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The Moral and Spiritual Purpose of the Law

The text below is the homily Bishop Barron offered regarding Church and state and the true purpose of the law for the Red Mass at St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans on Monday, October 4, 2021. The Red Mass is a special liturgy offered for judges, lawyers, and others in legal professions.

Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron gives the homily at St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans Oct. 4, 2021, during the Red Mass of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.(CNS photo/Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald)

May I say as I commence these reflections that it is an extraordinary privilege to be here with all of you today. Thank you, Archbishop Aymond, for the invitation to speak, and thank you to the entire legal and judicial community of New Orleans—judges, politicians, city officials, lawyers, students of the law—whose important work we place today in prayer under the aegis of God’s grace and providence.
I fully realize that oceans of ink have been spilled trying to adjudicate the rapport between Church and state or between one’s religious convictions and one’s civil commitments. I furthermore realize that this conversation has become, in recent years, particularly heated. What I shall endeavor to do, in the course of this brief homily, is to make just a few simple but, I hope, illuminating observations regarding their right relationship.

Both the Jewish scholar Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and the Catholic philosopher Jean-Luc Marion come together in making the perhaps surprising remark that the earliest text laying out a separation between the sacred and the secular is the first chapter of the book of Genesis. In telling us that all finite things—the sun and moon, the earth itself, the sea, mountains, animals, fish, and insects—come forth from the Creator God, the author of Genesis is effectively de-sacralizing them. Mind you, all of them, in different cultures and at different times in the ancient world, were worshipped as gods. Therefore, in identifying them as creatures of the one God, the author of Genesis is knocking them off a pedestal, but at the same time and in the same measure, he is establishing that they have their own integrity and that they dwell in their own proper realm. The “secular” space, in short, is opened up by God in the very act of creation—and upon that paradox, an awful lot depends.

For, at the same time, the opening chapter of Genesis teaches that every single aspect of creation comes from the creative hand of God and remains under God’s jurisdiction. Thomas Aquinas gives voice to the mainstream of the Catholic tradition when he says that God is “in all things by essence, presence, and power and most intimately so.” He furthermore specifies that God’s providence extends to “particulars.” Nothing in the world is God; but everything in the world comes from and is sustained by God. I would suggest that it is within this tension that we should think through the relationship between Church and state or religion and politics. When this tensive polarity is not honored, we have either a complete secularization, by which political rule is divorced from the concerns and disciplines of the sacred order, or a kind of integralism, whereby the state is simply swallowed up by religion.

Let us take a moment to notice how both sides of the polarity are honored throughout the Bible. In the first place, we note that the rulers of Israel are not prophets and priests. There is a kingly palace and a priestly temple, and they are not the same. The king enjoys a real independence of the religious establishment, and this allows him to operate, to a degree, on his own terms, using his best practical judgment. However, at the same time, his work is done “under God”—that is to say, in accord with the divine law, which judges him and his decisions. Hence, on the biblical interpretation, political rulers, precisely because they are not divine figures, and yet under God’s authority, can and should be criticized. In almost every other ancient culture, political leaders were apotheosized, divinized. Their authority was deemed absolute; their decisions not to be questioned; their persons held sacred. This was true of ancient Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, even Rome, where the Caesars were sacralized. And then there is the culture formed by the Bible, according to the ethos of which kings are often ruthlessly censured.

A particularly vivid example of this principle is an episode in the first book of Samuel. When the people ask for a king, “so that they can be like the other nations,” the prophet Samuel lays out precisely what this figure will be like: “He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots, to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest. . . . He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. . . . He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.”  Pretty blunt, pretty accurate—and utterly egregious in the ancient world.

Moreover, the Bible consistently points out the personal flaws and wickedness of Israel’s kings. Even the greatest of the nation’s rulers, King David, is, the Bible tells us, an adulterer and a murderer. It is precisely the “secular” nature of the king that permits this sort of negative appraisal. But mind you, even as they harshly chastise them, the prophets don’t question the legitimate authority of kings or try to eliminate the office of king—quite the contrary. Thus, we see that the Bible invites us to enter into the creative tension between “nature and grace,” or between “society and religion,” or “Church and state,” to use more contemporary terms.

