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Red Mass

Creighton University Red Mass Homily

The Red Mass is an 800-year-old tradition. Creighton University's Red Mass was  held Oct. 1, in St. John's Church.

The Most Reverend Elden Curtiss, Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Omaha, presided with assistance from members of Creighton University's Jesuit community.


Creighton University Red Mass Homily for the Legal and Judicial Community
Elden Francis Curtiss, Archbishop of Omaha, Octotber 1, 2007

Thomistic Natural Law Influence on American Jurisprudence

“For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge people’s hidden works through Christ Jesus.”1

These words from the St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans speak of a law written into the hearts of humanity through which they could distinguish fundamental goods to be nurtured, cherished and protected on the one hand, and fundamental evils to be avoided and condemned on the other. A reflection on this passage provides an opportunity for us to examine and understand the influence of this law written into the hearts of men within our nation’s past and present experience, as well as an opportunity to open ourselves to the movement of the Holy Spirit in us so that this same law written into our hearts can influence the direction of American jurisprudence in the future.

When the founding Fathers of the United States met in order to “establish a more perfect Union”2 at the First Continental Congress in September of 1774, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia led off by asserting that American rights were based on the foundation of natural law, the British constitution, the charters of the several colonies, and “immemorial usage”, together with the Scriptures.3 Of these foundations, natural law possesses the unique characteristic of being accessible to all persons of reason in any culture at any time as a basis for fundamental human rights.

Natural law theory impact on the U.S. Constitution
Historically, the influence of natural law theory on the framing of the U. S. Constitution was through the political philosophy of John Locke. Locke’s natural law philosophy was, in turn, influenced by other natural law theorists, including Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas Hobbes. Of special interest to us today is the Thomistic contribution to natural law theory, not only in its influence on American jurisprudence, but also as a launching point for discussing the way that Catholicism can positively contribute to American life and liberty now and in the future.

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote at length about law in his Summa Theologica. In his investigation, Thomas concluded that law is an ordinance of reason and that natural law is the manifestation of God’s Eternal Law to human reason.4 Thomas further asserted that natural law has the characteristic of being knowable by human reason without the aid of supernatural revelation, and is thus available to all humanity throughout time, culture, and place. It does not come from human culture or judicial interpretation or religious revelation. It is basic to all human relationships and to all morality. This law, written, as St. Paul states, into the hearts of men, is intended to aid the human person in several meaningful ways. For example, one dictum of natural law is to do good and avoid evil. This is essential to our well-being and the well-being of others. Good is what helps us and others to live well; evil prevents us and others from living well.

It is not surprising that many of the natural inclinations that form the basis of natural law are found—though formulated in different words—in the writings and speeches of our Founding Fathers. The Declaration of Independence speaks of a dignity bestowed upon each person by “Nature and Nature’s God.”5 The Declaration goes on to state that some truths are self-evident, not through a special revelation but through human reason. Among these self-evident truths is the realization that certain natural and inalienable rights are bestowed upon every human person by their Creator—and not by the will or act of any government—and that these natural rights include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.6 The Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America also “enunciates a law higher than what governments can enact,”7 which includes the establishment of justice, the promotion of the general welfare, and the securing of the “Blessings of Liberty” for oneself and one’s posterity. Originally, it was envisioned by the Founding Fathers that the positive laws of the state would ensure the promotion and protection of these fundamental human rights that have their foundation in the natural law.

Shift from natural law to legal positivism
Throughout the course of American history, however, there have been significant shifts away from the natural law as the basis of inalienable human rights and towards a legal positivism, or laws validly sanctioned by the state, which are often in tension or in outright opposition to the principles of natural law and human dignity.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in his homily before the beginning of the Conclave that resulted in his election as Pope, spoke about tendencies in societies throughout the world to deny the intrinsic dignity of the human person as asserted by natural law:

“…relativism, that is, letting oneself be ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine,’ seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires.”8

When the intrinsic dignity of the human person is threatened by elements within a culture, society suffers. When the intrinsic dignity of the human person is rejected through arbitrariness and relativism, the very fabric that holds society together is threatened. Within our country, social forces and legal realities exist that threaten the dignity of the human person in various ways: human beings are legally exploited by others for profit; convicted felons are executed by the State; the dignity of unborn children is threatened by those who promote abortion on the one hand, and by others who wish to use them in scientific research on the other.

Natural law foundational to human dignity
When we look with depth at ourselves and our fellow human beings, we are compelled by natural law to see in human persons value and dignity and possessing rights intrinsic to their being. We are invited to see other persons as ends in themselves and not as means to be used by others. In dealing with our fellow human beings, we are invited by Christ to see his presence in the other. As Jesus says in St. Matthew’s gospel, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”9 If our society enshrines in its laws lack of protection for human life so that any person can be treated as less than a dignified human being worthy and deserving of life, love, or respect, then we have an obligation to use whatever gifts God has given us to challenge such laws.

Our society is moving away from natural law as a foundation for civil rights. We who understand jurisprudence and human dignity must use our intelligence and our influence to help transform our society into a “more perfect Union.” As a people of faith, we are able to invoke the Holy Spirit to inspire American people to build up a Culture of Life in keeping with our human dignity. As a people of faith, we are determined to be good citizens of this nation who want to build a “more perfect Union”—a Union that recognizes the dignity of all human life from conception to natural death, a Union that promotes justice for all citizens as the prerequisite for lasting peace, a Union that respects the natural law.

I end with the words of Zechariah in the 1st reading today –

Thus says the Lord of Hosts: Lo, I will rescue my people from the land of the rising sun and from the land of the setting sun. I will bring them back to dwell within Jerusalem and they shall be my people, and I will be their God, with faithfulness and justice.”



1 Rom 2:14-16, emphasis added

2 Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America.

3 Forest McDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution, p. 57.

4 Summa Theologiae, Ia-IIae, questions 90 and 91.

5 “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them”

6 We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

7 Edwin Vierira, Jr. “Rights and the United States Constitution: The Declension from Natural Law to Legal Positivism.” Georgia Law Review, 1979, p. 1459.

8 His Eminence Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Dean of the College of Cardinals, 18 April 2005, Homily for Mass Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice.

9 Matt 25:40

Creighton University is a Jesuit, Catholic university bridging health, law, business and the arts and sciences for a more just world.