|St. Paul Preaching in Athens|
Earlier this week, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the bishops of the United States about "powerful new cultural currents which are not only directly opposed to core moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but increasingly hostile to Christianity as such." As if on cue, the Obama administration today announced that it would not allow allow religious organizations to be exempted from providing abortifaicients, sterilization, and contraception from the health plans that they offer to employees and would mandate that every person be forced to buy health plans that include these things. The Obama administration has drastically narrowed what religious organizations would qualify for an exemption. The Obama administration is not satisfied with dismissing religious concerns. It is intent upon suppressing religious freedom. It is not simply about advancing the "pro-choice" agenda. It is about denying choice to any religious organization that attempts to stand in the way of this administration's advancement of intrinsically evil practices.
Pope Benedict XVI went on to say to the US Bishops,
"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."
No serious and honest assessment of the current state of Catholics' engagement in the political and cultural spheres of life in the United States could claim that we have been even moderately successful in being serious about the threats that confront what the Holy Father calls, "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." For a very long time, Catholics have gone unchallenged in regards to their political activities. It is as though a decision was made somewhere along the line that we could not challenge the political establishment.
We have not given consistent witness. The University of Notre Dame honors the president whose administration advocates the most radical pro-abortion agenda ever. "Nothing to see here . . . move along." When some bishops, priests, and lay people protested, they were dismissed by many in the higher echelons of power as being cranks. But, the longer we do not give consistent witness, the more irrelevant we will become. If we were preaching the Gospel of Life and bearing consistent witness to it, people would take notice. But, it becomes far more difficult to be convincing if we have persons in all aspects of ecclesial life who give a wink and a nod to Catholic teaching and then actively support those who rabidly oppose those teachings. What that communicates to the world is "there is some piece of paper somewhere that says Catholics believe this, but we really don't care about that issue so much."
In many ways, a perfect storm has developed. We have failed to preach and to teach on serious moral issues to the Catholic Faithful. We have failed to point out clearly that Catholics should be consistent in bearing witness to the Gospel of Life. (No matter how much money somebody donates to the Catholic Church or how much power and influence they wield in the public or private sector, they have the right to be instructed in the Gospel of Life.) Persons in leadership positions in varying ecclesial structures and institutions publicly support political candidates who oppose the Church on its most fundamental moral truths. Is it any wonder that we have ended up where we are?
I cannot attribute motives to anybody else. But, I can attribute motives to myself. As a parish priest, my influence on the larger culture is fairly insignificant. But, I am called to preach the Gospel of Life and to preach about the moral life. What are some of the fears that sometimes arise to the surface when I am preparing to preach on some moral issue:
1. I don't want to be dismissed as a nut. I mean, how many other priests are speaking about contraception or abortion or marriage? Am I going to be dismissed if I preach on this topic?
2. Am I going to lose the good will of my people? They like me. Is this going to turn them away from me?
3. Will this cause the collection to go down?
4. Will this simply be dismissed as a promotion for one political party over another?
I do not know if those fears afflict others. But, sometimes they afflict me. My experience has shown the following:
1. Even if the people might disagree about the issue, they respect that I am preaching what the Gospel teaches. Are some people going to dismiss me? Yes. I'd be in good company.
2. My experience has been that the people know that I love them and my willingness to preach on a difficult topic is an expression of my love for them.
3. No, the collection has never suffered. It has gone up.
4. Some might conclude this. They'd be wrong. But, they could conclude it.
I know that there are those who chomp at the bit to excommunicate half the Catholic population. I cannot be dismissed as holding that opinion. But, I do have some ideas:
1. We could do a much better job preaching about the sanctity of human life, the nature of marriage, and sexual moral issues. Everything the Catholic Church teaches on these matters is so beautiful. Why wouldn't we preach it? Young people are remarkably receptive to the Gospel.
2. We could stop shooting ourselves in the foot by giving prominent positions of prestige and power to those who themselves are on the front lines of advancing an agenda contrary to the Gospel of Life.
3. We could risk a little. Maybe if people saw that we were willing to risk political influence or risk the wrath of some donors, we would be more convincing. And, I'm not suggesting that we pick a fight. I'm just suggesting that we don't cower to the powerful or be so enamored by their influence that we decide to be more low-profile in our witness. Maybe we risk some bad press.
The political calculation of trying to "go along to get along" has proven to be an abysmal failure. Every day that it is allowed to continue hurts the mission of the Church more. I was once at a baseball game and two drunks in the row behind me were bothering a man and his son. Instead of standing up to the bullies, the man kept laughing at their insults and pretending like they were all friends. It was pitiful to witness. Finally, the man who was with me at the game stood up and put a stop to their bullying. He acted like a man. In some ways, the Church has allowed herself to be bullied and has tried to pretend that we can still smile and act as though we are not being bullied. It is pitiful to watch. It would be better to fight and to lose than just to sit there and lose. We cannot say that we haven't given the "sit there and see what happens" model a fair go. It has been tried and found desperately wanting.
Again, I'm not arguing that we go out and look for a fight. But, it seems as though we've allowed ourselves to be bullied out of the public sphere. In some states, we've been bullied out of adoption services and healthcare. They recently bullied Catholics from their work with the victims of Human Trafficking because we won't promote the Obama Administration's obsession with abortion. Now, we are being bullied into violating our consciences. The goal seems clear: Bully the Church out of everything. In the schoolyard, we can't help it if somebody tries to bully us. But we are electing and funding our bullies. You cannot serve two masters.
We should engage the culture and explain why we oppose being bullied into immorality. And we should engage Catholics and explain why supporting the people who bully us really isn't such a great idea. This is not a call to be aggressive or inflammatory. It is a call to engage in a reasonable exhange. Evangelizing the culture sometimes means taking the risk of being unpopular. I bet Jesus would reward us handsomely for taking such a risk.