I should now like to look at three schemata for thinking through this relationship more concretely: one from the ancient period, a second from the medieval, and a third from the nineteenth century. I draw your attention first to the second-century text called A Letter to Diognetus. We know nothing about the author and next to nothing about the recipient, though some have speculated that he might have been a tutor to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. At any rate, it is an apologetic text whose primary purpose is to explain the role that Christians play within the wider society.

The author observes that the distinction between Christians and non-Christians is “neither in country nor language nor customs. For they do not dwell in cities in some place of their own, nor do they use any strange variety of dialect, nor practice an extraordinary kind of life.” In other words, there is no particular social, cultural, or political arrangement that is unique to them or upon which they insist in light of their religious convictions. They can, in one sense, happily live in an attitude of detachment from political and social convention, and this is because “they dwell in their own fatherlands, but as if sojourners in them; they share all things as citizens, and suffer all things as strangers. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is a foreign country.” This healthy detachment is born of the profound conviction that “they have their citizenship in heaven.” Here we see very clearly the biblical insistence upon the relative independence and integrity of the social order. It is because Christians do not see any one set of political arrangements as following inevitably from their faith that they can live, happily enough, in a variety of political settings.

However, having said this, the author of the letter does not advocate a purely “secular” space to which Christians have no real relationship, a state of affairs often touted by secularist critics of religion today. Rather, he uses a peculiarly apt metaphor to articulate the manner in which Christians’ religious views legitimately influence the public arena: “To put it shortly, what the soul is in the body, that the Christians are in the world. The soul is spread through all members of the body, and Christians throughout the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but is not of the body, and Christians dwell in the world, but are not of the world.” In a word, through their moral and spiritual commitments, Christians animate the political order, directing it to God and the things of God. Their detachment allows them to live all through the body politic, and their faith permits them to give moral life to that body.

In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas presented his own version of the subtle relationship between society and religion through his doctrine of law, developed in the second part of his Summa theologiae. Thomas distinguishes between positive law, natural law, and eternal law. Positive law amounts to the prescriptions, prohibitions, and mandates that issue forth from a properly constituted governmental authority for the sake of the common good. These would include, in our context, everything from tax laws to traffic laws, from acts of Congress to the determinations of a local city council. The formulation and execution of these statutes is the prerogative and responsibility of a properly constituted civil authority. And no priest or bishop should involve himself in the prudential particulars of these acts of legislation. Here we can see the Thomistic influence on Pope St. John Paul II’s intervention to the effect that priests should not serve in positions of government.

But lest we think that this insistence upon the integrity of positive law and its formulators should conduce toward secularism, Thomas teaches that the legitimacy of a positive law is a function of its rootedness in the natural law, which is to say, that set of moral prescriptions—foster life, foster community, foster knowledge and art, foster religion—that are discernible as objective values. Martin Luther King Jr., in his Letter from the Birmingham City Jail, made explicit reference to this teaching of St. Thomas, arguing that Jim Crow laws are unjust precisely in the measure that they do not embody the principles of the natural moral law. Finally, argues Aquinas, moral law is grounded in the eternal law, which is identical to God’s rational purpose for the world. Thus, a supposedly moral law that stands in contradiction to the intentions of God would be revealed, ipso facto, as fraudulent.

I find that it is useful to ground these high-flying abstractions of Church and state in a concrete case. The positive law that the speed limit should be, say, 55 mph is just, precisely inasmuch as it is motivated by a desire to protect life and hence to embody a basic principle of the natural moral law, which in turn reflects God’s deepest intention, “that we might have life and have it to the full.” The legislature or city council that formulates that requirement operates indeed on its own authority and without the fussy intervention of the Church, but the legitimacy of its act depends upon its orientation to a moral and spiritual end. Joseph Ratzinger’s reflections on the biblical scene of Jesus in the presence of Pilate is instructive in this context. The Roman governor reminds Jesus that he, Pilate, has the power to release him or to crucify him. The Lord then gently reminds the governor, “You would have no power unless it had been given to you from above.” Notice that he does not deny the fact or even the legitimacy of Pilate’s authority, but he does indeed state that that capacity to formulate positive law comes from and is ordered to a higher source.

