Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology

Catholics in the World

Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP

(talk delivered at the 2012 East Bay Catholic Men's Conference)


We have gathered for a conference. What is a conference? Our English word is taken from the Latin conferre, which means “to take counsel”, “to confer”. We are here to take counsel together: to take counsel as men (not women), about our life in the world. To take counsel, however, requires that we share something in common: the word conferre comes, in turn from the verbferre which means “to bring” or “to bear”, in the sense of “to support”: we can confer because we all bring something that we bear in common. What is it that we bear in common? First, and most obviously, our life in the world. But we bring something else as well –something else that we are called to bear, to support: we bring the commission of Our Lord:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

But what has this commission to do with us? This commission and this promise of the Lord Jesus, Risen from the dead, was originally spoken to his eleven disciples –to those whom we remember as the apostles. However, Pope John Paul II insisted that our Lord was speaking, through the apostles, to the whole Church: we ought to hear his words addressed to us, personally, as members of his Church, and therefore to us –to each of us– as men. This, too, is something that we are called upon to bear and to bring with us –something about which we are to confer.

I suspect, however, that we may not hear his words addressed to us, personally. I suspect that we have the habit of assuming that our Lord is speaking to someone else. I further suspect that this is because we are all of us prey to the inclination to think of the Church as someone else: as the hierarchy, the bishops, the pope. We share the world in common, but, somehow, our faith is particular and private. (Certainly the world would have us think so.) Either this is true –that our faith is private and particular– or we are appallingly sloppy in our language. How many times have you heard someone make the comment, “I am Catholic, but I am not completely comfortable with what the Church teaches. “ Or, “I am Catholic, and therefore I uphold what the Church teaches.” In either case, “the Church” is someone other than me.

That the Church is some person or group of persons other than me is completely untrue. “You are the body of Christ”, St. Paul says, “and individually members of it.” Our faith is common –it pertains to all of us, and therefore and necessarily to each of us. It is not the esoteric formulation of some particularly holy, pious or scholarly few. We share the sensus fidei, an “intuition of the faith” according to which, if we are both sufficiently diligent and honest, we discover that, in the Holy Spirit, we do have a common understanding of our life and our responsibility. For me to say “I am a Catholic, but I disagree with some of what the Church teaches” is, objectively, tantamount to saying, “I am schizophrenic.” If we have the strength to bear it, and to bring it to others, the Faith –our faith: my faith and your faith– is, along with our life in the world, common, and what we are here to take counsel about.

We are to take counsel concerning two things that we hold in common: the world, and a commission that we have received to baptize and to teach it. But we have been very carefully taught that we must not, indeed may not, impose ourselves upon others. That is, the world to which we are sent forbids us to baptize and to teach it. How are we forbidden? The world has its own testimony about human life, and insists that we endorse it. What is that testimony? Who are you, according to the testimony of the world?

You are measured by the world and limited by it. You are, according to this testimony, “only human,” and the best that you can hope for is a life in which you are able to fulfill your needs and find a measure of comfort before you die. The only immorality is that you would suffer, and with sufficient investment we can adequately master our technology and conquer every form of suffering. Should our technology fail us, you can be assisted, painlessly, to an early death. The Church is an enemy and its testimony an abomination, because it will make you uncomfortable with life as you find it.

We might say with the English Philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), that your life, and all human life, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Can Hobbes have been serious? I suppose that the only worse possibility for human life is that it should be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish” and long (this reflection is possibly appropriate; poor Hobbes lived to the age of ninety-one). However pessimistic it sounds, his testimony is in basic agreement with many voices in our modern world. For they declare that you are born alone and proceed alone. You are a product of biological evolution. As such, you are no better than the brutes who, therefore, should have the same rights as you do. There is nothing about you that is unique or different; your whole reality is determined physically. Left to your own devices, because you are only human, you will eat and drink unwisely, engage in sex inappropriately and possibly die of AIDS or a drug overdose. Therefore you must be carefully regulated in your eating and drinking and sexual habits, lest you harm yourself or someone else. The whole purpose of education is to train you so that you do not prove to be an inconvenience to yourself or others. You must be taught about rights and about tolerance, otherwise you will be cheated, or you will cheat someone else. You must be trained for a productive role in society. Then, with a strong police force and an education that is politically appropriate, perhaps you can be afforded a comfortable life.

