And I said that I think we don’t want to isolate ourselves from the rest of America by our strong views on abortion and other things. We need to be building bridges, not burning them. We’d be like the Amish, you know, kind of isolated, if we kept pulling back because of a single issue.An Archbishop
It is an important strength of the Roman Catholic Church that it is not a cult, despising the created order, rejecting on principle relations with the political regime in which it exists. Baptists, to cite a great American denomination, are at one with movements to keep church and state separate; it is no mistake that Jefferson’s wall of separation document was addressed to Connecticut Baptists.
You shall receive power after the Holy Ghost has come upon you, and you shall be witnesses unto me…unto the uttermost parts of the earth.Acts 1:8
Not so Catholics. From St. Paul through i Clement the advice of the apostles was to be good citizens, obey the emperor. And the Church found the inheritance of the Greeks only just less important than the legacy of the Jews.
Nevertheless, throughout the centuries during which the Church grew to dominate the culture, while coopting Greek philosophy it maintained a respectful distance from contemporary Roman culture and politics. The culture it denounced for what it was. The emperor, and here we are speaking of worthies like Caligula and Nero, it honored, asking only that the Church be left in peace. Apologies were politely addressed to the Emperor, but there were goals the Church could not share with the Empire or leave unaddressed. Justin Martyr, the first Christian apologist may have used language that borders upon sycophancy, but Justin was quick to warn the Emperors that they ought to clean up the stews of Roman culture. About its engagement with the world outside there was always the note St. Paul had struck when he asked rhetorically what he had to do with judging those outside.
Then came the centuries when there was nothing outside. From the fourth century to the nineteenth, the Catholic Church was not only willing to render unto Caesar what was his but was convinced that since Caesar was (or ought to be) a Catholic, in his moral and ethical life Caesar was a subject of the Church. For twelve centuries Roman Catholicism was embedded in the culture and for twelve centuries, while popes strove to keep the Church free, the Church tendered the gift of legitimacy to the kings of earth and presumed to tell them how they should behave and whom they might not marry.
Then came the sixteenth century and in protestant lands the Church became the creature of the state. This Catholicism never did, but, alas, it became captive of the cultures of the nascent royal nation states, first through suffering the depredations imposed by the absolute monarchs, Gallicanism in France, Josephinism in Austria, and in Germany the Falk Laws that drove away the religious sisters whose deaths were memorialized in Gerard Manley Hopkins “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”
And then came America, the great republic, not a Christian republic but a republic so full of Christians that their beliefs permeated custom and law. Then came the 1960s, and the elite public culture became hostile, not just to the Church, but to God.
How does one address the culture of this American empire? We are not in the position of the early Christian apologists who could count on the fact that their opponents were not for the most part atheists but believers in the gods and in the immortality of the soul.
In our situation, surrounded by apostates, the new ethical stance must be found. Rule out at the beginning the raucous attacks the archbishop decries. What is left? One can attack the structure of this world, denounce politicians, and in general make un-charitable scenes. Or one may choose the kind of engagement which the official American Church sometimes represents. Oppose abortion—after all it is easy to oppose abortion—ignore the background in which the abortion culture grows, which is artificial contraception, allow the conversion of the Gospel from its reality as union with Christ and hope of heaven into a project for alleviating secular difficulties–a move which secularists welcome—and get in line for cultural approval and government money.
This kind of engagement relies heavily upon the metaphor of the seamless garment, an image which trades shamelessly on the Gospel images. As an apologetic strategy it was the invention of, among others, Joseph Cardinal Bernadin, a great hero of the ecclesiastical left, whom the authority quoted in the epigraph greatly admires. Its apparent power is its ability to equate the secondary goods of this world, the relief of poverty, with the eternal goods of life with Christ and loyalty to Him. It is the mother of the sentimental religious atheism that marks American Christianity. It is erected in the face of the warning of Matthew 10:28 that we ought not fear those who can damage the body but the one who can cast body and soul into hell. The inconvenient truth is that we have come upon issues that necessarily divide, and positions so obviously alien to the natural law and to the mind of Christ that to assent to them is impossible.
Stephen L. Carter, the author of a well-written, well-intentioned book defending civility in a democracy, argues that democracy requires at times the commitment “to be guided by the moral opinions of others, even when we think they are wrong—one of the sacrifices we make for the sake of our fellow passengers. If we lose that commitment whether it is forgotten in the hurly burly of contemporary life or left behind in our mad rush toward self-fulfillment, we also lose the connections that bind us together in a single nation.” This is, at least in part, the archbishop’s point.
But in fact our differences are not caused by frenetic social conditions or selfishness but by principles rooted in nature and in God, and if we place the comity of the empire above our loyalty to Christ, we lose more than our connectedness as a nation. For we lose that clarity of soul that speaks truth and which might prompt reform. We are not in nineteenth-century England, where the pressing issue was the tariff on corn, or in the late-nineteenth-century West where the issue was the rapacity of railroads, but in an America in which the most pressing issues are not amenable to ordinary political compromise. There are now two radically different views of the meaning of human life. One could be described as life before death, the good life leading to nothing; the other as death before life, dying to self to live with God forever. The bridge of natural reason having been pretty well demolished as a common possession, there are few foundations from which compromise can arise. A great gulf is indeed fixed.
Alasdair McIntyre described the situation of the American Catholic, indeed of any believer in revealed truth, when he wrote: “When the relationship of government to the moral community is put in question both by the changed nature of government and the lack of moral consensus in the society, it becomes difficult any longer to have any clear, simple, and teachable conception of patriotism. Loyalty to my country, to my community—which remains unalterably a central virtue—becomes detached from obedience to the government which happens to rule me.”
We are now pretty well detached. Patriotism now has more to do with the representation of eternal truths embodied in the moral community than with loyalty to or even interest in the regime. It is certainly true that strident, fruitless opposition is less effective than quiet engagement through conversation, but at the end of the day what is called for is witness, and true witness will always seem to the world to bear the stamp of stubbornness, indeed, to name the deadliest of modern sins, of divisiveness. One of the great attempts at dialogue was made in 156 ad by Herod, not the Judean king but a police captain of the same name in the city of Smyrna. Captain Herod, obviously reluctant to take the blameless life of one greatly admired by a significant minority of the citizens, invited Polycarp into his carriage to discuss the advantages of Polycarp’s offering a small sacrifice. “What harm is there in saying Caesar is Lord, and offering incense? And, by the way,” Herod added, “saving yourself?” To this, Polycarp replied not with denunciations of the imperial government but simply, “I am not going to do what you counsel me.” One does not have to agree with either Luther’s theology or his politics to understand that his “Here I stand, I can do no other”—whether he said it or not—was a turning point in the making of a new world in one way. The willingness of every English bishop but one in the year 1532 to enter into dialogue with Henry viii made a new world in another way.