It’s been a bit of a wild week. Readers have swamped me with emails helpfully informing me that Harry Potter is the devil (time will tell), that Cardinal Dolan is the devil (don’t think so), that Pope Francis is the devil (really?!), and, in the case of one intrepid reader, that Pope Emeritus Benedict is, in fact, actually the devil. If the point of Christianity were to uncover devils, I am now persuaded that no devil would go undetected – though the abundance of false alarms would serve as marvelous cover. But uncovering the devil is not the point of Christianity.
I will stick to less obviously controversial topics this week. Not because I am cowed by controversy, but because I really need to catch up on responding to the abundance of emails in my box before I go setting off a new round.
I waded boldly into controversial waters for a few reasons. First, to underscore the value of being candid. I take that cue from Job, who was rigorously denounced by his friends for speaking boldly things that were contrary to the conventional wisdom about God at the time – and who was later confirmed by God while His friends who denounced him were, themselves, denounced by God. This is not to say that every cockamamie idea that comes into our head is godly, but that God can’t work with us if we are only engaged with a preconception of Him rather than speaking honestly about what is in our hearts. Second, I wanted to demonstrate the difference between fraternal dispute and fratricidal dispute – especially seeing that the latter is about all our culture knows these days. Properly ordered, dispute is not so much about proving who is right as it is about burning away what is dross and finding truth – approaching the Throne – together. So I try to set up some topics we can discuss with vigor and candor but without malice.
The articles on New York’s Cardinal Tim Dolan set off more fireworks than anything else this last week. Impressive, particularly when Harry Potter was a subject of conversation as well.
People in the pews are legitimately frustrated. There are too many Sundays when I have listened to downright heretical homilies – some intentionally so. When outright heresy, such as that there was no real resurrection – only a resurrection “event” – is not preached, the homilies more often resemble an encounter with Oprah than an encounter with the living God. People who are giving of their time for the cause of life, working in the trenches, grow weary and disheartened when they never hear a pro-life homily, when they never hear the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist preached, and when they rarely hear the fundamentals of the faith proclaimed. It is understandable that when the leaders do not speak with clarity and conviction, the faithful are disheartened – and much more likely to look at leaders with suspicion and resentment, particularly when those leaders try to navigate with diplomacy in a hostile culture. The problem is aggravated if the leaders deal with difficult situations in a clumsy manner.
Simultaneously, Bishops and Priests who do try to defend the faith vigorously in that hostile climate – while also trying to balance that with their duty to reach out evangelically to those not of the faith, grow frustrated that they are constantly besieged by opponents of the faith – but also that they are rarely credited for the good work they do, but immediately set upon and attacked by the most intensely faithful for any hint of clumsiness or softness when dealing with outsiders. They don’t want to adopt a Pharisaical approach of constant condemnation and heresy patrol because…well…that didn’t work out so well for the Pharisees – and nothing seemed to get Our Founder more openly angry than that approach. So often a lukewarm approach seems the most safe to them, even as it incubates more suspicion and distrust.
So the first issue we have to heal as difficult times surround us is the breach – the lack of trust that has grown up between shepherds and the flocks. We need an army now. Like all armies, the faithful will not march to the sound of an uncertain trumpet. We need to have confidence that the faith is being earnestly and boldly proclaimed. The shepherds have the duty of both heartening the faithful and effectively evangelizing those who are indifferent or hostile to the faith. That’s a tough job. If you are a shepherd, you really need faithful folks who are out proclaiming the same rather than just acting as if they are judges at a gymnasts meet – waiting to see what you do and then holding up a rating card.
This will be a regular subject of these columns, but for today I will be content to simply define the problem in a way that may generate thought – and suggest an approach to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York that I have come up with after donning my political consultant’s hat for a few days:
First, you have to think clearly about who the antagonists are and what their primary and ancillary goals are. On the “progressive” (actually, regressive, but that for another day) side are the advocates of state supremacy. Whether they come under the guise of aggressive homosexual advocates, aggressive advocates of forcing people to violate their consciences by paying for others birth control or abortions, or trying to punish free speech or conscience, they are all components of a single demand for supremacy. They are fundamentally intolerant: their goal is to marginalize and ultimately criminalize any dissent from the cult of state supremacy. Christianity is their greatest enemy and obstacle – the lesson of the fall of Soviet-style communism is not lost on them. Their primary goal is to drive Christianity from the public square entirely. While relentlessly pressing for that, they count as victory anything that marginalizes or causes significant dissension within Christianity.
The goals of the Christian leaders and faithful are more complex and difficult. First is to evangelize, to proclaim the Gospel message with clarity and conviction. Second is to proclaim it in a charitable way so that any of good will may be inclined to examine the Church’s claims more deeply and, perchance, be reconciled or converted. Third is to insist upon our claim of freedom in the public square.
In any hostile dispute, one wants to deny the aggressor victory on any of its primary goals – for failure to do so invites more attacks. Historically, I have not been satisfied with merely successfully defending turf. When that is all you accomplish, then the attacks cost little for the attackers, who can retreat whenever it gets rough – but progressively grind down the defenders. I like to turn things so that the act of attacking is costly, that it stings the attackers and creates damage in their ranks.
That being the case, my first guidepost would be that under no circumstances do we withdraw from the parade. That is to cede ground voluntarily while giving the aggressors victory on their primary objective. So I would insist on being in, and in fact, continuing to lead the parade. But my press release would have a couple of twists in it. It would read something like this:
“We recognize that New York is home to a multitude of people, people of many different faiths, many different ethnic heritages, and many different outlooks on the world. We recognize that, even inside our faith, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of the Lord. So we welcome all of good will to this parade, including the poor sinners both in and out of our faith, for it has truly become a citywide celebration.
