Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Great Discipleship of Teaching

The call to discipleship—on the Way to Emmaus (Luke 24:1-35)

            For many, Christmastide and the end of the calendar year provide an opportunity for many individuals to reflect upon one’s life, livelihood, and vocation. For the Catholic Christian, this reflection may include a personal evaluation of one’s discipleship. One of the things that I have reflected upon concerning the joint enterprise I share with others at the Mirror of Justice is what is Catholic legal theory and how can I contribute to its development that is consistent with the faith and the teachings of the Church. Much of what I have to offer for the consideration of others takes place in the context of individual and shared efforts as teachers who labor in the classroom, the symposium, and the world of publication. These personal reflections will appear in three installments commencing with today’s posting. It concentrates on the personal and corporate call to discipleship.

Some years ago one of my students stopped by to discuss the course that she had taken with me. At the end of our conversation, she asked if she could present a personal question regarding faith and the Catholic Church. Accustomed to these kinds of questions from students and a few colleagues, I responded in the affirmative. She then inquired in a sincere fashion if she were a “bad Catholic” since she was “pro-choice.” Her question is of the kind that I have always anticipated being asked regarding the divide between the Catholic faith and endorsement of public and political views inconsistent or in tension with the teachings of the Church. The existence of the division is something that I prefer would not exist, but it does.

As I responded to my student’s inquiry, I thought about the ongoing debate in the United States within the context of the elections regarding Catholic public officials and citizens and the multifaceted duties regarding some of the difficult issues of public policy involving including abortion, embryonic stem cell research, armed conflict, and homosexual marriage—for these constitute some of the pressing issues of the day that involve the intersection of the Catholic faith and public policy that is the subject of the law. Somewhat eclipsed by the notoriety of public officials and their positions on these important contemporary policy matters is the related matter involving the Catholic citizen and his or her duties regarding voting or campaigning on these various contested issues of the day and Catholic faith the citizen professes.

Knowing that bishops, clergy, public officials, and citizens have provided, some times amply and audibly, their views on this important relationship between citizenship and faith, I plan to address the issue of the respective obligations of the Church’s teachers and the young faithful whom we encounter through the various manifestations of our teaching. Given this context, many Catholics in the United States find themselves in conflict over their faith and their roles in public life. It is not absurd to suggest that each Catholic citizen is a participant in the Christian vocation of citizenship. My purpose in doing so is not simply to pursue didactic objectives; it is also to present the efforts of a fellow laborer in the vineyard to encourage, support, and make a modest contribution to you to persevere in your particular endeavors to proclaim the Gospel and advance the Kingdom of God in your great work.

The principal objective today is to identify and examine the relationship between Catholic faith and the duties of the Catholic citizen. It is my position that there is nothing in the civil law and associated regulations to preclude the Catholic office holder or citizen from adhering to the teachings of the Church in the exercise of one’s respective public duties. Moreover, the citizen and the office holder have the obligation to be faithful to the Church’s teachings if he or she is to be an effective, contributing Christian member of the commonwealth. This means that the Catholic who exercises a role in American democracy simultaneously participates in the exercise of discipleship by applying in this world the substance and content of communion with Jesus Christ and other disciples.

I shall elaborate on this by investigating the following points: (1) what the call to discipleship means to the citizen who is also a believer; (2) how the believer must grow in response to the duties of citizenship and discipleship because “the harvest is great but the laborers are few” and how the Christian citizen must be open to receiving appropriate instruction from those whose duty it is to teach; and, (3) by relying on several historical models, demonstrating how Christian citizens—especially teachers—are called to be people for all seasons. I begin my presentation by turning to an early account about two disciples.

            This element of my examination is rooted in the story of Cleopas and his friend—two disciples who, on their way to the village of Emmaus, encounter the resurrected Jesus. (Luke 24:13-35) Something prevents them from recognizing Jesus until they dine together and Jesus, after having said the blessing, breaks bread with them and, in doing so, shares communion with them. When Jesus quickly disappears from their sight, they then recognize who he is, and they are energized with the breaking of the bread and communion with Jesus to continue his work mindful that the “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all the nations.” (Luke 24:47) By being in communion with the Lord, they are restored to active and animated discipleship and respond to the call to serve in his name. Without the communion with Jesus, they seemed to have no direction in their lives but were “downcast.” (Id. 24:17) They needed him to do the work they were called to do, and with him they were fortified to labor in his name. Through their communion with Jesus, they maintained right relation with God and with their neighbor. Being in communion with God, His Son, and the Church is essential to anyone’s discipleship regardless of whether one lived in the time of Jesus in Palestine or in the United States at the present time.

