Wednesday, June 9, 2010

"God is not dead. He isn't even tired." Christendom College 2010 Commencement Address of Dr. Charles E. Rice

The following Commencement Address was given at Christendom College, Front Royal, Virginia, on Saturday, May 15th by Dr. Charles E. Rice, Professor Emeritus, Notre Dame Law School

When President O'Donnell asked me to give this address, I expressed one concern: "Will there be a protest? And will you prosecute the protestors? Or at least 88 of them?" He made no commitment. I accepted anyway.

So what can I tell you? This is a time of crises. The economy is a mess, the culture is a mess, the government is out of control. And, in the last three years, Notre Dame lost 21 football games. But this is a great time for us to be here, especially you graduates of this superbly Catholic college. This is so because the remedy for the general meltdown today is found only in Christ and in the teachings of the Catholic Church. Let's talk bluntly about our situation and what you can do about it.

We are living through a transformation of our federal government. A one-party regime, the leader of which was elected with 54 percent of the Catholic vote, is substituting for the free economy and limited government a centralized command system of potentially unlimited jurisdiction and power. Its takeover of health care, against the manifest will of the people, not only funds elective abortions and endangers the elderly and conscience rights. It was enacted in disregard of legislative process and by a level of bribery, coercion and deception that was as open as it was unprecedented.

To find a comparable example of the rapid concentration of executive power by a legally installed regime, we have to go back to 1933. Adolf Hitler was named Chancellor on January 30. Over the next few weeks he consolidated his power. The decisive event was the Reichstag's approval of the Enabling Act on March 23, 1933, by which it ceded full and irrevocable powers to Hitler. That was the point of no return. The Enabling Act received the needed two-thirds vote only because it was supported by the Catholic party, the Centre Party.[1] Our "Health Care Reform," enacted with the decisive support of Catholic members of both houses of Congress, may be the Enabling Act of our time in the control it cedes to government over the lives of the people. It includes the federal takeover of student aid. What do student loans have to do with health care? The common denominator is control. No student will be able to get a federally guaranteed educational loan without the consent of a federal bureaucrat. This opens the way to make political loyalty a test for educational advancement, as it was in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. This confirms the wisdom of Christendom's decision to forego all federal aid.

Unlike Germany in 1933, we have legal means of redress. I am proud to say I am a Tea Party guy. In November, the reaction may dislodge the Congressional arm of the ruling class. But that reaction will be only temporary unless we go to the source of the evil. The root problem is not political or economic. It is religious. And that is where you come in. "The social crisis," said Fr. Thomas Euteneuer, "happens when we elect people to rule over us who are immoral. .... [P]eople who don't have a moral bearing to elect other moral people, elect immoral politicians to serve over them.... So immoral lifestyles produce immoral leaders."[2] In other words, we elect immoral, rather than moral, people because we have lost the ability, or the desire, to tell the difference. The answer, said Fr. Euteneuer, is "to turn back to God. ... What we need is a conversion of heart."

We rightly urge fidelity to the Constitution. But no paper charter can survive the disappearance of the morality that produced it. In 2001, thirteen days after 9/11, Pope John Paul II, in Kazakhstan, cautioned the leaders of that Islamic republic against a "slavish conformity" to Western culture which is in a "deepening human, spiritual and moral impoverishment" caused by "the fatal attempt to secure the good of humanity by eliminating God, the Supreme Good."

You graduates will enter a culture in which the intentional infliction of death upon the innocent is widely seen as an optional problem-solving technique. The Columbine shootings set a precedent. If you have a grievance against your classmates, fellow employees or IRS agents, the answer is to blow them away. Legalized abortion is the prime example of murder as a problem solver. And the execution of someone like Terri Schiavo occurs routinely, without public notice, when the family and caregivers agree to withhold food and water because it is time for the patient to "die with dignity." The separation of morality from killing has counterparts in the separation of morality from economics, from sex and from personal decisions in general.

