Shortly before he died in Oxford in 1988, the Jesuit retreat master and raconteur, Bernard Bassett, in good spirits after a double leg amputation, told me that the great lights of his theological formation had been Ignatius Loyola and John Henry Newman, but if he “had to do it all over,” he’d only read Paul. “Everything is there.” There is a temptation to think that God gave us the Apostle to the Gentiles in order to have second readings at Sunday Mass, usually unrelated to the first reading and the Gospel. But everything truly is there. Paul was one of the most important figures in human history, and a great character to boot. That is, a character in the happiest sense of the word. “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain” (1 Cor 15:10).
Tragedy and comedy intertwine, ultimately issuing in glory, whenever he is on trial. He longs to live and to die in the same breath: ”For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:210). Whenever he is on trial for his life, he invokes a forensic brilliance to save the very life he is willing to sacrifice. Just as Jesus who had come into the world to die, slipped through the mob in Nazareth because his hour had not yet come, so does Paul become his own defense when on trial, ready to die by God’s calendar and not man’s. In Caesarea, he confounds Antonius Felix, the Roman governor of Judaea and Samaria, and a little later he does the same to the successor of Felix, Procius Festus. The best court scene is Paul before Marcus Annaeus Novatus, who had taken the name of his adoptive father Junius Gallio, the rhetorician and friend of his father Seneca Sr. whose son Seneca, Jr. was the noble Stoic. Nero forced Seneca’s suicide, but before that, in Achaia where Gallio was proconsul, Paul was bit of a Rumpole of the Bailey, in how he played the jury like a piano to the frustration of the judge. The point is this: Paul, both innocent and shrewd, was willing to suffer and did so regularly, as he was not loathe to recount at length, and he was also ready to die, but as death comes but once, he wanted it to be at the right moment.
There is in Paul a model for Catholics at the start of the Third Millennium which began with fireworks and Ferris wheels but is now entering a sinister stage. Like Paul, it is not possible to be a Christian without living for Christ by suffering for him, nor is it possible to be a Christian without willing to die for him when he wants. The Christian veneer of American culture has cracked and underneath is the inverse of the blithe Christianity that took shape in the various enthusiasms of the nineteenth century and ended when voters were under the impression that they finally had a Catholic president.
This new period is not “Post-Christian” because nothing comes after Christ. We can, however, call it “Post-Comfortable Christian.” Niebuhr, looking out from New York’s Neo-Athens on Morningside Heights with its Modernist Christian seminaries and highly endowed preaching palaces and office towers of denominational bureaucracies, caricatured the Messiah of mainline religiosity: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” The virtual collapse of those institutions on Morningside Heights, is mute testimony to the truth of his irony.
The bishops of the United States have asked the faithful to pray for religious liberty, now facing unprecedented assault. The national election in November, 2012 will either give Christians one last chance to rally, or it will be the last free election in our nation. This can only sound like hyperbole to those who are unaware of what happened to the Slavic lands after World War I and to Western Europe in the 1930’s. St. Paul was writing to us when he wrote to the Galatians and Corinthians and Washingtonians – or rather, Romans – in his lifetime.
Unless there is a dramatic reversal in the present course of our nation, those who measured their Catholicism by the Catholic schools they attended, will soon find most of those institutions officially pinching incense to the ephemeral genius of their secular leaders, and universities once called Catholic will be no more Catholic than Brown is Baptist or Princeton is Presbyterian. The surrender will not come by a sudden loss of faith in Transubstantiation or doubts about Papal Infallibility. It will happen smoothly and quietly, as the raptures of the Netherworld always hum victims into somnolence, by the cost factor of buying out of government health insurance. Catholic businessmen with more than fifty employees will be in the same bind. Catholic institutions and small businesses owned by those with religious and moral reservations about government-imposed policies, will wither within a very short time, unable to bear the burden of confiscatory tax penalties. As analysts have figured, an employer offering a health plan that does not comply with the preventive services package and other requirements under the federal health plan could be subject to a confiscatory penalty. The fine, imposed through a civil penalty or excise tax on a non-exempted religious employer could be as much as $100 a day for each employee insured under a plan at variance with federal law. The burden would amount then to $36,500 for each employee.
Add to that the approaching discrimination against Catholics seeking positions in commerce and public life. Catholics will not be suitable for public charities, medicine, education, journalism, or in the legal profession, especially judgeships and law enforcement. As the bishops, by the acknowledgement of many of their own number, failed to articulate the cogency of doctrines on contraception and other moral issues, so will they now, despite the best intentions, not be able to stem the radical attrition among native Catholics whose eyes are on mammon, and among recent immigrants whose privileges are guaranteed only if they vote for opponents of the Church. The general election of 2012 may rally the fraction of conscientious Catholics among the sixty million or so sympathetic Catholics. If their influence is not decisive, and the present course of federal legislation accelerates, encouraged by a self-destructive appetite for welfare statism on the part of ecclesiastical bureaucrats, the majority of Catholics with tenuous commitments to the Faith will evaporate, as did the lapsed baptized in North Africa during the oppression of the emperor Diocletian.
Should the present direction of the federal government be endorsed by a reiterative vote in the November elections, more blatant threats to the Church will begin, culminating in a punitive suspension of tax exemptions on church properties, once the Church’s moral precepts are coded as offenses against civil rights. The test case in this instance will be what is known in Orwellian diction as “same sex marriage.” In the Supreme Court case, McCulloch v. Maryland, argued in 1819, the same year that Daniel Webster reduced Chief Justice Marshall to tears in the Dartmouth College case which vouchsafed private charters, Webster said: “An unlimited power to tax involves, necessarily, a power to destroy.” Chief Justice Marshall, an antecedent of Chief Justice Roberts, said “That the power of taxing (the bank) by the States may be exercised so as to destroy it, is too obvious to be denied, and that the power to tax involves the power to destroy (is) not to be denied.”
St. Paul would have understood this. After all, he lived through its precedents. His self-defense in the secular courts showed his disdain for bravado and theatrical martyrdom. He enjoyed common sense, reason, and native intelligence in outwitting evil, for he knew as did St. John Vianney, who was not as bright as the student of Gamaliel but whose heart was at least as large, that “the Devil is stupid.” Because of that, the Devil can only get his way with the help of stupid Catholics.
This year offers the best and possibly last chance to see how many actually obey Christ’s pastoral instruction in a conflicted world: “Behold, I am sending you out as a sheep among wolves, so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16).