The Time for Complacent Catholicism is Over

A reflection on faithful fortitude and a call to Catholic courage

When is the last time you saw someone display courage?

We know it exists among public servants: soldiers, policemen, firefighters. We know it existed among the first responders at 9/11. We find it in people who sacrifice their lives for the well-being of those dearest to them, such as a father who will dive into water to save a drowning son or daughter.

But how about in Catholicism? Does it demand courage to be a Catholic today? For most of our lives, the issue never arose. Traditional Christian values were commonly accepted in America: to put it succinctly, Catholic values and civic values largely coincided. But in recent times, we have come to realize that it doesn’t take courage to be a Catholic, but only a faithful Catholic. For example, it doesn’t take courage today to be a Catholic politician who is pro-choice, but it does to be one who is pro-life.

How ready are we to stand up for traditional Catholic values and beliefs today?

The Vatican has recently stressed the courage that marks men and women of deep commitment to the faith. Pope Francis called Benedict XVI’s decision to step down as Pope on February 28, 2013, an act of “a man of great courage and humility.” At the canonization Mass of John XXIII and John Paul II, Francis referred to the new saints as “two men of courage” who “bore witness before the Church and the world to God’s goodness and mercy.” The Pope fired up 500 youth at the Vatican on August 28, 2013, when he said, “I wanted to tell you this, to tell you: courage, go forward, make noise. . . . Please, go against the current. Be courageous, courageous: go against the current.” At his June 23, 2013, Angelus reflection, Francis urged everyone, especially youth, to “have the courage to go against the tide of current values that do not conform to the path of Jesus.”

But is Francis too quickly presuming that youth today experience a clash between the tide of current values and the path of Jesus?

“The days of comfortable Catholicism are past”

It would come as a bit of a shock, I think, to many Catholics comfortable with current developments in our society, to hear the Pope speak of a clash between current values and Jesus’ teaching. It would come as an even greater shock for them to hear the remarks of Prof. Robert P. George of Princeton University, when he addressed the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC, on May 13, 2014:

 The days of socially acceptable Christianity are over. The days of comfortable Catholicism are past. It is no longer easy to be a faithful Christian, a good Catholic, an authentic witness to the truths of the Gospel. A price is demanded and must be paid. There are costs of discipleship—heavy costs, costs that are burdensome and painful to bear.

According to George, if one wants to be a good Catholic today, one must be “prepared to give public witness to the massively politically incorrect truths of the Gospel” regarding “Biblical and natural law beliefs”: about “the sanctity of human life in all stages and conditions,” about the “core social function of marriage” to “unite a man and woman as husband and wife to be mother and father to children born of their union.” To be sure, it is still possible to be “a comfortable Catholic” and “socially acceptable”; but to be a Catholic who professes openly fidelity to the teachings of the Gospel and Christ’s Church, one must be prepared “to take risks and make sacrifices,” “to make oneself a marked man or woman.” The “costs of discipleship” are high:

It is to expose oneself to scorn and reproach. . . . to place in jeopardy one’s security, one’s personal aspirations and ambitions, the peace and tranquility one enjoys, one’s standing in polite society. One may in consequence of one’s public witness be discriminated against and denied educational opportunities and the prestigious credentials they may offer; one may lose valuable opportunities for employment and professional advancement; one may be excluded from worldly recognition and honors of various sorts; one’s witness may even cost one treasured friendships. It may produce familial discord and even alienation from family members. Yes, there are costs of discipleship—heavy costs.

But why would Catholics accept such costs?

Saint John Paul II and Courage

John Paul II gave a presentation on the importance of the virtue of fortitude in his third General Audience on November 15, 1978. He noted the challenges that people face courageously in our society today. He paid tribute to all the “unknown [but] courageous people“ who “say ‘no’ or ‘yes,’ when they have to pay a price to do so!” But why do they do so? After admitting that “fear” often deprives people of “civil courage” to face up to everyday challenges, he recognizes there are people who have “a special value,” who are able to “reach such fortitude” where they are “capable of crossing the so-called barrier of fear” into a transcendent land. In words that reinforce the aptness of George’s words, John Paul asserts:

 To reach such fortitude, man must in a certain way “go beyond” his own limits and “transcend” himself, running “the risk” of an unknown situation, the risk of being frowned upon, the risk of laying himself open to unpleasant consequences, insults, degradations, material losses, perhaps imprisonment or persecution. To attain this fortitude, man must be sustained by a great love for truth, and for good, to which he dedicates himself.

But how is one able to do this? We come to John Paul’s deeper explanation for the courageous action that is Christian: Though the virtue of fortitude existed before the time of Christ,

With Christ, it acquired an evangelical, Christian contour. The Gospel is addressed to weak, poor, meek and humble men, peacemakers and to the merciful, but, at the same time, it contains a constant appeal to fortitude. It often repeats: “Fear not” (Mt 14:27). . . . The virtue of fortitude proceeds hand in hand with the capacity of sacrificing oneself. . . It teaches man that, for a just cause, for truth, for justice, one must be able to “lay down one’s life” (Jn 15:13).

 There are times, says John Paul, when “man lacks the strength to ‘transcend’ himself” for “higher values, such as truth, justice, vocation, faithfulness in marriage.” When that occurs, there is need for the Christian to “pray for this gift of the Holy Spirit which is called the ‘gift of fortitude.’ . . . this ‘gift from above’ must make each of us a strong man and, at the right moment, say to us ‘deep down’: Courage!”

The Example of Jesus

Does it make sense to call Jesus courageous? Can Jesus really be said to have displayed the virtue of fortitude? A careful reading of the Gospel of John leaves no doubt.

