Sunday, September 08, 2019

Legality and Morality

(Twenty-third Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on September 8, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Wisdom 9:13-18b; Psalm 90:3-17; the Letter of St. Paul to Philemon; Luke 14:25-33.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-third Sunday 2019]

What do the following things have in common (aside from the fact that they’re all evil)? 
  •          Slavery
  •          Segregation
  •          Abortion
  •          Producing pornography
  •          Physician-assisted suicide
  •          The Holocaust
  •          Prostitution
  •          Apartheid

The answer is: Somewhere in the world, at some time in the recent or distant past, all those things I just mentioned have been legal.

And some still are.

Slavery was legal in the United States until 1865.  In other countries it’s still legal.  The Civil Rights’ Movement in the 1960s happened because at the time segregation was legal in many of our southern states.  The Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973.  Producing pornography is a legal, billion dollar industry in the United States and in most other places.  Seven states in our country have legalized physician-assisted suicide in recent years.  So has Washington, D.C.  Hitler legalized the Holocaust himself.  According to one organization that monitors such things, prostitution is legal in more than 70 countries in the world right now—and in our own state of Nevada.  Apartheid only ended in South Africa a couple of decades ago.

Many people in our country confuse legality with morality.  Thus they presume that if something becomes legal, it automatically becomes moral.  But that’s not the case, as these 8 examples illustrate quite clearly.  Slavery, segregation, abortion, producing pornography, physician-assisted suicide, the Holocaust, prostitution and apartheid are all immoral whether or not they’re legal in any country or every country.

Which brings us to today’s second reading, which is taken from one of the shortest books in the New Testament—St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon.

Philemon was a wealthy Colossian man who had become a believer in Christ through Paul’s missionary efforts. He was also a slave owner, like many other wealthy men of his time. Lest we forget, in the first century world slavery was pretty much a universal phenomenon.  In the Roman Empire it was certainly legal, and since Christians had no political influence at the time, men like St. Paul were in no position to change existing Roman laws.  The most someone like Paul could do in Colossians 4 and in Ephesians 6 was to tell masters to treat their slaves with fairness and with kindness, so hopefully Philemon treated his slaves with greater respect after his conversion.

But nonetheless he did own them.  

One of these slaves was a young man named Onesimus. Well at some point prior to the writing of this letter, Onesimus had escaped from Philemon—and he had taken some of his master’s “stuff” in the process! That made Onesimus a thief as well as a runaway slave.

But then he met St. Paul, who happily converted him to Christ. (Paul at the time was in prison.) The apostle then sent Onesimus back to Philemon; he sent the runaway slave back to his master—along with this letter.

He sent him back because of the existing civil law in the Roman Empire, but in the process he made clear that he wanted Philemon to freely make the choice to do what was morally right, and disregard what was legally permitted.

His message to the slave owner was basically, “Look, I could order you to do the right thing here and free Onesimus, since I’m your spiritual father: I’m the one who brought you to Christ. But I’m not going to do that. I want you to do the right thing of your own free will. I want you to choose to act virtuously here. So I’m honoring the law of the Roman Empire—unjust though it is—and I’m sending Onesimus back to you. But please understand that after he escaped from your service, I brought him to the faith. He’s also my spiritual child now. And if he’s my spiritual child and you’re my spiritual child that makes the two of you brothers: brothers in the Lord. So I ask you to receive him back as your brother and not as your slave. And if he owes you anything because of what he stole, charge it to me. As his father and as his friend, I’ll be more than happy to pay his bill.”

St. Paul understood that legality and morality are two different things in this fallen world of ours.  In a perfect world, of course, they would be the same.  Exactly the same!  In a perfect world without any sin in it, all of our civil laws would be rooted in the natural moral law (that’s the law we find, primarily, in the Ten Commandments).

But this world is far from perfect—as we see every election year when we go to the polls to vote for the people who want to be the makers of our laws.  And so, as Catholics—as Christians—the important question, the key question, the crucial question for us on Election Day should always be: Which candidate will best support the natural moral law in his or her legislative work?  In other words, which one will do the most to make what’s moral, legal?

And that’s the person we should vote for—always!