50th Annual Red Mass Homily by Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J.

October 05, 2003

Following is the homily given by Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J. at the 50th Annual Red Mass on Sunday, October 5, 2003 at the Cathedral of St. Matthew, Washington, DC.

Readings: Jer 31:31-34; 2 Cor 3:1-6; Jn 14:15-17

All three of the readings for this Mass deal with the same two themes: law and spirit. Ezekiel prophesies a time when the law will be inscribed by the Spirit on the hearts of the people. Paul says that the Christians of Corinth have in their hearts a law written by the Spirit of the living God. And in the Gospel reading from John, Jesus speaks of the indwelling Spirit who will prompt his disciples to keep his commandments.

Many of you who are present for this Mass are in one way or another connected with the law, whether as legislators, as advocates, as administrators, or as judges. You therefore have to face the question, how is the law related to things of the spirit? In biblical history the two are neither separable nor antithetical but are inextricably conjoined. The Spirit of God inspires those who make the laws and gives the people the capacity to observe those same laws. Is the same true, at least analogously, for civil society? Do the making of laws, their interpretation, and their observance require spiritual qualifications?

The French political philosopher Montesquieu, in a work that profoundly influenced the framers of the United States Constitution, held that each major form of polity is animated by a distinct spirit, which he called, in the title of his classic work, “The Spirit of the Laws.” In a monarchy, he said, the dominant spirit is honor; in a despotism, it is fear, and in a republic the spirit must be virtue.

The founding fathers of our nation agreed. Our first three presidents, Washington, Jefferson, and John Adams, spoke eloquently of the necessity for civic virtue to undergird the health of our republic. Our fourth president, James Madison, wrote to the same effect: “To suppose any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.”

Civic virtue, of course, is not a substitute for law. In a complex society such as ours, many laws are needed to coordinate social relationships. We justly pride ourselves in having a government of laws that prevents tyranny and capriciousness. But it is possible, in the absence of virtue, to put too much stock on law. Alexis de Tocqueville, a keen observer of the American scene, said that the Europeans of his day gave too much emphasis to laws and too little to mores. In the United States, he contended, customs and religious beliefs pervaded social life so thoroughly that the laws could be less onerous.

Where virtue prevails, laws will be framed with a view to the common good, not private self-interest. The laws, perceived as agreeing with the norms of justice, will carry moral authority. A virtuous people will feel obliged in conscience to obey them. But if laws are framed to satisfy the interests of particular groups, they will lose their moral authority, and the citizens will feel entitled to disobey, provided they do not get caught. Vice and criminality will proliferate.

Civilization depends on habits of the heart. It requires citizens who can trust one another to be honest, considerate, and truthful. When trust evaporates, the law has to assume a coercive function, compelling people to obey against their will. Elaborate mechanisms of surveillance, prosecution, and punishment must be erected. An army of auditors, detectives, police, attorneys, trial judges, and prison guards strives in vain to secure the order that responsible freedom would achieve. Free society gradually transforms itself into a police state.

In our litigious society, thirst for gain almost eclipses the passion for justice. Friends and family members readily take each other to court. Malpractice suits and the cost of insurance are forcing doctors and other professionals to abandon their practice. The courts are congested with heavy backlogs. We build more and larger prisons, which prove only to be schools of crime.

As men and women of the law, you know well that virtue cannot be legislated. But your concern for the law itself must give you a sense of the importance of moral convictions and moral training for the health of our society.

In our American tradition, great reliance has been placed on private institutions that directly inculcate virtue. Families, schools, and churches are among the primary agents for transmitting sound moral values.

The family, as the nucleus where life is born and where coming generations are formed, is today under severe pressure. It needs to be protected so that children can be raised in a stable and healthy environment. Broken homes and dysfunctional families are breeding-grounds of crime.

Schools extend the pedagogical functions of the family. To the degree that public education fails to instill moral convictions and behavior, this task will fall more heavily on private institutions, especially those conducted under religious auspices. Schools of this character fill the void left by value-free institutions that limit themselves to factual information and technical skills.

Religious institutions are of inestimable importance for transmitting moral probity. Perceiving this, John Adams declared: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.” George Washington said much the same: “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail to the exclusion of religious principle.” The government cannot establish in this country any given religion, but it can protect and support religion as an aid to civic virtue.

Law and spirit belong together. They are as inseparable as body and soul. Law, at least civil law, is a human achievement, but the spirit, if it is to be upright, depends chiefly upon the grace of God, who can transform our hearts and fill them with his love. May God forgive us for having so often tried to do without him! In prayer and worship we beseech him to impart a generous measure of his Spirit on our nation, its governors, and those who frame, interpret, and apply its laws.

Susan Gibbs
Office of Communications
[email protected]