“It is an entirely different thing, though, to be a poor sinner marching in a parade and to publicly advocate for and celebrate what both we, and St. Patrick, whose name the parade bears, consider intrinsically disordered sin. We believe that a sinner who falls, even often, can and is often forgiven by the merciful Christ. But he who teaches that sin is no sin at all and is, in fact, a positive good, endangers their own soul in a mortal way and seduces others into spiritual danger. The presence of such a group in this parade is an offense both to all Christians and to the memory of St. Patrick.
“Despite the name of the parade, we do not control who marches in it. That is left to a secular parade authority. So our only decision is whether to walk in a parade dedicated to St. Patrick in which those who want to aggressively mock the memory of St. Patrick are included or whether to withdraw from the parade, lest we be seen as participating in a desecration.
“Those who are the authors of this offense claim to do it in the name of tolerance. This is worth serious consideration. Christianity literally innovated the idea of treating all with tolerance – with respect for the individual conscience. We teach that we do not need to share the same faith to occupy the public square together or, in fact, to be friends with people of other faiths and beliefs. In recent years, aggressive advocates have used the coercive power of the state to punish and fine those whose Christian faith does not allow them to celebrate or endorse what they consider sin. Small businesses, such as bakers, photographers and wedding planners have been fined or forced out of business because they would not participate in such a celebration.
“If we sought to get the state to punish and fine all who did not attend Sunday Mass in violation of their conscience, we would be guilty of coercing others and violating their freedom of conscience. We believe in tolerance, to spread our faith through persuasion while defending others right to express their conscience in the public square as freely as we insist on expressing ours in that same public square. Now, an aggressive group of advocates are trying to end that mutual tolerance. Unsatisfied with trying to win converts through persuasion, they seek to enforce approval through the coercive power of the state. We do not believe that most homosexuals support that coercive agenda – that in fact, their more limited cause has been hijacked by people who want to push people of faith from the public square while enforcing a uniformity of conscience on all – punishing with fines and threats of financial loss any who deviate from what advocates proscribe as the only governmentally approved opinion.
” We have decided that we will not abandon St. Patrick’s memory because people who should have been defending him have invited those who would desecrate his memory to use the parade as a platform to drive Christians from the public square and enforce a uniformity of conscience on all. But we do recognize a need for a new commitment to tolerance – and to defend the rights and provide for the needs of those whose right of conscience is under attack.
“Therefore, leading up to the parade, we will apply ourselves to the formation of the St. Maria Goretti Foundation to support all whose conscience is under assault through the coercion of the state or attack from private, but aggressive, advocates. As we develop a board for the Goretti Foundation, we will seek to raise money to help those families whose small businesses are under assault because they will not participate in celebrations of what violates their conscience, nor participate or pay for others in the execution and disposal of the unborn. Further, we will recruit prominent lawyers, both to defend against such assaults and to file suit for damages against those public officials, personally and in their public roles, who ignore the Constitutional and inalienable rights of all men to freedom of conscience and religious liberty. We hope to honor St. Patrick by standing with him in this parade and igniting a new birth of liberty in which we are all free to try to persuade each other, but none are free to force each other or to hijack the coercive power of the state to crush people’s right of conscience.”
Understand, this is raw. It is the sort of thing I would take to a first meeting of those involved in such a controversy and would go through numerous revisions. The things I would press for throughout are that:
1) We clearly state our position on the issue.
2) We equally clearly state our commitment to the pluralistic freedom that is a hallmark of American liberty – and insist that it apply to all.
3) We do not retreat one inch from the public square.
4) We recruit solid people to establish the Goretti Foundation as both good in itself and to establish the point that every time aggressors mount a public assault, it will come at serious cost.
I might lose some points in the formation of such an approach – but this is only one battle. I have often conceded a few points in such meetings only to have them fully adopted in later battles. The key is to not get caught up in recriminations over who is right, but to advocate for a clarity of position, recognizing that we all are trying to do justice to this cause.
I am constantly surprised at some of the countries that have people checking in on this website. Of late, a small contingent in Saudi Arabia has started checking in. At this point, the only major country that is not represented among readers is China. Of course they control access to the internet in China – and I guess this would definitely NOT be an approved site there. I am somewhat bemused now to see that people in some countries are using a translating service to get to the site. Alas, I can’t see which languages it is being translated into.
When I lived in the Chicago area, I loved going down to St. Mary of the Angels Parish in the Bucktown neighborhood each year for the Novena series of reflections leading up to the Feast of the Immaculate Conception each Advent. At one such evening, Rockford Bishop Thomas Doran (now Bishop Emeritus) gave the best explanation of what original sin is that I have ever heard.
He noted that people often ask Christians how innocent babies could be guilty of any kind of sin. Doran said that is to misunderstand what original sin is. God originally made us part of a royal lineage, he noted. Through the rebellion of Adam and Eve, seduced by satan, a sort of coup happened which overthrew us from that royal heritage. The descendants of Adam and Eve, though not at fault for that rebellion, are profoundly affected by the loss the coup entailed. Baptism restores us to the royal lineage God made us for and reclaims what was lost. Original sin is that original coup – and even the most innocent are affected by what was lost through no act of theirs. Baptism restores to us what we were deprived of by Original Sin.
Striking, simple and elegant. I thought some of you might enjoy this explanation as much as I did.