Ross Douthat published a rather interesting column in the New York Times this past Sunday in which he claimed that Pope Francis and those Catholics who like his approach might want to take a lesson from the experience of the Jewish community in New York. The Jewish community in New York has seen a period of rapid growth over the past number of years. This growth is due entirely to the Orthodox faction however as both Reform and Conservative Judaism are in decline. A similar phenomenon is experienced in the Protestant sectors of society where liberal groups such as the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ are all in decline while the more socially conservative groups such as Southern Baptists, Assemblies of God, and the Church of the Nazarene are holding steady or, in some cases, showing membership growth. Similarly the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) who follow a very conservative social agenda, are showing remarkable growth—up from 10 to 15 million members in the last twenty years.
Mr. Douthat does not criticize the Holy Father for his efforts but he does suggest that Catholic conservatives are worried that by his efforts to seize and hold a theological “middle ground,” the Pope might be trying to build the House of God on the shifting sands of popular opinion rather than on solid rock of where the winds and floods of modernity won’t be able to wash it away.
Pope Benedict used to speak of a smaller, more faithful Church. Some neo-traditionalists used to use this as an excuse to push those with whom they disagreed out of the barque of Peter. That wasn’t what Pope Benedict meant, however. It is time for us to call one another to a deeper commitment to Christian life and witness. This doesn’t have to be exclusionary of anyone, only that it is time to stand and be counted. I think the Gospel call challenges us to “fish or cut bait”—for us, as members of the Church, to be self-selective.
The litmus test of discipleship however is not agreement with a particular dogma or even concurrence with a particular moral discipline. The litmus test of discipleship is fidelity to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I think Pope Francis is trying to shift our focus from the doctrinal rigidity of a certain Taliban Catholicism to the more dynamic message of Grace and Redemption offered by Christ Jesus in the Christian scriptures.
This is a tremendous disappointment to those who want the Church to be the cavalry that will come riding in to save their besieged fort in the culture wars raging in 20th century America. If the culture wars were honestly about moral principles that might be a reasonable expectation but the stakes are not about the Right to Life and the Sanctity of Marriage. Those principles were surrendered long ago. We stood silently by when millions were marched off to death camps for being Jews or Gypsies or Gay. We were silent as blacks were hung from trees in the old south and children were blown up at choir practice and “freedom riders” disappeared in the bayous of Mississippi. We stood silently by when napalm was dropped on schools and hospitals and orphanages and when villages “had to be destroyed to save them.” We have stood silently by as scores are put to death in the execution chambers of our prisons. We have stood silently by as our government trained death squads to murder missionaries and archbishops and campesinos in Latin America. We stand silently by as hundreds die in the seas between Africa and Italy and in the desert between Mexico and the United States. The garment of life is seamless or is nothing by and old rag.
I am not saying that we should not protect the unborn but I am saying that anyone who whines about “Right to Life” and supports, implicitly or explicitly, the entire range of attacks on human life today is simply a hypocrite and nothing more. And I am all for the Sanctity of Marriage but not when it is used for a cover on the most gross prejudice. Too many people today who would deny the benefits conferred in the civil law to married couples to people who are gay fifty years ago supported those laws which denied recognition to couples of mixed race. Why didn’t we hear our bishops complain that they had to offer medical benefits to employees who were married outside the Church—to heterosexual couples who had been divorced and remarried, for example? Granted those married outside the Church were told they should not present themselves for the sacraments, but we baptized their children. We didn’t try to block them adopting. We hired them as teachers in our schools and musicians in our churches and lawyers in our chanceries. And we paid their insurance—and with spousal benefits. Why are we so afraid of same-sex couples being given the same rights and responsibilities under civil law—no one here is disputing the internal discipline of the Church—as “straight” couples? If I could come up with any other answer than plain and simple prejudice I would be grateful. But I can’t. I have heard “good Catholics” and priests—and even a few bishops—wax eloquent on this subject but in every case in which I have spoken with an individual who is opposed to the benefits of civil marriage to same-sex partners, I have found a deep prejudice beneath the surface and most often it is a prejudice that extends far beyond gay targets but also has racial and ethnic overtones. I am not saying that there aren’t good people who oppose the legalizing of same-sex marriage; I am only saying that I have yet to meet one. I don’t want my Church caught in the cross-fire of the culture wars because I believe that it gets in the way of our mission which is to preach the Gospel. I am not saying that we have to cave in the values of the world today but I am saying that that the values of the Gospel are values that draw people to Christ not repel them from him.