by The Most. Rev. Robert C. Morlino
Bishop of Madison, Wisconsin
Prepared text, Commencement Address
Thomas Aquinas College
May 12, 2018
Dear faculty, staff, students, family, and friends: It is an honor to be here with you today. And to you, my dear graduates, congratulations! What a beautiful occasion this is. And what a beautiful setting in which we find ourselves.
I. On Truth
Most college campuses these days are places of chaos and political correctness. But look at us here! Instead of chaos, there is order. And instead of political correctness, there is truth and charity.
The prologue of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa contra gentiles is a commentary on Proverbs 8:7: “My mouth shall meditate truth, and my lips shall hate wickedness.” This text speaks of truth and charity, for hatred of wickedness belongs to charity. Aquinas begins his commentary, in the very first lines of the Summa contra gentiles, by quoting the saying of the Philosopher (Aristotle), that “it belongs to the wise man to order things.” Wisdom orders all things in truth and charity. A college campus disordered by political correctness is a place of chaos. A college campus rightly ordered by truth and charity is a place where wisdom can be sought and cultivated.
I hope you will always look back on your time here with gratitude. It is a rare gift to live as you have done in such a rich spiritual and intellectual culture — a truly Catholic culture. The wider culture in which we live is not a Catholic culture. (I don’t know if you’ve noticed that.)
In your studies here, you have learned how to think; how to reason; how to express your thoughts clearly; how to argue persuasively, with zeal for the truth and charity for your opponent. You have prayed with St. Thomas, that God would grant to you “a keen understanding, a retentive memory, method and ease in learning, insight in interpretation, and eloquence in speech” (Oratio ante studium). And I trust that God has granted that prayer.
These are rare gifts in our time. We live in the age of the eclipse of reason. Quid est veritas? “What is Truth?” (Jn. 18:38). That was Pontius Pilate’s question. Ego sum veritas. “I am the truth” (Jn. 14:6). That is the answer. Jesus Christ is the Word, the Logos, made flesh, full of grace and truth (Jn. 1:14). He is wisdom incarnate (1 Cor. 1:24). He is the way, the truth, and the life (Jn. 14:6). “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice” (Jn. 18:37).
What is truth? To quote Thomas Aquinas again, truth lies in the conformity between the mind and reality. If I say to you, “It’s raining outside,” how do you know whether what I said is true? You look out the window and you see whether what I said agrees with what is in fact the case. Aristotle defined truth in a marvelously clear way, using words of only one syllable each: “Truth is to say of what is, that it is, and to say of what is not, that it is not” (Metaphysics, ch. 7). That’s what truth is. And that offends people. How does our culture describe truth? Truth is the opposite of whatever President Trump says or does: the politicization of truth. Just about the most offensive thing you can say now is that men are men and women are women. Who would ever think that that’s controversial? If you’re a man, then be a man. If you’re a woman, then be a woman. That’s speaking truth. And that’s what our world does not want to hear. And so now we don’t know what marriage is and we’re not even sure what it means to be a male or a female. People are even trying to come up with proper names to give gender-neutral children. The one I read was “Sigh.” Not C-Y, but S-I-G-H. So I guess we’re supposed to say, “Come on over here little [*sigh*].
So a part of your mission is to make the voice of reason heard in our culture. You have been equipped with an outstanding education. That is a gift you have received that you must also share with others. You must shine the light of reason on the darkness of our world, and often that means you have to be politically incorrect.
II. On Humanae Vitae
So let’s be politically incorrect, like St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of political incorrectness: Let’s celebrate the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae.
a) What does Humanae Vitae tell us? Of course we know that it absolutely condemns artificial methods of birth control: abortion, sterilization, and contraception. But why? Because there is an inseparable link between the procreative and unitive dimensions of human sexuality. That sacred space of sexual union between husband and wife was created by God for a purpose. And the main purpose of that sexual union is the generation of new life. That’s at the heart of God’s plan for human sexuality: The generation of new life.
And this is not just about biological re-production. It’s about pro-creation, which is a cooperation with God’s own act of creation, where He creates a new human being, a unique and unrepeatable human person with an immortal soul and an eternal destiny. Contraception excludes this procreative dimension of sexual union and, by doing that, it excludes God from the very space which He designed for Himself to be the place where He would create new human life, new human beings called to loving union with him. That’s why contraception is a sin. It debases something beautiful, like graffiti on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
When God drew up His original plan for marriage, he painted himself into the picture (like Raphael painted himself into his painting of the School of Athens). The sexual union between husband and wife is the sacred space where God Himself dwells, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There doesn’t exist a more beautiful picture of marriage than that. It was painted by God himself.
