Where does the authority to make law come from? What role have Catholics played in shaping the laws of the United States? And how should bishops address Catholic politicians who act contrary to church teaching?
These were some of the topics broached during the Archdiocese of Anchorage’s annual Red Mass on Sept. 28. Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz invited Juneau Bishop Edward Burns to deliver the Red Mass homily at Holy Family Cathedral and to then speak at length to Alaskan politicians, legislators, judges and lawyers at a subsequent brunch at the Marriott Hotel.
THE SOURCE OF ALL AUTHORITY
During his homily, Bishop Burns noted that Saint Paul’s Letter to the Philippians left no doubt about Jesus’ identity and authority.
“Though he was in the form of God, he emptied himself and took the form of a slave. Yet at Jesus’ name, every knee shall bend,” Bishop Burns said, recalling the famous Scriptural passage.
“Paul wanted to make sure nobody underestimated or misunderstood Jesus’ identity,” he added. “The man from Nazareth, the carpenter’s son, was also the Son of God and Son of man. He was Lord.”
It is from Jesus himself, explained Bishop Burns, that the Catholic Church derives its authority to teach.
“With Jesus’ name comes a true covenant and authority. Jesus then gave that authority to the apostles,” he explained.
But Bishop Burns was quick to remind the attendees that these teachings, and those who followed them, would often find themselves at odds with the world.
“Jesus proclaimed that there would, indeed, be hardships, persecution, and moments when, in living the law of the Gospel, it was necessary to follow the demands of God,” he said.
Addressing the politicians, judges, lawyers and civil servants at the Mass, Bishop Burns reminded them that civil authority is also properly derived from God. He then expressed gratitude for all public servants and prayed that the Holy Spirit might guide their minds.
CATHOLIC INFLUENCE ON AMERICAN HISTORY
At the brunch following the Red Mass, Bishop Burns developed his theme of authority, and reminded those in attendance that the majority Protestant United States has, in the past, withheld civil authority from Catholics.
“It was not always easy for members of the Catholic Church in this country,” he said. “For example, Charles Carroll, who lived in Maryland in the 1700s, could not serve as a politician or lawyer because he was Catholic. This was due to the 1704 Act Against Popery.”
Nevertheless, Bishop Burns explained, Carroll participated in public life by writing for the Maryland Gazette under the pseudonym “First Citizen.” His dedication to American ideals eventually paid off, as Carroll was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Bishop Burns then highlighted how the Catholic Church is honored in the very architecture of the United States capital. In Washington, D.C., at the chamber of the House of Representatives, marble reliefs surround the top of chamber.
“All are profiles of great lawmakers of old,” Bishop Burns said, “and among them is one saint (St. Louis IX of France) and two popes (Gregory IX and Innocent III).”
Moreover, all of these marble reliefs look to a central figure: Moses.
“Our country recognizes Moses as the supreme lawgiver,” Bishop Burns noted. “We hope that our great men and women — our lawmakers — are challenged to look [to Moses] for a sense of direction, and the basis for our laws.”
Bishop Burns also recalled Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C., where each of the fifty states has enshrined two central figures in the history of that particular state. Among these 100 persons are six Catholics: Charles Carroll (Maryland), Sister of Providence Mother Joseph Pariseau (Washington state), Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette (Wisconsin), Jesuit Father Eusebio Kino (Arizona), Franciscan Blessed Junipero Serra (California), and Saint Damien of Molokai (Hawaii).
“I share these images because, indeed, our church has played an important role in the formation of our country, and continues to do so,” he said.
CREDIBILITY AND CHURCH TEACHING
Bishop Burns concluded by addressing the apparent loss of credibility in the church’s moral and teaching authority, and the pressing need to defend church teaching in the public square.
“Even as bishops, our credibility is called into question because of the scandals that have happened within the church,” he said. “But scandals are a direct result of the fact that this church is made up of saints and sinners.”
Underlining the doctrines of original sin and redemption, he reminded listeners that, until the resurrection and last judgment, “we will never be rid of the human condition and inclination to sin.”
“At the first Eucharist, Jesus was at table with one who would betray him for thirty pieces of silver,” Bishop Burns said. “There was one who was about to deny him.”
“My friends, that was the beginning of the church!” he said. “That was the first Eucharist. That was scandal.”
Bishop Burns then observed that it is only because of the “supreme sacrifice of Jesus Christ on that cross, and his glorious resurrection, that we even have the opportunity to enjoy, receive and celebrate redemption.”
He spoke of the harsh criticism he has received for defending the teachings of the church in his regular column that appears in the Juneau Empire newspaper.
“Sometimes, when I write an article about the sanctity of life and the rights of the unborn, or when I speak about marriage between one man and one woman, or immigration reform, or religious freedom, I think that the bishop dolls come out with little pins,” he related.
“I appreciate the gift of celibacy so that a wife and children don’t have to listen to some of the things that are said about me,” he added.
PRO-ABORTION POLITICIANS AND HOLY COMMUNION
In the question and answer session that followed his talk, Bishop Burns was asked whether bishops should deny pro-abortion politicians Holy Communion.
“Can we speak frankly with them? Absolutely,” he responded. “Do we have a responsibility as their shepherds to show them the way? Sure. But even within the church, there’s a back-and-forth about how to deal with Catholic politicians who are not in line with Catholic teaching, and whether these politicians should receive Communion.”
“Some bishops think, ‘Absolutely not,’” he added, while noting that others don’t want to “politicize the communion rail.”
For himself, Bishop Burns indicated that he would work behind the scenes, rather than publicly deny communion at Mass.
“At that moment, I don’t know that it’s the most fruitful time to engage in dialogue or demonstration. But if someone’s doing something wrong, I will surely want to form them, to mentor them as a true shepherd,” he said.
Bishop Burns emphasized his role, as a pastor, to go in search of the lost sheep. “My job is to seek them out, as the good shepherd would do, and to engage them into understanding the right way.”