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This issue of The Catholic Response appears amidst many significant events in the Church and in society. The assault on the religious freedom rights of faith-based institutions and individual believers by the Obama Administration, of course, is the topic of the moment. Along with that comes the creation of twenty-two new cardinals (including two Americans) by Pope Benedict XVI, a poignant part of which ceremony is the instruction to the new members of the College of Cardinals that the red they wear is not a fashion statement but a reminder that they must be ready and willing to witness to the truth of Christ’s Gospel, usque ad effusionem sanguinis (even to the shedding of their blood). Until recently, no one would have imagined that such a reminder would have any serious resonance for an American; now, we’re not too sure.
The reader will note that the articles selected are heavily weighted in the direction of liturgical matters and religious liberty concerns, two of which are based on the thought of John Henry Cardinal Newman. Aside from the fact that Blessed John Henry was a cardinal, his insights are of perennial value, especially since he had the faculty of being able to prognosticate societal directions with uncanny accuracy. Why the convergence of liturgy and public policy? If we Catholics are going to have do battle to defend the freedom of the Church and our own personal freedom of conscience, we shall have to take seriously our Christian commitment made first at Baptism and then renewed in a powerfully dramatic manner at Confirmation. But that task will not be able to be completed on our own steam. We shall have to claim the grace of Christ, first given to us in the Sacraments of Initiation and reinforced through regular recourse to the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist. Liturgy, then, must be seen as preparation for mission. Or, as two of the new dismissals at Mass put it, “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord”; and, “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.”
With all that in mind, I would like to reflect on the situation in which the Church in the United States currently finds herself – offered as “bullet points” which, I hope, can provide fodder for personal meditation and ongoing conversation, with a view to embarking on a plan of action.
• Let’s start with the state of affairs as they now are: The Obama Administration (with the complicity and even pressure of would-be Catholics like Kathleen Sebelius) proposed a supposed health measure which would have required religiously based institutions to provide contraceptives to their constituents. When the uproar from across the political and religious spectrum was so massive, Obama and Company retreated to re-group forces, returning with a “compromise,” which has failed to convince not only the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, but also leading legal scholars like Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard and Robby George of Princeton. Editorials in periodicals as diverse as USA Today, National Review, and the Wall Street Journal have variously dubbed the “compromise” a shell-game or a smoke-and-mirrors effort. As so many bishops made bold to say in their pastoral letters, “We cannot, we will not cooperate in this project.” The gauntlet has been thrown down. Who is going to blink?
• As veteran readers of TCR know, prior to the election of 2008, I wrote extensively about the dangers inherent in voting for candidates who do not share our world-view, highlighting the dangers to the Church and to her mission in society. On second thought, I may have been wrong. The election of Barack Obama may actually turn out to be one of the greatest blessings for the Catholic Church in American history because his extremism and recklessness have become a salutary “wake-up” call to those who thought they could have peaceful coexistence with his ilk. Now, many who supported his candidacy are asking how they could have been so deceived or how he could have been so deceitful. In other words, his brashness has had a galvanizing effect on the Catholic community – and on all faith communities that take religion seriously. Even Catholics not normally aligned with “conservatism” were appalled by the Administration’s action and felt as though they had been betrayed and treated like one of Lenin’s “useful idiots”; 2008 Obama supporter and former ambassador to Malta, Doug Kmiec, expressed just such a sentiment. Simply put, this might well be an example of how God can write straight with crooked lines, turning a potential disaster into what the late Father Richard Neuhaus dubbed “the Catholic moment.” Or, as Cardinal Newman put it in his famous biglietto address (found in full in this issue of TCR):
Sometimes our enemy is turned into a friend; sometimes he is despoiled of that special virulence of evil which was so threatening; sometimes he falls to pieces of himself; sometimes he does just so much as is beneficial, and then is removed. Commonly the Church has nothing more to do than to go on in her own proper duties, in confidence and peace; to stand still and to see the salvation of God.
• None of the above, however, stopped Catholic Health Association president Carol Keehan from supporting the “compromise,” in spite of its rejection by the episcopal conference. Parting company with the bishops is not a new tack of this woman religious, for this is exactly what she did when the bishops ultimately came out against the health care plan of the President last year. Her support gave the White House a fig leaf behind which to hide, enabling spokesmen to pit the loving concern for the poor and marginalized of the CHA against the cold, unfeeling judgment of the out-of-touch male hierarchy. “Divide and conquer.” Which leads us to our next question: Who speaks for the Church here or anywhere else?
• It is a truism that the Catholic Church is not a democracy; positions are not decided on the basis of the latest public opinion poll. According to settled Catholic doctrine, the teachers – and the only divinely appointed teachers – in the Church are the bishops teaching in communion with the Bishop of Rome. If a Catholic finds that statement a stumbling block, he needs to do one of two things: either, pray about it and study all pertinent material on the topic; or, following his conscience, join one of thousands of Christian ecclesial communities that do not subscribe to that doctrine. In other words, there is no confusion about this matter as far as the Church is concerned, and anyone claiming confusion is either delusional or disingenuous. For the Administration to play that card is but another indication of the low regard they have for the Catholic Church.
• The Obama Administration must be shell-shocked by the massive opposition of the grass-roots populace, as distinct from the media elite who are disconnected from the attitudes of normal Americans, as that has been repeatedly documented over the past three decades. The United States of America is not Europe, where even most churchmen would have groused in silence before the unprecedented assault on religious liberty. Frankly, one would have thought that the Administration would have been chastened by the unanimous decision of the Supreme Court just days earlier in the Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Evangelical Church and School case, essentially slapping the Administration in the face for attempting to control the hiring and firing policy of a Lutheran school.
