What If We Fail?

Barring some unforeseen development, this week – perhaps even before you open this column, dear reader – the Supreme Court will hand down its decision about the constitutionality of Obamacare. The law’s supporters are very worried. The New York Times, for instance, tried so hard yesterday to soften the potential blow that the reporting resembled nothing so much as grief counseling.    

But given the division within the Court, expectations may be wrong and the healthcare reform may survive constitutional scrutiny. Voiding the law, of course, would put off the most palpable threat to American religious liberty – for the moment. And we’ll also have tangible proof that all’s not lost for the Constitution. But don’t be deceived: the struggle will go on anyway, in other guises.

The bishops in the trenches say it’s a really heavy lift.

If the individual mandate – forcing people to buy health insurance – is the only portion of Obamacare declared unconstitutional, then the battle will move on to the forty-three lawsuits challenging the administration’s intent to force religiously affiliated institutions to provide contraception, sterilization, and treatments bordering on abortion –  “free” of charge at that, a status enjoyed by almost no other procedures.

Recent Court decisions protecting religious liberty are encouraging, but the mere fact that we’re in this situation suggests a much broader and darker backdrop to these cases that must be recognized and challenged.

A learnèd friend – an accomplished political philosopher – remarked recently that we should not consider it our fault if the Church fails at defending religious liberty and is forced into becoming a kind of sect in America, like the Amish. It was a bold statement, and in public too, among a gathering of people who, like him, are not happy at the prospect.

But he argues that because of the “early modern” nature of the American Founding, with its dependence on rights language and weak connection to the natural law tradition, such a development was possible from the beginning. And we now traveled far along a process that the Church only had so much power to stop.

He has a point. For decades, law schools have worked furiously to redefine rights and their foundations in ever more radical ways. The president, for instance, was only echoing such institutions a few months back when he declared “women’s health” a fundamental right – more fundamental, somehow, than the actual First Amendment protections of religious liberty.

And for the past half-century, many Americans have been conducting ill-advised experiments in living that, despite the mounting evidence of the disasters they cause (for marriage, children, community, crime, health, to name only a few), now seem beyond criticism in public institutions like schools, welfare agencies, and government offices.

But while my friend is right about Catholics not taking the blame and feeling guilt if we fail – even Jesus “failed” in immediate human terms – I’m not ready, and I don’t think anyone else should be ready, to watch stoically as America turns into just one more failed experiment in human history.

The Church can no more engineer a society than can anyone else: even Rome’s proposed New Evangelization – which I back 100 percent – cannot be sure of the means of conversion or predict outcomes. Only God is the Lord of history.

                                                                                           Crucifixion of St. Peter by Caravaggio (1601)


But short of that cosmic struggle, some of us still believe that there’s a dance in the old dame yet. There’s no surer way of hastening decline than by suggesting that the people, and particularly religious people, maybe can’t do much of anything about the future.       

Social radicals talk a lot about the “inevitability” of gay “marriage,” universal coverage for “women’s health” (which, they hope, will soon also mean abortion), restrictions on religious influence on the public square – and social as well as legal acceptance of the whole agenda. Because these changes are inevitable, we’re supposed to stop trying to block them.

They don’t talk about the very real shift towards pro-life views – and the simple fact that religious people have more children. And that those children tend to acquire and retain non-radical views.

But in this as in many other matters, we cannot think like social engineers. Spiritual and moral challenges demand spiritual and moral responses. Yes, in the long run, demography could drive this country and the world in a much healthier direction. But nothing in social matters is automatic or mere mechanics.

Just consider the fact that the average American – including the average American Catholic – now spends thirteen years in government-run schools where same-sex parents are just another way of being a family; opposition to homosexuality of any kind is immediately classified as homophobia or hate-speech – i.e., mental illness or criminal behavior; and most important of all, learning to “think for yourself” means doing what you want and regarding your parents’ values as prejudice.

And we haven’t even gotten to college and graduate school.

And then when you think that to take a job in education, journalism, law, medicine, most big corporations, and even to serve in the military, now requires you to burn at least a little incense to the state’s idols, the size and extent of the task start to become clear.

Under the circumstances, it’s amazing that we’ve stayed as sane and kept the faith as much as we have.

We can stop some bad situations from becoming worse by standing up for the Church – and ultimately America – whenever and wherever we must. But any victory at that level now must become a further spur to carrying out the much bigger task of reforming institutions and an entire culture.

There’s real wisdom in recognizing that, despite our best efforts, it doesn’t depend on us. And it’s possible that, even here, the Church will “fail” and have to go into a kind of internal exile. It’s done so before, survived, and re-emerged even stronger.

But there’s no excuse for not trying every avenue and every thing possible, while there’s still time, light, and opportunity.

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.