Monday, December 27, 2010
Growth in discipleship: Can a seed (of teachers) grow in the legal academy?—the harvest is great but the laborers are few (Matthew 20:1-16)
The other day I posted the first in a short series about discipleship in the legal academy. Today I would like to offer a second installment which develops the concept of the mission of the disciple who is also a teacher of the law. As Catholics, we are summoned to labor in God’s name in many places which may not look much like vineyards, but in fact they are. Saint Matthew’s Gospel to which I have just referred provides the instructive parable of the landowner who goes several times to the market place to hire laborers for his vineyard. (Matthew 20:1-16) The parable reminds us of the need to pursue the duties of discipleship regardless of the time when one hears the call—be it earlier or later in one’s life. As you see, we are on God’s time rather than our own. The call is the same regardless of the time of hearing it and the time of the response. God needs laborers to follow His son, for the harvest is great, but the workers seem to be few in number. As Pope John Paul II kept repeating in his post-Synodal apostolic exhortation, Christfideles Laici, “you go into my vineyard, too.” (Matthew 20:3-4)
A principal justification for this exhortation of John Paul is the role of the laity, considering the unique character of their vocation, to engage in the temporal affairs of the world and order them according to the plan of God. Through their call to holiness, the laity who encounter the temporal affairs of the world are the branches sprouting from Jesus’s vine. (John 15:1) And it is from these branches that God’s fruit will be brought into this world. While this may be a hard sell in a faculty meeting, the standards of the secular academy are not the final means for determining what the Catholic law professor is to do in his or her life. Through the efforts of the conscientious disciple, such objectives as God’s peace, the protection of human life and the preservation of the family—the basic unit of society, and the growth in authentic human wisdom and progress, and hope for the future can be cultivated, blossom, and produce abundant fruit. Just think of the role a teacher of the law can have on the relatively young minds of lawyers to be in achieving all this!
Instilled with the mission of discipleship, the laity are called to be God’s conscious instruments in a world often plagued with exaggerated autonomy that ignores both the neighbor and God and sees only the isolated self. By remaining in contact with the magisterium of the Church, the laity, through their work, become a light to the world illuminating the minds and spirit of those who might otherwise be overwhelmed by the darkness of evil. In this regard, we need to take account of what John Paul II stated in his last World Day of Peace message issued in 2005, by recalling the words of St. Paul, “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21) This is a noteworthy appeal to the disciples who labor in the many vineyards God has placed us.
A major task in regard to pursuing and implementing St. Paul’s exhortation is the need to identify and counter the falsehoods that beleaguer the world today. As a teacher, I am always intrigued by colleagues who, in the context of discussion about violence against women, proclaim the merits of the “Monologues” of Eve Ensler but think it would be inane to discuss and learn the story of Maria Goretti. With regard to debates about human rights, I am captivated by the assertions of a vast cohort of teachers supportive of “reproductive rights and sexual autonomy” but ridicule or at least down play the most fundamental right of all—the very right to life itself. Indeed, the harvest is plentiful but the laborers seem to be few in number. Even if the numbers of disciples prepared to meet the challenges of this world are few, they should not be deterred from their work in light of the enormity of tasks that lie ahead of them for the harvest will remain plentiful.
In a particular way, those called to the legal profession have numerous ways in which they can contribute to the betterment of the human family at the local, regional, national, and international levels. As members of the body of Christ who are trained in the legal and political mechanisms of society, they are suitably equipped to confront and remedy the sad mistakes of human manufacture, for as Jesus said, “I have appointed you to go forth and bear fruit.” (John 15:16) And the disciple responds to this call and goes into the world not in his or her own name, but in the name of Jesus for whom the disciple is an ambassador. (2 Corinthians 5:20) It is this person who is called to counter the errors of the false prophets of the day who seem to me to have a disproportionate voice in the development of legal and other norms that emerge in the contemporary culture of the early twenty-first century.
