When I was growing up, I had no idea what the word “dystopia” meant. It wasn’t part of my vocabulary or spelling lessons. Do you know what it means? Here’s a definition:
- A vision of a future that is a corrupted (usually beyond recognition) utopian society.
- A miserable, dysfunctional state or society that has a very poor standard of living.
The reason it has become a more common vocabulary word – particularly in high schools – is that there are many popular novels and movies out there in recent years that present just such a vision of reality. Consider The Hunger Games, wherein children – teens – battle for survival in a fight-to-the-death competition – all for the amusement of the masses on television. There is no hope in their world, which itself is a presentation of North America after some nameless disaster.
What about the current fascination with zombies? The Walking Dead is a very popular program on AMC, and topping the box offices this weekend is “World War Z” – another “zombie apocalypse” film. There are many other such films I could mention.
And don’t forget the popularity of the Terminator or Matrix franchises, which continued to present us with a vision of an inevitable “judgment day,” on which the machines took over the world and eliminated humanity as best they could, leaving us to scrape for survival in a dimly-lit, hellish world.
I bring all these up here and now because these worlds – these dystopias – all seem to have had one thing in common, at least to my perception of them. There is no expression of faith – no religion, no prayer, no sense of “more beyond” the misery in which the characters find themselves. They are worlds without hope.
As we continue to celebrate the “Fortnight for Freedom,” we pray as a Church united across the country that the valued blessing of Religious Liberty remain valued and protected, so that people of faith may continue to live according to the dictates of their consciences and not at the whim of those whom we perceive to have power.
When the Founding Fathers set out to frame our new nation, they recognized that theirs was a task of hope – they had to be optimistic. That was their character. They were men for whom anything was possible, particularly because of the rights given them by Nature and Nature’s God. Therefore, they enshrined as a basic freedom, the right to believe and worship as one sees fit. The First Amendment is more than just a “non-establishment clause;” it is more than just an institutional separation of Church and State. Rather, it was a recognition of what each man there believed was a logical given:
People of faith are people of hope.
People of faith are people whose values contribution to the virtue of the nation as a whole. And without that freedom to believe, celebrate and share those core religious values, the gulf between virtue and destiny would only widen – creating a dystopia for us.
Since here foundation here in Maryland, the Catholic Church in the United States has long championed the value of religious toleration and freedom of religion. As the Catholic Calverts build their new colony, all people who professed faith in Christ were welcome and encouraged. That freedom was tried and tested, but ultimately, with the Constitution, it was enshrined as a core value for all generations to come.
Writing in 1876 – 100 years after the Declaration of Independence – our own James Cardinal Gibbons wrote Faith of our Fathers, in which he shared the true teachings of the Catholic Church for those who were spreading lies about our faith. In it, he treated the gift of “Civil and Religious Liberty.” Gibbons praised the role that the Church had played in the advancement of civil liberty and even the cause of Democracy throughout the centuries. He wrote,
“[The Church’s] doctrine is, that as man by his own free will fell from grace, so of his own free will must he return to grace. Conversion and coercion are two terms that can never be reconciled” (p. 228).
So, we come to a point in our nation’s history when many of our cherished values are challenged by culture and even by government writ. We remain steadfast in our faith, remembering the words of Jesus that we heard just now: when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.
How, in the midst of tribulations like these – and even in the midst of the difficulties we Catholics might see today – do we “raise our heads” and have no fear?
We remember that we are people of hope.
It’s hard to believe in a future as dim and grim as a Terminator movie, when we share a faith that celebrates the gift of hope as a theological virtue. It’s tough to be gloomy when we know of the blessing of God’s love. It’s almost impossible to be a pessimist when we know that we too share in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. And the reason we can have this hope is that we have been free to share our faith with one another – and our parents and grandparents, enjoying that same freedom, have shared this faith with us.
Our forefathers and fore-mothers had a vision of our future, and it certainly did not include a zombie apocalypse! They had a future full of hope in sight for us, and religious freedom makes that hope possible. Take that away, and we become just so many cogs in a non-human gear – which might advance a government agenda, but doesn’t build up the Kingdom we profess.
So, we gather now and pray, that God continue to bless our nation with His abundant goodness; and that our future generations will be free to thank Him for that great gift.