There is no mystery in this. We are living through what Fr. Francis Canavan, S.J., called "the fag end of the Enlightenment," the collapse of the effort by philosophers and politicians, over the past three centuries and more, to build a society as if God did not exist.[3] That Enlightenment culture is built on three lies, secularism, relativism and individualism. They are components of what Benedict XVI called a "dictatorship of relativism... that recognizes nothing as absolute and which leaves only the 'I' and its whims as the ultimate measure."[4] Those three lies are weapons deployed by our enemy, Satan, the father of lies. Your job, for which you are well equipped, is to counter his lies with the truth. If you speak the truth, you will have an impact beyond what you know. Cardinal Edouard Gagnon described a conversation he had with John Paul II:
[T]he Holy Father... told me, "error makes its way because truth is not taught. We must teach the truth.... not attacking the ones who teach errors because that would never end—they are too numerous. We have to teach the truth." He told me truth has a grace attached to it. Anytime we speak the truth.... an internal grace of God... accompanies that truth. The truth may not immediately enter in the mind and heart of those to whom we talk, but the grace of God is there and at the time they need it, God will open their heart and they will accept it. He said, error does not have grace accompanying it.[5]
Remember that Truth, with a capital T, "is a person, Jesus Christ."[6] And Christ is not some lawyer, CEO or community organizer. He is God. Cardinal Avery Dulles described three foundational principles: "that there is a God, that he has made a full and final revelation of himself in Jesus Christ and that the Catholic Church is the authorized custodian and teacher of this body of revealed truth."[7] The Catholic faith is not a set of doctrines. It is a lived encounter with Christ, who lives in, and teaches through, the Church.[8]

The Magisterium, or teaching authority of the Church, is a great gift, not only for Catholics but for others to whose conscience it appeals "on the basis of reason and natural law."[9] The forces of evil concentrate their fire on the Vicar of Christ, who is the authoritative interpreter of the moral law. We must respond with loyal defense of him and of the Church. We are not, to borrow Fr. Euteneuer's phrase, the Church Impotent. We are part of the Church Militant. Our job is to fight for the Truth. Don't be conned by their lies:

1). The first lie is secularism: There is no God or he is unknowable. They say that is what the First Amendment means, but that, too, is a lie. On September 24-25, 1789, the First Congress approved the First Amendment and called on the President to proclaim a day of "thanksgiving and prayer... acknowledging... the many ... favors of Almighty God."[10] President Washington proclaimed that day of prayer. The First Amendment required neutrality on the part of the federal government among religious sects while recognizing the power of the state and federal governments to affirm the existence of God. The Supreme Court has now imposed a duty on all governments to maintain an impossible neutrality between theism and non-theism. The words "under God," according to Justice William Brennan's still accurate description of the Court's approach, may remain in the Pledge of Allegiance only because they "no longer have a religious purpose or meaning." Instead they "may merely recognize the historical fact that our Nation was believed to have been founded 'under God.'" [11]

At all levels of government, the suspension of judgment on the existence of God has evolved into an establishment of secularism. Today, affirmations of God are considered non-rational, and are generally excluded from the public discourse which is shaped by utility and power rather than right or wrong.

The existence of God is not self-evident. But it is unreasonable, even stupid, not to believe in God, an eternal being that had no beginning and always existed. The alternative is that there was a time when there was absolutely nothing. But that makes no sense. St. Thomas Aquinas said, "if at one time nothing was in existence, it would have been impossible for anything to have begun to exist; and thus even now nothing would be in existence--which is absurd."[12] As Julie Andrews put it in The Sound of Music, "Nothing comes from nothing. Nothing ever could."

The only basis for transcendent rights against the State is the creation of the immortal person in the image and likeness of God. Every state that has ever existed, or ever will exist, has gone out of business or will go out of business. Every human being that has ever been conceived will live forever. That is why you have transcendent rights against the State. The person does not exist for the State. The State exists for the person. And for the family.

2). The second lie of Satan is relativism. To say that all things are relative is absurd, for that statement itself must be relative. The jurisprudence of relativism is some form of legal positivism, which asserts that there is no higher law that limits what human law can do. A law of any content is valid if it is enacted pursuant to prescribed procedure and is effective. Hans Kelsen, the leading legal positivist of the 20th century, said that Auschwitz and the Soviet Gulags were valid law. He could not criticize them as unjust because justice, he said, is "an irrational ideal."[13] Kelsen claimed that relativism is the philosophy of democracy. John Paul II said relativism leads instead to totalitarianism: "If one does not acknowledge transcendent truth, then the force of power takes over, and each person tends to ... impose his own interests ... with no regard for the rights of others."[14]

In your personal and professional lives you will be pressured to be a relativist, to lie, cheat or steal. As John Paul put it, the negative prohibitions of the Commandments, which are a specification of the natural law, "allow no exceptions."[15] But you will pay a price for your fidelity.

