Pope Benedict Shares Sober Remarks on American Culture with Local Bishops and Issues a Call to the Laity
On January 19, Pope Benedict addressed bishops from the District of Columbia, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia, the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, and the Virgin Islands. These U.S. bishops were in Rome for their periodic “ad limina” visits, which included meetings with the pope and Vatican officials, covering a wide range of pastoral matters.
His words provide some sober reflection for us. As is usually the case, I would like to provide excerpts of the Pope’s remarks from a CNS News Article and then present my own comments in red.
Pope Benedict XVI warned visiting U.S. bishops that “radical secularism” threatens the core values of American culture, and he called on the church in America, including politicians and other laypeople, to render “public moral witness” on crucial social issues.
This will call for greater courage and hard work than is evident in many clergy and laity in the Church today. Too often the instinct is to play it safe. And when we are outspoken it is only in the safety of like-minded family and friends. Public moral witness must begin with clergy but it cannot end there. Also public moral witness requires a deep commitment in terms of time and even money.
Increasingly for clergy, the pulpit cannot be a place for abstractions and generalities like “do good, avoid evil.” We have to speak clearly to the issues of our day and be willing to name them. Clear assessments like sin, mortal sin, hell, judgment, right, wrong, good, and evil, must once again find a place in our homilies. Further, we must name issues clearly, abortion, homosexual acts, fornication, contraception, neglect of the poor, greed, corruption and so forth. Ambiguity must give way to clarity. But clarity must also reflect charity. We are to speak the truth in love.
Parents too and every level of the laity must give clear moral witness to their children. Parents must be willing to raise and discipline their children and instruct them clearly in the faith and moral life. It is not enough to say what is taught, but good teaching must also address why. This takes courage and the sacrifice of time.
Catholics in general must be far more willing to enter the public square without apology or fear, and be willing to speak the truth in love. In so doing we must be willing to accept that we will be misquoted, misunderstood and ridiculed. We must accept that we will get it with both barrels and learn that, just because people are angry with us, does not mean we did anything wrong.
Opening with a dire assessment of the state of American society, the pope told the bishops that “powerful new cultural currents” have worn away the country’s traditional moral consensus, which was originally based on religious faith as well as ethical principles derived from natural law.
Yes, at only fifty years of age, I can remember a time when there was a general consensus on the basic moral issues. We had surely been wrong on race, but on most other matters there was a wide consensus that divorce, contraception, abortion, fornication, homosexual acts, disobedience and disrespect for authority by children, loud and obnoxious behavior, public lewdness, immodesty, and bad language were all wrong. I do not say we all lived these values perfectly in every way. But they were agreed upon benchmarks and were largely undisputed.
Moral consensus began to break down with the sexual revolution and anti-authority revolution of the late sixties. But that revolt was largely centered on the college campuses, and took a little longer to reach the suburbs. In short order however, we came to where we are today, largely devoid of wide consensus on the moral issues.
It is amazing how quickly the powerful cultural currents swept away the consensus and the religious practice that was at the heart of it. As I child I remember standing room only in the Churches. Now, there’s a lot of empty pews. It’s happened so fast. And yet not so fast that we cannot share some of the blame for our slow and rather inept response. While the world went crazy, the Church was largely inwardly focused, moving furniture, tuning guitars, and debating about authority and who could be ordained etc. While we squabbled, the West burned.
The cultural revolution happened on our watch and we share the blame.
Whether they claim the authority of science or democracy, the pope said, militant secularists seek to stifle the Church’s proclamation of these “unchanging moral truths.” Such a movement inevitably leads to the prevalence of “reductionist and totalitarian readings of the human person and the nature of society.” The pope drew an opposition between current “notions of freedom detached from moral truth” and Catholicism’s “rational perspective” on morality, founded on the conviction that the “cosmos is possessed of an inner logic accessible to human reasoning.” Using the “language” of natural law, he said, the Church should promote social justice by “proposing rational arguments in public square.”
Yes, the Pope has spoken before about the tyranny of relativism. For if there can be no appeal to reason, to shared values, and a reasonable sense of right and wrong, the only way to win through is not by an appeal to the intellect or heart, but, rather, by shouting the loudest, having the most political power and money. In a relativist setting one cannot appeal to reason to win an opponent, one must simply over-power them. This ushers in an increasing totalitarianism, where those with the most money, power and influence win.
The concept of natural law is dismissed and the beautiful and ancient appreciation that the cosmos is possessed of an inner logic accessible to human reason, which is meant to teach and guide us, is lost. Devoid of this common and agreed upon font, competing groups seek increasing to impose competing visions by the raw use of government power, rather than by an appeal to reason. Power and impostion, not truth or reason, is the basis of many modern secular movements.
