Strong as Steel

This spring my family purchased a car. Soon after the acquisition, at choir practice in our parish, one of the sopranos and one of the altos came up to me and each gave me a quarter. “Here, take this and throw it in your glove compartment,” I was instructed. My puzzled look prompted one of the donors to explain that it is just an old custom handed down as a way for blessing new cars. But why coins? To help keep the car running strong as steel, I was told.

My internet search for additional information yielded only a few but nonetheless intriguing references. In New Jersey and New York, according to Wikipedia, well-wishers throw coins into new cars so that the owners will always have enough change to pay tolls on the thruways. A contributor to an online message board discussion thread reported that builders in Greece say “siderenio” (Greek for “Be Iron!”) before putting coins in the foundation of a new house.

The online Catholic Encyclopedia described a similar, ancient practice conducted by pagan erectors of temples and later adopted by Christian builders of churches. Before a foundation or corner stone was laid, gold and silver pieces were tossed underneath to bless both the building and those constructing it. The Catholic Encyclopedia speculated that the coin tradition replaced an even earlier pagan custom of immolating and burying human victims under new buildings as a primitive form of sacrifice.

During a discussion in my parish on the meaning of Christ’s death this past Lent, a fellow parishioner shared an experience of being in the hospital, deathly ill, and confused to such a degree that before her recovery she could not recognize family or friends and could not remember even her own identity. But she did remember one thing. “Bring me the Eucharist,” she recalls saying. Forgetting everything else, she recognized the Host and she desired Communion. Her faith, strong as steel, remained intact.

The Catholic Church, its members, and its allies from across the political spectrum have experienced this year multiple trials in the public policy arena. The administration of President Barack Obama has reversed or announced its intent to change policies on abortion, embryo research, and conscience protection to the detriment of the rights to life and religious freedom. Citizens in Vermont, Connecticut and Iowa were confronted this spring with legislative or judicial decisions legalizing same-sex marriage. Catholic colleges have decided to bestow honors on public officials, including President Obama, who advocate abortion rights.

In a statement explaining why she is declining the Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame, which she would have been awarded during the same commencement ceremony that President Obama is to be given an honorary degree, Harvard Professor and former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon wrote that a graduation was not the right time or place for her to fully debate abortion with the president. Such an occasion would fail to provide sufficient opportunity, Professor Glendon stated, “for engagement with the very serious problem raised by Notre Dame’s decision ... to honor a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the Church’s position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice.”

In my last column, I touched on the issue of justice and how it is to be defined. The definition is important because justice is the ticket to the Church’s interest in public policy concerns and it plays a critical role in all of the challenges that the Church is currently facing in the public arena.

The Catholic perspective on justice conflicts with two culturally prevalent understandings of the virtue. Justice is not an “anything goes” concept nor is it a product only of some neutral category of “reason” that is absolutely “value-free.” The Catholic vision of justice has a definite starting point, and it is value-driven. It is strong as steel.

The latest issue of the Catholic philosophical journal Communio, the Fall 2008 edition, is devoted to the topic of the natural law, which necessarily includes the matter of justice. What struck me after reading the various articles in the publication is the degree to which Catholic theologians and philosophers are returning to the Bible as a source for determining the content and meaning of natural law. Prompted by the style of reflection and teaching found in the writings of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, Church thinkers are reassessing the approach that the Church takes in discussions on natural law, justice and reason.

That is, the re-emerging Catholic vision is much like the experience of the fellow parishioner who found herself focusing on the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist during the trauma of her sickness. The content of the Catholic understanding of justice is determined by sacred revelation. As one Communio author, Tracey Rowland, put it in describing the new movement among theologians and philosophers in the Church, “natural law is now more often presented in the context of an explicitly Trinitarian and largely christocentric anthropology and the moral theology that flows from it.”

What does this turn to the sacred mean and how will it affect the Church’s mission to the greater part of society that extends beyond the community of believers? How will it influence the debates that are raging on the floors of legislative chambers, in the halls of justice, and in the offices of academia over the Church’s relationship to government and its leaders? These and other related questions must be addressed each in their turn in future columns.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy & Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.