States Dinner Address
Knights of Columbus States Dinner Address
by Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., of Chicago
President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,
August 4, 2009
|States Dinner Program|
Supreme Knight and Mrs. Anderson, Dear Brother Bishops and Cardinals, Deacons and Priests, Brother Knights and their wives and families, sisters and brothers in Christ. Thank you for the invitation to be with you to deliver this address during the States Dinner. In the 1970’s when I was still a relatively young priest, I spent a period of time visiting my brother Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Germany, listening to reports and giving conferences. After about two weeks of my business there, the German Oblate Provincial took me aside and said, “Why is it that you Americans, on every occasion when you stand up to speak, start with a joke?” And I was hard put to respond. I didn’t realize that we did that, but he was right; we do. And I don’t know why, although we can think of all kinds of possible reasons. But I had forgotten about that comment until I went back to Germany two months ago, to Münster and Essen in the Ruhr Valley, not on Oblate business but on business between the dioceses, to speak and listen to conferences given by many professors, priests and catechists. I noticed that in Germany today, when they give a conference, they start with a joke! I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but it is evidence that cultural change is possible and that’s a point I would like to return to later in these remarks.
Last fall at the opening session of the Roman Synod on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church, Pope Benedict XVI reflected on Psalm 119, that magnificent chorus which praises the law, the stable order that unites God’s people to God himself. The Holy Father said, “The Word of God is solid, it is the true reality upon which to base one’s life. Let us recall the words of Jesus: ‘…Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away’…It is words that create history, it is words that give form to thoughts…the Word of God is the foundation of everything, it is the true reality. And to be realists, we must truly count on this reality.”
The Holy Father offered these reflections in the face of bank closures, the collapse of giant corporations, the uncertainty of political regimes, with full awareness of the insecurity and suffering of so many around the world who have counted upon these institutions to give stability and order to their lives. His words echoed what he had told us in this country in April 2008, when he directed our thoughts and actions toward the Word of God made flesh, whom the pope called “Our Hope.” In his encyclical letter, On Christian Hope (Spe Salvi), he noted that, “Hope in a Christian sense is always hope for others as well.”
In his most recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, (Charity in Truth), he focuses on how hope is shared with others. The Pope explores the connections between charity, concern for others, and truth, conviction about who the source of universal hope truly is. He shows the unity between the protection of life and the pursuit of justice, between the rich and the poor, between business and ethics, between care for the earth and care for the “least of these” (Matthew 25). In doing so, he provides both an ethical analysis of the global economic crisis and a moral framework for the human family and he invites people, ourselves included, “to think and act anew.”
The Church helps us to think and act anew and to lead better lives together through her teaching on how all moral questions are related and how abandoning personal ethics has social consequences. The current economic crisis has particularly brought into question the “rules of the game” in developed economies. A false economy was created when finance took the place of business, when profit replaced production. The overriding objective to pursue short-term financial profits seems to have seriously impaired the financial market’s capacity for self-regulation. The connection between the market and civil society is now being rethought, as is the place of the United States in a genuinely global economy.
Paradoxically, while capital from poor countries is being invested in rich countries, making the poor ever poorer, the wages that immigrants send back to their families in poor countries far exceed all the official state-to-state foreign aid. Rethinking the global economy means thinking of instruments of exchange that will help develop poor countries as well as benefit poor people in rich countries. The poor, especially, are part of the others we are to love in truth.
Structural considerations such as these cannot however abstract from the moral character of those who make financial decisions that affect others. There was something very strange about a decision-making context where the financial operators’ time framework was extremely short and where trust was put more in the market’s mechanisms than in relationships between partners. By itself, economics cannot determine whether any activity is ethical or not. An economy that substitutes efficiency for morality will end up both inefficient and immoral. To help people live better lives one needs to understand both the rules of economics and the moral law.
It is in this context that Pope Benedict XVI insists that charity begins with justice. He says, “If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them. Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it.” In the same vein, he connects charity and the common good, noting, “The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbors, the more effectively we love them. Every Christian is called to practice this charity…This is the institutional path – we might also call it the political path – of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbors directly.” (7)
A main theme of this recent encyclical is that there is one Catholic moral and social doctrine, which addresses the protection of human life and dignity, the defense of marriage and the family, the protection of the poor, the pursuit of economic justice and the practice of solidarity, all interrelated. The Pope reiterates that “respect for life…cannot in any way be detached from questions concerning the development of peoples….Openness to life is at the center of true development. When a society moves towards the denial or the suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good.” (12, 28)
Dear friends, like the voice of Christ himself, the message of the Church is always original. The risen Christ does not fit into any of our normal categories of understanding and, often, neither does the voice of his Church. It should not surprise Catholics anywhere in the world that the Church therefore never perfectly fits in any political or social or economic order. The Church is always more. As catholic, the Church speaks for the whole human race from within particular societies, cultures and countries that are always less than universal. Her moral and social teachings come from a source bigger than any financial or political or cultural order we can imagine. This is both disquieting and comforting, as is the Risen Lord himself.
