Editor’s note: The following address by Archbishop Cordileone titled “Building a Civilization of Truth and Love” was delivered at the March for Marriage on June 19, 2014 in Washington D.C.
In our Catholic faith tradition, young people around the age of junior high school or high school receive the sacrament of Confirmation, normally administered by the bishop. At a Confirmation ceremony I celebrated recently in a large, Hispanic parish, two of the young people shared some reflections on what their Confirmation meant to them. They said that their Confirmation gave them the grace to go forth and “build a civilization of truth and love.” I could not have said it better myself! And that, my friends, is why we are here. Both are necessary, both, together, if we wish to have a flourishing society: truth and love.
This is the legacy we have received from our ancestors in faith. To my fellow believers in Jesus Christ I would call our attention to those first generations of Christians in the city of Rome, who were so often scapegoated by the powerful pagan Roman government. But when a plague would strike the city and the well-to-do fled to the hills for safety until the plague subsided, it was the Christians who stayed behind to care for the sick, at great risk to their own health and very lives. And not just the Christian sick: all the sick, regardless of religion, of how they lived their lives, or even what they thought of the Christians themselves. The historian Eusebius noted about the Christians of his time, “All day long some of them tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them. Others gathered together from all parts of the city a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to them all.” Likewise, the Emperor Julian complained to one of his pagan priests, “[They] support not only their poor, but ours as well.”
It is this kind of love and compassion in the service of truth, especially the truth of the human person, that has marked the lives of the holy ones of our own faith tradition and others as well: hospitals, orphanages, schools, outreach to the poor and destitute—giving without concern for getting anything in return, seeing in each human being, especially in the poor and destitute, a priceless child beloved by God, whom God calls to turn away from sin and toward Him, so that they might be saved. In 1839 Jeanne Jugan met one such priceless child of God, a blind old crippled woman whom nobody cared for. That night, Jeanne carried the woman home to her apartment, and put her to sleep in her own bed. From this profound encounter was born the Little Sisters of the Poor, who even today are loving, caring for and providing homes for thousands of elderly who deserve dignity as well as care. These are the very nuns who now face the possibility of being shut out of spreading the love of Jesus to the needy because of their refusal to comply with a healthcare mandate that violates their moral convictions, convictions which stand on the truth of basic human dignity.
Let us, then, take our cue from the best our predecessors in faith have inspired, and not humanity’s frequent failings and sins. Like them, we now in our own time need to proclaim and live the truth with charity and compassion as it applies to us today: the truth of a united family based on the union of the children’s father and mother in marriage as the foundational good of society. Every child comes from a man and a woman, and has a right, a natural human right, to know and be known by, to love and be loved by, their own mother and father. This is the great public good that marriage is oriented towards and protects. The question is then: does society need an institution that unites children to the mothers and fathers who bring them into the world, or doesn’t it? If it does, that institution is marriage—nothing else provides this basic good to children.
Yes, this is a foundational truth, and one to which we must witness by lives lived in conformity to it, and which we must proclaim with love. Love for those millions of loving single mothers and fathers who struggle to pick up the pieces of their lives and succeed in creating loving homes for their children—they need and deserve our love, affirmation and support. Love for the husband struggling with fidelity, for the woman who feels abandoned and pressured into abortion, for the teenager struggling to believe in the heroic vision of love that makes sense of chastity, for the single person who cannot find a mate, for the childless couple trying to cope with infertility, for the wife who finds herself nursing a sick husband in her marriage bed, for the young person trying to navigate through sexual identity issues and may feel alienated from the Church because of it, maybe even because of the sort of treatment received from those who profess to be believers. To all of you, I say: know that you are a child of God, that you are called to heroic love and that with God’s help you can do it, that we love you and want to support you in living your God-given call.
And let us not forget: we must also proclaim this truth especially with love for those who disagree with us on this issue, and most of all, for those who are hostile toward us. We must be careful, though, not to paint our opponents on this issue with broad strokes. There is a tendency in our culture to do this to groups of people the powerful don’t know and think they don’t like. We must not do that. We must recognize that there are people on the other side of this debate who are of good will and are sincerely trying to promote what they think is right and fair. It is misdirected good will. But even those from whom we suffer retribution—and I know some of you have suffered in very serious ways because of your stand for marriage—still, we must love them. That is what our ancestors in faith did, and we must, too. Yes, it is easy to become resentful when you are relentlessly and unfairly painted as a bigot and are punished for publicly standing by the basic truth of marriage as a foundational societal good; it is tempting to respond in kind. Don’t. For those of us who are Catholic, we just heard our Master command us in the gospel proclaimed at Mass the day before yesterday: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44). We must not allow the angry rhetoric to co-opt us into a culture of hate.
Yes, we must show love toward all of these and more. Love is the answer. But love in the truth. The truth is that every child comes from a mother and a father, and to deliberately deprive a child of knowing and being loved by his or her mother and father is an outright injustice. That is our very nature, and no law can change it. Those with temporal power over us might choose to change the definition of marriage in the law even against all that we have accomplished through very generous participation in the democratic process, but our nature does not change. If the law does not correspond to our nature, such that there is a conflict between the law and nature, guess which will prevail? And people will figure it out.
We can take heart from what we see happening now in the pro-life movement. Back in the early 1970’s, just before the Court issued its infamous Roe vs. Wade ruling, public support for abortion was growing rapidly. And as with marriage redefinition today, a generation gap opened up in the polls, leading many to predict that opposition to abortion would literally die off. That was the future; before long, it would not even be an issue. Instead, something unexpected happened. A relatively small band of faithful believers held the line on the sanctity of human life in the womb, and today, two generations later, the pro-life movement is flourishing like never before. We now have the most pro-life generation of young adults since the infamous Roe decision. People have figured out that it is a human life that is within the mother’s womb, and that abortion, yes, really does harm women; they’ve figured out that it’s good to cherish that human life and surround the mother with love and support so a truly happy choice can be made, the choice for life.
People, too, will figure out that a child comes from a father and a mother, and it’s good for the child to be connected to his or her father and mother. These truths may seem obvious to us, but they aren’t to everyone while in the heat of controversy. They will figure out this truth about marriage, though, because it, too, is in our nature, and it is a key to individual and societal flourishing. All we have to do is look around and see that our society is broken and hurting in so many ways; there is so much work to do to fix it and bring healing. Yes, it is very complex, and many different things need to be done: we need to fix our economy; we especially need to pay a living wage to working class families; we need to fix our broken immigration system; we need to improve our schools, especially those that are failing children from poorer families. Yes, we need to do all this and more. But none of these solutions will have a lasting effect if we do not rebuild a marriage culture, a culture which recognizes and supports the good of intact families, built on the marriage between a man and a woman committed to loving faithfulness to each other and to their children. No justice, no peace, no end to poverty, without a strong culture of marriage and the family. This noble cause is a call to love we cannot abandon, that we will not give up on, and that in the end we know will triumph.
So take heart: the truth spoken in love has a power over the human heart. We are here today to March for Marriage, to pick up the torch, and pass on to a new generation the truth about marriage, not just the abstract truth, but the lived reality that makes a difference in children’s lives. So, my friends, we must not give up: the truth will not go away, and we will not go away. Let us take heart from the legacy we have received, let us place our trust in God, and let us go forth to build a civilization of truth and love.
(Photo credit: RNS / Heather Adams)