When considering particular challenging topics that today’s disciple must confront, we turn to St. Paul who reminds us about the duties of citizenship and how discipleship and citizenship are designed to be complementary rather than separate and independent of one another. (Romans 13:1-7) But St. Paul also cautions that the civil authority also must be mindful of its duties and properly exercise its power for it is supposed to be an instrument of God as well. (Romans 13:4) Disciples are also citizens who have a role in determining the political, social, and economic structures in which they live and work and who thus have responsibility as keepers of our brothers and sisters—whoever they may be. An informative and perspicacious account of this important point appears in Cardinal Raymond Burke’s pastoral letter to the Church in St. Louis issued on October 1, 2004 entitled “On Our Civic Responsibility for the Common Good.” (At the time, the Cardinal was Archbishop of St. Louis) The cardinal began his letter with a story from the time of his study of the German language in 1982 and his associated work in a German parish. He got to know the sacristan of the parish church who had been a teenager during the rise of National Socialism. A “haunting” question persisted with the sacristan about how he and his fellow citizens of Germany could have permitted horrible evils to happen and to go on for as long as they did. The cardinal added another chapter to the story: how could the bishops, the shepherds of Germany, have failed in their instruction and exhortation to the laity regarding these evils? These accounts are provocative in that each is a catalyst for reflection by the clergy and the laity of the Church today according to the rest of Cardinal Burke’s pastoral letter concerning his former role as shepherd of the Church in St. Louis and the roles of the laity who are citizens or holders of public office regarding the evils of the present day. And what are these evils?
Within the context of the Church’s teachings and their natural law foundation that is based on the use of right reason, the evil to be avoided is frequently any situation in which either the self-serving interest of the individual prejudices the interests of other individuals in the community, or the interest of the collective harms or frustrates the flourishing of each individual. The Church in its totality is the principal agent of moral theology, reflection, and action; moreover, through the Church, the human race can recognize each member’s fellowship with the other and with God. This is akin to Pope Benedict XVI’s observation commemorating the Pastoral Constitution issued during the Second Council that the virtue of justice contains two inextricably related elements: “the firm will to render to God what is owed to God, and to our neighbor what is owed to him.” (Homily of then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, 18 March 2005) The Holy Father’s point is related to the notion of justice as right relationship.
As a follower of Jesus Christ, the disciple might begin to address how to pursue this form of justice by thinking of Jesus addressing the same situation. The methods of instruction used by Jesus would vary, but they would include exhortation, the miracle, and the use of the parable. It is the parable that draws the listener-disciple into the lesson not only as an observer but as a participant as well. While the citizen as disciple is generally free to take action that he or she considers desirable (a type of freedom), the use of parable informs the individual’s conscience within a Christian context about the positive or negative action of the individual’s decisions. The parable of the Good Samaritan remains a powerful instrument of instruction and formulating a course of action for the disciple. (Luke 10:25-37) The lawyer in that parable who asks the question “who is my neighbor” is reminded of the nexus between love of God and love of the neighbor, and he learns what that means regarding human action in daily life. At the conclusion of the parable, he is instructed: “go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37)
Being a good citizen means being a good neighbor, and being a good neighbor means that one takes personal discipleship seriously. The cognizable neighbor in the parable is the victim of the robbers. But, the neighbor could be just as easily the persons involved with the issues outlined in the concerns from the Pastoral Constitution, i.e., murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction—or whatever else insults human dignity. The reader of the parable who becomes a participant in its teaching might identify with all the story’s characters that include the victim, the Samaritan, the robbers, the priest, the Levite, and even the innkeeper—that unsung hero who probably does what the Samaritan asks of him when the Samaritan must continue his journey and leaves the victim in the care of the innkeeper. The parable explores what the ordinary citizen, including the lawyer, can do as a disciple of Christ.
