Mission: Impossible?

SEAN MURPHY

The Gospel of Jesus Christ compels us to bring our faith to bear on public affairs.

The call to holiness

The real Good News – the Gospel – is that all of us are called to become holy – to live in the presence of God, to put God at the centre of our lives. Some people think this means that we should behave and live like priests, monks and nuns. They're wrong.

Other people think that being an active Christian means being on parish council, or being a lector or extraordinary eucharistic minister, or singing in the choir – doing 'churchy' things. They're wrong.

It's not that there is anything wrong with these things; they are good things. From them we derive grace and strength. And we need that grace and strength for our mission. But we are laymen, and our primary mission is not in the sanctuary or the choir loft, but in the world outside.

The laity – that's us – live in the world, not in the monastery or convent. Priests and religious have their own special responsibilities, their own mission. But our primary mission is in secular duties and activities. Our mission is in the hockey rink, on the soccer road trip, in the hospital, in school and on the job. We are supposed to have Christ at our side in all of these places, and make Him present in these places by acting as He would have us act.

The idea is that we are supposed to blend in like yeast in the dough. Yeast blends into the dough, but it remains yeast, and it changes the dough from inside. We are supposed to become part of the team, the class, the business or the town, but we are to remain Christian, and encourage our class mates, co-workers and friends to live according to the will of God.

Why live according to the will of God?

Well, we can't kick God out of creation. We can't tell God that He has no business in the logging camp or the classroom. We can't hide from God in a courtroom, a bedroom – not even a closet.

We can't say, "God, you keep out of this. This is between me and the boss."

We can't say, "Get lost, God. This is between me and my wife, between me and my girlfriend."

We can't say, "God, it's Friday night. I want to get a little drunk. Butt out. Come back on Sunday."

We have one conscience, and one conscience only, not one for religious duties and a different one for the party – whether it's a political party, or the weekend party. We have one conscience, a Christian conscience, and that is to guide us in everything that we do. Everything. There is no such thing as "I'm personally opposed, but . . .". Pontius Pilate was personally opposed to crucifying Our Lord, but he didn't want to impose his morality on the mob.

So, here we are, ready to live and act as Christians should. What response can we expect? Let's consider what happened to some people who tried to do just that.

 

Cases

Imagine yourself in the following real-life situations.

  • You are a university student. You get into some heated debates in class when you defend your religious beliefs against what you perceive to be inaccurate or even hostile claims by your professor and classmates. Your professor reduces the mark on a paper, criticizing it as part of an "agenda of resistance."

  • You are a student nurse. You refuse to dispense a drug that could cause abortion. Your supervisor has strongly indicated that this may result in a failing grade.

Dr. James Robert Brown, a professor of science and religion of the University of Toronto, has a simple answer for health care workers, like the student nurse, who don't want to be involved with things like abortion or contraception. These "scum" – that's his word – these "scum" should "resign from medicine and find another job." His reasoning is very simple.

Religious beliefs are highly emotional – as is any belief that is affecting your behaviour in society. You have no right letting your private beliefs affect your public behaviour.

 

Mission: Impossible?

Now you know why I titled this talk "Mission: Impossible?" Christians must take part in worldly affairs, live a vigorous Christian life, and change the world so that all things are ordered to the glory of God. But Christians who actually try to do this may be disciplined, fired, or threatened with other penalties. People like Dr. Brown call us 'scum' and say that we have no right letting our personal or private beliefs affect our behaviour in society.

How do we answer them?

 

The Response

There are a number of possible responses. Today I will give you four.

  1. Personal and private doesn't mean insignificant.

  2. All beliefs influence public behaviour.

  3. Everyone is a believer – even atheists.

  4. Proposing is not imposing.

 

First: personal and private doesn't mean insignificant.

Professor Brown and others like to stress that religious beliefs are 'personal' and 'private'. This is intended to belittle us. It's meant to make us feel like we're alone, isolated, even eccentric.

Well, our beliefs are personal, in the sense that we personally accept them. They are private, in that what we believe is primarily our business, not someone else's.

But our beliefs are also shared with hundreds of millions of people, living and dead – not just a few hundred thousand who happen to be alive and who, like Dr. Brown, occupy positions of power and influence.

We are not alone in our personal convictions. We are not few in number. There are literally billions of religious believers. Don't let people bully you by making you feel like strangers in your own world.

