In the fall of 1990, Blessed John Paul II had a letter sent to all the bishops of the world inviting them to observe the 100th anniversary in 1991 of the publication of Pope Leo XIII’s renowned encyclical on social justice, Rerum Novarum. Working in Boston at the time, I proposed to the Cardinal that I devote a weekly column in the Archdiocesan newspaper, The Pilot, to Catholic social teaching beginning with Rerum Novarum but setting forth the vast richness of Catholic social doctrine, one of the Church’s great legacies of the past 120 years. Searching for a title for this new series, I was praying in St. Peter’s Basilica and “making the rounds” of the papal tombs. Pope Gregory XIII’s tomb caught my eye. He was the pope who gave us the calendar we use throughout most of the world. He was a pope of faith who also was very committed to the Church’s role as both a spiritual and an intellectual force for good in the world. On the tomb of this holy and learned man was a muse holding a plaque that quoted the Book of Revelation. It read Fidem et opera nova: faith and new works. Thus was born a column that has continued after the centennial of Leo’s encyclical. From December 1990 to this week in 2012, “Faith and New Works” seemed to me then and does still now to capture the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, the powerful teaching and witness of Popes Paul VI and John Paul II and the evangelical spirit that so animates the mind and heart of our present Holy Father, Pope Benedict.
When the Holy Father sent me here to the Diocese of Rockville Centre, I expanded the scope to include all aspects of the life of the Church without sacrificing my love of Catholic social doctrine and that set of principles that offers to people of faith or no faith a sure guide to social justice, equity and the protection of human dignity and human rights that truly advances the good of the person and the common good of all.
These principles seem to me to be even more important in our contemporary society in which the ideals and values of our tradition have been jettisoned in favor of a society of selfishness, greed, power and corruption. Rights are not any longer defined in relation to responsibilities but are egoistic demands for personal and communitarian privileges. Human dignity has been sacrificed on the altar of utilitarianism. If it works you can do it, even you must do it, regardless of the havoc wreaked by practices that destroy human life in the name of “reproductive rights.” Politics, which the Church regards as a noble profession, has been debased by men and women who simply want to keep their jobs and their power even if it means giving up any semblance of commitment to reason and justice. For 50 years we have seen freedom and self determination undermined by a government that cannot get enough money because it has the ambition not to serve citizens and their freedom but to control citizens and their choices.
Faith traditions that have served the greater public with sacrifice, devotion and true acts of justice and charity are now derided. Their ability to continue their good works inspired by faith in a loving God for all people are being threatened every day by mandates and regulations that serve special interest groups which are not just secular but are truly antagonistic to religion and persons of faith and morals.
Elections are decided not by the people but by those in power who can get the most money and manipulate the news, which has become not an agency of information but an active voice slavishly spinning reality to guarantee that the people will not prevail over their own self-serving interests.
And they wonder why young people are confused, distracted, depressed and fall prey to all kinds of self-destructive habits of substance abuse, sexual excess and socially negative activities.
There is a way out. The ancient Greeks set a high standard for the city and for society. A virtuous society depended on a virtuous citizenry and virtuous leadership. The greater the practice of virtue, the less need for law. The more base the life of society, the greater need for law to protect persons and the common good. The philosophical genius of Athens became wedded to the religious tradition of Jerusalem that became the basis of the synthesis of western society through the Roman respect for law. Christianity adopted all that and transformed it into a vision of a good society, most notably beginning with St. Augustine’s masterful treatise, “The City of God.”
Faithful citizenship demands responsibility on the part of all. A good society needs us not to become discouraged, not to become cynical and to resist the temptation to the great sirens of human living: wealth, power, honors and self-centered pleasure. The prophets told us that “strength comes from on high.” A vision of human living that excludes God ultimately destroys humanity. With God we discover the true grandeur of our humanity as made visible in the person of Jesus Christ. With God we know the limits of that humanity which leads us to make space for mutual respect, mutual understanding, solidarity, personal freedom and promotion of human dignity and true human rights.
The Catholic Church has proclaimed this and, through her lived experience, sought to be a beacon for others. She has done so faithfully. She has not always lived up to her own ideals. But with faith in God who shows us both our human greatness and our human limits, the Church strives and will always strive to urge us to the exercise of responsible freedom, based on a commitment to truth and reason which ultimately is measured by love, human and divine.
This is my last column under the title of “Faith and New Works.” It coincides with the shift of The Long Island Catholic from a weekly newspaper to a monthly magazine where I will have something a bit different. I thank all of you who have been generous to me to read this column through the years. I am grateful to those who wrote or e-mailed me whether in agreement or disagreement. I apologize for any harm or offense that anything I wrote may have caused. It was never my intent but good intentions cannot cover real errors. Finally with gratitude to God and to you, as well as thanks to Rick Hinshaw and the staff of this newspaper, may I assure you of my prayers for all of you which springs from a heart that truly loves you and seeks to serve you with the heart of the Savior who came into the world to serve and not to be served. With faith in Him, I offer any and all new works to God through the loving care of Mary, the Mother of the Church.