Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s. – Mt.22:21
“In the present situation of our world, the Christian faith has a critical responsibility to articulate clearly the natural moral law and its demands. Under the constant influence of a rationalist and secularist philosophy which makes man, instead of God, the ultimate measure of what is right and good, many have become confused about the most basic truths, for example, the inviolable dignity of innocent human life, from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death, and the integrity of marriage between one man and one woman as the first and irreplaceable cell of the life of society. If Christians fail to articulate and uphold the natural moral law, then they fail in the fundamental duty of patriotism, of loving their country by serving the common good."
These are the recent words of the Most Reverend Raymond Leo Burke, Archbishop Emeritus of St. Louis and soon-to-be Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church. Our young nation has seen many cardinals by now. And some of you may not know that we once had not only cardinals, but even a primate. The Archbishop of Baltimore, as shepherd of the oldest see in our country, once bore the title of Primate of the United States. He could convene national councils, from which we received our famous Baltimore catechism. He had a certain preeminence over all the other bishops of the land. Although the title was largely honorary, as in other countries such as Spain and Ireland, it stood nevertheless as a sign that Rome saw in the United States the makings of a great, Catholic nation.
Over a century before the Archbishop Burke began to speak in an international forum, another Archbishop, James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, received a letter from Pope Leo XIII – not a personal letter, but an Apostolic Letter intended to be read by all the bishops of our country and by the Catholic world as a whole. Cardinal Gibbons was well known and well loved, by Catholic and Protestant alike. He championed the cause of labor, and Teddy Roosevelt called him “the most useful citizen in America”. He was Primate of the United States. He would be the last to bear this title, for it would die with him.
The Apostolic Letter which Cardinal Gibbons received was Testem Benevolentiae, Leo XIII’s correction of certain opinions which paraded under the name of Americanism. In light of what we have just read from our dear Archbishop Burke, let us examine what this great pope had to say of our nation so long before.
The Pope writes: “The underlying principle of these new opinions is that, in order more easily to attract those who differ from her, the Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make some concessions to new opinions. Many think that these concessions should be made not only in regard to ways of living, but even in regard to doctrines which belong to the deposit of the faith. They contend that it would be opportune, in order to gain those who differ from us, to omit certain points of her teaching which are of lesser importance, and to tone down the meaning which the Church has always attached to them.
“Let it be far from anyone's mind to suppress for any reason any doctrine that has been handed down. Such a policy would tend rather to separate Catholics from the Church than to bring in those who differ. There is nothing closer to Our heart than to have those who are separated from the fold of Christ return to it, but in no other way than the way pointed out by Christ.”
At the time Cardinal Gibbons received these words from the Pope, no one dreamed that American Catholics would ever feel pressured by their fellow Americans to compromise their belief on the right to life or the sanctity of marriage. The pope maintained that the threat was not to Catholic morals, but to the Faith. His fear was that American Catholics were beginning to dilute their Faith in order to blend in with their Protestant neighbors, and that they were doing so with an ever increasing spirit of independence from Rome. He feared that the Catholic Church in America was becoming the American Catholic Church. And if Catholics were ready to compromise their Faith today, they would be ready to compromise their morals tomorrow.
Dear faithful, today is Mission Sunday. The Church invites us to pray for the success of her missions. Today, when every nation which once called itself Christian has turned its back on God, the whole world is mission territory. We have a duty to render unto Caesar. We have a duty to be good, patriotic Americans. Patriotism is a virtue. But for Catholics, for those who live a life in sanctifying grace, it must be a supernatural virtue. We are truly patriotic when we uphold the rights of God in our country, and work not only for the prosperity of our fellow Americans, but for their conversion.
The Pope’s letter continues: “The scriptures teach us that it is the duty of all to work for the salvation of one's neighbor, according to the power and position of each. The faithful do this by religiously discharging the duties of their state of life, by the uprightness of their conduct, by their works of Christian charity and by earnest and continuous prayer to God. On the other hand, those who belong to the clergy should do this by an enlightened fulfillment of their preaching ministry, by the pomp and splendor of ceremonies, and especially by setting forth that sound form of doctrine which Saint Paul inculcated upon Titus and Timothy. For We think that there are many in your country who are separated from Catholic truth more by ignorance than by ill-will, who might perchance more easily be drawn to the one fold of Christ if this truth be set forth to them in a friendly and familiar way.”
I ask you, one hundred years later: is this missionary program too much to ask of American Catholics? If every Catholic in America followed this program, would we not, by the grace of God, have conversions by the millions? And if every American Catholic heeded the words of Archbishop Burke, would we not see unborn children and true marriage securely protected by our nation’s laws? I know you all appreciate the wonderful thing we have here at St. Francis de Sales Oratory. Perhaps each of you could, just once this year, invite a non-Catholic to come to Solemn Mass or to an oratory event. And after that, if we are already doing all we can in the church, at home, in the workplace, in the voting booth, there is still prayer. Our prayers can bring this nation to its knees. And we can do no better than to make our own the prayer for mission Sunday added to today’s Mass:
O God, who wouldst have all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth: send forth, we beseech thee, laborers into thy harvest, and grant that they may proclaim thy word with all boldness, that thy word may spread and be made manifest, and all nations may know thee as the one true God, and Him whom thou hast sent, Jesus Christ, thy Son, Our Lord. Amen.