We share our beliefs with some of the greatest minds and imaginations in history. Some I need to introduce: Albertus Magnus – St. Albert the Great, Great because of his extraordinary learning. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says he deserves "a pre-eminent place in the history of science."

Dante was the "greatest poet of Italy, if not of mediaeval and modern times."

The inventor of the barometer was Blaise Pascal, a genius among modern thinkers, and deeply interested in religion. We measure pressure in pascals, the unit of measure named for him.

And we share our beliefs with J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings.

Not only great intellects, some of the most courageous souls through the ages have been religious believers: St. Joan of Arc, who led the armies of France; St. Thomas More, beheaded because he was "the King's good servant – but God's first;" and St. Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to die in the place of another prisoner in a Nazi death camp.

Most important, we share our beliefs with some of the holiest people who have walked the face of the earth: St. Francis of Assisi, first to bear the wounds of Christ; Blessed Damien of Molokai, who died among the lepers he served near Hawaii; and Mother Teresa, who needs no introduction.

These were Catholics, but non-Catholics and non-Christians can make similar claims, including in their lists names like Sir Isaac Newton, the great scientist, the Muslim physician, Avicenna, Mahatma Gandhi, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor hanged by the Nazis.

The first point, then: personal and private doesn't mean insignificant. We are not alone in our personal convictions. We are not few in number. There are literally billions of religious believers. Don't let people bully you by making you feel like strangers in your own world.


 

Second: all beliefs influence public behaviour.

Professor Brown says that we must not let our so-called 'private' beliefs affect our public behaviour.

Really?

What about the ancient Indian emperor Asoka? After ten years of bloody wars, he became a Buddhist, and decided that he should rule his people like a father, with "morality and social compassion." Among other things, he provided them with free hospitals and veterinary clinics, and built new roads and rest houses for travellers. In other words, Asoka let his private beliefs affect his public behaviour. If we believe Professor Brown, this must have been bad news for his people.

Well, some might say, that was in ancient times. Let's bring it closer to us in time.

Well, we have every reason to demand the same freedom that Professor Brown claims for himself. All public behaviour – how we treat other people, how we treat animals, how we treat the environment – is determined by what we believe. All beliefs influence public behaviour.

How many of you have seen Saving Private Ryan? If you were shaken up by the D-Day landing scene in Saving Private Ryan, Dieppe was far worse. Fewer than half the Canadians who landed at Dieppe in 1942 made it back. The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry landed with 582 men; 365 were killed or taken prisoner. John Foote, a Presbyterian minister, was chaplain to the regiment. For an hour, during the retreat, Foote carried wounded men on his back to the boats. He deliberately returned to the beach to be taken prisoner with the men left behind. He was awarded the Victoria Cross. But Professor Brown says that people shouldn't let private beliefs affect their public behaviour. Maybe he thinks that Foote didn't deserve it.

Let's bring it even closer in time, and closer to home. Toronto, a few years ago.

During World Youth Day celebrations, a quarter million young people filled the streets of Toronto. What they did in public – on the streets, in buses and subways, in the parks – was influenced by their religious convictions. And you know what? People loved it. They thought it was great. They wished that people behaved like that all the time.

I don't know where Professor Brown was during World Youth Day. Maybe he fled in terror at the thought of all those young people acting as if their faith really meant something.

But let's take an even closer look at what Professor Brown had to say. What was he doing when he gave that interview to the reporter? What was he doing when he proclaimed that no one should be allowed to act in public according to private beliefs?

Professor Brown was – - acting on his beliefs. It was his personal belief, his private conviction, that we should not be allowed to act upon our beliefs and convictions. Well, we have every reason to demand the same freedom that Professor Brown claims for himself. All public behaviour – how we treat other people, how we treat animals, how we treat the environment – is determined by what we believe. All beliefs influence public behaviour.

And this brings me to the third point.

 

Everyone is a believer, even atheists.

An atheist believes that God does not exist. He believes it, just as a Christian believes that God does exist. The Christian has a belief about God; the atheist has a belief about God. One is a religious belief; the other a non-religious belief, but both are beliefs. The atheist is as much a believer as a Christian when it comes to the existence of God.

Moreover, belief is absolutely essential to society. Human society can exist without science, without technology. It exists wherever people live together, whether or not they are scientifically or technologically advanced.