A third articulation of the subtle relationship between the political and the religious is found in the writings of the nineteenth-century French theorist Alexis de Tocqueville. His 1835 text Democracy in America is a masterpiece of sociology and political philosophy. It also contains one of the most trenchant treatments of the issue we have been considering. Like so many others in the heady years following the revolutions of the late eighteenth century, Tocqueville was enthusiastic about the possibilities of liberal democracy. And he was particularly impressed by the instantiation of liberalism that he found in the United States of the Jackson era. However, he was also deeply sensitive to the limitation of democracy and the typical perversions that can bedevil it. One of these was a rampant individualism. Tocqueville saw in the rhetoric of Jefferson and the other founders a preference for the freedom of the individual to pursue happiness as he saw fit, without any particular direction from the civil authorities. This tilting toward freedom was nowhere clearer than in the separation between Church and state dictated by the non-establishment clause of the first amendment. This was all to the good in the measure that it allowed for the flourishing of an independent civil order. The danger, as Tocqueville saw it, was the opening up of a civic space utterly denuded of moral purpose, an arena in which individuals simply sought their own fundamentally materialistic ends.

The needful thing, he concluded, is a vibrant religious culture that operates outside of the direct control of the state but throughout the civil society, acting very much as the author of the Letter to Diognetus has it, as the soul of the nation. Pulpits, religious organizations, parishes, religious publishing houses, evangelistic enterprises—all would provide a moral and spiritual ballast to what would otherwise be a purely secular space. Indeed, thought Tocqueville, without a vibrant religiosity, a democratic society would, in the end, disintegrate into a vague collectivity of warring individuals.

Though forms of integralism have threatened the civic order at different moments of history, today the far greater threat is coming from the side of an ideological secularism that would like to shuffle religion off of the playing field altogether or, at the very least, confine it to the realm of privacy, so that it would function as a kind of hobby. If that happens, then our society loses its soul, our laws lose their rootedness in the moral and spiritual dimensions, and our democracy loses its cohesiveness. I would say that resistance to this sort of secularizing attack on religion is of paramount importance for Catholics within the legal and political establishment.

I should like to leave you with a final image from Scripture. In the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, the visionary author reports that he saw the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven. It is a city of remarkable beauty. To say “city” is to say a place of business, finance, entertainment, education, law, the arts, communication, etc. But the visionary notices that there is no temple in the new Jerusalem, which is peculiar, since the temple was the entire raison d’etre of the earthly Jerusalem. The point is that there is no temple in the heavenly city, since the entire place has become a temple—which is to say, a place where God is rightly praised. Every aspect of that city has found its integrity, precisely by being directed perfectly to God. May this image of the well-ordered city stay in your minds as you continue to think through the relationship between Church and state, the secular and the sacred.


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About Bishop Robert Barron 200 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

11 Comments

  1. First, it is accepted by all but modernist scholars that Genesis was written by Moses…not “the author of Genesis.” Why not say so?

    Second, why did you water down the story of Israel demanding a king other than God? You forgot to mention the rest of the passage in 1st Samuel chapter 8 about Israel asking for a king like other nations: ‘And the Lord said to Samuel, “Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.”‘ And again: ‘”And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; and they said, “No! but we will have a king over us.”‘ And again in 1st Samuel 10: “But you have this day rejected your God, who saves you from all your calamities and your distresses; and you have said, ‘No! but set a king over us.’” And again in 1st Samuel 12: “If you will fear the Lord and serve him and hearken to his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the Lord, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the Lord your God, it will be well.” And what was the response of Israel to God’s warning: “And all the people said to Samuel, “Pray for your servants to the Lord your God, that we may not die; for we have added to all our sins this evil, to ask for ourselves a king.”

    Third, why avoid calling attention to the fact that the Lord our God is king, as found in such passages as Psalm 47: “Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises! For God is the king of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm! God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne.”

    Fourth, and why not mention the Kingship of Jesus Christ? Does this offend you? Are you afraid it will offend others? Hmmmm. “Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth” (Rev 1:5). And: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:9-10).

    Why can’t the leaders of our Church, the priests and bishops, speak the plain truth without disguising it and watering it down to appease to a worldly audience? This is why the world is in the state it’s in today; why sin and darkness prevail instead of light and truth.

    • Todd, Thank you. Fr. Barron’s enigmatic stances have puzzled me many times, and I’ve confronted his ideas with no forthcoming answers. Instead, idolizing fans will berate and denigrate those who dare broach questions. Ephesians 6:10-18 helps with armor alert: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the gospel, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit.

