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If you’re an intellectual in a city like Charlotte, North Carolina, and politically progressive, you’re a follower. Journalist, college professor, city planner, politician, or bohemian – you truly wish to be elsewhere. Only in cities like Boston, New York, Portland, Seattle, or San Francisco will you find, you believe, your proper place.

In your mind, cities like Charlotte, where I have lived for nearly twenty years, are places of exile that are tolerable only if you work to transform them into reflections of cities you admire. I know this is true, even if many deny it, because for much of my life I held such views. And like my colleagues, I never examined them.

So it did not surprise me when a local columnist recently called Catholics who follow the Church on issues such as contraception, homosexuality, and same-sex marriage “obedient sheep.” He used this term after quoting a dissenter, Marco Cipolletti, the head of the Diocesan Ministry for Gay and Lesbian Catholics at St. Peter’s, a liberal Jesuit parish in downtown Charlotte.

Ironically, St. Ignatius – the founder of the Jesuits – taught in his Spiritual Exercises: “We must put aside all judgement of our own, and keep the mind ever ready and prompt to obey in all things the true Spouse of Christ our Lord, our holy Mother, the hierarchical Church.”

St. Ignatius knew that a 2000-year-old institution like the Catholic Church might just know a bit more than we do. But of course, in making themselves infallible authorities, that’s something progressives could never entertain. I had the good fortune to take the Spiritual Exercises at St. Peter’s, but during that experience I was told to ignore St. Ignatius’ “Rules for Thinking with the Church.” I doubt I was the only one.

Fortunately, God had other plans for me. I spent hours meditating on St. Ignatius’ rules, which led me to live an authentic Catholic faith, instead of lukewarm or social Catholicism. Despite many deep wounds, flaws, and mistakes, I hope I’m now a Catholic who works to understand the Church, not the political distortions of that Church we so often hear.

St. Ignatius calls us to follow the prescribed disciplines: to sing the Psalms, to pray the Divine Office, to praise the vows related to our individual way of life, to fast and abstain when required, to attend Mass, to do acts of Penance, to recognize and respect our superiors. And yet, if our superiors live a life outside the Church’s teachings, we are called to speak about them with those who might be able to do something about it.

As one of the many secular sheep – and all secularists are sheep even if they aren’t willing to admit it – that is something I never did. I simply accepted the dissenters’ rallying cry that contraception, abortion, and sex outside marriage made me free, and that homosexuality was just one more choice of a free person. So why condemn it?

Yet the only thing embracing these views ever did was enslave me, and everyone else who holds them. Like most of my colleagues, my misery resulted from following the dictates of secular society. It was only when I began living the teachings of the Church that I saw how mistaken and damaging these views are, particularly to the poor. All those deadly sins we refuse to renounce cripple us in this world and make life in the next impossible.

What I’ve found among the liberal elite everywhere is a desire to conform – to a way of life that opposes the traditional institutions of our civilization, religious and political. No matter where I lived – south of Boston, Washington, D.C., Missoula, Montana – no matter where I visited – New York, Chicago, San Francisco – the views were always the same. They were the real conformists, the sheep who never truly questioned their own views.

They questioned authority, all authority except for those leaders they followed. They accepted and embraced the idea that freedom somehow came down to sex and that the only path to sexual utopia was to destroy the Catholic Church and its teachings. They were sheep, but they castigated those who had chosen the true Shepherd, even when they claimed to follow Christ.

Oh, they tolerated Christianity, as long as Jesus Christ was depicted as a kind of pied piper of love who only challenged the ruling elite and the rich. But the cultural elite was sacred, even though it distorts and twists the Gospel to fit an agenda that goes largely unexamined.

In the Catholic Church, I found a willingness to think, reason, examine, test. John Paul II opened my heart, and more than any other thinker Pope Benedict XVI opened my clogged intellect.

Jesus said follow me, which means you have a choice: follow the Son of God or follow man. You must choose. Will you follow political leaders like our president who take away religious freedom and characterize what they are doing as protecting the freedom of women? Will you follow columnists who call themselves Catholic but don’t know their faith, or those who speak openly for a homosexual lifestyle despite what the Church has taught through the centuries?

Will you follow bishops and priests too confused or weak-willed to demand that Catholics know and live the true faith? Or will you follow great recent popes such as Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI? Or true leaders such as Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop Charles Chaput, or bishops like Thomas Tobin of Providence, or the bishop of my diocese, Peter Jugis, who is under attack?

Will you renounce the false teachers of our society for the true teachers of our Church? Will you follow those who truly speak for the Church, or those who have set themselves up as false spokespersons?

Most important of all, will you follow Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, and his earthly shepherds who will lead you to union with God in Paradise?

Kevin Bezner is an instructor in English at Belmont Abbey College, outside Charlotte, NC. His article on spiritual desolation appears in the current issue of Lay Witness.