Pope Benedict insists therefore on the connection between authentic human development and religious freedom. He says, “I am not referring simply to the struggles and conflicts to be fought in the world for religious motives, even if at times the religious motive is merely a cover for other reasons, such as the desire for domination and wealth…Yet it should be added that, as well as religious fanaticism that in some contexts impedes the exercise of the right to religious freedom, so too the deliberate promotion of religious indifference or practical atheism on the part of many countries obstructs the requirements for the genuine development of peoples, depriving them of spiritual and human resources. God is the guarantor of man’s true development, in as much as, having created him in his image, he also establishes the transcendent dignity of men and women and feeds their innate yearning to ‘be more.’ Man is not a lost atom in a random universe : he is God’s creature, whom God chose to endow with an immortal soul and whom he has always loved…..When the State promotes, teaches, or actually imposes forms of practical atheism, it deprives its citizens of the moral and spiritual strength that is indispensable for attaining integral human development and it impedes them from moving forward with renewed dynamism as they strive to offer a more generous human response to divine love .”
A more generous human response to divine love… It is always a joy for the bishops to be with you, the Knights of Columbus, because your faith and your training and your concerns are a generous human response to divine love and are therefore truly Catholic. You are one of the most active charities in the country and in the world. As the Supreme Knight reported and reminded us earlier today: in the last year, members donated nearly 69 million hours of service and $150 million to charity. Over the years, the Knights have worked diligently to bring integrity to the marketplace. As a business enterprise, the Knights have been consistently recognized for ethical practices, even by the secular regulatory institutions that measure these things by their standards. As a worldwide organization of Catholic laymen, the Knights of Columbus have worked to make faith a basis for a global vision committed to building a civilization of love. The new Culture of Life Fund promises to continue the extensive work of the Knights in protecting life, family and marriage to build a new culture that reflects Gospel values.
I know also that as Knights you realize it is imperative in every country to emphasize a continued commitment to a legal system in which all life is protected. A legal order that allows the systematic destruction of unborn human life undermines all other efforts for human development, all other efforts to build a culture of life. Of note, recent polling shows that the majority of Americans, at least, are increasingly against abortion on demand, and that a majority now identify as “pro-life.” This fact bears witness to the possibility of substantial cultural change, and this time surely in the right direction. The truth of things leads to a universal charity, a love for human beings at every stage of their life.
As our convention’s theme underscores, the Knights “Stand with Peter in Solidarity with Our Bishops and Our Priests.” This theme is ever more timely in light of the Holy See’s announcement of the Year for Priests, which began on June 19, 2009 and will continue until June of next year. This is to be a year “in which the Church says to her priests above all, but also to all the faithful and to the wider society….that she is proud of her priests, loves them, honors them, admires them and that she recognizes with gratitude their pastoral work and the witness of their priestly lives.”
If our Holy Father has brought together justice and truth around his consideration of charity, allow me also to make explicit their connection to unity, which is the second of the values we espouse as Knights of Columbus. Our unity is a fraternal unity, but it is always grounded in the unity of the Church that is Christ’s gift to us. Holding everyone and everything together in unity is another way of saying “Catholic.” Unity with God is sanctity. Unity with believers in Christ is called ecclesial communion, church. Unity among bishops is called collegiality. Unity between husband and wife for the sake of their children is called family. Unity with fellow citizens who love a common homeland is called patriotism. Unity with those with whom we share similar values is called fraternity, friendship.
A Catholic way of life is unified as a way of life when it is based on assent to revealed truth and on obedience to appointed pastors, both of which together create the unity of faith and of community that Jesus himself wishes us to enjoy. The Church’s unity today is severely strained, as we all know, and alternative Catholicisms are claiming authenticity even sometimes against the Holy Father and bishops. Even Bishops and priests have sometimes been less than worthy of their calling, and lay groups have sometimes come together to create a Church in their image and likeness rather than Christ’s. Political interference in many countries, including our own, and the hostility of some in the media and entertainment industries, the self-righteousness of some on both the right and the left, various pressure groups with their own agendas, have created a situation full of danger for the Church’s unity, a situation the bishops now want to explicitly address in this country. How to stitch up the Church where her unity is torn, how to use the authority given by Christ to the apostles without wounding the faithful who are already hurting is a project that begins with the bishops’ own submission to Christ and our own self-examination in the light of God’s word that lasts forever.
I commend this concern, Brother Knights, to your prayers, knowing that the bishops can count on you in this as in all other endeavors. I thank you in the name of the bishops for your continued commitment to building a culture of life, to supporting priests, bishops and our Holy Father, and to being the lay “strong right arm” of the priests in your local parishes. Inspired by the holiness, the dedication, the vision of our founder, Rev. Michael J. McGivney, the Knights of Columbus continue to invite and unite Catholic men, together with their wives and families, to share their time and their gifts in ways that make the internationally renowned work of the Knights visible in local communities around the world. In promoting the goals of charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism, in fostering dedicated Catholic life, strong family life and active involvement in the community, your witness and service make tremendous contributions to the Church and to our world, and we are grateful. Your efforts supporting Catholic education, evangelization and vocations to the priesthood and religious life have been crucial for the Church’s vitality, and we are grateful. Your faithful devotion, generosity of time and treasure, and your deep love for the Church are a resource more important than ever in these challenging times, and a sign to the world that Christ remains united with us as he promised until the end of time. Not all of this or any of this is without difficulty, but one cannot be a leaven in the world unless at times one is content to not fit in; we are called to be always more.
Under God’s providential care, may your time together during this convention unite you more securely with God’s word that lasts forever, and may the Knights of Columbus continue to attract from the many cultures in the unity of Catholic communion those who seek to grow in holiness and to benefit from the fraternity of the Order for the common good of the world.
Thank you. God bless you.