The role of the moral Catholic voter became a topic of thought at the annual Red Mass held at St. Joseph Cathedral on Oct. 1.
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger served as main celebrant for the annual Mass sponsored by the St. Thomas More Guild, an organization for Catholic lawyers in the Diocese of Buffalo. The Mass is offered each fall to invoke divine guidance and strength for those entrusted with the responsibility of the legal and judicial systems.
In his homily, Bishop Scharfenberger addressed the upcoming presidential election by asking "What is the Catholic way to vote? Is there a Catholic way to vote?"
While studying canon law at the Catholic University of America, his tort professor said to him, "Just because you're studying law doesn't mean you have to check your conscience at the door."
"I've never forgotten that because we're here because we are people who are dedicated to practicing law, the administration of justice, doing what is good for the common good, but we're also people of faith," the bishop said.
How should the faith of a religious person inform their actions?
"We have in our Catholic tradition a strong belief that a conscience, a moral conscience, is something that every human being possesses. In fact, it is part of what makes a person who they are in the image and likeness of God. That's part of the Judeo-Christian tradition; that we are made in the image and likeness of God. In what way is that so? Different theologians have approached it from different angles," the bishop explained.
While examining the thoughts of Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas came to believe that humans had rational minds that can make decisions based on reason. A conscience is based on reason and faith. The bishop expressed his concern that people follow dogma, or council documents, instead of doing the "right thing."
How does morality and conscience form our decisions?
"There is definitely a view of what a human being is that is part and parcel of Constitutional Law, but also very much aligned with our own faith Church in itself, and that is that human beings are created by God. We believe that we do not make ourselves and we do not make our own morals, that it is something that it is inherent in human nature. In being a child of God, we don't treat our human beings as objects that can be disposed of. We don't even believe that that is appropriate of ourselves, because each and every one of us is a beloved child of God. We should show respect for all persons."
Belief in God causes each person to believe in something bigger than himself or herself. So, law reflects individual rights and the rights of others, the larger community, as well. That's the basis for the American judicial system.
The bishop asked that people don't simply vote for their affiliated party, but look at how the candidate has acted on life issues from abortion to end of life. He compared unborn children to immigrants, saying that even though immigrants are not yet citizens, they still have basic rights.
The crowd of lawyers and judges who gathered for the Mass, heard some remarks from the Honorable Tracey A. Bannister, from the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Appellate Division, Fourth Judicial Department.
"I'm sure that every year, the speaker comes up here and claims we are in the midst of trying times," Bannister began. "Well, this is 2020, the world is in the midst of a Covid pandemic, which has taken the lives of over 200,000 Americans and many more worldwide. There is racial unrest and a widely contentious national election. There are serious issues in the country with regard to our immigration policies, millions of acres of forest are being burned out west, as well as many other critical, local, national, personal, economic, and educational matters. And just a short while ago, this country lost a national and judicial icon with the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. So, I say to all of you that trying times is an understatement.
"The legal profession has had and will continue to have challenges as well. Our most basic expectations, before this year of course, was that the court, on all levels, would be there to resolve societies problems, large and small. Well, our courts had closed for a period and stopped judiciating problems that were already in the way, and we stopped accepting new clients. A sense of normalcy for judges and lawyers and litigants changed in an instant."
People still look to courts for guidance in trying times, but the judges are suffering from the same issues as their clients - illness, despair, anxiety, fear, loss of income and uncertain futures.
"As we gather here for the Red Mass, we can all take a moment to ask the powers that be to grant us some inspiring advice in meeting the needs of our clients and litigants before us. We can all take a few minutes to stop the madness and allow the gifts we need to practice our craft, not the law books, but the gifts from God such as wisdom, understanding, empathy and fortitude to be our guide. Even in times like these, as trying as they are, let's make it our vow to practice our profession with stability, honesty and patience."
The St. Thomas More Guild of Western New York is an association of Catholic lawyers officially recognized by the Diocese of Buffalo. They support lawyers in applying their faith to the challenges of professional and personal life. The guild invites all judges, lawyers, paralegals, law students, and all others associated with the administration of justice in the diocese to join in its activities. The guild has given scholarships to Catholic grammar, high school, college and law school students.
This year's scholarships went to Nathan Reichenberg from St. Gregory the Great School in Williamsville, Kristen Coghlan from Cardinal O'Hara High School in Tonawanda, and Conor W. Schneider of the University at Buffalo School of Law.
"It was great to hear the bishop's perspective," Schneider said of the Mass. "I didn't know he went to law school and to hear his perspective on how his faith can help to guide judges and lawyers in dealing with matters of real life and how faith can intersect with that."
Now in his second year of law school, he said he pursued the study to advocate for people who are in less than ideal conditions in life.
"I've always felt a passion towards law. It went to undergrad at the Catholic University of America. I've always been interested in politics and just the way the government works. This feels like a way where I can make a difference. Law school seemed like the best path to make some change in the world for the better," the West Falls native said.