            Of course, Cleopas and his friend have been succeeded by many faithful disciples including those of the present day. Throughout the Church’s history, they have been simultaneously challenged and invigorated in their work of following the Lord in this world—the very Lord who is Emmanuel whom we welcome this evening at the Christmas Vigil. Indeed, their actions have been threatened by other individuals, groups, and the state. Nonetheless, they have also been fortified by the Lord in answering his call: “come, follow me.” (Matthew 9:9) For example, in the 1930s, the lay groups called Catholic Action were targeted by elements of the Fascist state in Italy and later by National Socialists in Germany and other countries. The functions of Catholic Action served as the leaven in this world by instructing the members of their society about the teachings of the Church vital to public life. Many members of this important association persevered in their discipleship notwithstanding the difficulties and persecution they faced. Many bishops, priests, members of religious communities, and lay leaders exhorted them to persist.

            More recently, the faithful Catholic laity were reminded of their duty to continue the same and related functions in society by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Two principal documents of the Council address the role of the Catholic disciple in the world and political life. The first is the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). Two significant points about the Pastoral Constitution must be noted here. The first is that the Council spoke to Catholics and “in order to shed light on the mystery of man and to cooperate in finding the solution to the outstanding problems of our time.” (G&S, N. 10) The second crucial point needing emphasis is the recognition that the Church teaches that human existence is permeated by the unchangeable reality rooted in Christ. (Id.)

These two key points acknowledge that the Church and its individual member are called to advance the dignity of each human person in solidarity with all others. Thus, interdependence and the common good are complementary to rather than in conflict with the individual person. The Council highlighted these points by stating that each member of humanity of the contemporary world is obliged to take seriously the duty to love one’s neighbor—whoever that may be. In a powerful use of scripture, the Council reminds all what Jesus taught: “As long as you did it for one of these least of my brethren, you did it for me.” (Matthew 25:40) The text of the Pastoral Constitution goes on to illustrate this calling by stating that the Church and its members have a duty to combat whatever is “opposed to life itself” by identifying murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, willful self-destruction, or anything else which “violates the integrity of the human person.” (G&S, N. 27) Illustrations of these violations against human integrity include: subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, disgraceful working conditions, and trafficking in women and children. The Council confirmed that these acts injure not only their victims but also insult God, the Creator of each person. Sadly, they still proliferate throughout the world today including our own country.

Disciples are challenged to address all of these problems that face the contemporary world and challenge human existence. Catholics are citizens of two cities who are called to discharge civic responsibilities with the exercise of a Christian conscience inspired by the Gospel. (G&S, N. 43) By way of elaboration, the Council expanded on its explanation of this duality of citizenship. First of all, it specified that the person who is a Catholic cannot profess belief in the Gospel but ignore it in everyday life. As the Council stated, it is wrong to “think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations”; a Catholic cannot plunge one’s self “into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from religious life.” (Id.) For those who assert that faith is a private matter and not to be inserted into public affairs, the Council admonished that the “split between faith… and daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age.” (Id.) The dichotomy of two lives, one of faith and one of citizenship, insulated from one another is incompatible with Christian discipleship.

The role of the faithful in the suitable exercise of discipleship is crucial. First of all it is the laity who have the principal role in seeing that the “divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city.” (Doctrinal Note on Catholics in Public Life) While enjoying and exercising their appropriate expertise, the laity are properly reminded of the need to turn to the clergy for principled instruction and spiritual advice; however, it is ultimately the responsibility of the laity to combine their Christian wisdom, which is informed by the Church’s teaching authority, to implement and practice the divine law in the earthly city.

I have already noted some of the issues which the Council concluded violated human dignity. But the Council went on to specify several problems of “special urgency” requiring the attention of the laity. These include: marriage and the family which are of vital concern today; the proper development of culture, economic and social issues; the vocation of promoting the common good; and fostering peace and promoting the friendly community of nations. These vocations properly belong to every Catholic—man, woman, and child—since each bears a calling to follow Christ in this world and do the will of the Father through one’s baptism. It is the responsibility of each to continue the teaching which Jesus began and with which the Church, especially through its laity, is charged to continue in both word and deed. It is the laity who are well situated to embrace the duties of citizenship of both cities and transmit God’s law and truth to those responsible for directing civil society so that it achieves and maintains the common good. This is of special concern to those of us in the teaching profession.