  2. Rampant individualism perceived by Tocqueville in Jeffersonian individualism, also caught in Slouching Toward Gomorrah by Robert Bork in the Declaration’s pursuit of Happiness troubled me then as it does now. Aquinas justly identified that intent for happiness is essential to Man’s nature and fulfillment. In this life. It wasn’t until what Bishop Barron articulated as “the freedom of the individual to pursue happiness as he saw fit, without any particular direction”, that in personal previous experience there seemed an impasse. With that all the immense evil we suffer today in consequence. Barron’s consequence of distancing Church from State. Alexis de Tocqueville had the answer, as would Amazon’s Alexa that also seems to have all the answers, and that in perfect harmony Holmes would respond, Elementary Watson – is a vibrant religious society independent of State flourishing within itself. As Bishop Barron in a plaintive tone ends, “May this image of the well-ordered city stay in your minds”. Equally relevant, the infamous catch 22 dilemma, the separation itself. Answer to this may be found in the Founders adherence to God. Should there be within the constitution of the State, in correspondence to the separation clause, a rudimentary measure, a clause establishing the Natural Law as the measure of justice? [Britain’s Common Law, the Common Law of England, which contained the principles of natural law was in fact adopted as the model of jurisprudence by most American states following the War of independence].

    • Our U.S. Constitution was written to keep the Federal Government from becoming a Religion in and of itself, rather than keeping a religious citizen out of Government.
      They rightly assumed Christ would be the moral leader, (not someone like a our current Speaker of the House , for example.)
      But whatever we Americans do , it must be right and just to avoid a blind alley.

  3. Thank you, Catholic World Report, for making available this fine homily.

    Bishop Barron points out that the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, “teaches that the LEGITIMACY of a positive law is a function of its rootedness in the Natural Law.”

    Natural Law is eternal law for humankind that is established by the Will of God. It is called “natural” because it has long been observed and discerned by men of reason without the aid of divine revelation.

    I think many people, deep in their bones, wonder why the “will of the people,” even if expressed, determined, and established by fully free and fair citizen voting in elections, should be allowed to trump the clearly expressed Will of Almighty God? People think: Why let ILLEGITIMATE and grossly harmful federal laws prevail for decades in the USA?

    Over the last 50 years or so, free and fair elections in the USA have brought us laws that approve of and establish the right to end the lives of human fetuses, and laws that approve and establish same-sex marriage and all sorts of LGBTQ behavior, and laws that approve and establish so many serious incursions into the rights of private property that some people think we are on the verge of Socialism/Communism.

    So, what I see happening now is that a majority of Conservatives, including a big portion of Conservative-oriented Catholics, are ready to no longer really have fully free and fair elections in the USA, and to have America become like Russia, Hungary, Cuba, Egypt, and so many countries that go through the motions of elections and maintain the pretense of the “will of the people,” but the outcome is always decided ahead of time by the ruling authorities.

    Founding Father John Adam wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

    So, when a consistent majority of voting Americans are no longer “a moral and religious people,” and evangelization and educational efforts over a period of decades does not succeed in correcting this, what are Conservatives to do? Just give up and accept the complete secularization, liberalization, paganization, and collectivization of America?

    So, I see the Conservative Movement as moving to save America by getting the nation into line with an authority higher than the “will of the people,” which is the Will of God expressed in Natural Law, which means no longer really having fully free and fair elections in the USA.

    • It only looks like a conundrum, Gus.
      Start with your local public school board and onward from there.
      ( I’m from the Left Coast so I gotta long row to hoe !)

  4. “THE CATHOLIC TRUMP”

    If you saw that headline, what would you think?

    This article reminded me that there is one Trump who is a practicing member of the Roman Catholic Church: Maryanne Trump Barry.

    Maryanne Trump Barry is the sister of the 45th U.S. president, Donald Trump.

    Donald Trump has two sisters (both living) and two brothers (both deceased).

    Maryanne is the only member of the Trump family who is or was Catholic.

    She converted to the Catholic Church when she married her first husband in 1959.

    Maryanne seems also to be the only Trump who ever took religion very seriously as a personal practice and way of life. Donald’s daughter Ivanka did convert to Judaism when she married, but I’ve never heard her speak to any interviewer about the role of faith, prayer, and worship in her life. Donald’s other children seem to have no religious practice. Donald’s niece, Mary L. Trump, who is interviewed often in the media, seems to have no religious belief or practice.

