Belgian Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard was participating in a debate on blasphemy at the Free University of Brussels on April 23rd when he became the target of a blasphemy. Four topless women emerged from the attendees and mobbed the prelate, dousing him with water from bottles shaped like the Virgin Mary and screaming accusations of homophobia against him. Their bodies were smeared with slogans such as “my body my rules” and “anus dei is coming.” Throughout this barrage that created a startlingly demonic tableau, Archbishop Léonard remained calm, his eyes closed, his hands folded. A silent pillar of strength besieged by writhing, psychotic wrath.
The protesters were members of the radical Ukrainian feminist organization Femen, an extremist group that orchestrates lewd demonstrations against religion and sexism. Their repulsive attack on the Archbishop was in response to a recent interview where he condemned “abnormal” homosexual acts, encouraging celibacy and abstinence to those who struggle with such temptations. It is not the first time this brave apostle has undergone the torment of persecution for speaking and teaching the truth, and it will probably not be the last time. This necessary, apostolic endurance is rooted in humility—the humble selflessness to have a martyr’s courage. Our world is plummeting down a cultural rabbit hole to a place more like Underland than Wonderland, and the first step in taking control of our earthly inheritance, as Our Lord teaches, is humility.
Archbishop Léonard was silent in his humiliation at the hands of hate—and this was the proper and heroic response. His modest patience juxtaposed with naked frenzy was a striking icon of the current world war over culture. The Catholic Church was ordained to stand firmly and unwaveringly in the storm of irrational and freakish assaults on human nature and human salvation. Silence, however, is not always the proper mode of steadfastness, as it was in Brussels. There is dire need for American bishops to break some of their silences if American Catholicism is to gain ground in the battle over culture. The bravery to live and declare the unpopular truth requires first the humility to be reviled and despised by the world—to be Christ-like. Our Lord taught us to be humble before men and before God; He taught us to turn the other cheek and to turn over the tables as well. Only these seemingly opposed manifestations of humility can face and reverse the cultural corruption of our times by being active or passive at the right time. In an effort to emulate the humility of the Archbishop of Brussels, Catholics should make every effort to avoid an automatic negative reaction to homosexuals, but only to homosexual acts. The appropriate reaction against these errors, and all errors that affect culture, must be acts of love, not hate. The Catholic reaction is to tolerate the sinner, not the sin.
The banner of tolerance is one that liberals hoist high over the modern world. Though tolerance is salubrious, too much of it can be suicidal. In the effort to accept and acclimate, there exists a real need to preserve identity and integrity as a people, a nation, and a Church. There is a type of tolerance that can ultimately compromise nature, society, and the soul, and undermine culture by changing it into the chameleon called diversity. Culture without definition and distinction in values is no longer culture—it is confusion. People cannot be themselves if they do not know who they are. The type of western tolerance that embraces homosexual civil unions or welcomes the enemies of western civilization within its borders must not be tolerated. Without the effort to remain true to who we are, it will be impossible to remain true to Him who died that we may live. He told us, after all, what to expect. Being branded as a “homophobe” or an “Islamophobe,” or a “bigot” is the call to crucifixion in our time; and a sincere humility is prerequisite to take up that cross and follow Him. Followers like Archbishop Léonard are leading the faithful with the power of their humility—the power that will prevail over persecution.
The world is also receiving signals of a much-needed humility from our new pontiff, Francis. If he has made anything clear in the first month as the successor of St. Peter, it is that he is a humble man. He has declined the solid-gold ring for a gold-plated one. He has chosen to reside in a small suite at the Domus Santa Marta guesthouse instead of the regal Apostolic Palace. He has rejected the red velvet cape and the red leather shoes. A simple white chair without elevation has replaced the Papal Throne. Pope Francis’ willingness not to stand on ceremony suggests that he may prove humble enough to be a giant. He may renew that humility that can conquer hubris, especially the kind that abuses trust or disorders what God has ordered. Pope Francis’ humility may prove the balm to heal the ravages of a widespread egotism and vanity as uncompromisingly as he refused the ermine-lined cloak.
The humility that religious offices should inspire is precisely the virtue to bring an end to the cultural crises of our times for these corruptions are bred of arrogance. In being truly humble, Francis will be truly Pope, truly Christ’s Vicar—and truly powerful against the enemies of Christ. Pope Francis together with his bishops and priests can, by meekness, effect change—not so much fundamentally as foundationally. Though the world would expect such change to involve a remodeling of the Faith to fit modern paradigms, it is a restoration to traditional principles that is required—even if that means dispensing with some traditional formalities or polite reticence.
Whatever ends up happening may not be pretty, but appearances do not seem to be high on the list of such leaders of the Church Militant. Instead, Catholics can find in these men an exemplary humility to do the difficult thing—and the humility to be abused for it. To borrow a Chestertonian phrase, getting into hot water is the best way to get clean. If anything will defend against the fate of the divided house it is humility. When faced with accusation or attack, the Church’s response has typically been to turn the other cheek—or to start a war. Humility and bloodshed have always been the paradoxical ensigns of the Faith and the very elements that will substantiate it in the end. For men will only debase themselves and die for things that make them great in the understanding that they are small. Catholics must be ready to die for their culture—otherwise it will not be a culture worth living in.
After the bare-breasted protesters were evicted by security, Archbishop Léonard picked up one of the Marian bottles they had used to insult him with and kissed it. May all of us have the humility to face persecution as bravely. Catholic Culture depends on it.