Civic duty is compatible with, not contrary to, discipleship. The two are not mutually exclusive and, for the Catholic who is both disciple and law professor, inextricably related. When they become separated from one another, the tragic events underlying the story of the German sacristan as related by Cardinal Burke can be and often are repeated. Nonetheless, the disciple must be as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove (Matthew 10:16) and recognize that some will reject the role of the disciple-citizen. For when Church authorities and citizens speak out on issues from the Catholic persona, they might be challenged, albeit on dubious grounds, that this “preaching” is prohibited by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. But, do these same critics, especially when they have access to mass media outlets that welcome their strongly secularist or even anti-Christian views, exercise similar restraint? It often appears that the result is dependent on who is doing the preaching and whose Gospel is being preached. Whatsoever you do to the least of your brothers and sisters, that which you do unto me. (Matthew 25:40) It is a well-formed Christian conscience that richly contributes to the public debate by adding alternatives that reflect genuine pluralism and diversity and is not subjugated by the monolithic view of a culture that is antagonistic to the religious viewpoint— a viewpoint essential to the discussion not by “imposing” but by “proposing.” Nevertheless, conscience is under attack and efforts are underway to silence those who exercise it in good faith and for the promotion of the common good.
Regarding the important role of the well-formed conscience, one need only recall the story of the German sacristan—why did people do nothing? Because if they did, their lives and their livelihood and other manifestations of existence would be adversely affected, sometimes even in harsh ways. But, notwithstanding these persecutions, people of conscience are demonstrating to the world that they will not be swayed as the pharmacists and health care providers are demonstrating.
But if one assumes the title of disciple, does not one also assume certain risks that go along with the vocation? In answering this question, one need only recall the names of all those disciples in the Roman canon who were martyred for their beliefs and the exercise of their conscience. There are indeed risks of proclaiming the truth, the Good News that some treat as unwelcome, but there is the moral obligation not to give into bullying or pressure, subtle or otherwise. Sound prudential judgment may dictate when this obligation is exercised in a public fashion, but it does not mandate avoidance of the obligation in perpetuity.
Disciples of today shoulder duties in the name of God and His Son. There are occasions when these disciples need not fear the decisions they take in the public square so long as those decisions sufficiently coincide with the views of the secular components of society; however, there may be occasions when the situation is otherwise. It is clear that if the disciple may not be able to eliminate that which is evil entirely. That is understandable, but the disciple has the continuing obligation to ensure that the evil in this world that is of human manufacture at least be reduced if it cannot be eliminated at present.
Those who consider themselves good citizens and good disciples seem to be neither when it comes to some of today’s difficult issues such as euthanasia, abortion, same-sex marriage, or certain kinds of stem cell research requiring the creation and inevitable destruction of human embryos. They may assert: “I cannot legislate morality” or “I cannot impose my religious views on others who do not share my faith” as some Catholic politicians have opined. It may seem odd that when the matter under debate involves some aspects of civil rights or criminal legislation addressing, for example, sexual assault or welfare reform or increasing medical benefits for the underinsured or uninsured or the protection of civil rights, the reservations toward the religious perspective tend to be absent. But why do they surface when the matter involves the conscious destruction of human life—the most precious right of all, for without it, all others wither? When these events take place and chill the words of deeds of the disciple in contemporary life, we find ourselves on the decline back to the Germany of the sacristan who met Cardinal Burke and asked why he and his fellow countrymen did not do something to stop the spread of evil.
Being silent with regard to the vital issues confronting the human family is not always golden. The exercise of silence can be prudent and sometimes offers a useful delay to consider the best manner of addressing a grave problem. But, when all is said and done, silence is rarely a solution to difficult problems that must ultimately be addressed. It can be, in some of today’s political debate, a form of weakness and fearfulness or cooperation (material or formal) in perpetrating and continuing evil. That is why the disciple of today must be willing to embrace the exhortation of John Paul II—“Be not afraid!” This exhortation surely applies to those of us who call the classroom our part of His vineyard.