My Fellow Fanatics

If we wanted to put today’s question in the respectful, multiculturally sensitive form it often gets in the mainstream press, it might go something like: Are Catholics callous fanatics? Do we only care about esoteric moral questions and neglect obvious ways of helping our neighbor?

Before you start laughing, take a second to look at the proposition squarely. Suppose you were a secularist hanging around with like-minded people. The only time you’d hear anything about Catholics, or Christianity, is when a culture war issue erupts, like abortion or gay marriage, or the priestly abuse scandal. The countercultural message on the first two looks connected, in our sex-obsessed world, to the last one.

If you haven’t take the trouble to learn otherwise – and who does these days? – you’d think that these are all indications of hopeless Catholic stick-in-the-mud Puritanism and its evil predatory offspring.

It was not always like this – even a short time ago. Until about 1965, there was great curiosity about serious Catholic thought and many spectacular conversions, even in Protestant America. Jacques Maritain taught at Princeton and the University of Chicago, Etienne Gilson at the University of Virginia and Harvard, where Christopher Dawson also lectured. Just to pick a few well know converts, you get: Thomas Merton, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Dave Brubeck, Marshall MacLuhan, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy, Clare Booth Luce here, and Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Alec Guiness, and Malcolm Muggeridge in England. This almost random list indicates a wide range of temperaments and talents that found something in Catholicism that Anglo-Protestant culture did not give.

The curious things about these conversions is not only that they have slowed, but that in a little over a generation our public culture has forgotten about them and the rich 2000-year-old culture that led to them. It’s as if the whole phenomenon disappeared down a Communist memory hole, without a Communist regime airbrushing the history.

But I digress, though with a purpose. The starting point for these reflections was a letter by New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan to the Times yesterday, commending columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, who noted the good work that Evangelicals and Catholics do in poor relief around the world. The good archbishop felt moved, however, to correct Kristof’s false contentions that 1) the Vatican’s “hostility to condoms contributes to the AIDS epidemic,” and 2) that we are “obsessed” with “fetuses,” which Dolan rightly pointed out we call children.

The letter and the original column are well worth reading. As is our own Matt Hanley’s past column about why the pope was right, in public health terms, to warn about relying on condoms to stop AIDS. But Mr. Kristoff’s errors about Catholics and Evangelicals begin further back.

He purports to have encountered something new among evangelicals that a certain kind of secularist holds as a dogma: that Christians with conservative moral principles have been blind to social questions like poverty, health care, and justice. When they awake from their dogmatic slumbers, in the usual media conversion story, they get “liberal” religion.

This is what comes of living among political liberals who don’t know much about churches. If your parish is like most, you probably have all kinds of outreach efforts to the poor and marginalized in your immediate community and elsewhere. And you talk with fellow parishioners about the merits of various local and national political questions.

Mr. Kristoff has to stick with what he’s seen in his own world. And – can you believe? – he’s discovered that the evangelical World Vision International is the largest U.S.-based provider of international relief. His dewy-eyed discovery is a good thing, since World Vision does great work – though the reality he just “discovered” has actually been well-known among people who follow such things for decades. The evangelicals he cites who have just discovered such questions in their own communities are a minority even there.

Our American Catholic Relief Services operates on a comparable scale and, when you add in the various foreign Catholic agencies, is part of the single largest network of aid to the poor, the sick, the victims of disasters in the world. More importantly, Christian agencies are not merely international ambulance chasers. They already have long histories in places like Haiti and Chile and Africa when crises occur, and will be there over the long haul.

That is why secular governments like our own trust Christian agencies with large funds for relief work. Only the United States military can do the heavy lift needed when there’s a disaster like a tsunami or massive earthquake. We get little credit, but U.S. military people are used to it and shrug it off. Christian relief agencies are similarly dissed and subjected to political slander. But who else does what they alone do? No disrespect to the George Clooneys and Leonardo DiCaprios, and the rock stars singing “We Are the World.” The help is welcome. But when they are back on the movie sets and the concert tours, the church people remain.

The church people were in the field long before the creation of the United Nations and other international bodies, though almost no one remembers it now. When their international work is remembered, it is miscast as cultural imperialism or improper proselytizing. But they will be in place long after East and West, North and South have changed radically, and turned to completely different international relationships, precisely for religious reasons.

We should honor and support them generously. And one way to do that is to be well enough informed about what the Church has been doing over centuries to be able to say, no, you’re wrong. We’re about more than hot button issues, though we have good arguments about those, too. In fact, those express part of the really deep love we have for others, which you claim to admire so much. You ought to look into it more carefully. You’ll be surprised what you discover.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.