In working for the common good of our society, racial justice is one pillar of our social doctrine. Economic justice, especially for the poor both here and abroad, is another. But the Church comes also and always and everywhere with the memory, the conviction, that the Eternal Word of God became man, took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, nine months before Jesus was born in Bethlehem. This truth is celebrated in our liturgy because it is branded into our spirit. The common good can never be adequately incarnated in any society when those waiting to be born can be legally killed at choice. If the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision that African Americans were other people’s property and somehow less than persons were still settled constitutional law, Mr. Obama would not be president of the United States. Today, as was the case a hundred and fifty years ago, common ground cannot be found by destroying the common good.
This is the fiftieth year since the calling of the Second Vatican Council by Blessed Pope John XXIII. The Pope looked at a divided world and hoped that the Church could act as Lumen Gentium calls us, as the “sacrament of the unity of the human race.” Those who would weaken our internal unity render the Church’s external mission to the world more difficult if not impossible. Jesus promised that the world would believe in him if we are one: one in faith and doctrine, one in prayer and sacrament, one in governance and shepherding. The Church and her life and teaching do not fit easily into the prior narratives that shape our public discussions. As bishops, we can only insist that those who would impose their own agenda on the Church, those who believe and act self-righteously, answerable only to themselves, whether ideologically on the left or the right, betray the Lord Jesus Christ.
Our episcopal conference is given us in the Church’s canon law so that we might have an instrument for shaping spiritual unity, for creating the bonds of affection that help us to govern in communion with each other, especially in a divided world and in a Church that knows dissent from some of her teachings and dissatisfaction with aspects of her governance. As we all know, the Church was born without episcopal conferences, as she was born without parishes and without dioceses, although all these structures have been helpful pastorally throughout the centuries. The Church was born only with shepherds, with apostolic pastors, whose relationship to their people keeps them one with Christ, from whom comes authority to govern the Church. Strengthening people’s relationship with Christ remains our primary concern and duty as bishops. We extend that pastoral concern, especially at the beginning of a new administration and a new Congress, to Catholics of either major party who serve others in government. We respect you and we love you, and we pray that the Catholic faith will shape your decisions so that our communion may be full.
We meet amidst enormous challenges to our Church, our country and our ministry, but that is, to some extent, always the case. Sometimes I’ve been tempted to think that bishops should be given, at their consecration, not crosiers but mops! What we are given before the crosier, if you recall, is the Word of God in written form, held above our head so that it may permeate our spirit. With you, I pray that all the topics we consider in our meeting now and all we do in the difficult days to come will be done together in the charity of Christ, who is the source of our unity and our strength. In so governing, in calling all to join us in listening to the incarnate Word of God from within his body, the Church, what we do now will have consequences for eternity; and we will be good shepherds to our people, good servants in our society and good disciples of Our Lord.