Archbishop Raymond Burke, Prefect of the Apostolic Singatura, delivered the homily at the Red Mass in Pheonix Tuesday. In his remarks, he said of America, "It is a society which is abandoning its Judeo-Christian foundations, the fundamental obedience to God’s law which safeguards the common good, and is embracing a totalitarianism which masks itself as the 'hope,' the 'future,' of our nation. Reason and faith teaches us that such a society can only produce violence and death and in the end destroy itself."
I have commented elsewhere on the use of the word "totalitarianism" which is offensive in the extreme, and when placed opposite the word "hope," constitutes a none-too-subtle reference to the President. As such, and given that it came from a Vatican official, it is worthy of a formal protest from the United States government.
But, let us look at another part of this tortured sentence. Is America really a society that is "abandoning its Judeo-Christian foundations, the fundamental obedience to God’s law which safeguards the common good?" There are two problems with this claim, one historical and the other contemporary.
The historical difficulty is the easiest with which to dispense. American culture owes as much to the secular impulses of the Enlightenment as it does to any Judeo-Christian roots. And, insofar as American society is rooted in a Judeo-Christian foundation, that foundation is distinctly Protestant in character. Those early Puritans who set much of the groundwork for American culture, after all, banned the celebration of Christmas and considered the Pope the anti-Christ. Most of the founders were Deists or Unitarians, not Christians.
This concern for the loss of our Judeo-Christian roots was a staple of the criticism leveled at President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as was the charge of dictatorial ambitions. The concern also manifested itself during the Eisenhower years when J. Howard Pew started giving large sums of money to the Rev. Billy Graham to "arrest the plunge of our Country towards self-destruction." Eisenhower, of course, was not conservative enough for the tea partiers of his day. So, Burke’s charge lacks historical warrant but it has a historical provenance, and it is not a very pretty provenance.
Is American society "abandoning" its commitment to the common good? Its obedience to God’s law? Yesterday, at the Catholic University of America, students and faculty filled Caldwell Chapel to overflowing. The Mass began a Novena for the victims of the earthquake in Haiti. In his homily, Father David O’Connell, C.M., called the congregation to a deeper faith in the face of the tragedy, and to faithful action on behalf of the victims. "Our belief in him, our faith is stronger than death because he is stronger than death, he has overcome death and he shows us the way when he reveals himself," O’Connell said. "Faith’s surpassing power comes from God not from us. Faith sees what the mind does not. ‘In the day of my distress I sought the Lord’ the psalmist prays and so do we because we believe in the Lord and his surpassing power. ‘I remember the deeds of the Lord, your wonders from of old.’" The outpouring of grief and solidarity on campus yesterday was not evidence of any "abandonment" of Judeo-Christian roots. It did not mock the common good.
Indeed, all across America in the past twenty-four hours, there has been a similar outpouring of grief, concern and solidarity with the suffering people of Haiti. Some of this has been personal, individuals going online to send money to Catholic relief Services or the Red Cross. Some of it – heaven forfend – has come from direct government action, (More evidence of totalitarianism, no doubt!) as the U.S. military and foreign aid groups take the lead in both delivering aid and in managing the delivery. That latter task is made more difficult, of course, because the needs of the Haitian people were ignored for whole stretches of time on ideological grounds. I am not a fan of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, but his people should not have suffered because he was pals with Castro. They did suffer and the lack of sustained commitment by the U.S. government to the needs of our neighbors accounts for the lack of basic infrastructure on the ground.
I do not look at America and see the gloom and doom that Archbishop Burke sees. Yes, there is selfishness and materialism and things that revolt me. Yes, the culture of death, which is a richer concept than is admitted by many who employ it, has taken root in certain attitudes and certain laws. Yes, there are problems. But, a pastor does not extinguish the smoldering wick. He encourages. He uplifts. And, most of all, he shows the way of love by being loving himself. I found no love in Burke’s words, only judgmentalism. I saw much love in Caldwell Chapel yesterday. The Catholic faith in America is not on the ropes, it is alive and well and shaping our nation and its culture profoundly. If Burke would love that culture and its children he might better be able to evangelize it.
Michael Sean Winters