Sermon of the 26th Sunday after Pentecost, 2016
Fr. Richard G. Cipolla
Parish of St. Mary
From St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” (5:1)
An earthquake hit this country with a magnitude at least as strong as the one that destroyed the Basilica and Monastery of St. Benedict a few weeks ago. It was not a natural earthquake. It did not bring down buildings. But it severely damaged the structure of what we can call post-modern American civilization, a civilization based on the self and money and the denial of objective morality. And the irony of it all—natural earthquakes are never ironical, they just are—and the irony of it all is that the prime mover of the earthquake is a product of that selfish amoral society.
The supreme irony is that the one who is the prime mover of the earthquake is the product of the society that was epitomized in Tom Wolfe’s novel of the Bonfire of the Vanities and who could never be accused of being a serious thinker. No serious Catholic could ever hold Donald Trump up as the paragon of virtue nor as the model of the intellectually serious man. And yet, and yet. Quite apart from Donald Trump, we are indeed looking at the ruins, or at least the putting to rest, of two political dynasties, who despite wearing different party labels, were responsible for the flourishing of that culture that has ruled this country for some fifty years, that culture that was founded on a high powered group that thought of themselve as being liberal but in fact have been relentless in tossing aside freedom in its classical sense and replacing it with the idea of rights, rights that have no other origin that the desires of the self to make oneself into whomever one chooses and to define truth in a radically subjective way. And anyone in the way of this march of history is branded as a bigot, someone who, as the phrase goes, is on the wrong side of history. The arrogance of that phrase is breath taking. Imagine the power to know the future and to be able to know with certainty that one’s decisions at a particular point in history are part of an inevitability that sweeps everything else along with it.
The furor over Donald Trump’s election has many facets. One is the reaction of students in elite colleges on the East and West coasts who are so emotionally distraught that they cannot take exams or who need counseling. This reaction, while not mitigating Trump’s foolish and vulgar comments, bares the coddled and narcissistic essence of these students who live in the bubble of fabulously wealthy academia, peopled with professors who look down on those they profess to be in solidarity with and who despise the white, middle class, non college educated, religious mass of people who make up much of this country. They despise these people, because these people have failed to be enlightened by these self appointed gurus who feel appointed to show them the error of their ways. But these people have spoken. And most not out of prejudice or bigotry or stupidity, but because they feel they have been left out, they have no jobs, and they do not want, among other things, gender neutral bathrooms. They think it is silly to even talk about such things, that this is not in accord with reality, a reality not grounded in the self but in reality outside of themselves.
The earthquake has happened, but one must not put one’s hope in anyone in this singular situation. At least none of the personages in the current scene of the drama. But we can be grateful that we now have some time, and who knows how long, to consider where we have been and where we are. And by we, I mean Catholics: bishops, priests, deacons, religious, and above all lay Catholics. The Bush and Clinton dynasties are dead, different parties but basically the same assumptions about reality. But this death in particular does not guarantee the death of the post-World War II explicit distortion of the understanding of freedom. This is the crux of the matter. Freedom.
The Magna Carta of Christian freedom is St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: For Freedom Christ has set us free. Now it must be asked: how does this relate to the founders’ Declaration of Independence statement: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. You notice that Liberty is enumerated among the rights of man. Liberty, or freedom, is defined as a right endowed upon man by their Creator, an ambiguous reference to God. From the beginning freedom in this country was defined as a right. In Christian terms freedom is something that has nothing to do with rights but rather is something that was bought by Christ on his Cross: it is freedom from sin and through faith in Him as Lord and Savior. The Christian understanding of freedom is not so much freedom from but rather freedom for. One of the ancient collects speaks in this way: whose service is perfect freedom. The Christian understanding of freedom is not only freedom from the deadly effects of sin but also freedom to love, that is, to love without those bonds of selfishness that prevent the act of love. The source of Christian freedom is not something endowed by the Creator as a right but rather from the Cross of Jesus Christ. This does not deny the importance of freedom from, freedom from the tyranny of a government, freedom from coercion in matters of practice of religion, freedom from oppression of any sort.
But when freedom is defined as a right of man apart from that perfect freedom that is the service of God, then freedom is always in danger of becoming license, to do whatever I want as long as it is not against the law, and even, if it is against the law right now, if the law is in the way of my personal rights to do what I want, then the law has to be changed. And that is the context not only of Roe vs Wade that made abortion legal. It is the context of the so-called sexual revolution of the past 50 years that denies the ontological basis of human sexuality and has substituted the grammatical entity of gender for sex.
I wrote a message to our bishop after the election and said that whatever happens, this situation gives the Church a time, a pause, to consider the path that she has taken in this country which has been one of too late opposition to amorality and immorality and a failure to teach her people about the true meaning of freedom. If the Church does not take advantage of this pause, however dicey and cloudy the situation is in this pause, then she is not being faithful to her duty of evangelization in the name of Christ who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. So much is unknown and we cannot depend on the president elect to do what ought to be done. But the Church can and should take advantage of the present situation, even if it turns out to be temporary, where the false liberalism of the past fifty years is no longer in official power. And we must also beware lest we fall yet again into the trap of confusing traditional Catholicism with political conservatism. They may overlap at certain points. They are never the same thing. Traditional Catholicism demands not adherence to a certain political party nor to any ideology. It demands adherence to the person of Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth and the Life and this not in some rigid way that excludes those who do not understand this or even those who reject this.
I did not plan to stay up to watch the election results on Tuesday night. I sort of pride myself on being apolitical. But I became aware of something unexpected happening and I had to stay up and try to find out what was really happening. Could be. Who knows? Something’s coming, if I can wait. About two o’clock in the morning, when the final results were still not certain but the trend was readily apparent, the reporter went into Times Square to talk to people gathered there. Those who were there had been ready to celebrate what they thought was inevitable. They were subdued in disbelief that what they had expected was not going to happen. One of the young women who was interviewed and who was deeply disappointed in what was happening said this: “Maybe living in New York is living in a bubble.” You think? The bubbles of the Northeast and the West Coast are bubbles of unreality. But what about the bubble of a Catholicism that no longer understands what freedom means? May God give us the courage to burst this bubble.