Monday, March 05, 2012
This Astonishing Moment
I've been thinking about how remarkable this moment is for the Catholic Faith; there are so many things bound up in the seemingly sudden assault on religious freedom and on the Catholic Church in particular, and what follows will certainly not do justice to it.
But there is something profound at work. If this plays out as it seems it will--events can easily intervene to short-circuit the trajectory I describe below--then we are talking about an epochal event in the life of the Church. This is no mere blip. This is huge.
Here's what I see, presented inartfully, because if I wait until I can really polish this, I may not post it for awhile, or ever...
> We have a mounting confrontation between the government--and a very significant share of the culture--of the world's pre-eminent nation, and the Catholic Church. Moreover, the Church in the U.S., while not the largest national body of Catholics, nor the most energetic or enthusiastic, is, nonetheless, one of the healthier portions of the Church worldwide. It is certainly the richest and and plays a huge role in the life of the Church.
> This is a confrontation that goes to the heart of the Faith. Because it is national, there is little or no way for the Church to evade it, to seek a work-around, as she might if it were a state battle only (as has happened many times on this very issue of contraception and abortion). The bishops have rightly sensed they must take a stand. They have, thus far, made it hard for themselves to back down.
> Here is something I find very remarkable and providential: it involves at least two parts of our Faith that have either been under serious attack, or have been neglected. It involves our Church's teaching on human sexuality, particularly contraception, and it involves the fundamental constitution of the Church as built upon, and led by, the bishops.
Let me dwell on this.
For how many years have we experienced, in the precincts of our Church, a silence, punctuated infrequently by embarrassed, half-hearted perfunctory statements, on the subject of contraception and deliberate refusal of God's gift of fertility? We clerics have said just enough to refute, technically, the charge that we are silent or do not accept Church teaching; yet the subject has been widely neglected.
For myself, I do talk about it; if you search this blog, you'll find a number of homilies. I know many other priests have done the same. Yet we have not raised this subject nearly as forcefully as we have assaults on the unborn. And very candidly, it is far, far easier to deliver a strong homily on the Real Presence or on the imminence of divine judgment than it is on contraception. Even those of us who are willing to address the subject do so aware of the eggshells we're walking on.
This moment--these events--viewed from a supernatural perspective seem to mean only one thing: God has spoken and acted. He has allowed things to transpire such that we pretty much have to do so. Sooner or later, as this plays out, it will become necessary to explain why we Catholics are making such an issue about this. We clerics are duty-bound to do so; yet meanwhile, more and more of the laity are doing so.
> At this moment, we have the advantage, such as we've never had before, of means for the laity to fill the gaps created by clerical inaction.
I am praying--and I beg you to pray--that all our bishops and priests provide exactly the sort of teaching needed. But in the meantime, the laity are well able to act without us.
Consider that we have--whether from Vatican II or prior teaching--a strong notion that the laity must be engaged and speak out. And, at the same time, cable and satellite TV and the Internet and twitter all create a climate in which that is easier to do than ever in human history.
> This is not only about contraception; it's not only about religious freedom; it's also about the constitution of the Church.
Another doctrine under assault--from within as well as without--is the governance of the Church and the teaching authority.
One can visit the National (so-called) Catholic Reporter almost daily and see yet another installment of that wretched outfit's campaign to destroy the governance of the Church which our Savior himself instituted. It is the dream of the NcR and many others to overthrow the authority of the bishops to teach and govern. The running commentary from the NcR's own readers--who have been fed these lies for so long--tells the story, unfiltered by the euphemisms and doubletalk of the NcR's editors and polished contributors: they despise the bishops and utterly reject the doctrine of the Church about her teaching office. Namely, that the bishops, together with the pope, guide the authority of the Church as a whole to teach in the Name of Christ. The NcR and others long to seize the ring of power, to appoint themselves, or some Rousseau-ian "general will" as the true teaching authority; or they claim, falsely that this has already happened, either by action of the Second Vatican Council, or by some other sort of revolution.
Make no mistake, this is a big part of what's going on, and President Obama and his allies are only too happy to join in, for their own interests.
You have folks like Sister Keehan of the Catholic Health Association who has twice ridden to the rescue of Obama, in opposition to the teaching authority of the bishops. First when the bishops were withholding support from Obama's health care bill, until sufficiently pro-life protections were included. And again, when the bishops were united against Obama's contraception mandate.
Sister Keehan is only one of many players, within the Church, who either want to overthrow the teaching office of the bishops, or else are willing, for whatever reason, to cooperate with those efforts. Please understand--I have no idea whether all these folks realize what they are doing. I cannot read hearts so I will--until I have concrete reasons to do otherwise--assume they do not realize the harm they are doing. In the case of NcR, I cannot defend them--they knowingly and explicitly advocate the downfall of the bishops' teaching authority. And when they protest against my accusation, I will point out their own, regular readers certainly see it clearly enough. The NcR has very effectively "catechized" them in this view. Read your own readers' comments, NcR editors.
