Last week, we at St. Mary’s Church in Greenville, South Carolina, found ourselves in the midst of a perfect media storm. The Sunday after the election, Rev. Jay Scott Newman, the parish rector (I serve as a weekend assistant), published his usual column for the parish bulletin, in which he commented on the election of Barack Obama.
Offering patriotic support and prayers for the president-elect, but also lamenting his radical pro-abortion policy, Father Newman told his parishioners:"Voting for a pro-abortion politician when a plausible pro-life alternative exists constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil, and those Catholics who do so place themselves outside of the full communion of Christ’s Church and under the judgment of divine law." He concluded that, if they voted for Obama, they ought to go to confession before coming to Communion.
Perhaps Father Newman’s statement could have been more nuanced. He could have clarified the matter by adding that, for it to be a serious sin, the Catholic needed to be fully knowledgeable about the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion and Senator Obama’s voting record on the issue. However, this was not a pontifical statement written for the instruction of all Catholics in America; it was a bulletin column in a parish where there has been steady and consistent catechesis on the whole range of Catholic issues, including abortion.
By Monday, the local newspaper picked up the story. Father Newman was careful to ask for written questions and gave written replies, making it very clear that he could not and would not deny Communion to anyone. Nevertheless, by Wednesday the Associated Press ran the story with the headline, "SC priest: No Communion for Obama supporters." Most of the major news outlets picked up the story, and the parish was swamped with responses from across America. In the face of these distortions, Father Newman produced two documents that clarified matters.
By Friday, the Diocese of Charleston issued a statement that was taken badly by supporters of Father Newman, and over the weekend rumors ran riot about protests planned for our parish by busloads of Obama supporters. When the parish Web site crashed due to the number of visitors, parishioners concluded that the diocese had gagged Father Newman and pulled the plug on his site. (Coincidentally, my own Web site was down for servicing on the same Saturday, and before long whispers went around that I had also been gagged by the diocese and had my site pulled. None of it was true.)
What is true is that Father Newman received more than 5,000 e-mails within a few days. When the parish webmaster finally removed Father Newman’s e-mail address from the Web site for his own protection and peace, e-mailers contacted me instead. I received nearly 500 replies. What interests me about the feedback from the fracas is what it says about American Catholics and American culture generally.
The mail we received can be put into four categories: Loyal, Lame, Defiant, and Demonic.
Addressing the worst first: A small number of e-mails were spitting with irrational rage, profanity, and vulgarity. We were called pedophiles, rapists, and insane perverts. Some went on to blaspheme in the most extreme terms against the Holy Father, the Blessed Virgin, and anything sacred they could think of. These e-mails were so brimming with brimstone that they were obviously from a demented or demonized person. These I deleted with a prayer for protection and deliverance.
Those e-mails I classified as "defiant" were angry and vociferous. We were idiots and bigots. Didn’t we know it was priests like us who drive people away from the Church? The writers rarely defended Obama but usually attacked Bush and McCain, assuming that Father Newman and I are ardent Republicans. The usual theme was that poverty and war were as bad as abortion, and why did we never discuss these other matters? The Catholic Church was attacked and smeared, and in most cases the writer finally revealed that he was a lapsed Catholic.
The third category I call "lame." These e-mails had little to do with Father Newman’s original bulletin column, but were simply emotional responses to the misleading AP headline. They were mostly sentimental, uninformed, and rambling. Some accused us of being nasty, judgmental, and intolerant. Others accused us of hating animals and the environment and not believing in global warming. And still others worried that we were fomenting racial hatred and hoped we would mend our ways. They were mostly from souls with a particular agenda who would direct their sad anger and fear toward anyone who grabbed their attention in a news headline.
The fourth category of e-mail was from loyal supporters. Heartening e-mails from all around the country poured in expressing solidarity, support, and sympathy. Converts told how priests like Father Newman and me gave them hope and drew them to the Catholic Faith. College students and old people wrote saying that they were encouraged in their faith and were determined to renew their pro-life fight because of Father Newman’s letter. Priests and religious wrote thanking us for our stand and telling us to fight the good fight. Loyal, informed, and dedicated Catholics wrote simply to express their thanks and goodwill.
The thousands of e-mails we received reveal four American responses to full-fledged, red-blooded Catholicism.
The demonic were understandable: The devil will be a gentle dog as long as you feed him, but if you kick him, he bites back. The lame are those who are largely ignorant of the Catholic Faith, and can best be helped with prayer.
But the "defiant" category makes up the largest number of our respondents, and is the saddest category of all. Statistics show us that these are the Catholics who sealed Obama’s victory. They are people who were poorly catechized over the last 40 years in America. They have been nurtured in the Protest Generation and told that it is fine, even noble, to disagree with the Church. They have been taught to act according to their conscience without taking the trouble or time to inform it.
Caught up in the trendy agendas of the day, they have jumped on the bandwagons of feminism, environmentalism, homosexualism, socialism, and sentimentalism — mistaking their favorite cause for the Catholic Faith. When they are confronted with clear, concise, and consistent Catholicism they are shocked and angry, and their response is (if they haven’t done so already) to leave the Church, preferring their own wisdom to the wisdom of God.
In the next 20 years, this sort of Catholic will become extinct. As America descends further into decadence and decline, the lines will be drawn between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. People will have to choose whether to serve God and His Church or the dark side. Catholics will have to choose to be fully committed or not. If they choose to be Catholic, let them be informed and involved and integrated. If they choose to leave the Church, then they should be honest and stop referring to themselves as Catholic.
If those in my "defiant" category are Catholics at all, then what kind of Catholics are they? We have heard the terms "cultural Catholic" and "cafeteria Catholic," but they might as well be called "chameleon Catholics" — not only because they change color with every new trend of thought, but because there is something reptilian about them.
Rev. Dwight Longenecker is chaplain of St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina. Visit his Web site at www.dwightlongenecker.com.