We have just reenacted the resurrection of Christ at Easter and are waiting in the in-between time for His ascension and Pentecost. In such an atmosphere, the weary Catholic Culture Warrior in a morally decaying America has no reason to feel embattled, much less embittered. The main things of the faith are secure and the ultimate triumph of God’s truth assured in the long run.
But even in the short run, we have good—if indirect—grounds for hope. An old Irish saying observes: “For the piper’s wife, life is not all music.” This bit of folk wisdom is a good reminder that a lot of toil and vexation lie behind the most beautiful things we can do in this world. Under that rubric, I take it that the frequent and ongoing attacks on the Church are, of course, motivated by hatred of all her works and pomps, but also, hidden within this constant onslaught lies the recognition on the part of aggressive secularists and outright anti-Catholics that, unlike other religious institutions, the Catholic Church still matters.
Other Christian churches have been waging brave battles against elements within their own folds seeking to adapt the Gospel message to the spirit of the age. Except for the mainline Protestant churches, the faithful have not done so badly. To take an obvious example, homosexual marriage and the prohibition of homosexual acts per se continue among all Christian churches except the furthest out, such as the United Church of Christ. The Unitarians, once memorably defined as a body that believes “that there is, at most, one God,” never had any real dogma to be unfaithful to. Reform Judaism recently decided to break with Moses, other currents within Judaism, and the Christian followers of the Torah in permitting homosexual unions. But, as when a bishop bites a dog, it’s a one-day headline.
The only real religious acts that send shivers across the board in our public media stem from liturgies or moral pronouncements in Rome or associated with Christ’s vicar. When the pope asked forgiveness (primarily from God) in the spring, whatever the reaction to the apology among various sectors of the society, the subtext was that something real had happened, not just another statement from a church leader or body over matters that hardly anyone, even believers, follow any more. As an Italian friend who studies the Vatican closely remarked, “no one but a strong man asks forgiveness that way, confidently stating the transgression and not groveling in self-abasement. It was a forward-looking act.”
The immediate media reaction, of course, was to turn a religious gesture into a political one. Producers trying to line up speakers on national media went into overdrive trying to find the most inflammatory positions to make the discussion as lively as possible.
One, a Catholic, went so far as to ask me whether the pope’s apologies on past issues would not weaken confidence in his current positions. Some people will no doubt misuse the Holy Father’s request for forgiveness to take further vengeance against Church teachings they dislike. But, I told her, there are two entirely different kinds of questions mixed up in such efforts. On certain teachings, like the Mosaic Law, the pope has shown himself and the whole Christian tradition far more faithful and unchanging, in season and out, than the dissenters like. Anyone who is not tone-deaf to ecclesial styles knows that the Church will never change the things without which she has no reason for being.
Quite different, however, are contingent matters like popular anti-Semitism, the Crusades (which seemed at the time a just attempt to recover lands conquered not that long before by Muslims from Christians), or even the misguided methods of the Inquisition. Those aberrations crop up in any large and long-standing institution. The Church will no doubt have others to regret in the hindsight of future generations.
But in all these questions—to say nothing of the ongoing debates over abortion, war and peace, moral values, care for the poor—clearly, the Church shows a continuing centrality to the public realm that no other religious body, indeed no governmental force in the United States, including the office of the president, can command. Clinton’s visits to India and Pakistan caused a temporary stir. A few weeks later, things would be back, unfortunately, to what is considered normal in the region.
Far different was the Holy Father’s stunning pilgrimage through the Holy Land. Anyone who has ever been to Israel has seen firsthand the no-holds-barred public fights among Jews themselves. The commentary on the pope’s arrival began with similar acrimony. But then something strange happened. In spite of themselves, the media, the participants, even the opposing parties all came together in an unanticipated admiration for John Paul II as a spiritual pilgrim. The Middle East remains a mess. But it was hard not to detect in the succeeding dispatches and television coverage near awe at this successor of Peter visiting the old sites for the first time and saying the things that Christianity’s Founder had said there two millennia ago.
If there has been a publicly graced moment at the crossroads of several competing ancient faiths in our time, that was it. The Israeli ambassador to the Vatican called it “the most important visit in Israel’s history.” We will see the consequences of it in many unexpected ways in the years to come. And it is indirect homage to the Church that even when she is mired in controversy, her critics still pay attention.