The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent and most unfortunate decision in Obergefell v. Hodges to legalize same-sex marriage throughout the U.S. has provided American Catholics with a moment to reflect on and reconsider the stance of the Church vis-a-vis both our political order and our culture. This is useful, and indeed essential, if we have any interest in furthering the Church’s apostolate of converting the world.
The first lesson we should take away from Obergefell is that the Church’s message about human sexuality has little resonance in American life. Whatever debate there was over homosexuality in general, and same-sex marriage in particular, was not framed by Catholic natural-law doctrine but rather by Protestant Biblicism or by appeals to historical precedent. Although Catholics are at fault for not raising natural-law arguments early and often, the fact that almost nobody adverts to such arguments shows that there is no acceptance or even understanding of a Catholic view of reality among the majority of our countrymen. Following from this is another lesson: There is little or nothing to hope for from the political order. People who put their faith in a constitutional amendment or some kind of political response to same sex marriage are deluded. Not only has such a response no chance of achieving its goal, it is the wrong way to fight what is essentially a spiritual and intellectual battle.
The question we Catholics in the U.S. must ask ourselves is what we really want. Do we want the conversion of our country, including its political and economic structures, to the Catholic faith, or are we content with preserving a few key cultural or social markers, such as those that concern marriage or abortion? If we’re willing to settle for the latter, then we have to accept the reduction of the Church’s mission to a particular expression of cultural conservatism, real or imagined. Some of the difficulties with this I will outline below. But if our overriding goal is conversion, then we must distinguish the Church’s mission from that of any other group, including those Protestant Christians with whom we seem to have so much in common. In the past, Catholics were clear-sighted enough to see that the Protestant principle was one of dissolution, one that worked to produce the very cultural and social ills against which Protestants protested so much. This is not to deny the possibility, or even the necessity, of sometimes making common cause with non-Catholics on certain occasions for certain purposes, but we must never confuse the mission given to the Catholic Church alone by our Lord with that of any other group or cause.
Moreover, neither is a call for religious freedom sufficient. The Church in the U.S. has been devoting more effort lately to demanding such freedom than she has devoted to sharing the faith and converting our fellow citizens. But aside from the problematic history of religious freedom in America, which always presupposed the ability of the state to regulate and override the free exercise of religion, are we asking merely for the Church’s right to be a pressure group, to be one among so many other voices in the public square? Or will we claim our unique status as the Church instituted by Christ, and devote at least as much effort to converting our brethren as we do to asking for the right to be left alone?
Catholics in the U.S., as elsewhere, must exhibit a renewed commitment toward fulfilling the divine commission our Lord has given us. But, unfortunately, we are singularly unprepared to do so at the present time. Let me enumerate why this is so.
In the first place, in the decades since the Second Vatican Council, an unbelievable amount of doctrinal confusion, dissent, and heresy, and an almost total lack of discipline and a loss of liturgical sacredness have come to characterize the life of the Church in every part of the world. So much so that today we see the Jesuit magazine America running an editorial welcoming the Obergefell decision, without any fear on the part of its editors that anyone in ecclesial authority is going to rebuke or discipline them for doing so. This kind of thing is so ingrained that it is not easy to see how it can be overcome.
Second, Catholics in the U.S. do not primarily identify as Catholics. This is not merely the case with liberal Catholics, such as the editors of America, but with most Catholics who would label themselves as conservative. These latter see themselves as part of a larger conservative movement, and tend to draw both their identity and their ideas from that movement, even when those ideas contradict Catholic teaching, as they often do, such as in the areas of economics and the environment. Moreover, as stated above, the goals of political conservatives and the goals of Catholics are hardly the same. Catholics ought to desire a conversion, not only of individuals but of the entire culture. Conservative goals vary, but at best they involve a retention or restoration of certain goods, real or imagined, which they regard as inhering at one time in the American order. Thus, conservatives often display fanatical adherence to a particular interpretation of the Constitution. But the Constitution is not the solution to the problems that plague America; the solution is the Church and the Catholic faith. The Constitution, whatever its merits, is in no way a Catholic document.
Third, the Church’s apostolate in this country encounters two difficulties—difficulties that are often entangled with each other. In the first place, since American culture was shaped by Protestant thought, it has always been hard for Americans to give an unbiased hearing to the claims of the Catholic Church, or even to understand what those claims are. Most Americans don’t understand, for example, that we Catholics identify a visible institution with the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, or that our faith does not depend on a mere exercise of the will, or that the authority of Holy Scripture rests on that of the Church, not vice versa.
The second difficulty is that Americans, like others in the once-Christian West, are becoming increasingly secular. Hence their attraction to atheism and indifferentism. But these two intellectual tendencies, one founded on Protestantism, the other on secularism, are often so intertwined that many skeptics exhibit as much residual anti-Catholicism as the most hardened evangelical Protestant. The children of Protestant fundamentalists who abandoned their religion because of its anti-intellectual character never thought to investigate the one religious body that does respect reason and philosophy, for they labor under the same anti-Catholic prejudices as did their ancestors. Terms like the Crusades or the Inquisition have about the same effect on America’s growing number of post-Christians as they did on their Protestant great-grandparents. Thus, there is a twofold obstacle to getting a hearing for the Gospel in this country, and we do not yet have an effective strategy for dealing with it or, it seems, even recognizing its existence.
Is there a way forward? What means can the Church employ to fulfill the commission given her by our Lord? Until we can restore a modicum of unity and discipline among Catholics, there is very little that can be done. Somehow both liberal and conservative Catholics must learn to jettison their identities as liberals or conservatives and take on a Catholic identity. There are a few signs of hope, of good young priests, of an increasing interest in Latin and the Latin liturgy and in Thomism, but the danger is that these will simply be subsumed into conservative Catholicism. Right now, there is a great need to sketch out and communicate a way of being Catholic that is neither liberal nor conservative but merely orthodox.
Many Catholics have not been exposed to anything other than liberal or conservative Catholicism, and since the former is generally an obvious betrayal of the faith, they default to the latter in lieu of anything better, unaware of the equally serious, if more subtle, kind of betrayal of Catholic teachings that inheres in conservative Catholicism. One concrete way of overcoming this lethal bifurcation might be to promote the works of Catholic thinkers of the first half of the twentieth century, especially English Catholics such as Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Msgr. Ronald Knox, Christopher Dawson, Fr. Bede Jarrett, O.P., Fr. Vincent McNabb, O.P., and so on. In them one will find both orthodoxy and a focus on Catholic identity that has nothing to do with the cultural divisions of twenty-first-century America. These writers are near enough in time and idiom to be accessible to modern readers, but are free from the parochial preoccupations that characterize the contemporary American Catholic scene. And where they exhibit parochial concerns of their own time or place, this is unlikely to do any harm to us today.
Any acquaintance with the history of the Church shows that the Catholic house has never been entirely in order. But that same history shows that we can do better than we are doing now. If we restore not only orthodoxy but a concern for a genuinely Catholic identity, we can more effectively turn to our task of conveying the Gospel to the world. We face unique difficulties in this country, but possibly no greater than many other parts of the world. Let us use the occasion of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision not to engage in railing and political strategizing, but to take stock of our spiritual and intellectual health, in the interest of preparing ourselves to do what our Lord told us to do—go forth and preach the Gospel to the whole world.
Originally published in New Oxford Review.