The Anti-Catholic Moment Print
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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