But society cannot exist without belief. Everyone here will believe that tomorrow is 31 May – because that is what you have been told. It won't be because you've done the astronomical observations to prove it. If people believe in human dignity, equality and justice, it will not be because these things are facts proved by scientific experiment. Some of the most important decisions we make in life are based on belief, not certainty. Will I move to Alberta? Will I be a carpenter or a teacher? What woman will I marry? Will this man be a good husband? How many children shall we have? Belief, not certainty, decides these things.

But here's the central point for us today. People who don't believe in God may defend and promote what they believe is good for man and society, and they may do so in public. People who aren't members of a religion may ask their neighbours and the government to respect what they believe is good for people. Atheists may ask for policies and laws to protect what that they believe is good for man and society – like health care, for example. These are all believers. They don't believe in God, they don't believe in a particular religion, but they are all believers, and they are free to act on their beliefs in public and to promote them.

Well, so are we. We are believers too, and we have the same freedom to act on our beliefs in public and to promote them as non-religious believers. Professor Brown is free to propose his ideas about how people ought to behave in public, even if his ideas come from his personal beliefs. So are we.

Here we come to our final point.

 

Proposing is not imposing.

"It isn't right to impose your beliefs on other people."

All citizens are free to propose ideas about how people should live and work together. All citizens are free to plead, to argue, to lobby, to convince other people to accept their ideas about what is good for people and good for our country. That is not imposing beliefs. That is good citizenship in a democratic society, and we need more of that, not less.

You've heard that, and you know it's not entirely true. Society often impose beliefs by law. We believe that it is wrong to murder, to break into houses, to assault people, to defraud them. If somebody doesn't believe that, and starts breaking into houses or killing people, we will impose our beliefs by throwing him into jail.

So to say, "It isn't right to impose your beliefs on other people" isn't entirely true. But that means it isn't entirely false. We may throw people into jail for murder, but not for refusing to accept Christianity. We may fine people for speeding, but we don't fine them for not going to church on Sunday.

I am not going to talk about how to decide when beliefs should be imposed, for two reasons.

First: you don't want to stay here for the rest of the week.

Second: we are not talking now about imposing beliefs, but about proposing them. All citizens are free to make proposals about laws or social policies. All citizens are free to propose ideas about how people should live and work together. All citizens are free to plead, to argue, to lobby, to convince other people to accept their ideas about what is good for people and good for our country.

That is not imposing beliefs. That is good citizenship in a democratic society, and we need more of that, not less.

 

Summary

So when we are told that we can't let our personal religious beliefs determine how we behave in public, that we can't impose our religious convictions or ideas on others, what do we say?

  • First: personal and private doesn't mean insignificant. We share our beliefs with hundreds of millions, if not billions of others.

  • Second: all beliefs influence public behaviour. The person who tells us we can't let our beliefs influence how we behave is a hypocrite, trying to get us to act according to his belief.

  • Third: everyone is a believer – even atheists. Belief is essential. Most of the time we have to act on belief because there isn't time for anything else.

  • Fourth: proposing is not imposing. It's good citizenship.

 

 

Conclusion

I hope these four points will give you more confidence to use your freedom as the Lord would have it used. But don't get the idea that things will be easy.

Henry Morgentaler has demanded that no religious organization – especially the Catholic Church – be allowed to operate hospitals, because they won't provide abortions. Others are suggesting that the Church should be deprived of its schools precisely because it is faithful to the Gospel rather than "the public policy of Canada" that is said to support homosexual lifestyles. And the Chief Justice of Canada said that the law claims ultimate and total authority over us. All of these statements are demands that we accept the state as our supreme authority. We shall have no king but Caesar.

"We have no king but Caesar!"

Where have we heard that before? When you hear that, you know what path lies before us. But, after all, St. Thomas More said that the Lord we follow didn't go to heaven in a feather bed, and we should not expect better for ourselves.

Mission: Impossible?

Humanly speaking, yes. But, humanly speaking, so was the Resurrection. With God, all things are possible.

Thank you.

 

 

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Sean Murphy. "Mission: Impossible?" the second part of a talk given at the B.C. Catholic Women's League Convention (May 29, 2009).

Reprinted with permission of the author, Sean Murphy. The full address – with endnotes – is available at the Catholic Civil Rights League web site here.

THE AUTHOR

Sean Murphy is the administrator of the Protection of Conscience Project and a director for Western Canada of the Catholic Civil Rights League. Sean Murphy is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2009 Sean Murphy




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