The Catholic Thing
The Anti-Catholic Moment Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Thursday, 08 September 2011

In 1990, our late friend Fr. Richard John Neuhaus published The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World. His central thesis – surprising in someone then still a Lutheran pastor – was that given the apostasy of mainline Protestantism, the intellectual poverty of evangelicalism, and the sheer inadequacy of secularism, renascent Catholicism under John Paul II: 1) is the single most important bearer of Christian belief and behavior in the world; and 2) should assume “its rightful role in the culture-forming task of constructing a religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty.”

The first task was far more important, of course, than the second, which depends on firm religious grounds. But modern Catholic social principles such as solidarity, subsidiarity, and the common good, and Catholicism’s rich view of the human person, might save a wobbling political order from its own self-destructiveness. Indeed, Neuhaus claimed that non-believers could not really be good citizens because they cannot give a coherent account of our freedoms and why governments should respect them.

Appearances aside, he was simply right, even in his judgment that it was the “moment” for Catholicism. But that moment, as usual, encountered heavy weather. Indeed, even in newly freed Poland in the early 1990s, resistance arose to the JPII’s vision of human dignity as rooted in being made in the image of God and the true nature of freedom. Principles that had worked quite well against an Enlightenment contraption like Communism had a hard time getting a grip on postmodern cultursmog.

Twenty-one years later, however, despite leadership by one of the moral giants of the twentieth century and, in Benedict XVI one of the most brilliant holy men to become pope, we are at what might be fairly called the anti-Catholic moment. That moment consists of the profound continuing need for Catholicity, but perhaps the lowest influence of and respect towards the Church in recent decades. It has several moving parts that must be distinguished.

Catholicism, like any large human institution, can make spectacular gaffes: The lack of vetting of an SSPX bishop with ties to anti-Semitism; the failure to deal with sexually predatory clergy; even near terminal clumsiness in explaining its own beliefs.

The sex-abuse crisis really hurt, but even that does not drive the anti-Catholic moment, which is always most deeply rooted in simple unbelief. In our time, developed societies have simply adopted a default creed: that freedom consists in radical autonomy and happiness results from untutored choice.

                Fr. Neuhaus: the Church must have a role in defining ordered liberty.

No Catholic effort has made much headway against that. Paul Johnson once observed, however, that the Church operates, not according to fashions, but geologic time. Besides, believers tend to have children, non-believers less so. There may be a demographic solution not far ahead.

Most Catholics and other Christians regard views contrary to Christian faith and morals as deliberately anti-Christian. They may be. But many of our contemporaries are mis- or un- educated from too much time in government-run schools. They may have heard about Crusades or Inquisitions or the Galileo case – and learned nothing else of real Christian history. They’re innocents, though often annoying nevertheless.

There are more sinister characters. But here, too, distinctions are in order. The militant anti-Christians – the Richard Dawkins-Christopher Hitchens-Sam Harris co-operative, so to speak – actually make arguments. But once they step onto the field of rationality, Catholics are playing on their home field because all reason is ultimately rooted in the Logos. The debate may be long and more than a little wearisome, but seek the truth and you may stumble on the Truth.

Take the absurd argument that science finds no evidence of God. Quite true. The absurdity lies in thinking that God is an object like others in Creation.  He isn’t, at least not the Christian God. He transcends and is the source and sustainer of the universe and of human freedom and dignity in ways that no object could be. A god who is part of the universe is a Venus, Mars, or Apollo – who still have their unwitting worshippers.

It’s not as important that every Christian can make such arguments as that the general body of Christians believe that reliable people have made them and they can be made. Right now, most Christians don’t have such confidence because few have any exposure to it even in their own churches or schools.

Which brings us to anti-Catholics proper, the ones who not only oppose Christian belief, but want to destroy it. They’re fewer than might be imagined. They pursue legal means (popular politics fail) to declare God in the public square as un-American, and therefore institutions like Catholic schools and hospitals and churches have to be placed behind a legal cordon sanitaire.

Sorry Founding Fathers. And in Europe, sorry you Christian Democrats – Maritain, Adenauer, Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gasperi – who were the driving force behind the European Union.

So: What is to be done?

First, Christians cannot give up – on anything. We’re in a peculiar cultural moment; our material level remains quite high (for the moment), but we’re in a cultural Dark Age. With cell phones. So maybe it won’t last as long.

Second, the long haul does not mean there can’t be large public successes. Most progress will take place quietly in families and schools, churches and associations. But as we saw in the collapse of the Soviet Union, large, sudden, and surprising graces still manifest themselves.

Finally, as Fr. Neuhaus often said, a Christian shouldn’t be optimistic – only hopeful in the full theological sense. We know all things have limits, especially the things that are Caesar’s – a lesson even Christians forgot for a while.

