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From Atlas to Mary

by Most Rev. Edward M. Egan, D.D., J.C.D.,

My dear friends in Jesus Christ:

This morning as you entered Saint Patrick's Cathedral, you may have noticed across Fifth Avenue an imposing collection of buildings, Rockefeller Center, in front of which is to be found a huge, bronze statue of Atlas struggling to hold the universe on his shoulders. If you came early to explore the splendors of the cathedral before Mass, you may have made your way down the center aisle, past the altar, and all the way back into the Lady Chapel, as far back as the cathedral goes, there to inspect the exquisite windows, copies of the fabled stained-glass of the Cathedral of Chartres.

In the center, high over the chapel altar, you may have noticed another globe, like Atlas's, symbolizing the universe. It is in the left hand of the Virgin Mary, who has on her lap the Child Jesus, upon whom her gaze is fixed in peace and love. The globe seems to be preoccupying her not at all. She carries it securely but without strain.

Two works of art, both depicting how one might deal with the universe, the world, or - if you will - life. In the one case, the enterprise is an unremitting struggle. In the other it is somehow lost in a second effort far more important, that of looking upon one's God and loving Him.

I would recall, however, that even in this cathedral the journey from Atlas to Mary is not unimpeded. To get to the Virgin one must confront an altar, a place of sacrifice, upon which stands a cross, an instrument of torture and death whereby that Child on Mary's lap gave His life for our salvation.

And thus it always is. The journey from Atlas to Mary - the journey, that is, from life as a cruel and meaningless struggle to life as an adventure full of hope and wrapped up in God - inevitably entails confrontation with an altar. There is no Easter Sunday without Good Friday, the classic preachers loved to remind us. There is no peace, no joy, no security with one's self and one's God, we might add, without an alter, without sacrifice.

This morning Saint Patrick's Cathedral welcomes into our midst the Guild of Catholic Lawyers assembled on the occasion of the annual convention of the American Bar Association. Permit me to suggest that lawyers too - indeed, they perhaps more than most - must expect in their lives a confrontation with the altar and the cross. The temptations to which lawyers are subject are, of course, well-known and widely discussed. As a matter of fact, Saint Luke, from whose Gospel we read this morning, mentions lawyers and their temptations no less than seven times. About practitioners of the medical profession he is curiously silent, a situation which may be at least partially explained by the fact that Luke was a doctor.

Whatever it is, it is lawyers who for the most part make our laws. It is lawyers alone who interpret them. And it is lawyers who are afforded by the nature of their profession virtually unlimited occasions to transgress them. I have spent a good part of my life immersed in matters legal; and I have always consoled myself that the Heavenly Father must love us lawyers in a very special way, so many opportunities does He offer us to avoid doing evil for His sake.

And the temptations, my friends, change with the times. For example, in the United States today all lawyers are being tempted to pretend that certain very thorny issues, which are clearly and exquisitely matters of the law, are matters rather of religion, indeed of denominational religion, and therefore not of their concern.

Every lawyer knows that in every civilization which deserves to be called civilized, the members have turned over to the community or, if you prefer, to society, the right to violent self-defense. If threatened, therefore, we do not buy a gun. We rather call the police or perhaps contact a lawyer who informs society on our behalf that we are in need of being defended.

Similarly, every lawyer knows that society is not free to pick and choose among its members which individuals or groups will or will not be defended. Hitler's Germany was not civilized, fundamentally because it withdrew defense from Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, and others. Lenin's Russia was not civilized, fundamentally because it withdrew defense from Christians, Socialdemocrats, Romanovs, and others. Society either defends across the board, or it ceases to be an expression of civilization.

Finally, every lawyer knows that in presiding over violent self-defense, society must forbid even possible harm. The hunter who sees a form moving through the forest and shoots at it even though unsure as to whether it be a person or a beast, may not be ignored by society. He must instead be apprehended, punished, and perhaps even permanently incarcerated, lest he do damage to a fellow member of the civilized community.

Nor is any of this immediately a matter of religion. Certainly none of it has to do with this denomination or that. Rather, it is essentially, necessarily, radically, inescapably a matter of the law.

No one has to date been able to prove that the being within the mother's womb is not a person enjoying what our Declaration of Independence calls an "unalienable right to life." No one has to date been able to prove that a young man tormented by the final onslaughts of schizophrenia is not a person enjoying what our Declaration of Independence calls an "unalienable right to life." No one has to date been able to prove that an old lady shaking under the burden of advanced years is not a person enjoying what our Declaration of Independence calls an "unalienable right to life."

Call the being which is palsied useless. Call the being which is psychotic dangerous. Call the being which is in its mother's womb fetus. It makes no difference. If they cannot be demonstrated to be other than persons and if they are not defended against any and all who would "terminate their lives," we are not civilized; and no amount of pretending that this is not a matter of law and government will beguile anyone for long. Indeed, whoever would pretend that this is a matter of religion and nothing else is guilty of a double transgression, first, that of misrepresenting reality and, second, that of masking the misrepresentation with a strategy which in the final analysis is nothing more or less than religious bigotry.

The same holds true when it is alleged that racism, the dissemination of pornography, and any number of other social ills are purely religious concerns in order to "get them off the docket," whether legal or governmental. The tactic, we know, is often effective for a while. All the same, it remains a tactic unworthy of an exponent of the law.

On the way to the Virgin who handles the universe with such ease, the lawyer too will find an altar. He may kneel there and unite his sacrifice with that of the Savior, and his sacrifice may well entail daring to stand up and address crucial legal issues which are controversial even when they might be finessed away by styling them questions of religion in which law and government need have no part.

Our lawyer may be told he is out of step with the "will of the masses." He may be warned that the "media" will not tolerate his deviating from the accepted wisdom. He may even be accused of religious obscurantism or seeking to tear down the "wall of separation" between Church and State. Still, if he has had enough of struggling with the world Atlas-like, he will look up at the cross, offer his sacrifice, and pass on to the Lady Chapel. Once there, he will find life for some unexplainable reason easier to live. For like the Virgin his eyes will be on his Lord; and all else will be re-focused, redimensioned, set into proper perspective. And curiously, he will in time come to love the altar and the cross before which he had to kneel on his pilgrimage from Atlas to Mary.

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