American Catholic Press Benefit
American Catholic Press Benefit
September 11, 2004
I am especially honored tonight to be able to share a few thoughts with you, as we come together in honor of Sister Mary Paul, who has made such an extraordinary contribution to Catholic education. We are happy to gather in her honor, to the credit of her religious community and Marian High School itself. The Gratiam Dei Award is richly deserved tonight.
Being a product of Catholic education myself, I know how extraordinarily important it can be to one's life. The foundation that it lays is a permanent treasure.
Among other things, I benefited from Catholic education because it shapes heart and character in such a way that you never forget one fundamental truth. In our time, that reality has become more and more obscured. That is the truth that the real purpose of human life can never be summarized by material things, but only by what we become as a consequence of those choices of the moral will that constitute our acknowledgment of our Sovereign, God.
Perhaps more than anything else, my Catholic education and upbringing are what fundamentally have shaped my life, both personally and in public service.
Today's CommemorationAs you know, we come together now, on a day when we commemorate the terrible attacks of September 11th. Though we don't often think it through, those attacks ought to challenge us, both as Americans and as people of faith. Those attacks ought to move us to remember this lesson that is shared with those who are truly influenced by Catholic teaching and Catholic education.
On September 11th, America was struck by great evil. The remarkable thing is that people actually recognized that fact. When the President stood up and declared that this evil should revolt the conscience of the world, nobody disputed it. Despite years of moral relativism, it didn't seem hard at that moment for most Americans to recognize the reality of evil and to call it by its right name. Most Americans reacted as if there was indeed a line to be drawn, in every place, in every clime, in every period, in every time, between what is right and what is wrong.
I wish, though, that we had done more reflecting on the exact nature of the evil that struck us. In the present moment, we are engaged in a great and terrible war that actually extends around the world. That war is directed against an evil that every now and again, with its heinous brutality, reminds us of its true characteristics, as it just did in Russia, recently.
Struck as we were on September 11th, we American people should need no reminder. We should be able to think through clearly just what lay at the heart of that evil which we all acknowledged.
Terrible as the September 11 experience was, there was a truth contained in it--one that belied much of the moral relativism that, sadly, has passed for sophistication in our time. Since we agreed upon it, and since the lesson is there, it behooves us to think about it: what was at the heart of the evil that struck America on September 11th?
Was the Destruction Evil?
we look at the media accounts, we could be taken in by the notion that
it was the terrible destruction, even the terrible loss of life.
Certainly those things were grievous; the loss of life affected the
heart of America deeply. Not only those who were directly touched were
affected, those who lost family and friends, those who experienced the
void. No, all Americans were affected. At that moment and in those hours
and in those days, we grieved and wept and suffered and sought and
triumphed with the heroism of those who were struggling against the odds
to find in the midst of that disaster one more hope for life.
What the Terrorists Did Not SeeWhat was it? Well, I think we can see it clearly, even in the instrument that they used: these planes that flew into the World Trade Center. At one level, you know that it was kind of a stroke of "strategic genius" from the terrorists' point of view. They took these ordinary instruments of our everyday life, and they turned them into sophisticated weapons: guided missiles that had at their helm the most sophisticated guidance system known, the human mind.
We might pause to think for a minute, "Why didn't we think of that?" Of course if we did reflect for a moment, we would know immediately why not. We wouldn't think of it, because we have been to airports; and we have flown on airplanes. We have taken our seats in waiting rooms with crowds of schoolchildren, waiting to go to visit, maybe, Washington, or to play a game against some opposing team. We have sat on a plane, next to folks who might be grandparents, coming back from seeing their grandchild for the first time. Or perhaps we sat next to nervous business people, writing away on some proposal that could mean that big contract and a nice promotion. Nervous as these people are, we understand these things, the hopes, the fears, the anxiety. We understand the nervous excitement of the young, as they wait for the unknown. We understand the apprehension of the teachers, as they pretend to be bullet-proof. We understand these things.
You see, that's the problem, the difference between us and the terrorists who perpetrated the attacks against us. Because we have sat in the waiting rooms and taken our places in the cabins, we know that these planes have powerful engines full of fuel that can be used for great destructive purposes. Yet we could never look at those planes and see them as guided missiles. We would look at those planes and identify with the people aboard. We would know that their hearts are like our hearts. Their hopes are like our hopes. Their dreams are like our dreams. And their loves and griefs also are like our own.
Because we would know this, we would see these people as entitled to the very same life that we ourselves enjoy. They want to get where they're going, in peace, with no harm to their innocent lives.
That's what the terrorists didn't see.
They saw the power. They saw the fuselage. They saw the plane. They carefully calculated its destructive power. But they did not see the people. They did not see the real meaning of their worth and of their lives. They did not see that each and every one of them carries within that little flame, that little spark of God's divinity. All in all, they did not respect what they did not see.
The Nature of This EvilAs we think it through, as we just did, what lay at the heart of September 11th was a disregard for the claims of innocent human life. So, this turns out to be the principle of the evil that struck us. It turns out as well to be the great cause, in the conflict in which this nation is engaged.
Yes, it is a conflict, meant to prevent future loss of life. Above all, in its challenge to our conscience, in its challenge to humanity and civilization, it is a struggle to establish, once and for all, the respect that is owed even in war to the claims of innocent human life. If we are to claim for ourselves some semblance of decent humanity, there are lines that should not be crossed.
Whenever I go through that reasoning, I am afraid I am subject to a somber doubt. That somber doubt arises because we did not first encounter this principle of evil on September 11, 2001. It may have been the first time some people were willing to acknowledge its ruinous effects, the first time they saw that it could in fact lay low our civilization, the first time they understood in true terms the terrible death toll that could result. But that principle of evil has been with us for a lot longer than the time since September 11.
In America, all you have to do to see this principle of evil at work is to go down the street to any abortion clinic in any city, in any state, any county, and any town of America. There, you will see at work the same disregard for the claims of innocent human life.
I know that some folks came in for a lot of criticism shortly after 9/11 when they dared to use the J-word with respect to that day. People dared to suggest that possibly somewhere in 9/11 we should begin to read a word, a warning, perhaps, from the Lord our God.
before we simply dismiss such words, it might behoove us to look at the
parallel between the terrible blow the terrorists struck and the
terrible blows in our own polity. The blow of the terrorists had at its
heart this principle of evil: a disregard for the claims of innocent
human life. In a parallel manner, other terrible blows are struck every
day and almost every hour in our own polity, when someone reaches into
the womb where sleeps our innocent future, and snuffs out the life that
by His grace, God has invited there. This is an act that has, at its
heart, the same disregard for the claims of innocent human life.
Our VocationI go through all of this, because we come together here to honor one who has dedicated her life and faith to a true work of education in the name of truth. And I've got to tell you that's a great work of charity, in the fullest sense.
But don't you think that
you and I, that we owe that same kind of love to our fellow citizens and
to our country? We often profess a love of sorts for the nation in
which we live. Are we are not obliged to love our country with a
Christian heart and with a Christian love? You know that the greatest
gift that we can give to our world is not to feed people, not to clothe
them, not even to heal their flesh. The greatest gift we give is to
share with them the wonderful truth that our Lord has shared with us,
and to open their hearts, as ours are open to the grace and power of
Copyright © 1999
American Catholic Press. All rights reserved.