Catholic Fecklessness in the Public Square
By Lawrence P. Grayson
Catholics currently occupy more positions of influence in every sector of American society than at any time in the history of our country. Today, 25 U.S. Senators and 130 of the 435 members of the House of Representatives identify themselves as Catholics. A Catholic serves as Vice President, another as Speaker of the House of Representatives, six of the nine Justices of the Supreme Court are Catholic, and several Cabinet members claim Catholicism as their religion.
Coupled with these attainments in the political arena are the gains 68 million Catholic Americans have achieved in business, the professions, the media, education, and other areas of national life. With the degree of influence that follows from this preeminence, one would expect a national temperament that is compatible with Catholic teaching. Yet, our society is more anti-religious in its policies and laws, its views and attitudes, its behavior and inclinations than it has ever been.
America is plagued with abominations of abortion, cohabitation, same-sex marriage, dissolution of family life, destruction of embryonic stem cells, contraception, pornography, and a growing acceptance of assisted suicide and euthanasia. If professed Catholics truly practiced their faith, this would not be.
Archbishop John Ireland, a leading prelate of his day, in 1899, warned: “[I]f great things are not done by Catholics in America, the fault lies surely with themselves – not the republic.” Today, it is clear that Catholics are failing both the republic and themselves. They are forsaking the nation in not bringing the virtues taught by their religion to bear on issues of public concern. They are faithless to themselves because in their consuming drive for material success they are abandoning fundamental precepts of their religion.
Too many Catholics do not truly live according to their faith, even if they abide by obligatory devotions. Their professed beliefs do not affect their ideas, attitudes, decisions and actions, whether related to matters of public affairs, their drive for monetary success, tastes in entertainment, or the way they set priorities for living. In each of these instances, Catholics as a body are indistinguishable from the general populace. Only by ignoring what they say they believe could 54 percent of the Catholics who voted in the last Presidential election have cast their ballots for a candidate whose positions on abortion, gay marriage, and embryonic stem cell research are in direct opposition to that of the Catholic Church. Nor would the health care bill, which allows federal funding for elective abortion, have passed – symbolically, on Passion Sunday — if Catholic members of Congress had not ignored their bishops.
These people may attend an occasional Mass – only 23 percent attend weekly – but the rest of the time they live as if God does not exist. In pursuit of worldly prosperity, acclaim, or social acceptability, their behavior ceases to be regulated by the principles of their faith. They ignore and even deny the Church’s teachings, and have so compartmentalized their minds that they can say that they are personally opposed to an intrinsic evil, such as abortion, but would not deny others from engaging in it.
This attitude of misguided toleration treats religion as a matter of individual opinion. Nothing is held sacred, resulting in a national culture based on the lowest communal set of morals, made functional through laws and regulations. Religious beliefs are adapted to secular aims, rather than being used to shape societal practices. This frame of mind is appealing because it imposes no obligation on the individual to publicly live the faith, and does not interfere with one’s drive for material success.
The consequence is a divergence between what people profess to believe and how they act. While there are numerous examples of this aberration, it was vividly illustrated in a recent public exchange between Rep. Patrick Kennedy and his bishop, the Most Rev. Thomas Tobin of Providence, RI. The congressman, who has been a consistent and public supporter of abortion, stated, “The fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic.” Bishop Tobin responded, “[W]hen someone rejects the teachings of the Church, especially on a grave matter, a life-and-death issue like abortion, it certainly does diminish their ecclesial communion, their unity with the Church.”
If one does not live by the fixed, unchanging beliefs about God, man’s purpose in the world, how he should live his life, and his ultimate end that the Church has been teaching for over two thousand years, a claim to be Catholic is hollow.
T.S. Eliot, in The Idea of a Christian Society, wrote, “one cannot but suspect that many who call themselves Christians do not understand what the word means.” This certainly is true of Catholics today.
If people do not understand what the term Catholic, or even Christian, implies, how can they be expected to lead their lives by its precepts? What is required is a reinvigoration of the faith, a re-evangelization of the laity. They must be taught what it means to be Catholic, to understand the timeless truth of its doctrines, to develop the moral values and commitment to live in accord with the faith.
Clearly, the clergy have a primary role in this effort. The bishops as stewards of the faith must assure that the laity are appropriately educated and form proper consciences, so that they can lead lives in conformity with the faith. But the responsibility goes beyond the ordained clergy. It is the family that is the first and foremost teacher of the young. Parents must take this obligation seriously, improving their own knowledge and behavior so they can pass the faith to their children. And it is the duty of all of us as laity to take action, in our public and private lives, to change society for the better. It is only when Catholics – indeed all Christians — become well-informed in their faith and fully live by its beliefs that they can hope to change the secular world.
Will we, as a society and as individuals, fulfill our responsibilities? We must! If left unaddressed, the ignorance of the faith among the laity and their laxity in living it will continue to grow, and lead to an increasing exclusion of religion from public affairs and to a decline in the values that underlie this nation.
Lawrence P. Grayson is a Visiting Scholar in the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America, and writes a monthly column for the Knights of Columbus in Maryland.