It is deeply significant that Hobbes never turned his own criticism upon himself. Being a philosopher and, according to his own self-estimate, enlightened, he preferred to prescribe a political solution for everyone else. At first glance his estimate of human life could not be farther from that of Hölderlin, the German poet, writing from Paris in about 1790:

I love the generation of centuries to come. For this is my most blessed hope, the faith, which keeps me strong and active, that our grandchildren will be better than we…. We live in a period of time in which everything is working towards better days.

This, too, resonates in our own time, and is part of the testimony of the world. Have we not progressed from age to age? You are certainly more comfortable than any of your forebears. No matter how dark your situation may seem, at least you were not born in the dark ages. It is your privilege to live in a democracy; you have freedoms that other ages did not dream of. While you have learned, through the threat of atomic war and pollution of the environment, that science can be put to an evil use, still you have been freed from the sickness, poverty and superstition of previous generations. You can reap the benefits of the past. You are a child of privilege; you stand upon the shoulders of your ancestors. With intelligence and perseverance you can still live as well as did your parents, and possibly better. But fix your sights upon the world, and understand it. Do not surrender to doubts or depressions, for we now understand such things, and through psychology you can find the help that you need. Above all, be realistic and practical. See to yourself, and do not throw away the advantages that you have inherited.

We should possibly remark that the testimony of the world seems to be a rather confused affair. Both the pessimism of Hobbes and the optimism of Hölderlin likely strike us as naive and exaggerated. But they are really only extreme statements of two sides of the same testimony. For both insist that your measure is the world. Your possibilities are determined by your situation in the world, whether through biology or history, or both. You are no better nor worse than the next person. We understand through psychology that there is really nothing unique about you that a little therapy would not cure. Anyway, very little is demanded of you, except that you are tolerant and observe the rights of others. You really need never think for yourself! In return you yourself have rights. If you cooperate with society and invest your hope in the world, you will be comfortable. You need never suffer.

What poor, timid, little creatures we men have become: tolerant, careful, unassuming! Clearly, Our Lord must have been addressing someone else. Or was he? There is another testimony about what it is to be human: the testimony of our Faith –a testimony that each of us is aware of, for we each of us hears it:

What is the testimony of the Faith concerning your life and destiny? You have a name. No one else has your name, for you are a unique and unrepeatable manifestation of the human mystery. Your name is and was first spoken by God, who is your Father. For the Son of God has revealed that the One who created heaven and earth, the One who lives in unapproachable light, is your Father. He made all things for your sake, and in the dignity of your life and person you are of greater worth than the whole rest of creation in combination. Not only has your Father given you dominion over the world and all that is in it, he has determined that you will sit in judgment over the angels (1 Corinthians 6:2,3). For he sent his Son to take upon himself your humanity, so that he might see and love in you what he sees and loves in his Son. In offering himself for your sake Christ destroyed sin and death, so that there is nothing which need keep you from your Father and the destiny he has willed for you. So complete is his love and respect for you that he waits for you to approach him; he will never violate your own will and freedom. For in Baptism you were born, “not of blood, or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of mankind, but of God” (John 1:13). Just as the Son was free to offer himself for our sake, so you are free to take up the name and destiny that is your own.

Your life and person are sacred. Your dignity is so great that your Father has invited you to collaborate with him in the salvation of every man and woman. Let us dwell on this for a moment: God himself seeks you as his Friend and Collaborator. Through the Son, he has conferred upon you his own life, the Holy Spirit: in Confirmation you received the Spirit of God himself. In this way the Father has made it possible for you to be perfect, as he is perfect; for you to be free, as he is free. Moreover, just as the Son revealed the Father in his every word and gesture, so the Holy Spirit makes it possible for you to reveal the Father through your own words and gestures.

Because the Father has called you to be his priest, every one of your acts can secure an end which ought to be impossible. When you approach your Father in prayer, the Holy Spirit unites your prayer to the prayer of Christ, and all humanity is presented to the Father through you. When you offer your life to the Father in a sovereign act of your own freedom, the Holy Spirit unites your self-offering to that of the Son, and all humanity is offered to the Father through you. When you offer yourself in marriage the union which you seek and celebrate becomes a sign of the union of Christ with his Church. When you commit yourself in friendship your faithfulness gestures the faithfulness of Christ and make his Church visible. When you are welcomed in love, Christ is welcomed with you.

No evil can befall you, unless you yourself permit it. Even though you should be put to death, not a hair of your head will perish. You have no earthly measure; you remain in the world for the sake of the world, but you are not of the world and the world cannot define you. You are subservient to no one, save to God alone, and he has called you “friend” and “beloved.” You are never alone, for the Son has promised that he will be with you always. There is no limit to what you are able to bear, believe, suffer or endure, for the Spirit who is Love dwells in your heart (cf. 1 Corinthians, 13:7). The world itself is blessed by your presence, for you are an Ambassador of Christ, destined in him to become the very holiness of God. This is who you are.

