Message: Christ has given us freedom that no one can take from us. Its practice leads to political freedom and makes possible a free - and prosperous - society.
You will notice a small difference this Sunday. Pope Francis has asked us to include St. Joseph along with the Virgin Mary in the Eucharist Prayer. He is completing what Pope John XXIII did when he mandated that the Roman Canon include St. Joseph. At that time the Roman Canon was the only Eucharist Prayer in use in the Latin Rite. Now we will mention St. Joseph in all the Eucharistic Prayers. This change is well timed because never did we more need the intercession of St. Joseph for our families, our dads and those who like Joseph are not biological fathers, but aspire to spiritual fatherhood. Saint Joseph, pray for us.
Today St. Paul says, "For freedom Christ set us free." Since we celebrate Independence Day this Thursday, I would like to say something about the relationship between Christian freedom and political freedom.
First, we need to be clear that Christian freedom does not depend on political freedom. As a popular hymn says, "Our fathers, chained in prisons dark, were still in heart and conscience free." No political leader can take away our deep freedom from us. By baptism God has given us the gift of freedom in Christ. By prayer we can live that freedom even in the darkest place.*
The Declaration of Independence recognizes freedom as a gift from God. They call it an "inalienable right." That means it cannot be sold, transferred or taken away.
How did our Founding Fathers come to such a conclusion? The struggle for political freedom has a long history. In the ancient world, rulers held unchecked power. Someone said that in Egypt there were only two classes: the Pharaoh and everyone else. Rome, although it began as a republic, became dominated by the Emperor. He was not only the supreme civil ruler, but the also "Pontifex Maximus." High priest.
It was different with Christianity. Two Sundays ago we heard how Nathan the prophet challenged the king. King David did not strike him down (as other ancient rulers would have done) but listened to Nathan - and repented. In that Jewish tradition Jesus envisioned an authority apart from the civil ruler: Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.
In the Middle Ages the Church had to fight for her legitimate role separate from civil rulers. For example, kings wanted to appoint bishops and to dominate the church. The Church fought back. That struggle reached a crucial point in 1215 when the Archbishop of Canterbury gathered nobles to make certain demands of the king. They wrote a document called the "Magna Carta" which, as every school child knows, is embryo of the modern democratic experiment. First on their list was the independent role of the Church.** Freedom of religion is called the "first freedom" because all other freedoms depend upon it. Our own Bill of Right begins: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."***
By freedom of religion our founders did not mean freedom from religion. Most of them were believing and practicing Christians. George Washington for example was a lifelong churchgoer who served "twenty-two years a vestryman of his parish" and as a "churchwarden who duties included assisting the poor."**** We have written accounts of people accidentally witnessing his private devotions, seeing him "in a kneeling position with a Bible open before him." One account is by the general's nephew.*****
Washington's belief in freedom of religion did not come from a secular mentality, but from his Christian faith and practice. In his farewell address he spoke about the connection between religious practice and a free republic. "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports." Washington doubted that morality could be maintained without religion. Washington's skepticism about a "religionless morality" is being vindicated before our eyes. I could give examples, but that is a topic for another homily.
Washington's life illustrates the fact that freedom requires constant vigilance. As Jesus says, when you put your hand to the plow, do not look back. After Washington won the War of Independence, his soldiers wanted to proclaim him king. They had an ulterior motive. The Continental Congress had not given them their pay - and they wanted Washington to simply take it over. This must have tempted Washington - he was an ambitious man. In the end he said, "I didn't fight against King George III so that I could become King George I!"
We owe a great debt to Washington. Other victorious generals - Cromwell, Napoleon, Mao - became dictators. Washington was different. He had a vision of political freedom that came from his practice of Christian freedom.
For freedom Christ set us free. Christ has given us freedom in him that no one can take from us. Its practice does lead to political freedom and it makes possible a free - and prosperous - society.
Freedom requires constant vigilance. That's why our bishops have called to us observe the Fortnight for Freedom. It concludes this Thursday with celebration of Independence Day. For freedom Christ has set us free. Amen.
A modern example: Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan who spent thirteen years in a Vietnam prison. See Miracle of Hope by Andre Van Chau.
**Here the opening clause of the Magna Carta:
1. In the first place we have granted to God, and by this our present charter confirmed for us and our heirs forever that the English Church shall be free, and shall have her rights entire, and her liberties inviolate; and we will that it be thus observed; which is apparent from this that the freedom of elections, which is reckoned most important and very essential to the English Church, we, of our pure and unconstrained will, did grant, and did by our charter confirm and did obtain the ratification of the same from our lord, Pope Innocent III, before the quarrel arose between us and our barons: and this we will observe, and our will is that it be observed in good faith by our heirs forever.
***And this quote from Washington's Farewell Address:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
’Tis substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule indeed extends with more or less force to every species of free Government. Who that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric.
Promote then as an object of primary importance, Institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened….
[From George Washington, A Collection, ed. W.B. Allen (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1989), 521-22.]
****The details about George Washington's life come from 7 Men and the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas - a book well worth reading, especially for those struggling with what it means to be a Christian man today.
*****When I was a Maryknoll Priest Associate in Peru, I mistakenly opened the door of a Maryknoller's bedroom. He was kneeling by his bed with a crucifix and prayer book in front of him. It was an awkward moment, but one deeply engraved in my mind. It was probably something similar for Washington's nephew.
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