“Where Are The Catholics?”

Is Christianity the measure of modernity or is modernity the measure of Christianity?

On the morning after Thanksgiving, I was driving over to Frederick, Maryland with one of my nephews. On the car radio, he was listening to a talk radio program from WMAL in Washington. The host of the program was a man who described himself as a conservative Jew. He was talking of the increasing religious persecution within the United States. Several times throughout the program he pointed out that it was the Catholics who are more and more being singled out and discriminated against. The First Amendment on religious freedom seems almost a dead letter when it comes to Christians in general and Catholics in particular.

The host noted that if any similar criticism is directed toward other religious groups and religions, especially Islam, the whole world knows about it. And in some cases the world is threatened. Churches are burned in Islamic countries, Christians killed, and nothing much is said either by our government or in the press. Almost the only voice that seems systematically to defend a Catholic position, he remarked, is that of Bill Donohue of the Catholic League. The host went on to wonder why this silence is the case. Part of it, he thought, is because Catholics themselves do not seem to care too much, or else they are not aware of the dimensions of the issue. They think it will just go away.

Many writers and voices have pointed out that the present administration is by all odds the most anti-Catholic regime in this country’s history. That did not prevent some 50 percent of Catholics from voting for it. But that may be a clue about the problem. Often the leaders of those measures and decrees most against officially stated Catholic positions are formulated and carried out by those who are Catholics. Several other writers have argued that so long as these high-profile Catholics carry out anti-Catholic policies and remain in apparently good standing in the Church, many Catholics will conclude that, whatever the noise about these issues, it must be all right to be a Catholic and take positions contrary to what the bishops and Church seem to hold.

Why Catholics do not defend themselves against such attacks on their religion and their place in public life has long puzzled many sympathetic citizens. Part of the reason is that the current attacks—which revolve around marriage and family life and the proper order of one’s interior moral life—are not attacks against the faith as such. They are about what we can and should figure out from reason and natural law. Catholics are involved here not primarily because they are Catholics but because they are human beings. These issues are not what we usually call “religious” issues. It is true that, in many ways, the Church is the last public defender of the natural law and of reason itself in these areas, but that is because revelation does not replace but agrees with and heals reason when it goes wrong in its own order.

Immediately after the recent election, many writers (David Warren was perhaps the most accurate) sensed that a line had been crossed. It was not primarily an election about politics, about good or less good laws. It was an election about approving bad laws and about bad morals being elevated to the status of accepted, settled doctrine. That many Catholics in practice have already joined the opposition is obvious to everyone who cares to look at the evidence.

Much of this confusion has to do with the perennial problem of what was Vatican II’s response to modernity. Was Christianity the measure of modernity or was modernity the measure of Christianity? Many Christians, including Catholics, opted for the latter. The test turns out to be centered on children and families, over what is the proper atmosphere in which children should be begotten and raised. Indeed, the issue is whether most begotten children should exist or not, over whether we have a “right” to dispose of them as we will.

But if we spell out in a coherent fashion the issues—marriage, contraception, abortion, cloning, same-sex marriage, polygamy, parental authority—we become aware that what we are seeing before our eyes is the embodiment of earlier ideas now carried into reality. Of course, there are good ideas and bad ideas; this has been clear from the account in Genesis of the Fall. Its essential premise—that man, not God, is the maker of the distinction of good and evil—is the quintessence of bad ideas. It is this principle that lies behind all aberrations in family life and what surrounds it.

In this context, I have often wondered why it is that a Jew, the radio host, is the one most concerned over the failure of Catholics ably to defend themselves in the public order. Since, as I have said, these current aberrations in the public order are not about specifically theological issues but about those of natural law and reason, it is perhaps because the believing Jew can see the origin of the issue in one’s view of God’s initial plan of creation.

Many Catholic bishops did seek to point out the problem manifested in the election, in a choice of leadership. They evidently did influence many Catholic citizens to understand the nature of the threat against what the Church stands for. But it was not enough to change the results of the election, as many hoped it would. No doubt they will pay a price for this failure. On the other hand, the principle that something is radically wrong in the polity is at least on the table. When the chance arose to do something about the problem, the effort failed. This means the government has even less need to pay any attention to Catholic positions which are, in any case, seen as part of the problem.

Not a few writers have tried to put a ray of hope before us. All is not lost. Other elections will occur. But undoing what has now been done to family law and the understanding of marriage now involves the deeper issue of habits of disorder in the souls of so many of the population. While it is possible to rid ourselves of bad principles and habits, it is monumentally difficult, even if we want to. But for the most part, as a people, we do not want to. This election was, by most standards, an approval of the direction of the government, an assurance that it was on the right—that is, popular—path that rejects the central premises of reason about moral life.

The larger matter, if it is larger, is the central government has succeeded in positioning itself as the chief dispenser, not only of jobs, health, and well-being, but also of what is moral and right. Government has established a claim and an agenda that would make all real moral, economic, and political understanding and activity dependent on itself. The country has radically changed its soul from one that insisted the main actors are individuals and their voluntary organizations to one that holds the ungrounded government responsible for all the major (and minor) issues.

In this new capacity the government conceives itself as being subject to nothing—not to the Constitution, amendments, reason, or natural law. It will not be put quite this way, but that is the effect. This is what we elected. The Jewish talk-show host was correct. Catholics are the target, the locus of what the government sees as the cause of its own problems. This government will brook no opposition to its plans. Catholics, insofar as they are Catholics, will be more and more singled out as the causes of the failures of public policies. If we are surprised at this turn of events, it can only be because we did not really understand what was at stake in the recent election.

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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).