Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
I, along with many others, continue to ponder and pray about the Supreme Court decision on so called same sex marriage (Obergefell v. Hodges) and what it means for us in the church. In my last Globe letter, I pointed to a renewed effort at discipleship and faithful evangelizing as our core response to this decision.
It seems to me that we make a mistake if we treat all of these cultural innovations separately. We cannot engage piecemeal in dozens of separate cultural clashes and expect just and godly outcomes. We end up divided amongst ourselves, unsure of our priorities, proclaiming competing commitments, and therefore weak in every area.
St. John Paul II tried to rally us together under the banner of the “New Evangelization,” but for the most part we haven’t yet responded to that call. We must rally to this banner!
Obergefell has crystallized for me, with a new clarity, what we’re actually fighting against. Our real opponent is not simply bad laws, or even the bad ideas they’re rooted in. Yes, all the various “culture war” issues get expressed in these ways. It can’t be otherwise, for “laws teach,” and therefore remain always a primary vehicle for culture and identity.
Thus, we must engage politically on these issues. Justice can only be built on good laws and truth. Good laws, however, are necessary but not sufficient; we had good laws in the past on all these issues, and we yet lost them.
Our final goal is not just to have laws that, for example, protect unborn children from murder and exploitation, but to form a culture committed to doing so at every level. This is what St. John Paul II called the “culture of life,” deeply informed by the Gospels, and therefore seeking political, economic, and social outcomes in conformity with that holy pattern.
Our true opponent, then, in all of these issues, is the modern, secular rejection of Jesus Christ. Or, in other words, it is despair, the lack of hope and mercy that now permeates our culture. Perhaps this is why Pope Francis has called for a “Year of Mercy.”
This rejection, this despair, has a number of different aspects and labels. All of these are the “voice of the world” and opposed to the voice of God.
“Utilitarianism,” for example, reduces a person’s worth and dignity merely to what they can do. It implies that those who can’t do much aren’t worth much. Thus, the unborn, the mentally ill, the very old and weak, and so on, aren’t valued. This comes out in everything from abortion to failing to visit our parents in a nursing home because “we don’t have time.”
Likewise, “materialism” and “nihilism” both deny that there’s any spiritual reality outside of this earthly life. Materialism agrees that things themselves can have value of different kinds, but tends to locate this value in one person having it, over against another person therefore not having it. Thus, materialism promotes greed, conspicuous consumption, and economic exploitation of others.
Nihilism, in contrast, implies that things don’t really have any value at all. Nothing, and no action, and no person, is really worth much at all. We might, for a time, craft our own value and meaningfulness out of this mess of nothingness (we call this idea “existentialism”), but no one can share this made-up meaningfulness with anyone else (thus showing the roots of “moral relativism” and “religious indifferentism”), and in the end, even that will be lost and come to nothing. This comes out in the callous disregard we too often have for other people, our quick-triggered anger at little slights, our lack of forgiveness in daily life.
This list could be extended much further. What all of these modern ideologies share is the despair inherent in removing Christ from the center of human affairs. The “voice of the world” tries always to drown out the Gospel. It shouts constantly that no person has inherent worth or dignity; no person can be loved just for who they are in themselves; no person can truly expect to be treated justly and fairly in this world.
There is no mercy. There is no hope. There is no inherent goodness or beauty. There is only a constant struggle for respect, for “rights,” for power.
In my four decades as a priest, I have seen this despair becoming more and more prevalent. So many people, even among those who still believe in God and come to church on Sundays, don’t truly believe that they can be forgiven all their sins in Jesus Christ.
They don’t believe that God loves them so much he sent his only son to die on the cross for them. They cannot accept that God’s love is freely given, because they’ve never experienced such freedom and generosity in their own life. And so, at some level, consciously or not, they reject God’s mercy and love. They do not know the Lord in a personal way.
This despair is what we’re really fighting against. As important as it is to get the basic ideas right, and make good laws based on them, it is no victory if we do not help people accept God’s mercy, grace and love.
This is the invitation we must constantly offer, to all those we meet. Only to the extent that our personal witness consistently proclaims the joy, the freedom, the love that is possible in receiving Christ’s mercy and grace, can we truly be the seed of that hoped-for “culture of life.”
Let us continue to pray for each other, our country and our world. Let us not lose hope, but trust in God’s promise to be with us always.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City