But what has our culture done with that picture of marriage? Well, as Leon Kass tells us in his work Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times, our culture sees sexual union as having two side effects. One side-effect is children; the other side-effect is disease. And those can both be avoided. Well, if those are side-effects, what does our culture say that sexual union is all about? It’s about pleasure. And of course if sexual union is about pleasure, then there can be no lasting marriage. Because what is there, in that goal of pleasure, that’s worth pledging one’s life for? As a matter of fact, most people find out that if one pledges one’s life for pleasure with a single other person, then one is denying oneself all sorts of other options. Our culture has made it all about pleasure, and so there is no marriage. And so it doesn’t matter what it means to be a male or what it means to be a female.
That is a debased picture of the beauty of God’s plan, where the Holy Trinity inhabits the sacred space of sexual union and there sometimes chooses to bring forth new life.
b) Now what else can we say about God’s plan for marriage, God’s plan for sexual union? We can say that in God’s plan sexual union is all about the next generation, providing and caring for the next generation in light of death. It’s not just about pleasure. It’s about providing and caring for the next generation in light of the fact that we will die. Parents know they can’t live forever, but they can hand on a living legacy in this world. We have an innate longing for immortality. And that longing is ultimately satisfied only through eternal life with God in heaven. But there is also a natural desire to leave something of ourselves in this world in which we can’t remain forever. And that kind of love which the Greeks called eros contains in it something of this striving for immortality, this striving to transcend our limitations.
So sexual union is about future generations, according to God’s plan, and it’s also about the reality of death. Those are godly concerns. But our culture is more concerned with pleasure.
In God’s plan for marriage, where the Trinity is there in that sacred space between husband and wife, where future generations are cared about and provided for in light of death, sexual union is about the good of children. And what is good for children? To be born from the loving union of a father and mother who are committed to remaining together for life in service of their family. That’s beautiful. And that beauty attracts as it is proclaimed clearly, faithfully, and forcefully. And we have to do that. We have to proclaim the truth about marriage clearly, faithfully, and forcefully.
Now many of you will probably get married. It will be part of your mission to proclaim the truth and the beauty of marriage through your living witness as husbands and wives. That’s a beautiful thing. It will be your mission to lay down your lives for each other and for your children. That’s what marriage is about. It’s about sacrifice.
I have a suggestion for you young men thinking about getting married. When you propose, don’t say: “Will you marry me?” Say this instead: “Will you allow me to be the one who lays down his life for you?” That’s what you should ask her, because that’s what marriage is all about. It’s about children and it’s about sacrifice.
Now some of you will probably not get married. Some of you will answer God’s call to give up marriage — and that is also a sacrifice. Some of you will give up marriage in order to devote yourselves to God as consecrated religious or as priests. As Jesus said to the rich young man in the Gospel: “If you would be perfect, go, give away everything, and come, follow me” (Matt. 19:21). And that includes giving up marriage. That is a sacrifice. It wouldn’t be a sacrifice if marriage were not something truly good and beautiful.
c) What else can we say about Humanae Vitae? Marriage is rooted in human nature. And the moral law is rooted in human nature. So we need to recover an understanding of human nature, of what it means to be human and of what it means to be male and female. And this begins with the rediscovery of final causes, of purpose, in nature. Modern man has forgotten that things have purposes and that meaning lies in the fulfillment of purpose. And so he is unable to see the objective grounds of natural law morality.
But it should be obvious that the primary purpose of eating, for example, is to nourish and sustain one’s health; that’s what eating is for. That’s an objective fact. And that’s why it is good for us to eat healthy food — because it fulfills the purpose of eating. That’s why gluttony is wrong — because it frustrates the purpose of eating. (When I speak in this vein, some say my credibility is not at its peak. Live with it. I believe St. Thomas Aquinas had a similar problem.) Or you can think about speech: the primary purpose of speech is communication; that’s what speech is for; and that’s why speaking truth is good and why lying is wrong — because it frustrates the purpose of speaking. This is the basis of natural law reasoning about sexual morality. The primary purpose of sexual union is the procreation of children; that’s what it’s for; and that’s why contraception is wrong — because it frustrates the purpose of sexual union.