Let me tell you a story. Captain James Mulligan, of the United States Navy, spent seven years, half of them in solitary confinement, in the Hanoi Hilton after his plane was shot down in 1966. He was a cell-mate for a time of later Senator Jeremiah Denton. He, as were the others, was tortured severely and often to try to make him betray his fellow prisoners and his country. Captain Mulligan put his reliance on prayer, especially the Rosary. Under torture, he laid it on the line in a prayer he composed that we ought to make our own: "Lord, give me the strength and the guts to see this thing through to the end, one way or another. No one else knows, Lord, but you and I know, and that's all that's necessary. You suffered for your beliefs, and I must suffer for mine. Right is right if no one's right; wrong is wrong if everyone's wrong."[16] That is the answer to relativism.

3). The third lie you will confront is individualism. Social contract theories denied the social nature of man. They postulated a state of nature in which each person was an autonomous, isolated individual with no relation to others unless he consents. That is the origin of pro-choice as we know it today. Planned Parenthood didn't think it up. The mother has no relation to her unborn child unless she consents. The husband and wife have no continuing relation unless they continue to consent. And so on. The autonomous individual is his own god. Conscience is not a judgment about the objective rightness or wrongness of an act. It is the individual's unfettered decision as to what he wills to do. Whatever he chooses is, for him, the right thing to do. That is portrayed as the way to freedom. But "authentic freedom" cannot be separated from the truth.[17]

You are "free" to choose to put sand in the gas tank of your car. But you will no longer be free to drive your car because you have violated the truth of the nature of your car. You are "free" to choose to lie, to fornicate, etc., but you will diminish yourself because you have violated the truth of your nature. You have chosen the moral equivalent of putting sand in your gas tank. And there is one thing the autonomous individual of liberal mythology can never do. He can never put himself out of existence. He is going to live forever and will spend eternity someplace. Where, is up to him.

It is time for us to shed our inferiority complex. We allow ourselves to be conned into thinking that the smart guys are the academics who think that something can come from nothing, who are sure that they can't be sure of anything and who think that freedom means, without limit, the power and right to do whatever they want. This culture has lost not only its faith but also its mind. They need to hear the truth, especially about the right to life.

But there we have a problem. Our prolife efforts are compromised by our timidity on contraception. The Anglican Lambeth Conference of 1930 was the first time that any Christian denomination had ever said that contraception could ever be objectively right. The Magisterium teaches the truth, that contraception is wrong, first, because it deliberately separates the unitive and procreative aspects of sex; second, by so changing the nature of the conjugal act, the man and woman make themselves, rather than God, the arbiters of whether and when life shall begin; and third, contraception frustrates the total mutual self-donation that ought to characterize the conjugal act. If man makes himself the arbiter of whether and when life shall begin, he will make himself the arbiter of when it shall end as in abortion and euthanasia. John Paul II described abortion and contraception as "fruits of the same tree."[18] If it is man's decision whether sex will have any relation to reproduction, why can't Freddy and Harry get a marriage license? In 2004, Pastor Donald Sensing of Trinity United Methodist Church in Franklin, TN, wrote that opponents of same-sex marriage are "a little late. The walls of traditional marriage were breached 40 years ago" with the general acceptance of the contraceptive pill.[19]

God has chosen to depend on human cooperation for the creation of new citizens for the kingdom of heaven. The contracepting couple alter the conjugal act to prevent that creation. What they say to God is something like this: "For all we know, God, it may be your will that from this act of ours a new human person will come into existence who will live forever. For all we know, that may be your will. And we won't let you do it." That is awesome. "Contraception," said John Paul II, "is so profoundly unlawful as never to be, for any reason, justified. To think or to say the contrary is equal to maintaining that in human life situations may arise in which it is lawful not to recognize God as God."[20]

Catholics practice contraception at the same rate as everyone else. One reason is that they have not been adequately informed. Many Catholic churches and schools are closing or consolidating for lack of parishioners and students. A fair response would be respectfully to say: "Most Reverend Bishop (or Father), you would not have this problem if you and your predecessors had been doing your job, over the past four decades and still today, of educating your people about the evil of contraception and about the entire positive teaching of the Church on marriage and the gift of life." Christendom graduates know the score on this. Don't be afraid to live it. And teach it, by word and example.

