How Not to Defend a Castle

Let’s suppose you’re the defender of a medieval castle.  And let’s suppose your castle is under an attack by an enemy – an enemy who, if he prevails, will raze your castle to the ground and scatter its inhabitants to the winds.

Your castle has four walls – a north wall, a south wall, an east wall, and a west wall.  You have 1,000 men to defend the castle, and you have evenly distributed them so that 250 defend each of the four walls.

A few minutes ago you discovered that the enemy, whose men outnumber yours by about five or six to one, has thrown all his forces into a major assault on one of your walls, the west wall.  What will you do?  Which option will you choose?

(a) Will you pull most of your men away from the north, south, and east walls, re-assigning them to the defense of the west wall?

(b) Or will you leave 250 men each at the north, south, and east walls, while at the same time telling most of the men at your west wall (the wall under assault) that it’s time for them to take a break for lunch?

Only an idiot, of course, would choose option (b).  And yet that’s precisely the option that the Catholic Church in the United States has chosen in recent decades.

Our castle, the Catholic faith, which we believe (or at least pretend to believe) is the religion created by Jesus Christ, the God-man, is under attack by a great enemy who goes by a number of names: atheists, secularists, secular humanists, etc.

In the 1960s, the enemy began a furious assault against one of our “walls.”  Which one?  Has he been attacking our belief in the Trinity?  Or the Incarnation?  Or the Virgin Birth?  Or the Resurrection? Or the Atonement?  Or Transubstantiation?  Or life after death?  (Our Catholic castle happens to have many more than four walls.)

No, his assault has especially been directed at our sexual ethic; our ethic of chastity; our belief (a very strange belief in the eyes of our enemies) that the sexual act should be reserved for a man and woman who are married to one another.


How have we American Catholics, under the leadership of our bishops, whom we believe (or pretend to believe) are the heirs of the apostles, reacted to this great assault?  Have we defended our ancient sexual ethic?  Have we insisted that sex outside of marriage is wrong?  Have we denounced abortion?  Have we deplored homosexuality?  Have we expressed our bewilderment and horror that such a weird thing as same-sex marriage should be generally accepted?

For the most part, the answer to these questions is either a definite “No” or “Yes, but only in a half-hearted way.”  As the chastity wall of our Catholic castle was under heavy assault, we did not rush our reserve troops to defend it.  Instead, we pulled defenders away from that wall, as if we were embarrassed to defend it.  We let the enemy climb over our wall.  We let them enter the castle – where, once they destroy our sexual beliefs, they will have an easy time destroying all the others.

And the enemy has been helped by having a Catholic fifth column within the walls.

Of course, not all American Catholics have been equally tepid in their defense of the chastity wall.  Here and there a courageous bishop or parish priest was found, and in many places courageous lay persons, especially women, were to be found doing battle against abortion.  But what were these few among so many – so many external foes and so many nominal but timid friends?

The Catholic religion, with its many doctrines and sacraments and rules of morality, doesn’t exist as a mere abstraction.  It is a concrete thing.  It exists in historical situations – situations that often change.

At any one time and one place it is surrounded by many favorable or unfavorable social-cultural-economic circumstances.  It is always threatened by this or that enemy, either external or internal. And in its attempt to do what the risen Christ commanded (Matthew 28:19), “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” it must adjust its defensive strategies, sometime emphatically defending this wall, sometimes that wall.

Once upon a time the great external enemy was Gnosticism; at a later time, and for many centuries, the great foe was Islam; later still the great enemy was Protestantism.  The Church defended itself by fighting back at precisely the point at which the enemy’s assault was most intense; and by being especially intolerant of internal enemies (“fifth columns”) who sympathized with the external enemy – such internal enemies as Arians, Iconoclasts, and Jansenists.

Today, the great external enemy is secular humanism.  And the great internal enemies are those Catholics who, so far from wishing to draw a bright line of division between Catholicism and secularism, wish to blur the lines that separate the two.  They wish to minimize Catholicism’s chastity agenda; that is, they don’t want to be guilty of “obsessing” about abortion and homosexuality.  Instead, they prefer working on a “social justice” agenda that has largely been defined by secular humanists.

Many Catholics feel that there is something unseemly about fighting against enemies of the faith.  After all, isn’t ours a religion of love?  Doesn’t Jesus tell us to love our enemies?  How can we love our enemies if we are busy fighting them?

Well, the Catholic faith has been in the world for about 2,000 years, and for all that time it has been fighting against enemies, both external and internal.  If you think the essence of Catholicism is the commandment “Be nice,” then you won’t want to fight, for fighting is not nice.  But if you think that the real Catholic religion is the one that has been in existence for 2,000 years, then you will jump into the fight, and relish it.

Catholicism, by which I mean real Catholicism, is a fighting faith.

*Image: Allegory with a Virgin (or Allegory of Chastity) by Hans Memling, [Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris]

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, and most recently Atheistic Humanism, the Democratic Party, and the Catholic Church.