There may be critics and skeptics who caution against the propriety and legality of such an enterprise. They may argue that the disciple is prohibited from mandating religious doctrine on the secular community. In this regard, one is often reminded of the often recalled address given by Governor Mario Cuomo at Notre Dame University in September of 1984 entitled “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective” in which he raised and addressed the question of the relationship of his Catholic faith and his politics—are they separate or related? The Governor counseled against imposing views based on Catholic teachings on others which these citizens find unacceptable. He spoke of the “American-Catholic tradition of political realism” in which the Church has avoided settling into a “moral fundamentalism” mandating “total acceptance of its views.”

But that is not what the disciple is called to do. The disciple, as John Paul II judiciously explained, proposes to the community rather than imposes upon it. Governor Cuomo appears to have agreed with this transformative participation in public life in which the Catholic holds the duty not to coerce but to persuade. But as I will discuss later, there remain problems with other points that he made at Notre Dame. If indeed the United States is a pluralistic culture as many have noted, should we not as believers and non-believers, but citizens all, be aware of the universal obligation of citizen to contribute to the debates on issues big and small that fuel and sustain democracy? It makes little sense to argue that the person with no faith in his or her perspective on exercising the duties of citizenship is entitled to contribute to the democratic process but the person who approaches our life in common from a religious background is denied the same opportunity because of the myth of the wall of separation between Church and State. This leads to only certain rather than all sources contributing to our common life in a culture which claims to be pluralistic and diverse.

It is through reasoned discourse that the genuine contribution of the disciple can be made for the betterment and benefit of all rather than just some of humanity. It is the example of a way of life that is suitable for making the propositions consistent with God’s truth contained in the Church’s teachings. And, it is these teachings and the authority upon which they are based that serve as an antidote to the cynical and sinister in this world that God has given His disciples as one of our two cities. Archbishop Charles Chaput commented that regardless of one’s status as public official or citizen, Catholics share a duty of conforming their lives to the belief they profess and to do something about this is a public fashion if the common good is to be a goal of society. He properly acknowledged that, “All law is the imposition of somebody’s beliefs on somebody else. That’s exactly the reason we have debates and elections, and Congress—to turn the struggle of ideas and moral convictions into laws that guide our common life.”

The wisdom and teachings from the Pastoral Constitution must be complemented by a second conciliar text, the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem. At the outset, the objective of this text was to support intensification of the apostolic activity of the laity who possess and exercise a proper and indispensable role in the Church’s mission in the world—a role necessitating zeal and intensification. A major objective of this apostolic activity is the need to address the serious errors of the contemporary world that undermine “the foundations of religion, the moral order, and human society itself.” (AA, N. 6) Of special concern to the laity are vocations involving Christian married life, the family, and the influence of Christians (especially the young—and whom do the young encounter outside of their homes on a regular basis?) on culture and society. Regardless of the activity, the laity are called to build up the Church and to sanctify the world. (Id., N. 16) Keeping in mind the earlier work of Catholic Action, the Council viewed that the laity, who must maintain a proper relationship with Church authorities, would pursue a wide variety of apostolic activities providing reinforcement for the transcendent and objective moral order in the world. (Id., N. 20) Of course, it is important to note that no one could claim the use of the modifier “Catholic” unless it had obtained the consent of the appropriate and lawful authority in the Church. (Id., N. 24) In this context, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement in May of 2000 declaring that the pro-abortion group which calls itself “Catholics for Choice” [formerly CFFC] is not a Catholic organization.

What is envisaged in the text on the role of the laity is a vital partnership in which the ecclesiastical hierarchy teaches and authentically interprets the moral principles to be addressed and advanced by the laity in the temporal sphere. (Id., N. 24) Otherwise, any speaker addressing the temporal sphere could advance his or her or its views, as does the Catholics for Choice, in the name of the Catholic Church, but to do so would be falsehood and lead to confusion amongst not only the laity but the citizenry at large. Any speaker who suggests that he or she is offering a Catholic perspective to a debate but whose views do not accord to the Church’s teachings and positions is offering erroneous testimony and falsehood. No wonder why Thomas More encouraged Richard Rich to be a teacher! A teacher who is also committed to his or her discipleship works in a particular vineyard which will be the subject matter of the second installment that will follow in a few days.


RJA sj


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Thank you for these words of wisdom.

Posted by: Nancy D. | Dec 26, 2010 12:55:56 PM