But the Catholic moment, which is really every moment since God is the Lord of History, means always being ready to engage everything from life within families to the nation to the international order. A long and difficult challenge, to be sure, but the one to which we, today, have been called.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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Comments (14)Add Comment
written by Brennan, September 08, 2011
It's always seemed to me that the true "Catholic moment" of the last century was just prior to Vatican II. While certainly not perfect, the Church had a large number of vocations and conversions and generally Catholics at least practiced their Faith.

Then came Vatican II where we decided to go ahead and either radically alter or jettison almost every distinctive mode of Catholic worship and practice and replace it with what? The resulting disaster should not have been difficult to predict.

I know, I know, it's really all the secular world's fault. Keep believing that and we are still far from much of any solution. But God bless Pope Benedict, he at least seems to understand the magnitude of the problem and is taking steps to rectify it.
written by SJM, September 08, 2011
It is more important than ever for Catholics with "orthodox" views (those who believe in the teachings of the Church) to come together for support. The internet has certainly made it easier for people of like values and beliefs to at least know there are others who believe similarly.

However, I think it is also important to have the opportunity to meet in person with others to be able to explore our faith more deeply. Many of us are not academics but read extensively and would like the opportunity to have a discussion group with like-minded people.

We are new to our community and parish in RI. At daily Mass, whenever I see someone with a Magnificat, I think that that person just may be interested in such a group. Not all areas have access to opportunities to discuss things other than "Catholic Lite".

There is much to be done in the Catholic community. People such as myself, who spent years in the business world as a "catholic", finally "get it" and have become real Catholics, with the grace of God. Unfortunately, most of our friends were also secular-minded and most have not yet made the transition to a true appreciation and understanding of their faith. One really needs to be an apologist to be able to deal with their dogmatic support of secularism, agnosticism, and atheism.

Thank you so very much for "The Catholic Thing"- it is a true blessing every day - and a beacon of hope!
written by Manfred, September 08, 2011
"The lack of vetting of an SSPX bishop with ties to anti-semitism; the failure to deal with sexually predatory clergy; even near terminal clumsiness in explaining its own beliefs." A sexually predatory clergy without any episcopal control which has cost the American church $3 billion, a new religion with a new Mass which buried the Tridentine Mass as well as Thomism, apologetics and belief in Hell, and your sequence, Dr. Royal, of the ills in the Church begins with a lunatic bishop who may or not be an anti-semite? Why not begin with the new Mass (is it truly?) which has had three "translations" in forty years? Many in the church (sic) are objecting to the liturgy to come out at Advent and are refusing to say it. The new Mass has had a cloud over it since it was introduced and any thinkers knew it was a tinny sop to Protestants.
written by Joe K, September 08, 2011
With all due respect Manfred, the picture is bigger than the fact that irrelevant ideologies are slowly drifting into obscurity. Holy Mother Church is in need of great saints in every walk of life to glorify God and enlighten the world. I think that the message is more that the "good fight" is what good Catholics do best. I know a rallying cry when I hear one.