Such is the testimony about the human person that is the testimony of the Church: the testimony that is our own, the testimony that we hold in common, the testimony that we bring in order to take counsel together. Let us remember firmly who we are, and then let us take counsel about the commission that we have been given: we are to baptize and teach the world.

At the Second Vatican Council, the Holy Spirit, speaking through the Council fathers, illumined this commission insofar as it is your work, the work of the laity of the Church: you are to make disciples, that is, you are to evangelize persons, especially those who are farthest from the Church; you are to redeem human culture, that is, you are to meet others on their own terms and to teach them to fashion a culture that supports and upholds their own dignity. You have been given the power to restore to creation its innocence. Let us look at each of the tasks that you have been given:

You are to evangelize persons. How are you to accomplish this? Our Lord has told you to make disciples. The disciple is one who learns. Therefore, you are to teach. But what are you to teach? You are to teach what you yourself have learned from the one who is our Teacher: how you have learned to understand yourself through him; the dignity that is yours in him; how to recognize his voice; the adventure that is ours in following him; how we discern, in him, our own vocation. We are to be prepared to give an account of the hope that we have in him. You are to teach what he has taught us to observe: that we call no one on earth our Father, no one on earth our teacher; that we will find ourselves only in making an offering of ourselves to the Father; that we are to be in the world as sons and not as slaves; that we are to love the Lord our God, that we are to love ourselves in him, and to love others in the same manner that we love ourselves. In Christ we have become, in the wonderful words of Pope Paul VI, “experts in humanity” and we are to teach others to become themselves.

How are we to achieve this? Pope John Paul II insisted that we are to walk with others –to attend them, to listen to them, to see with them– and therefore to know when to speak and when to keep silence, when to encourage and when to challenge, when to affirm and when, gently to correct for, as he loved to quote the Council: “Man [and woman] is the road the Church must walk.” We are to keep faith with others: accompany them, to stay with them, and therefore to see them, to love what we come to see, and to speak what we have come to love. We apply to ourselves the wonderful insight of Cardinal George: “you will never evangelize what you do not love.”

So: you are to teach and therefore to make disciples, but you are also to redeem the culture. What, precisely, does this mean? You are to restore to enterprises and to institutions the proper dignity that they have: to serve the human person. You are, in a sense, secular apostles.

Most people would be enormously surprised to learn that the word, “secular” is an invention of the Catholic Church. What, precisely, is “secular”? There are things that are to be given to God alone: our worship, our lives. In marriage you make a gift of your life to God, through the love of your spouse; in friendship we may lay down our life for our friend –but as a sacrament of the love of Christ, in whose place we act. Our lives, our worship, belong to God alone and, for this reason, human life is sacred and inalienable.

But there are also things that are for the sake of man and woman, and are ordered to man and to woman, not to God, directly. These are the things that belong to time, to the saecula (to the ages) and are called, “secular”. What are these things? Everything that directly constitutes our culture and our society: education, health and welfare, the political life of the community, business and commerce, the arts and sciences. The purpose of all of these human pursuits is to enhance the life and dignity of the human person. God, rather obviously, does not need an education, or politics, or health, or commerce, or science. But this does not mean that God is indifferent to them. These are holy pursuits, in that they are directed for the sake of man, who is God's image and likeness.

Secular things have their own proper objectives, their own proper laws, and their own proper competence. There is no such thing as Christian physics or Christian mathematics, or Christian economics or Christian golf (golf, after all, is a religion in its own right). Neither is there Christian politics or Christian medicine. There can be a Christian education –but that merely refers to the secular work of education, which has its proper competence, that is nonetheless, inspired by the Gospel.

There is, therefore, a double requirement that is demanded of you, if you are to fulfill the Lord's commission: that you remain faithful to Our Lord, and to his Church, faithful to your own identity (your name, your vocation in Christ) but also that you are competent in your secular work. It is for you to understand secular endeavors to such a degree that you can direct and redirect them to their proper end –which is, once again, the dignity and well being of the human person. Moreover, it is in taking up your secular work that your vocation –your divine call– will be revealed to you.

This means that you may not accept the world as you find it. Nor may you countenance partial solutions to problems. Neither can you be satisfied with the judgments about the world that the world itself proposes. Taught by Christ himself, you are to see and to judge with him what is to be accomplished. Then you are to act in his place, for this is the authority that he has conferred upon you through his commission.