So here again, note how God has superintended this battle on this very ground.
This battle forces us to grapple with the question: who exercises the teaching office? Who speaks for Christ?
> This is also a time of purification and renewal.
In all of this, much will be demanded of all of us. I don't say that as though I am there yet. I am no paragon of virtue or self-denial. But it seems clear to me that as this unfolds--again, assuming the crisis is not averted, as it may be (see below)--that all of us who must defend the Church's teaching will be called to profound conversion.
Brace yourselves. It will get bad, often in unexpected ways.
Prepare to see people you trust and count on, fail--just as the Twelve saw Judas betray the Lord and Peter deny him.
Prepare to see the enemy and his cohorts find a weakness and exploit it. Dirty laundry will be aired. Any weapon to hand. Some of us clerics who speak out will be embarrassed by the fact that we are not perfect.
Prepare for temptations to remain silent, to remain passive, to trim and to get bogged down. The enemy will seek to sow confusion among our ranks. Our leaders are not perfect and they will make mistakes in judgment and execution. If we want to find fault, we will succeed. Our leaders almost certainly will not do everything right, so it will be very easy, from the ranks, to resent they didn't do it our way.
> All that said, do not despair or be discouraged. Recall the many times our Lord--presaged by many passages from the Old Testament--warned us of such times, of being overwhelmed by fear of the situation, of family and friends turning against each other, of very dark times.
These may or may not be such times--how can I know? But there is nothing that can happen that we have not been prepared for. Remember that.
> This is a remarkable ecumenical moment. It may bear fruit such as we cannot imagine. Please pray for that!
Consider who is lining up together:
The Catholic Church
The Orthodox Churches
Many others of various faiths, or none.
These are mighty forces who have centuries, if not millenia, of distrust and hurt to overcome. But it is so often true that, if you want to bring squabbling folks together, present them with a common enemy. The enemy has just done that.
One possible fruit of this moment could be healing of divisions within Christendom. I am not so smart nor courageous enough to predict more than that. All I can say is, you can see the forces lining up the same as I can. Make your own predictions.
> I truly believe the Obama Administration has made a fundamental mistake. The President has chosen a course that, if it plays out, will awaken and unite the Catholic Church and many other allies as a powerful force. It may be that he will realize this and find an escape route--and it may be he can still quiet down the forces he has awakened. It may not. I just don't know.
I wonder if the President doesn't cynically count on the courts to save his bacon. It may be he expects that even before the election. Then he gets the benefit of this--his allies are charged up and turn out--while his opponents relax once the danger seems to recede.
Alternately, he may have bargained for that after the election.
Or, he may even plan to give a gracious concession on religious liberty after the election, when he doesn't care so much about the outrage of his allies.
Consider this: the mandate, even with some, superficial, modifications, goes into effect. The courts (improbably but not impossibly), uphold it. Our bishops choose varying paths, but let us hopefully suppose they mostly choose either to close or sell off institutions, or else defiance (I call this more hopeful, only in contrast to the option of capitulation). Then comes the confrontation: when the fines are levied but not paid; and the Obama Administration must take enforcement action.
And here I raise a question--not being familiar with the legal issues involved--might not the Administration simply choose to refrain from enforcement? Tolerate the disobedience, and by doing so, discredit the bishops who predicted a terrible outcome? Could he not allow that to go on for some time, until our side is lulled back to sleep?
> In all this, the hand of God seems undeniable.
If you do not believe in God, or you wonder if he is largely absent from human affairs; if you wonder if the Catholic Church's claims really hold water, consider these events.
Why should this battle even be happening?
Why on this ground--over claims the Catholic Church almost alone makes?
Had this been a battle over abortion or same-sex marriage, then it would not involve claims that are uniquely those of the Catholic Church.
I predict there will be many folks who will, in these events, realize God is validating the Catholic Church--with all her blemishes and wounds--as the visible Body of Christ on earth.
Fellow Catholics, if you have ever wondered about, or doubted, the claims of our Church--if you have wondered about the teaching on contraception, if God really cared about it--then consider this moment. Why would God put his Church on trial over this issue--if it did not matter to him?
Consider what I just wrote. God is choosing to allow his Church to enter into a terrible trial...over contraception. Do you think it possible that this matters quite a lot to God?
Something momentous is at work. We may be frightened, and perhaps we should be; yet isn't there something exciting and hopeful about this as well?
Let our hearts and voices resound with the thrilling last words of the martyrs of Mexico and Spain: Viva Christo Rey!
Update 1: Welcome New Advent readers! And thanks for the Advent-alanche! Feel free to look around...)
Update 2: welcome readers from The Pulp.it and Over the Rhine and Into the Tiber!