The link is clear between the premises of the Enlightenment and of contraception and such evils as pornography, promiscuity, divorce, in vitro fertilization, cloning and others.[21] Scientists at Newcastle University, in England, announced last month that they had created a "designer embryo" with the DNA of one man and two women, a child with two mothers.[22] Our scientists are probably not far behind.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, addressed this point in 2002. He discussed the description in Genesis 3 of the posting of angels east of Eden with flaming swords to keep man, after the Fall, from eating of the Tree of Life. After the Fall, man was forbidden to eat of that tree which gave immortality, "since to be immortal in this [fallen] condition would... be perdition." People are now, Ratzinger said, "starting to pick from the tree of life and make themselves lords of life and death, to reassemble life....[P]recisely what man was supposed to be protected from is now... happening; he is crossing the final boundary....[M]an makes other men his own artifacts. Man no longer originates in the mystery of love, by... conception and birth... but is produced industrially, like any other product.... [W]e can ... be certain of this: God will take action to counter an ultimate crime, an ultimate act of self-destruction, on the part of man. He will take action against the attempt to demean mankind by the production of slave-beings. There are indeed final boundaries we cannot cross...."[23]

This is serious business. Nineveh repented, prayed and was spared. Sodom and Gomorrah did not and were destroyed.[24] Those options could be ours.

If we look at all this in merely human terms, our cause is hopeless. But we don't depend on our own strength. And we don't know everything. Don't be discouraged when bad things happen. "God permits everything," said St. Maximilian Kolbe, "in view of a greater blessing."[25] Trust God. Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J., who spent 23 years in Soviet prisons, said what God wants, especially in times of adversity or danger, is "an act of total trust," demanding "absolute faith: faith in God's existence, in his providence, in his concern for the minutest detail, in his power to sustain me, and in his love protecting me."[26]

Trust God. And pray, especially, to Mary, his Mother and ours. At Lepanto in 1571, the odds against the Christian fleet were so great that Las Vegas would have taken that bet off the board. But they prayed the Rosary and Mary gave the victory. She can take care of our problems today. This really is a great time for us to be here. We know we are on the winning side. God is not dead. He isn't even tired.

Thank you for the privilege to be with you. God bless you, your families and Christendom College. And God bless the United States of America.


[1]Eliot Barculo Wheaton, The Nazi Revolution: 1933-35 (1969), 286-93; William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, (1959), 88, 276-79.

[2], Jan. 6, 2010.

[3] Catholic Eye, Dec. 10, 1987, 2.

[4] Homily, April 18, 2005.

[5] Lay Witness, March, 1990, 6-7.

[6] Pope Benedict XVI, Address to Youth, April 19, 2008.

[7] Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., "Catholic Colleges and Universities Today," Assumption College, Oct. 11, 2007.

[8] Ecclesiam Suam (1964), nos. 30, 55.

[9] Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est (2005), no. 28 (a).

[10] Annals of Congress, I, 949.

[11] Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 304 (1963).

[12] S.T., I, Q.2, art. 3.

[13] Hans Kelsen, "The Pure Theory of Law, Part I," 50 Law Quart. Rev. 474, 482 (1934).

[14] Veritatis Splendor, no. 99.

[15] Veritatis Splendor, no. 52.

[16] James Mulligan, The Hanoi Commitment (1981), 48, 93-94.

[17] Veritatis Splendor, No. 87.

[18] Evangelium Vitae, no. 13.

[19] Wall Street Journal, March 15, 2004.

[20] Pope John Paul II, Discourse, Sept. 17, 1983.

[21] See Charles E. Rice and Theresa Farnan, Where Did I Come From? Where Am I Going? How Do I Get There? (2009), 141-164.

[22] Steven Ertelt,, April 14, 2010.

[23] Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, God and the World (2002), 133-135.

[24] Genesis 19:1-28; Jonah 3:1-10.

[25] St. Maximilian Kolbe, Writings, 1205.

[26] Walter J. Ciszek, He Leadeth Me (1973), 77.

Dr. Charles E. Rice (E-mail: is Professor Emeritus of Notre Dame Law School. His areas of specialization are constitutional law and jurisprudence. He currently teaches "Law and Morality" at Notre Dame. His books include 50 Questions on the Natural Law; Freedom of Association; The Supreme Court and Public Prayer, The Vanishing Right to Live; Authority and Rebellion; Beyond Abortion: The Theory and Practice of the Secular State; No Exception: A Pro-Life Imperative; and The Winning Side: Questions on Living the Culture of Life. His latest books are Where Did I Come? Where Am I Going? How Do I Get There?, (2nd ed.) co-authored with Dr. Theresa Farnan, and What Happened to Notre Dame?, both published by St. Augustine's Press in 2009.

Ignatius Insight

1 comment:

The Ironic Catholic said...

love the last line. it's the qotd!