    Maryanne Trump Barry is retired now, but is an attorney, and served as a federal prosecutor, a federal trial judge, and a federal appellate judge appointed by President Ronald Reagan.

    If you wonder if she is really a committed Catholic, all doubts can be resolved by reading or watching (it’s on YouTube) her commencement address in 2011 at Fairfield University (a Jesuit university). In that address, she tells how her Catholic faith and the Jesuits saved her life after her husband and parents died in the same year. She also encourages the graduates to pursue lives of principle and compassion and faith. She also donated $4 million to that university.

    Now, in her commencement address, Judge Trump did not address the contested issue of the separate of Church and State, as addressed in this homily by Bishop Barron. But from what I can tell, Judge Trump was in favor of the right to abortion. Thus, I assume she is a Catholic who is personally against abortion, but, as regards the law, is Pro-Choice due to her strongly favoring the doctrine of the independence and autonomy of the secular realm.

  5. “Thus, I assume she is a Catholic who is personally against abortion, but, as regards the law, is Pro-Choice due to her strongly favoring the doctrine of the independence and and autonomy of the secular realm.”

    As she left her Faith at her doorstep everyday in working, did her ‘autonomy’ and ‘independence’ make her truth, personal as you say, only a Catholic truth that was not a truth outside the Catholic world? Does not the imposition of abortion by fiat forced upon everybody – especially those who defend that life with no voice – violate that same reasoning of ‘I am personally opposed but…’?

    How far does a ‘practicing’ Catholic go in relinquishing to the ‘autonomy’ of the secular ‘realm’? Is the surrender complete?

    And in the Church’s complete submission to the State – for what good is the Church if the reasoning is ‘I am personally opposed but’ – what constitutes ‘Faith’ if at all?

    • Pope John Paul II constantly spoke of the legitimate autonomy of a secular realm, though at the same time he also insisted that faithful Catholics have a right and duty to participate in and influence the secular realm in accordance with the light of Natural Law and Divine Revelation.

      Perhaps this is just my ignorance showing, I always found this to be a muddled, “fence-straddling” teaching.

      I know that there are theologians, including probably some on staff with the Catholic World Report, who will affirm that that the teaching of Pope John Paul II was and is fully coherent and workable on this issue. But I’ve never been able to see it.

      As I see it, a certain amount of contradiction and incoherence was introduced into this whole issue by some of the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

      I know that most Catholic theologians disagree with that view, too.

      For what it’s worth, I think some future theologian or saint or pope or Council will have to sort all this out in a better way. Maybe you will do it! Or maybe some writer or editor of the Catholic World Report will do it. I know I can’t do it.

      I await the day when Catholicism, to me, fully makes sense again. (But that’s just me. I recommend that everyone trust the guidance of the wise writers and editors at Catholic World Report.)

      By the way, Mary L. Trump, the niece of Judge Maryanne Trump (Donald’s sister), says that Judge Trump did vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. By the time of the 2020 election the niece and aunt were apparently estranged, due to the niece’s tell-all book about the Trump family.

    • For what it’s worth, from many past interviews of Donald Trump that I have seen over the years, right up until 2015, when he began running for president, Donald Trump consistently said he personally hated abortion but wanted it to remain legal.

      I know that is not his stated position now, and was not his position as president, and I know that he appointed judges to the Supreme Court and to other courts who will probably be ending Roe v. Wade as the law of the land. So, he was a Pro-Life and not a Pro-Choice president.

      But, to me, it seems most likely, given his longstanding (at least 30 years) previous position on this issue, his real inner/private view is that abortion should remain a legal choice at least in some or many situations. And that is the view reportedly held also by his sister, Judge Maryanne Trump.

      Does a politician’s real “inner” opinion on anything matter? Probably not. But maybe sometimes, as it may influence what deals or compromises they may be willing to make in the future.

      I can’t help but notice that we live in a world in which one can never really be certain about the true inner beliefs of many of the people around us or who are our leaders.

      We all know that politicians often take positions that they don’t really believe in order to win elections.

      Jobseekers sometimes claim beliefs, attitudes, and values in a job interview in order to get a job.

      Young men and woman sometimes pretend to be different from who they really are in order to win the love and commitment of the other.

      There is this line in the Bible: “Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile!’ ”

      Jesus presumably singled out Nathaniel because a person with no guile is a rare thing.

      Lord, make us all like Nathaniel.

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