In effect, the Pope advises that we must simply stay the course and continue to appeal to natural law and propose rational arguments in the public square. While I do not disagree with the Pope, I might add that we are bound to experience some futility in this approach, if we are not willing to engage in some serious prayer and fasting, begging for a miracle, that the rock hard soil of this culture will finally soften to accept the seed of the word. Arguments, though multiplied in number, have proven ineffective in these unreasonable and stubborn times. Prayer, fasting and the witness of changed and transformed lives, has simply got to take a higher priority for the Church.
Coming at the start of an election year, Pope Benedict’s words were clearly relevant to American politics, a connection he made explicit by mentioning threats to “that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion.” In response to such threats, Pope Benedict said, the church requires an “engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity” with the courage and critical skills to articulate the “Christian vision of man and society.” He said that the education of Catholic laypeople is essential to the “New Evangelization,” an initiative that he has made a priority of his pontificate.
OK, pay attention. The Pope is saying the laity are key, for it is to the Laity that the transformation of the temporal order is entrusted. It’s easy to criticize bishops and clergy, and lots of ink has been spilled right here at this blog of how the bishop’s botch this or that, or have the wrong priorities, or have done enough, or haven’t said enough, etc., etc. Fine, but where are the laity? Well, they’re probably in a sanctuary somewhere distributing communion. The fact is that we have done a terrible job in ushering in a chief aspect of the Vision of the Second Vatican Council: that of bringing forth strong lay leadership specifically focused on the renewal of the temporal order. It’s just so easy to say, “Father ought to do/say something” or “The Bishop’s aren’t doing enough.” But in the end, nothing prevents the lay faithful from organizing and marching forth as leaven in this sickened culture. It is true that the laity should receive formation, and must stick to Catholic principles to retain the name “Catholic.” But, and I’ll just say it plain, there’s too much pew sitting going on. Saying “The bishops should do this or say that” too easily amounts to a cop out.
I’ll boast a little and say that in my parish we are intentional about training lay leaders to engage the temporal order. And I’ve got some good folks stepping up to engage the city around affordable housing, job creation, budget priorities, neighborhood reinvestment, corporate welfare and crony-capitalism where the baseball owners and convention center gets 100 million subsidy and neighborhood reinvestment gets cut to zero.
I know some of you will say, “Gee Father, sounds fairly left-wing.” OK but here comes the challenge. Where’s the “right-wing” version of this? The “left” has been doing this kind of work for decades. But what of the right? OK, there’s the March for Life, and we, in my parish, send folks and pass out the literature, and do 40 Days for life. But what else? Where were the trained leaders and organization on the “right” when it came time to oppose Gay marriage in DC? The diocese sent me down to preach on the dais at an emergency rally in opposition to the Gay Marriage Ammendment. And frankly, except for a few parishioners who graciously accompanied me at the last minute, I was all by myself. There were no Catholic organizations that showed up for the large rally. OK, I know, it’s all the clergy’s fault. “If only Father had said something at Mass…” But honestly the large group that gathered there didn’t depend on a pulpit announcement. They were part of a network of Black Protestant Churches connected by e-mail and old fashioned phone calls and they had been organized and were following the issue. Where is the Catholic equivalent of this standing army? We do reasonably well with pro-life, but we are poor when it comes to the other cultural issues.
And believe me, more is needed than to go down and shake signs in front of the state capital on a given night and go home. It requires daily work, lay people coming together meeting with legislators, and crafting legislation on cultural matters. There must be the forming of “think tanks” to inform and influence the culture, publish position papers, build political and social power and influence, file amicus briefs, and even inform and seek to influence the bishops where necessary and inspire action. But where is all this? About the only thing I can think of is the Catholic League, and their out there! But so much more is needed.
It’s so easy to blame the bishops and sneer at the “useless” clergy (as one on my readers recently opined). But really what is the game plan folks? The laity don’t have to wait for the clergy to found something or start it. The renewal of the temporal order is the primary work of the laity.
For the record, I am trying to bring some more conservative folks I know together, and jump start a kind of Catholic think tank devoted to public policy, a kind of more local Washington-based group devoted to the moral and cultural issues as well as the social ones. But honestly it shouldn’t have to wait for a clergyman to start it. My hope it to jump start things and then step back, for the temporal order belongs to the laity.
Do you see what the Pope is saying? We have a battle on our hands and troops are needed. If you find a good fight, get in it! This is a good fight, a fight for the Lord and for the health and future of our culture which we love and want to see restored.
Now let’s see if the combox fills up with complaints about clergy and the endless debate about what to do with Pro-Abort Politicians, or if there will be soldiers with ideas and visions ready to step up for battle and restore the temporal order for the Lord.
Sorry to be a little tough, dear readers, but, as you might notice, I’m trying to pivot the conversation away a bit from the usual focus: There’s plenty to criticize the clergy for, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel, but let’s not forget the essential role of the laity. What’s already going out there that’s good? What can be built on? What needs to be started? Who is willing to begin?