Christ has overcome the world and to serve Him in truth is to reign with Him. All Catholics have to do this if we are to see improvement in the world. And if you want to see where Thomism and the Carolingian-Gregorian Mass is still strong and powerful look to the Institute of Christ the King and the Sapientis Institute.
written by Manfred, September 08, 2011
Thank you for the last sentence of your reply, Joe K. Just as Jesus brought Lazarus out of the tomb, so did Abp. Lefebvre of the SSPX (and its offshoot, the FSSP) bring the Tridentine Mass out of its tomb. You see, it was abrogated until B XVI "unabrogated" it and he will use this as the Tool with which to reconvert the Church. The reason many modern Catholics despise the EF Mass is its return was forecast forty years ago when the OF Mass was introduced.
written by W.E., September 08, 2011
Reading Joseph Pearce's Literary Converts, I am struck by the similarities between the early decades of each of the last 2 centuries (21st and 20th). I think Neuhaus was dead on the money, but the abuse crisis killed its realization. In a crisis about deviant sexuality, the Church sadly gave a sex obsessed world a hammer with which to crush the " moment " before it could even begin to take off.
written by Aeneas, September 09, 2011
From the title I surmised this was going to be a rather dim or straight out depressing piece...far from it! It was quite inspiring! Thanks Mr. Royal!
written by Shan Gill, September 09, 2011
Well said, Mr. Robert Royal. And Fr. Neuhaus always provided a grand read, too.
written by fred, September 09, 2011
I am in no way connected to anyone in the SSPX, and I've got to say that your observation "...spectacular gaffes: The lack of vetting of an SSPX bishop with ties to anti-Semitism...." makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. The Holy See never approved that man for ordination, it merely lifted the Canonical penalty of excommunication from him. Is a man to be denied communion with Christ's Church because some of his political opinions are unsavory? Or because he is embarassing to the Church in a media world? Keep yor eye on savings souls, as the Holy See clearly did in this case.
written by senex, September 09, 2011
Before charging off to ‘do’, we should first clearly determine what the problem is and who is the problem. In current Catholicism have we really thought through where we want to end up and what the impediments are that are holding us back? Many of the comments offer partial solutions, some to only ephemeral issues. From my perspective the main obstacle to implementing the type of Catholicism Mr. Royal longs for is the confusion in what we are to believe and do. Until Rome cracks down on dissident teaching by bishops, priests, theologians and other academic illuminati, we won’t know what to believe and do. St. Paul said as much when he reminded us that ‘If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself for battle?”
written by Graham Combs, September 09, 2011
This is the second time that I've read in recent weeks that the Founders are somehow at fault here or at least the moral equivalents of dictators, kings and queens, the House of Commons, or politicians from the American South. It isn't clearly explained above. At least not to me. Nor was it in remarks made by the Archbishop of Los Angeles at the Napa Institute. As I read Catholic history (and ongoing self-education since the Church doesn't seem much interested in it), the Church has too often drifted from its Commission by being far too close and "accepted" by rulers and governments. I voted for Pres. Bush, but the faith-based initiative was always problematic. How is the First Amendment in all its dimensions the enemy of the Church? Hasn't it, until recently, afforded the Church a productive and ordered liberty rarely present elsewhere (especially in so-called "Catholic countries")? Is there a wariness in the Church, a kind of anglophobia, toward English-speaking Catholics? (John Allen reports something very like that.) Of course I speak as a former Anglican, and worse, an American of Scots-Irish Southern and English descent. Perhaps not a natural candidate for conversion to the Church I love. A prodigal stranger rather than a prodigal son. What the Constitution (admittedly now as under attack as the Church) cannot give us as Catholics is the courage to confront the culture or live the Faith. I meet too many Catholics who redact Church teachings on sex, on the Sacrament of Marriage, on the sanctity of human life, and even my naive practice of calling myself "Catholic" rather than "Catholic Christian" (whatever THAT means). There is no greater admirer of the late Fr. Neuhaus. I remain forever grateful that -- unaware of his declining health -- I emailed him with my gratitude for his writings, for First Things, and for his long-distance pastoral work that contributed mightily to my conversion. I can tell you that when I read that he had passed away, I cried as I sat at my computer. But I do somehow get the impression that despite the righteous call to be a Catholic first, the Church is involved more in politics than in offering something more than an "alternative" to the culture. When will the Church require that pro-life Catholic polticians confront pro-choice unions? When will priests and bishops remind ALL of the faithful that they cannot vote for pro-choice politicians no matter how "pro-immigration" or active in "civil rights" (again, whatever these labels means) they may be. I once said to another Catholic that if William Wilberforce had been Catholic (as his sons would become) rather than Anglican, that he would today be "Blessed William Wilberforce." Now I"m not so sure.
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, September 10, 2011
When Fr Neuhaus calls on the Church “to assume its rightful role in the culture-forming task of constructing a religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty,” I am reminded of Leo XIII’s exhortation to French Catholics: ”When the will of a people as to the form of its government has been clearly affirmed, frank and loyal acceptance of its political institutions; respect for the laws of the country whenever they do not clash with conscientious obligations; respect for the representatives of authority, combined with steady resistance to all encroachments on the spiritual domain.”

Alas! That advice was not heeded; most of the clergy continued to proclaim the sacred and indissoluble union of throne and altar and, in doing so, alienated the mass of their fellow-citizens and marginalised the Church in the life of the nation.

As a European, I hope that American Catholics do not place themselves in the same invidious position.
written by Henry, September 12, 2011
SJM - I agree and am willing to dialogue via Skype or e-mail since I live in NYC. Write to me if you are interested - Bklyn [dot] Henry @
written by midwestlady, September 18, 2012
There are a lot of truisms in here that are no longer the case. For instance,"believers" either are far more scarce than the Catholic Church believes, or "believers" no longer have more children than "non-believers." One or the other, but not both, must be true for the statements of this article on this topic to be accurate. And in fact, the facts show that Catholics on average contracept at just about the same rates as non-Catholics, which lends support to b) and says nothing to a) except that it may also be logically possible.

There may actually have been a Catholic moment. Such a thing would actually have been a plausible assertion toward the end of the reign of Pope John Paul II, when goodwill towards the Church was very high. However, if there was a Catholic moment, the Church had already undermined it before it ever had a chance to blossom. This, because even during the 90s, underneath it all was a simmering child abuse crisis and a half dozen other unattended-to crises to go with it.

There is one thing that the article is correct about: We are definitely at an anti-Catholic moment now. And it's not getting better. We need to stop and do a completely novel thing as Catholics: THINK before we react. A little genuine analysis and planning might be a good thing too. For one thing, it couldn't hurt and for another, it would be shocking to our detractors because we've so seldom behaved that way before. We usually just react, right into their hands.

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