Jesus seems to be living a comfortable life early in John’s Gospel when a dramatic onslaught of events suddenly threatens his very existence. This shocking turn-of-events first occurs at the Sheep Pool named Bethesda in Jerusalem in John 5 when Jesus not only cures a crippled man, but commands him to pick up his mat and walk—both forbidden on the Sabbath. As if he had not already caused enough turmoil, Jesus finishes the deed by claiming his action was justified because he is doing his Father’s work: “My Father is at work until now, and I am at work as well” (v. 17). John makes abundantly clear the consequences of Jesus’ claim:

The reason why the Jews were even more determined to kill him was that he not only was breaking the sabbath but, worse still, was speaking of God as his own Father, thereby making himself God’s equal (v. 18).

 It is on the feast of the Dedication that Jesus provokes the next big confrontation. Standing in Solomon’s Portico in the temple area, Jesus not only claims that he is “God’s Son” (10:36) and that he is performing “my Father’s works” (v. 37), but makes the hugely inflammatory statement: “The Father and I are one” (v. 30). Jesus has to have deliberately chosen to make this statement knowing the consequences that would ensue. For there is no way Jesus could have expected the Pharisees to sit quietly by while he not only cured on the Sabbath, but claimed approval for his action from God his Father with whom he identified himself. He has to have known that the consequence for such words and actions was death by stoning (v. 31). He might just as well have walked from the temple precincts directly to Calvary and gotten the inevitable over, for he was at the point of no return. But he would not remain silent. He continued with his mission.

Finally, Jesus goes to Bethany and raises Lazarus from the dead (11:43-44), an enormously provocative action. This causes the Sanhedrin to convene a session where Caiaphas makes the prophetic statement that one man must die for the welfare of the nation (v. 50). John tells us at this point that “there was a plan afoot to kill him” (v. 53). His friend Mary then prophetically anoints Jesus for burial (12:3, 7), and the rest is history.

Could Jesus have avoided all these confrontations and the ultimate battle with the chief priests, the scribes, and the Pharisees that led to his demise? Obviously he could have. But he didn’t. We have to ask why?

Can One Any Longer Remain Silent?

Have we not come to the ultimate reason why orthodox Catholics today can no longer remain silent and accept an accommodating Christianity? Indeed, for the causes of truth, justice, and agape love, faithful Catholics should surely no longer remain silent; but there is a more profound reason for standing up that the above passages from John’s Gospel show: in imitation of Jesus, who gave his life because so much was at stake—salvation of the human race from eternal perdition. As Prof. George tells us, we have to

 bear witness by our fidelity to the greatest truth of all, namely, that the story does not end at Golgotha. Evil and death do not triumph. Yes, it is Good Friday, but the one who became like us in all things but sin conquers death to redeem us from our transgressions and give us a full share in eternal life—the divine life of the most blessed Trinity. The cross cannot defeat him. The sepulcher cannot hold him. His heavenly Father will not abandon him. The psalm that begins in despair, Eloi, Eloi lama sabachtani, ends in hope and joy. Easter is coming. The crucified Christ will be raised from the dead. The chains of sin will be broken. “Oh death, where is thy victory? Oh death, where is thy sting?”

Support for George’s courageous statements comes from one of the most outspoken critics of complacent Catholicism in our day: Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., Archbishop of Philadelphia. At the Closing Mass of the 2013 Fortnight for Freedom, he warned of the perilous nature of the present time in our country and of the need to “speak out” lest God hold us responsible:

We live in a time that calls for sentinels and public witness. Every Christian in every era faces the same task. But you and I are responsible for this moment. Today. Now. We need to “speak out,” not only for religious liberty and the ideals of the nation we love, but for the sacredness of life and the dignity of the human person—in other words, for the truth of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God.

 In Render unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (2008), Chaput wrote a searing attack on American Catholics who for over half a century have given themselves to complacent Catholicism. Chaput argues that a “kind of foggy worldliness has settled into the American Catholic soul.” We have lived a “practical atheism,” he argues: “paying lip service to God but living as if he didn’t exist.” He accuses American Catholic leaders of cultivating “a chronic optimism about the compatibility of American culture with Catholic faith and values.” In fact, what is happening is a “wholesale assimilation—absorption might be a better word—of Catholics by American culture”:

 [W]e preach as though we don’t have enemies . . . . [we] have ignored an unpleasant truth: that there are active, motivated groups in modern American society that bitterly resent the Catholic Church and the Christian Gospel, and would like to silence both. . . . We are in a struggle for the souls of our people and our country. We ignore this at our own peril. . . .we often face enormous counterpressures to stay silent; to compromise on matters of justice; to go along with fashionable opinion.

Chaput calls upon the witness of Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher, men who showed “heroic courage” and died for their faith:

What needs to be done by Catholics today for their country? The answer is: Don’t lie. If we say we’re Catholic, we need to prove it. America’s public life needs people willing to stand alone, without apologies, for the truth of the Catholic faith and the common human values it defends. One person can make a difference—if that individual has a faith he or she is willing to suffer for; a faith that can say, as Fisher did in greeting his executioner, “I come to die for the faith of Christ and Christ’s Catholic Church.”

America’s faithful Catholics today need to heed Chaput’s call for boldness, to stem the erosion within the Catholic Church of fidelity to the call of Christ and to the tenets of the Christian faith. The question faithful Catholics must face is whether they have the stamina to stand tall. In any case, the time for complacent Catholicism is over. It has ended in defeat.

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About Fr. Martin R. Tripole, SJ 0 Articles
Fr. Martin R. Tripole, SJ, is professor emeritus of theology, Saint Joseph's University, Philadelphia. He is the author of Church in Crisis: The Enlightenment and Its Impact upon Today's Church (CUA, 2012), and has published numerous essays and book reviews on theology, spirituality, and education. He has an S.T.D. from the Institut Catholique in Paris, France.