Blithe Christianity and the Last Free Election


Bruce Fingerhut in South Bend called my attention to Father George Rutler’s essay in (July 13), entitled. “Post-Comfortable Christianity.” Father Rutler is the well-known pastor of the Church of Our Savior in New York City. He is a man of many, many talents, a witty and insightful lecturer, often on EWTN. With his Scot origin, he has been known to appear in the kilt version of the Roman Collar at the Highland Games. Rutler is a convert Episcopal priest who speaks the King’s English, speaks it well and clearly.

The title, “Post-Comfortable Christianity,” Rutler explains, is not used in place of “Post-Christian,” since “nothing can come after Christ,” a profound theological observation in itself. We have lived as Catholics in relative peace in recent times. We think we belong and are accepted by this culture. Indeed, we have sometimes bought an easy version of our faith that requires little sacrifice and no Cross. 

We have not had to worry, or so we thought, about ourselves being discriminated against or persecuted. Such despicable activities were, we thought, against the law. They were events that happened “elsewhere.” We never thought that our law could itself be “against the law.” The Third Millennium began with fireworks and Ferris wheels, Rutler commented, but is now “entering a sinister stage.” We have not anticipated that so many Catholics, often public leaders, when it came to a choice between God and Caesar, would opt for Caesar in his worst form.

Rutler introduces his comments by recalling Father Bernard Bassett, S. J., on his death-bed. He told Rutler that, if he (Bassett) had to do life over, all he would do is read St. Paul. Rutler quips that for most of us “God gave us the Apostle of the Gentiles in order to have second readings at Sunday Mass, usually unrelated to the first reading and the Gospel.”

But here Rutler is initially concerned with Paul’s encounters with Roman procurators, who were often enough decent men, stronger, it always seemed to me, than Pilate, one of their predecessors. Paul dealt with Antonius Felix, Procius Festus, and Junius Gallio; he handled those men shrewdly. They often protected him. How often in Christian literature, however, are we warned about what to say before “judges and governors?” Paul himself, when necessary, had no hesitation to appeal for protection to Caesar, to the Roman law, as was his by right of birth. But Nero, Decius, Marcus Aurelius, and Diocletian represented the same law that did not always protect Christians

However, today, Rutler remarks, “the Christian veneer of American culture has cracked and underneath is the inverse of the blithe Christianity that took shape in the various enthusiasms of the nineteenth century and ended when voters were under the impression that they finally had a Catholic president.” “Blithe Christianity” is an amusing term. Yet, it is this “inverse” and “sinister” turn that Rutler is concerned to describe. 

Rutler applauds the effort of our bishops to deal with religious liberty, which is “now facing unprecedented assault.” How few citizens, however, recognize this assault for what it is! Rutler suggests that the November election “will either give Christians one last chance to rally, or it will be the last free election in our nation.” These are stark words—“the last free election in our nation.” We do not want to face this real possibility. 

Few will understand this alternative that are ignorant of the loss of religious liberty elsewhere, say, in the “Slavic nations after World War I and in Europe in the 1930’s.” Indeed, it happened in St. Paul’s time. Rome and Washington have much in common. In this light, Scripture has rather more to teach us about what is happening about us than we are likely to admit.

The path we are on whereby we will lose our public presence will not be, on the surface, dramatic. It won’t be a bolt of lightning. It will come by small but quick steps, such as the HHS mandate. Yet, without a “dramatic change” in current political direction, many laws and policies in the country are already on the books whereby, when enforced, Catholics will be gradually forced out of the public sphere as enemies to its common good. Everything that they do that is “Catholic” in terms of schools, hospitals, property, and other such initiatives, will be taken over by the all-caring state. When it comes down to it, this control will be exercised by the tax laws, which, as Rutler cites both from Webster and Marshall, are the “power to destroy.” The shadow of the Roberts decision hangs over us.

How will it work? “Those who measure their Catholicism by the Catholic schools they attended will soon find most of those institutions officially pinching incense to the ephemeral genius of their secular leaders, and universities once called Catholic will be no more Catholic than Brown is Baptist.” This change will not arise from “a sudden loss of faith” in basic doctrines. The transformation of religious liberty into a very strictly defined religious “worship” will take care of this change. Everything not uniquely and privately Catholic will be claimed by the state. 


The change, unless stopped by the election or courts, will be effected through the health-care mandate and its “penalties” or “taxes.” All businesses will be forced to buy into the government health-care program with all its anti-Catholic premises. If anyone does not collaborate, he will be fined or taxed in such a way and degree that he cannot afford to stay in business. Such businesses will soon disappear because they are unable to “bear the burden of confiscatory tax penalties.” The financial costs, which Rutler spells out, simply cannot be met by ordinary business means. And no doubt, this elimination of opposition is the purpose of the law against which the bishops protest. It is a way to be rid of any internal alternative to government control.

But here Rutler adds something that I had not seen spelled out before. The laws will now be framed in such a way that anyone who does not follow government health-care policies, which will control the whole economy, will not find jobs that he can accept with clear conscience. “Catholics will not be suitable for public charities, medicine, education, journalism, or in the legal profession.” All of this elimination is in the name of “non-discrimination.” These are the normal areas in which Catholics, especially educated Catholics, have found their livelihood and place in civil society. Our institutions of higher learning, law schools, nursing schools, medical schools, and even business schools, to survive, will, in their minds, have to accept the law to survive. In Rutler’s view, most will accept the government rules.

The Church’s moral positions will be seen to violate “civil rights.” Our lack of attention to the philosophic roots of “natural rights” is coming home to haunt us. “Rights” theory can justify anything. All of this control of the Church is being proposed in the name of natural and civil “rights.” In this atmosphere, Catholics will be something like their counterparts in Muslim lands. Their choice will be to escape to another land, to convert to Islam, or to be a tiny, tightly controlled minority with no opening to the public order. 

Rutler puts it this way: “If their (Catholics) influence is not decisive, and the present course of federal legislation accelerates, encouraged by a self-destructive appetite for welfare statism on the part of ecclesiastical bureaucracies, the majority of Catholics with tenuous commitments to the Faith will evaporate.” This analysis is the European fate now applied to the Church in the States.

We should be clear, as writers like Paul Rahe have pointed out, that this subjection of Catholicism to the control of the state is being carried out by officials that many of them voted for in great numbers and with enthusiasm. We have not been able to imagine that the Catholic Church in its essential moral teaching would come to be seen as an enemy of democracy and human “rights.” Yet, these new versions of democracy and human “rights” embody positions that diametrically oppose human life, marriage, basic morality, and the nature of transcendence. No one who cannot accept this new version of “rights” will be a member of the new state that has come to exist before our very eyes. The “inversion” of morals is almost complete. It is “sinister.”

As George Rutler remarks, St. Paul would not have been much surprised at this turn of events. There is a “logic” already in place that, if allowed to go further by the continuation of the present regime, will reduce the Catholic presence to a mere shell, perhaps a “remnant,” to recall an Old Testament term. True, there will still be institutions that call themselves “Catholic.” Willingly, they will accept the funds of the state on its own terms. We may even anticipate a situation in which we see two churches calling themselves “catholic,” one accepting government funds and terms, the other, much reduced, not accepting them. 

Rutler’s term, “post-comfortable Catholicism” is both a witty and an accurate description of where we are. If this is indeed our “last free election,” we will not be overly surprised if most of us accept it, well, comfortably.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).