Thursday, October 8, 2015
"The great act of faith is when a man decides he is not God."
-Oliver Wendell Holmes
This past Sunday the Archdiocese of Washington celebrated its annual Red Mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral in our nation's capital. While many dioceses and universities celebrate this mass which seeks to "to invoke God’s blessings on those responsible for the administration of justice as well as on all public officials" the mass in Washington has some unique characteristics. Held annually on the Sunday before the first Monday in October when the Supreme Court begins its term, the mass attracts some of the leading jurists and public officials in the nation (although Slate noted only 4 Supreme Court Justices attended this year, trying to connect that observation to Pope fatigue).
Archbishop Wilton Gregory delivered the homily and his sermon touched on language, faith, and humility. In my own legal scholarship, I have written repeatedly about the importance of accurate labels and precision in the language of legal discourse. The choice of terms matter greatly as terms and labels convey social values which then influence the criminal law (think about terms such as "kiddie porn" vs. "images of child sexual abuse" or "child prostitute" vs. "sex trafficking victim"). Therefore, I found myself particularly struck by Archbishop Gregory's emphasis on language.
As the Catholic Standard reported, Archbishop Gregory noted that “[i]t is the mission of those involved in the administration of justice to help us all to understand the meaning of the words of the law and their consequence for the common good that flow from those laws. Yours is the noble vocation of choosing words and helping us understand the meaning of those words that are intended to safeguard and unite our country.” In a world of soundbites, legislative proposals with catchy names, and loose terms such as "non-dangerous drug offender," "victimless crime," and "revenge porn," the devil is in the details. Lawyers, judges, and legislators would do well to take a critical look at language they use, constantly asking what that language conveys about societal values and the seriousness of criminal victimization.
Archbishop Gregory offered other insights and practical guidance to legislators and judicial officials, many of which apply to all of us. But citing to the above Oliver Wendell Holmes quote, he reminded a Cathedral full of Washington luminaries (not to mention those of us sitting in the legal academy seating) of the value of humility. Underscoring the danger of using language to both contravene God's plan for us as well as in a "search to become gods" ourselves, the homily reflected a little of what Pope Francis was attempting to display during his visit - humility. Here's to hoping that message was received.