The Way Ahead

Baltimore’s Archbishop William Lori warned recently during a lecture in Washington that the Catholic Church in America is facing severe persecution, which is all the more insidious because it’s “bloodless” and “polite.”

You’d have to be virtually brain-dead today not to notice the pressures, edging over into coercion and, yes, persecution. The heavy-handed treatment of the Little Sisters of the Poor and other such groups is only the most obvious evidence of that. Even the Supreme Court has sent back such cases for less drastic “accommodations.” But it’s an outrage that such remedies are even needed.

We get what the good archbishop was trying to say – and it’s significant that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ point man on religious liberty said it openly and bluntly. But it’s getting harder to maintain that these attacks are bloodless or polite.

This is a hard truth for those of us who love America and are proud of what it has been for generations of citizens and immigrants, of all faiths. Our very first president, writing to Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., already expressed the unique American view: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

Mildness and mutual peaceableness were the aim: “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants – while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Washington’s claim – that even to speak of “toleration” in such cases offends against a broader notion of liberty – is relatively well known to people who study the American Founding. Less well known, however, is his letter to prominent Catholics (including Charles and John Carroll) expressing his hope that the entire nation would come to see that:

all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protection of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality. And I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their government; or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed.

That’s the idea of America many loved for so long, even when it was marred by anti-Semitism and anti-Catholic bigotry. And that’s the America that it’s difficult to recognize around us anymore.

Not least, because the new bigots are out to draw blood. And don’t mind being impolite doing it. There was a moment when it was almost possible to believe that the radical social changes on gays, then gay “marriage,” now the bathroom “transgender” wars might just fit the usual American pattern of live and let live. No more.

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President Obama defended his administration’s directives on bathrooms as only meant to encourage “kindness among children.” He even quoted Scripture – as is his custom when he’s about to impose something anti-Scriptural – about “doing unto others.” The administration shows boundless “kindness” and concern for others when the “others” are groups they favor. For the rest of us, it’s threats of losing federal funds and lawsuits for “civil rights” violations.

Imagine a teacher who stands up – some have tried, to their sorrow – to say that implementing the new gender regime in school bathrooms, gyms, showers, school trips will be an unholy mess. A few may be willing to do it anyway, and to find a new line of work. But as has happened throughout history under repressive regimes, the great majority will keep silent and let pass the lies and injustices.

The Founding Fathers did not include education or “healthcare” among the enumerated powers of the new Federal government, perhaps precisely because they knew what might happen once such sensitive activities are politicized. In the past we might have tried to defend our liberties on constitutional grounds. But the government has already short-circuited that by claiming the social revolution falls under “civil rights” protections.

We have to face this new situation directly – a situation that will not be changed by even the best rational arguments in the short run. In the long run, if many of us stay at it, despite the threats and ostracism, we may prevail, as we’re doing on abortion.

But for the moment, we will have to look with suspicion on every move that claims more power for the state – especially in matters of health and education. Because our bodies and minds are increasingly now controlled by the state. And if the cultural radicals have their way, our souls will be too.

The Catholic bishops in America supported a federal–run single-payer “healthcare system” for over a century. It was once an understandable position. No longer. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that the whole weight of the modern state will lead to efforts to redefine healthcare that include abortion, population control, and euthanasia. And who, now, can predict what else?

Our bishops were shrewder about schools. A few “Americanist” bishops wanted to find some compromise with the public schools. Thanks to the majority, however, we had and still have one of the most extensive Catholic systems in the world. The challenge now will be to keep them Catholic, often despite ill-formed Catholics.

We’re going to need to be both vigilant against threats and vigorous about setting up alternatives from this point on. Even speaking from the pulpit against some of the changes is becoming a risky act.

That’s one among many reasons why we publish this column series every day. We can say things about the Church and the world many others can’t because we’re independent, thanks to your support and donations.

Some Church agencies have to be careful what they say and do, so as not to fall afoul of government. We have no such worries. At least until they start throwing people into jail for speaking the truth in public – which may happen under the aegis of prosecuting “hate speech” – we’re here to tell the truth.

This is going to be a long struggle. The work is large, the challenges many and complex. But with your help we can try to keep this Catholic thing alive.

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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.