• Americans are, by and large, religious people, with a profound respect for “organized” religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular, due in large measure to the Church’s impressive record of offering quality schools, hospitals, and charitable outreach programs to society-at-large. What possessed the President to pursue what anyone could have told him was an untenable position and an unwinnable battle? First, a textbook example of classical hubris, that form of pride which always leads to a would-be invincible hero’s downfall. And, equally, nothing short of being out of touch with real people and, especially, real Catholics. His toadies did not serve him well in convincing him that his draconian decision would be met with little more than a sigh or a yawn. One of the most significant examples of interfaith and ecumenical action has been the response of Eastern Orthodox bishops, Missouri Synod Lutheran leadership, other Evangelicals, and the Orthodox Jewish community – all of whom have taken a stand in solidarity with the USCCB.
• While the Church does not form doctrine on the basis of the Gallup Poll, at times it is useful to have such data in forming a pastoral plan of action or in assessing a situation. But then we must ask, “Who is a Catholic?” Years ago, I prevailed on Dr. George Gallup, Jr., to divide his Catholic sample into active and inactive members; the results surprised him but did not surprise me, which is precisely why I made the suggestion. In the present context, it has come to light that 63% of Catholics who attend Mass every Sunday agreed with the position of the bishops, while 63% of Catholics who rarely or never attend Mass sided with the Obama Administration. Being a Catholic is more than having been born into a Catholic family or having had water poured on one’s forehead in infancy. Catholicism is a relationship with the Person of Jesus Christ and a coherent way of life based on His teachings – or else it is nothing. While the secular media would have us believe that the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic, that is not the judgment of the ultimate Judge.
• Most commentators on the issue (including the Catholic bishops) have argued that the disagreement is not about contraception but about religious freedom rights. And they are correct. However, it is also about contraception – and here I would like to turn to internal Catholic affairs.
For more than forty years, the average priest and bishop has had a muzzle on his mouth in regard to the Church’s perennial teaching on artificial contraception, mostly motivated by fear of “alienating” contracepting Catholics in the pews. And wasn’t that the very embarrassing fact noted by those who wished to demonstrate how the hierarchy’s position and the (largely) unchallenged alternate practice of all too many Catholics were at odds with each other? That “great divide” has happened because of clerical malfeasance or nonfeasance, what the French refer to as la trahison des clercs (the treason of the clergy), who have the responsibility to teach the truth “in season and out of season.” A long time ago, many priests and bishops determined it was more important to be popular than to be faithful, essentially selling the People of God short. The laity will listen to the truth if it is intelligently and convincingly presented; the majority of young Catholics “in sync” with the Church’s teaching on abortion are the best indication of how we can teach unpopular truths and gain acceptance.
A second embarrassing fact brought forward is that dozens of Catholic colleges have been making contraception available through their health plans for years already, leading scoffers to ask why the bishops are making a big thing of it all of a sudden? If the bishops did not know about that reality, they should have known; and if they did know and did not act, it is to their shame.
In many ways, the priests and bishops of today are involved in a “mop-up” operation bequeathed to them by so many of their predecessors who just wanted to “go along to get along.” As the Prophet Ezekiel declared, “The fathers eat sour grapes, and the sons’ teeth stand on edge” (18:2).
We cannot wallow in useless lamenting over the past. God has given us the present, a veritable “Catholic moment,” if we but seize it. On January 19 of this year, Pope Benedict discussed this matter with a group of American bishops in Rome for their ad limina visit:
In the light of these considerations, it is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres. The seriousness of these threats needs to be clearly appreciated at every level of ecclesial life. Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion. Many of you have pointed out that concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices. Others have spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.
That is a clarion call for action, if ever there was one.
And how does the Pope propose that these matters be addressed?
Here once more we see the need for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture and with the courage to counter a reductive secularism which would de-legitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society. The preparation of committed lay leaders and the presentation of a convincing articulation of the Christian vision of man and society remain a primary task of the Church in your country; as essential components of the new evangelization, these concerns must shape the vision and goals of catechetical programs at every level.
While admitting that mistakes have been made, we need to thank God for a Constitution which guarantees religious freedom, for a united episcopal conference, for millions of lay faithful willing to do battle for the rights of the Church and of individual conscience, and for the millions more of Americans of goodwill who see what we see and have responded in kind. Once again, Cardinal Newman in a different time and place still has salutary counsel to offer us:
Such is the state of things in England, and it is well that it should be realised by all of us; but it must not be supposed for a moment that I am afraid of it. I lament it deeply, because I foresee that it may be the ruin of many souls; but I have no fear at all that it really can do aught of serious harm to the Word of God, to Holy Church, to our Almighty King, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, Faithful and True, or to His Vicar on earth. Christianity has been too often in what seemed deadly peril, that we should fear for it any new trial now. So far is certain; on the other hand, what is uncertain, and in these great contests commonly is uncertain, and what is commonly a great surprise, when it is witnessed, is the particular mode by which, in the event, Providence rescues and saves His elect inheritance.
What is demanded of us – as Catholics and as Americans – is the capacity to echo the bold retort of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, Primate of Poland, as he faced down the tyrannical Communists of his day: “We teach that it is proper to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. But when Caesar sits himself on the altar, we respond curtly: He may not!”
Well-informed and courageous clergy and laity, calling on the grace of the sacraments, is what our Church and our nation need and deserve. In the midst of this, we must adopt the confidence of Cardinal Newman which is, at root, the confidence of Easter Sunday, as the ancient hymn proclaims: Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat (Christ conquers, Christ reigns, Christ rules). If you adopt this mindset, which is putting on “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16), you will duc in altum.
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Father Stravinskas is the Executive Director of the Catholic Education Foundation. The above is reproduced here with his kind permission.