Some of us had been together in Crisis, the magazine founded by Michael Novak and Ralph McInerny. The “crisis” was a crisis in our culture that was deepening now for our politics and law, and spilling over, showing its most dramatic effects, as it worked to erode the moral convictions that sustained Catholic teaching and the life of the Church.
As we mark this Fifth Anniversary, who among us could deny that the crisis has become anything but worse? By the time my own column appears again in two weeks, we will have learned whether the institution of marriage in this country will have survived the Supreme Court. The best we can hope for is that the Court will leave this question to be decided in the political arena, as the American people remain free to shape their laws on this subject. But that in turn, we know, will produce the most rancorous and poisonous divisions, with a population that no longer seems to have its bearings on the meaning of marriage and even the meaning of sex.
In a recent memorial service for Robert Bork, Judge Raymond Randolph recalled a phone call from the Judge when Bork’s former student, Bill Clinton, was elected President of the United States. “There is a time,” said Bork, “to fight – and a time to leave the country.” The measure of how things have changed is that we could now look back on those days of Clinton, as “the good old days.”
The Catholic Thing began in the midst of the year that would see the election of Barack Obama. In persisting, we have seen his reelection, with a strategy that sought to sharpen the political lines in the country by seeking to sharpen the lines of moral conflict with the Catholic Church. Even the most seasoned observers of politics found it hard at first to believe that the Obama White House would deliberately pick a fight with the Church and faithful Catholics by bringing forth mandates to require the support of contraception and abortion in plans of medical insurance made compulsory in the law.
The brazenness of the move could be explained only by the political sense that the Church might not hold the loyalty of most Catholics on contraception, and hold perhaps a bare majority on the matter of abortion. But to that raw political sense was added now the kind of inversion that could spring only from a culture corrupted or just dumbed down: For how else could we explain why policies that sought to bar women from killing their own babies, including their female infants, could be taken seriously by broad segments of the public as a “war on women”?
My friend George Weigel recently prepared a memo for the advisory board of the journal First Things, looking back more than twenty years to this project launched by Fr. Richard Neuhaus. He recalled that Fr. Neuhaus “could assume a broad range of religiously engaged people.” Neuhaus had said in his inaugural editorial that, “if the American experiment in representative democracy is not in conversation with biblical religion, it is not in conversation with what the overwhelming majority of Americans profess to believe is the source of morality.”
But the jolt of recognition now is that we are no longer as sure, as Fr. Neuhaus could be twenty years ago, that the majority of ordinary folk were with us in that religious and moral perspective. In this respect, Weigel takes as an alarming sign the rise of the “Nones,” the people professing in public surveys no religious attachments. This group, he notes, “has grown dramatically, now exceeding 20 percent. Moreover, this group has become politically significant, now making up the single largest identifiable constituency in the Democratic Party.”
We used to assume that most of the American people were not in accord with the ethic that was shaped in our academic enclaves since the late 1960s. That may still be the case, but that so-called “elite” has shown a remarkable aptitude for getting its way as it molds the people who fill the law schools and the courts and the major media.
And yet. . .it was one of Fr. Neuhaus’s signature lines: “We can still turn this around!” We were never without hope. I noted one of the leading indicators of hope in a column last year: the emergence of new generation of young priests, orthodox and smart – and immensely appealing – with the gift of inspiring the young and firming the confidence of people of middle years. (See “The Jewish Past and the Young Priests”)
Even in dark times, something brings us back to those last moments of Brideshead Revisited: Charles Ryder, childless and loveless, goes alone to the chapel, with gestures of devotion only lately learned. When he leaves, a fellow soldier, passing, says, “You’re looking unusually cheerful today.” And so do we today at The Catholic Thing.