Religion

The Church Must Be the Conscience of the State

President Joe Biden departs Holy Trinity Catholic Church on the first Sunday in office in Washington, D.C., January 24, 2021. (Erin Scott/Reuters)
Martin Luther King Jr. and Archbishop José Gomez have messages for Joe Biden.

‘It is midnight within the social order.” Martin Luther King Jr. said this in “A Knock at Midnight,” a sermon he gave in 1967.

He based it on the passage from the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus asks, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’?” (Luke 11:5–6, RSV). There’s something about our interconnectedness in that passage that seems especially important during a time of sometimes radical isolation.

The Reverend King said: “Although this parable is concerned with the power of persistent prayer, it may also serve as a basis for our thought concerning many contemporary problems and the role of the church in grappling with them. It is midnight in the parable; it is also midnight in our world, and the darkness is so deep that we can hardly see which way to turn.”

“When confronted by midnight in the social order we have in the past turned to science for help. And little wonder!” he added, even mentioning plagues and the obvious benefits of medicine.

“But alas! science cannot now rescue us, for even the scientist is lost in the terrible midnight of our age. Indeed, science gave us the very instruments that threaten to bring universal suicide. So modern man faces a dreary and frightening midnight in the social order.”

Suicide itself is on the rise. My friend and former longtime colleague wrote a book, published in 2017, titled “Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy,” and I may have given him a little grief at the time for bringing more of the word “suicide” to our lives. But looking back, I think it might have been prophetic.

It is also midnight within the moral order,” King said.

At midnight colors lose their distinctiveness and become a sullen shade of grey. Moral principles have lost their distinctiveness. For modern man, absolute right and wrong are a matter of what the majority is doing. Right and wrong are relative to likes and dislikes and the customs of a particular community. We have unconsciously applied Einstein’s theory of relativity, which properly described the physical universe, to the moral and ethical realm.

King went on to talk about how he who knocks is seeking faith, hope, and love. She who doesn’t knock is, too. I often weep in my heart when passing a church that is locked. Obstacles — scandal and hypocrisy chief among them — can keep people who are seeking God from knocking on the doors of religious institutions or from going in through an open door. I often pray that the obstacles can be removed by God’s grace and our love for one another.

Joe Biden hit some crucial notes during his inauguration speech. He talked about humility and tolerance. He reached out, with respect, to people who didn’t support him. His expected initial executive orders were disappointing to those of us who wanted to believe him at his words there, but we also know what he campaigned on, so his orders really weren’t surprises.

Archbishop José H. Gomez, the archbishop of Los Angeles and president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement about the Biden inauguration, the day of. Gomez congratulated Biden and praised him for his reliance on faith and for his public acknowledgment of its importance. Gomez also stated that there are conflicts between some of Biden’s political positions and Church teaching on some essential issues. But people’s lives are not merely a matter for religious piety — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are our national work, from the beginning. That means protecting religious liberty — including the liberty of those of us, like the Catholic bishops, whose fundamental views about the human person and about the nature of marriage are opposed by the Democratic Party when it comes to abortion and, in many cases, assisted suicide and even medical ethics.

Pluralism means living together and working together for the common good, despite differences. Gomez both expressed his eagerness to live up to that standard and encouraged Biden: “My hope is that we can begin a dialogue to address the complicated cultural and economic factors that are driving abortion and discouraging families.” He also mentioned the importance of strong marriages and the well-being of children: “If the president, with full respect for the Church’s religious freedom, were to engage in this conversation, it would go a long way toward restoring the civil balance and healing our country’s needs.”

Gomez, it sure seems, was acting as King would advise, who said:

The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.

We need more of this, not less. We need to respect one another and talk about differences and try to move ahead together as we acknowledge and discuss them. It’s the only way to have a healthy country again.

This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.

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