How, then, can you know that you are seeing with him, acting with him? This is precisely the reason that we are called to a conference, to take counsel together. We are the body of Christ and individually members of it. This means that no one of us is the body of Christ, but merely a member of it. On the other hand, when we gather in his name, as the Church, and take counsel, united with our pastors, the whole Church is present and, with it, the whole authority of Christ. We know that we are acting in the person of Christ when we act in communion with the whole People of God as a member of the Church, which is his Body.

Therefore, I wish to speak for a moment about the manner in which we are to receive the Lord's commission as men, because men take counsel in a different way than do women. I would refer us to the command of Our Lord in John's Gospel, where he identifies us as his friends:

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. This I command you, to love one another.

Our Lord here commands that we love, not as spouses, but as friends. Pope Benedict XVI refers to the love of friendship in Deus Caritas Est, only to explain that he is not at present going to elaborate this love. But he does tell us that philia, the love that is friendship, is the love that pertains between Jesus and his disciples.

The friendship that Our Lord speaks of is a covenant, and, like every covenant, it has four elements: it is comprised of a call, a promise, a stipulation and a sign. The Lord calls us (names us, designates us) as his friends: “You have not chosen me, I have chosen you and appointed you.” He therefore designates us as friends to each other, for what we share in common is not that we have each chosen him (such a choice might truly be private or esoteric), but that he has chosen and appointed each of us. What we share in common is the Lord himself! There is a promise: “whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give you.” The promise is addressed, not to the disciples individually, but to men bound together in his friendship. There is a covenant stipulation: we are to keep the commandment that he has given us, to love each other as he has loved us –by the gift of his life for our sake. And there is the sign of the covenant: “I call you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”

This is the covenant through which we are bound to each other. And this is the covenant that we invoke when we take counsel together: First, Christ has chosen and appointed us. We gather has his disciples, as men bound to each other through our allegiance to him. We are therefore to acknowledge the dignity of each member, for each member is one whom the Lord has chosen and appointed. We serve each other when we remind each other of our common dignity, and insist upon it. We are bound to each other by a common discipline: we have received the commandment that we will lay down our lives for the sake of our friends. This is not metaphor: when I speak, I speak in the presence of one who will lay down his life for my sake, one who is therefore deserving of the truth; and I speak as one who will lay down his life to protect the integrity of the friend to whom he speaks. That the truth be spoken is always at the heart of a covenant: we will lay down our lives to guarantee the truth of what is said. We are further bound to each other by a common promise: when we speak as friends, and when we formally and explicitly invoke our office –to stand in the place of our Lord and to act for him– the Father will give to us whatever we ask of him. If this is to little the experience of the Christian community, it may well be because it is so seldom done. Finally, there is the sign that the Covenant is promulgated: we speak what is most intimate to us, withholding nothing: “I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”

The relationship to which our Lord here calls us is the relationship that we require in order that we may come to the fulfillment of our own manhood, and to the intimacy that is proper between men. I esteem, honor and love the strength –that is, the virtue– of one who will speak the truth regardless of the cost, and who has the magnanimity –the greatness of heart– to seek to accomplish great things for the sake of the Lord whom we serve together. When I confer in this way, with friends such as these, I know that I see with Christ, and when I then act in his place, I am invested with the fullness of his authority.

The Holy Spirit, speaking through the Vatican Council II and the successors of St. Peter in the Papal office –Blessed John XXIII, Pope Paul VI, Blessed John Paul II and now Benedict XVI, has called the whole Church to the renewal of her mission to the world. It is a matter of very great irony, and also of sin, that we have not received that call fully enough. The Church since the Council has turned inward, and all of our effort seems to have been to build communities in which we are well-served. It is as if we have retreated into a shell, and are concerned to make room for each other. But, as someone once reflected, some animals are in need of a shell, because they lack a back bone. The Lord himself has commissioned us to redeem the world, not the Church. The world very much needs our attention. And our Lord himself has promised that, if we take up his commission, we will discover our own name and dignity –we will lose our life only to find it– and, in the wonderful words of Jacques Maritain, “we will be repaid by all that is best in this world, the marvel of those friendships which God induces and the pure loyalties he inspires, which are like a mirror of the gratuitousness and generosity of his own love.”

I urge you, then, to remember who you are, to trust in the Lord's promise, to take counsel together for the sake of the world, and so to fulfill the Lord's commission.

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