But all of this sounds like a foreign language if you are talking to people who have lost sight of the basic fact that there is such a thing as human nature and that natures are ordered toward the fulfillment of certain ends or goals. If you want to have a fruitful conversation, if you want to get somewhere and not just argue endlessly, you have to find some common ground to start with. But the sphere of the common moral ground we share in our culture keeps getting smaller. So we have to be able to go all the way down to first principles. We have to be able to build arguments, step by step, from very basic self-evident truths all the way to their remote and often complex conclusions. And that requires patience.
III. On Natural Law, Democracy, and Civilization
We have to recover an understanding of human nature — of what it means to be human and of what it means to be male and female — if we do not want to see our culture become more and more dehumanized. And that has already been going on for a long time. The end of natural law means the end of democracy and the end of civilization. You can’t have a civilized society, and you certainly can’t have a just democracy, without a basic respect for human beings and for their intrinsic value and dignity. Respect for the dignity of the individual human being is grounded in natural law.
Everyone loves to speak about “human rights,” but we can only speak intelligibly about “human rights” as human rights if we have a common understanding of human nature. Without human nature, there can be no human rights, and without human rights — that is, rights objectively grounded in human nature, in natural law — the only “rights” that remain are those dictated by power. As our culture rejects reason and truth, especially truth about the natural law, it moves toward a dictatorship. That’s where we’re heading, because if right can’t be determined by reason, and the truth of human nature and natural law, then it will be determined by power. And so the words of the prophet Isaiah are fulfilled in our time: “Truth has fallen in the public squares, and righteousness cannot enter” (Isa. 59:14).
That brings me to my last point, which is this: To speak the truth requires courage. To preach the saving truth of Jesus Christ has always required courage. But now even to speak basic truths of human reason, of human nature, of human sanity — even that requires courage. People today have been taught to be offended. People live to be offended. That’s why they need a “safe space” and a “cry closet.” And what they mean by that seems to be a space where they can be safe from hearing the voice of reason and truth. If you speak the truth, you might not be safe. Those who speak truth to a culture where everyone is looking to be offended will be persecuted. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for My sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:10). The world has hated Christ, because He gave testimony that its works are evil (Jn. 7:7). The world will also hate you if you speak out against its evil works. But “if the world hates you, know that it hated me before you” (Jn. 15:18). “In the world you will have distress: but have confidence, I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).
So if you’re going to shine the light of reason in a dark world, you are going to need courage. To quote St. Thomas again, “Courage denotes a certain firmness of mind in bearing and withstanding those things wherein it is most difficult to be firm.” In other words, courage makes you discouragement-proof. This is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which has already been given to you in baptism and confirmation to make you courageous in witnessing to the truth — the truth of Jesus Christ, which is known by faith; and the truth of the human person and of human nature, which can also be known by reason.
Courage is a gift infused by God. And it is also acquired and perfected through practice. If you want to be courageous in speaking the truth, you have to practice doing it precisely in those situations where it is difficult. Don’t be like Peter during the Passion, sitting quietly with your head down hoping no one will notice you. You are called to be like Peter on the day of Pentecost, speaking the truth boldly without waiting to be asked.
You have been sacramentally equipped by your baptism and confirmation and intellectually equipped by your education to be witnesses to the truth of Jesus Christ. That means you must witness to the truth as Jesus Christ taught it. And that means at times you offend a lot of people. So it’s very hard to be a witness to Jesus Christ. It’s easier to just go with the flow. “Go along to get along,” as they say. Well, we’ve had enough going along to get along. It takes courage to speak the truth of Christ, but do not be afraid!
Let me close with the words of the St. Ignatius Loyola-inspired “Fundador Hymn,” which so well describes our present situation:
Hell’s black legions are teeming, their harsh cry is heard, over the heath see them marching, their swords flashing bared soldiers of Christ forward to the fray!
Sure your heart is no stranger to fear ‘neath the gloom. Calvary’s light thru the night brightens your brow like the noon. Now sounds the war trumpet and fearless the holy host fights without respite, though swords clash on swords yet their banner waves high!
Faithful omen of the laurel crown and of peace.
Christ has overcome the world. And he alone is the only hope who never disappoints!
God bless you all.
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