At the Intersection of Law and Religion
In today's Gospel, Jesus seems to be pushed into his first press conference. The Pharisees, the people from the synagogue, combined with the Herodians, the followers Herod and the Roman government, tried to trick Jesus. First, they butter him up by complimenting him, and telling him how good and righteous he is. But they were only trying to set him up. They ask whether or not a person should pay the Roman census tax. They thought they had caught him in a dilemma. Jesus asks to see a Roman coin. On that coin was the image of Tiberius Caesar. Jesus asks whose image do you see on this coin? When they respond, Jesus says, “render to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's.”
With this reading today, we recognize not only the existence of government and laws, but also we become aware of our own religious beliefs. Hopefully the two, government and religion, are not in conflict, but often they are. In reflecting on this Gospel, I was aware of how I, as a lawyer, and now as a priest, have stood at the intersection of government and religion.
As a Catholic lawyer, I was involved with drafting laws which provided for the common good. This included laws concerning protection of the unborn in the pro-life movement. As a former embryo, I have always been interested in protecting those who could not speak for themselves. There is a persistent tension between the teaching of the church, and the laws of the government. We always pray every week in the intercessions that laws would support the church's teachings. We find this in family law, and laws about marriage.
Several weeks ago, I attended a reception after the White mass for the Catholic Medical Association, an association for Catholic doctors and nurses and those in the healthcare. These doctors and nurses, and other medical support teams regularly get together to discuss the law and regulations, concerning Medicare and Medicaid, and other health insurance regulations. It includes discussion of current laws and of promoting laws. The practice of medicine must support the doctor's right of conscience -that is, doctors or nurses right to refuse to participate in an abortion, or any other procedure that violates their individual conscience.
Last Thursday night, I helped coordinate the Red Mass for the Saint Thomas More Society. The Red Mass is the mass of the Holy Spirit at the beginning of the judicial year, when the Supreme Court convenes. This is a group of judges and lawyers who come together to discuss legal issues, and Catholic teaching. The purpose is to be able to maintain the practice of law in a way that support Catholic teachings- To be able to approach the practice of law, or the Judiciary, (the judges), and other Catholic legislators with compassion and respect. Bishop Adam Parker, in his homily at the Red Mass, said that legislators, lawyers, and judges should be consistent in their beliefs; that the practice of law, determination of the law should be consistent with Catholic teaching, because Catholic teaching is good for us each of us individually, for society. Being consistent means that one cannot claim to be Catholic while in church, and then take inconsistent positions in the public square.
I will be honored tonight (Saturday) to be at a table with the family of Val Halamandaris, who died at Bayview in July. He will be awarded tonight posthumously, the Pope Francis caring award. Most people have not heard of Val, but in the 1970s, he worked with the United States Congress in passing laws which support Home Health Care. He wanted the right of a person to be able to be treated with dignity at home. Home Health Care allowed medical professionals to come to people's houses, and to receive the care that they needed in their own home. This is a perfect example of how the law needed to be adopted for the dignity of the person. Val was inspired by Mother Teresa to promote laws which showed respect for the poorest of the poor, and those who were dying.
As a member of the Medical Ethics Committee at Bayview, I continue to hear about cases that involve the care of patients. The Catholic Church respects both patients, and their families.
At the root of Catholic teaching in our laws is a firm belief that Catholic teaching is not only good for us individually, but good for society as a whole. We are called to be consistent in our beliefs. We are always trying to do good, and hope that our society will reflect the goodness of our hearts.
When we are faced with tragedies, such as we recently had in Las Vegas, we necessarily need to continue to proclaim forgiveness. We may be able to change gun laws, but we cannot force someone to love. We cannot legislate compassion and forgiveness. We cannot write a law to require someone to go to confession, or to stop them from building up resentment or hatred. We cannot write a law to require someone to forgive- that’s our job as missionary disciples- to help others know the love of Jesus, and to know that Jesus only wants what is good for us, and what is good for us is good for our society.
We remember that the image on God’s coin is each one of us.