our moral moorings and the increase of secularization in our pursuit of justice within the last century:
1. The rise of moral relativism
2. The rejection of the reality of virtue
3. The decline of personal responsibility
4. The intellectual pride that believes that we human beings can solve the mysteries of life without God.
Moral relativism rejects the reality of justice, because it rejects any moral absolutes. But good and evil are not relative. That which is in accord with God’s unchangeable will is good; that which is opposed to it is evil.
The denial of virtue attacks justice at its heart. When Bill Bennett submitted his book to the publishers, they wanted to title it The Book of Values. Mr. Bennett rightly insisted that it be The Book of Virtues. Justice is one of the cardinal virtues upon which all right-living is based.
The decline of personal responsibility attacks justice because it says that we have no free will, but are merely complex animals that are predetermined. The truth is that human beings can and do rise above all external factors to make those free decisions for which they are alone responsible.
Finally, some say that the human person is the measure of all things. Only when we humbly acknowledge that there is much we do not know and turn to God, who is truth, that we are able to approach the foundation of justice.
We must look past these maxims of the modern age and root ourselves once again in eternal truths, which alone can restore our faith in justice.
St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that justice is that virtue by which we “give to each one what is his due,” not only in material matters but in all those things physical, intellectual, moral and spiritual that are the birthright of each human being. This definition presumes three Judeo-Christian truths:
1. That there is a personal God who has created and ordered all things to show his glory and love
2. That this God has created us human beings in his image, which includes an ability to know the truth of God’s order and purpose in human history.
3. That God has endowed us with free will, giving us the real ability to choose good and evil, for which we can rightly be held accountable.
Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that there is objective truth and unchanging moral values, and that these are essential to society. It is in returning to these truths that we can rescue faith in the reality of justice.
We are all aware of the burdens public office brings. Public officials are ridiculed in the media routinely. Late night talk shows scorn our leaders. Public service comes at a high price. I have great admiration for you who are willing to serve as judges, elected officials and members of the legal profession despite the difficulties.
We all come through divisive political campaigns. Some wounds among members of our own church have not yet been healed. We must all pray in a spirit of humility for the forgiveness we need as we exchange a sign of peace at this Eucharistic liturgy.
How important, how noble, is your task: to lead people to truth and to the demands of truth! Truth, which alone can give real hope and dignity to human life. Pursue it with purity of heart, asking yourself often why you do what you do as a public official. And pray always, asking God to enlighten you in this vocation, which has such a profound effect on the lives of others and our common life as a society. Let us work together so that real justice will be found in the hearts of men and women.
Bishop Paul Zipfel
Diocese of Bismarck