By Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades
I am about to leave for a weeklong visit to Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. As a member of the board of directors of Catholic Relief Services, each year I travel to visit CRS projects in different countries. You may recall that last year I visited Haiti and shared with you my experience there. I am looking forward now to meeting our CRS staff and the poor whom they serve in another part of the world, the Holy Land. CRS works in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza implementing programs focused on emergency preparedness and response, livelihoods, peace building and youth development. Please remember us and those we visit in your prayers, especially praying for peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, an end to violence in the region and a just resolution of conflicts.
During the week I am away, our nation will celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 16 and the inauguration of Donald Trump as president on Jan. 20. I was thinking how providential it is that the presidential inauguration will take place during the same week that our nation celebrates Dr. King. And then, in the following week, we will have the March for Life in Washington, which I look forward to attending with our diocesan delegation.
During the week when I will be visiting a region that is deeply divided and polarized, where violence and terrorism is not uncommon, our nation will hopefully be brought together after a polarizing presidential election. It was sad to see the divisiveness that spilled over into families, workplaces, groups of friends and even church communities. Opposing viewpoints are common in election seasons. Political debate is healthy when people engage one another with respect and constructive dialogue. Unfortunately, this past election season revealed a dark side in politics today that, if we are not careful, can harm the common good which should be the aim of politics.
I think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and what he can teach us at this time in our nation’s history. At a time of deep racial divisions in our country, this Baptist preacher called people to stand together for racial justice and an end to racial discrimination and segregation. His witness inspired millions. He opted for non-violence as the Christian approach, and the only truly effective approach, for ensuring and safeguarding human dignity.
In the public square and in politics, it is important that we bear witness to the Gospel, stand firm in the faith, and uphold the values we cherish as disciples of Jesus. This includes loving and respecting those who do not share our faith and values. We should be passionate about the protection of human life and dignity from the moment of conception until natural death, about justice for all people, including our immigrant brothers and sisters, about defending religious liberty, about protecting and caring for creation, and many other issues of importance. At the same time, we are called to work together constructively, to dialogue respectfully, and not to adopt a mindset of hostility towards those who disagree with us. We must strive to work for unity in pursuing the common good, despite differences, without falling into moral relativism.
One of my favorite writings of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” When he was imprisoned for participation in a civil rights demonstration, he wrote about Christian discipleship and why he could not obey unjust laws. He was not a moral relativist. This Baptist preacher quoted two Catholic Doctors of the Church. “I would agree with Saint Augustine,” he wrote, “that an unjust law is no law at all;” and with Saint Thomas Aquinas “that an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.” Interestingly, that very same week in April 1963, Pope Saint John XXIII, in his encyclical on peace, “Pacem in terris,” quoted the very same passage from Saint Thomas Aquinas. He wrote: “laws and decrees enacted in contravention of the moral order, and hence of the divine will, can have no binding form in conscience.”
The words of Dr. King and Pope John remind us of important truths as we prepare for the presidential inauguration and the March for Life. They remind us that permissive abortion laws, like laws that promoted racial segregation, violate the higher law, are unjust and must be opposed in a non-violent way. They remind us of our Christian obligation always to defend the truth about the dignity of the human person, born or unborn, black or white, young or old, healthy or sick, and documented or undocumented. They remind us that the Church can never remain silent in the face of injustice. At the same time, the way of Jesus teaches us that we are to love those who oppose us in fulfilling our Christian obligation. In fact, love of enemies is part of living the Gospel, perhaps the most difficult part.
As we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day and approach Inauguration Day, it is good to remember the courageous struggle for civil rights led by Dr. King. The struggle for justice goes on today. It includes the defense of the right to life of the innocent unborn and of the sick and aged. It includes efforts to combat poverty and to ensure the availability of jobs that lift people out of poverty by providing just compensation. It includes efforts to provide affordable health care for all while protecting the rights of conscience. It includes a quality education for all our children and the fundamental right of parents to choose a school for their children. It includes the protection of the stability of the marriage bond and the institution of the family. It includes the protection of the security and health of our communities from violence and the dangers of drugs and pornography. Let us pray that President Trump and his administration, together with Congress and the Supreme Court, will pursue true justice in their service of our nation!
When he spoke to the U.S. Congress in 2015, Pope Francis recalled the march that Martin Luther King led from Selma to Montgomery “as part of the campaign to fulfill his ‘dream’ of full civil and political rights for African Americans.” The Holy Father said: “That dream continues to inspire us all. I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of ‘dreams.’ Dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people.” Pope Francis encouraged Americans to resolve “to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our ‘neighbors’ and everything around us. Building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity, in a constant effort to do our best.”
Inspired by the witness of Dr. Martin Luther King, may we heed these words of our Holy Father. Let us pray for our government and for unity in our nation in the tireless and demanding pursuit of justice and the common good!