My friend, the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, was a Lutheran minister from Canada and a great Christian witness who converted to Catholicism. I was privileged to be at his ordination to the priesthood.
Fr. Neuhaus proclaimed in one of his books the advent of a “Catholic Moment” for the United States. As it turns out, he was twenty-five years or so ahead of his time. But perhaps today’s “Catholic Moment” is not exactly the kind that he foresaw.
Neuhaus (along with George Weigel and Michael Novak) was generally positive about the American experiment and its “exceptionalism,” especially in contrast with decaying and now largely post-Christian Europe.
In 1996, however, responding to the infamous Planned Parenthood v. Casey Supreme Court decision, Neuhaus published an essay by Russell Hittinger in First Things, which concluded:
In effect, the Court makes it impossible to have anything other than a procedural common good as a motive or purpose for political activity. There is a real possibility that the moral and religious motivations of some citizens will become not only actionable at public law, through constitutional suits challenging legislation informed by such motives, but also actionable at private law. Unless the elected representatives of the people can compel the Court to refrain from invalidating political activity merely on the basis of the citizens’ moral or religious motivation, the task of reform is blocked. Should that continue, the option remaining to right reason is the one traditionally used against despotic rule: civil disobedience.
Fast forward now to 2012. Hittinger appears vindicated, especially following the Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold Obamacare, although the lawsuits against the infamous HHS Mandate and the results of the November 2012 elections still lie before.
Given the despotic HHS administrative diktat, American Catholics may now find that the right to religious freedom founded in the First Amendment may no longer apply to them and their institutions. In fact, it’s possible that even the free practice of the faith may be moving toward de jure or de facto nonexistence.
Like Christians under the rule of Islamic governance or during the Roman Empire before Constantine’s edict of toleration, there may come a time when American Catholics become secondhand citizens at best, at risk of imprisonment or worse at the whim of the magistrates. We should continue to pray that such a day won’t come. But it is not impossible. Yes: It can happen here!
The welcoming arms of Bernini’s Colonnade seen from St. Peter’s dome
I should clarify whom I am including when I use the word “Catholic” because, of course, there is much confusion in this area. I believe the best definition – full assent to the Faith – is neatly summarized in the RCIA’s Reception for Baptized Christians into the Church: “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.”
Readers may judge from the polls how many among us really qualify as Catholics according to this definition, considering the high number of divorces and remarriages, the dwindling of Catholic births and baptisms, the vertiginous drop in Mass attendance, etc. But there are certainly far fewer than the 70 million or so often quoted, just extrapolating from the percentage of votes by nominal Catholics for candidates with views clearly opposed to Catholic moral teaching (and who presumably live accordingly).
May they all soon return to the Church, as unlikely as that may now seem. Currently, one in every ten Americans is a lapsed Catholic. And each year, for every one convert to the Church, three leave the fold.
But this is precisely where the going gets good for the Church in the United States. Increasingly, the Catholic Church is the only option for serious Christians here. Traditional Protestant denominations are shrinking and Evangelical Christians in many cases are attracted to the sacramental system of the Church and its authoritative teachings. We get their best, and they get our worst, who do not want to live up to the full range of demands on the Christian life.
The seminaries are now generally sound, vocations are on the rise, and the episcopate is mostly made up of men in line with the evangelizing Catholicism of Bl. John Paul and the deep liturgical teachings of Pope Benedict.
Catholic radio is increasingly present almost everywhere. Catholic publishing continues to grow on- and off-line. The Cardinal Newman Society colleges grow each year and with time will replace the apostate former “Catholic” universities, whose now-diluted Catholicism we don’t need.
Liturgies in our parishes are now more traditional – in many places the Lord is once again worshiped in a more reverent setting and adored in the centered tabernacle.
Finally, we face life-changing threats to the practice of our Faith, which, paradoxically, has its positive side. That may be our great opportunity to bear witness, as did the first Christians, and to draw converts, even if it means martyrdom.
I say: Bring it on, if it be God’s will. Just think of the reward! In any case, it would not be the first time we’ve had to face and overcome such challenges. The best still lies ahead.