The Coming Age of the Laity

On the first Sunday in February, Catholics across the country heard homilies condemning the HHS mandate requiring Catholic institutions to subsidize free contraceptives for their employees. A friend of mine, shaking her head, wondered why the diktat had caught our bishops by surprise.

“How could they not see it coming?”

There are three aspects to the answer: The mandate, the bishops, and the laity.

True to form, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius cynically timed the mandate to coincide with the March For Life. No wonder her bishop barred her from the Eucharist – she could hardly have made the scandal more pointedly public. The mandate was immediately condemned and rejected by Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, USCCB President, and my own Ordinary, Bishop Paul S. Loverde of Arlington. Our bishops appear to have suddenly realized that we are at war. Good for them.

But how could they not see it coming?

Three reasons come to mind. The first is a simple question: “Hey, what’s the matter with contraception?” OK, we know, but who else does? Catholics familiar with Humanae Vitae know what happens when mankind defies natural law. Didn’t Pope Paul VI prophetically predict the cultural, human, and spiritual cost of untethered human self-indulgence?  Yes: he saw it coming. But who has preached it since 1968? For forty-four years far too many bishops have treated Humanae Vitae like the skunk at the parish Social Justice Picnic. So faithful Catholics cannot be blamed for being pleasantly surprised that our shepherds have finally drawn the line in the sand on the issue. We’ve been praying for this for years.

The second reason: while they have not been teaching Humanae Vitae, the USCCB and its staff have been adrift in the dark waters of “Social Justice” — browbeating, dividing, and alienating the laity with partisan politics, advocating a raft of personal agendas from amnesty to welfare, even supporting legislation that contains half a billion for contraceptives in “foreign aid.” [This is not to say that they’ve put all this behind them: on the First Friday of February, the USCCB called on Catholics to fast and pray about “food insecurity and climate change.”]

And the third reason: the abuse and cover-up scandals. Enough said.

Pope Benedict, however, did see it coming. When Bishop Loverde joined his brother bishops from our region on their ad limina visit to Rome in January, His Holiness took pains to make it perfectly clear:

At the heart of every culture, whether perceived or not, is a consensus about the nature of reality and the moral good, and thus about the conditions for human flourishing. In America, that consensus, as enshrined in your nation’s founding documents, was grounded in a worldview shaped not only by faith but a commitment to certain ethical principles deriving from nature and nature’s God. Today that consensus has eroded significantly in the face of powerful new cultural currents which are not only directly opposed to core moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but increasingly hostile to Christianity as such.

Meet the Culture of Death, also known as the animating spirit of today’s Democrat Party. Yes, Dear Reader, that’s the same party that for a hundred years has been the political partner of preference for America’s Catholic bishops.

His Holiness then stressed the need for the laity to act:

Here once more we see the need for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture ….”

Because Humanae Vitae was seldom well-taught, today’s laity was seldom well-formed. Now that the bishops, pace their earlier bygones, seek to unite the faithful, they’ve got a mountain to climb and fences to mend. But, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go to war with the laity you have. And on this issue we must unite, because it involves not political agendas and personal opinions, but magisterial truth.

Baggage, Balls, And Chains

To win this war, the Church is going to have to break a lot of bad habits. And old habits die hard. A new generation of bishops now recognize the perils of allying with the American government that Pope Leo XIII warned against a century ago. The dalliance – sometimes romantic, sometimes merely convenient – between the USCCB and the Democrats has brought forth a raft of Church institutions whose bureaucracies mirror those of their government counterparts. Church “charity” has come to rely increasingly on politicians, not the laity.  Thus, as the Democrats have moved left, our bureaucracies have too – whether by choice or by necessity. After all, they count on billions of taxpayer dollars flowing to Church institutions every year.

Well, that is going to end.

Why? Because for years the USCCB has coddled the Democrats who are now our most hostile enemies in this war. Obama, Biden, Pelosi, and company will not care a whit that we cheered them on with partisan pastorals on racism, economic justice, and amnesty, while we pulled our punches on homosexuality, reception of the Eucharist, and ObamaCare. Laymen understand what bishops apparently don’t: politicians have allowed us to play in their taxpayer-funded trough because we have played by their rules. To put it bluntly, politics is tit for tat. Our former pals are not going to continue scratching our back if we punch them in the nose.

And we need to deliver a knockout punch. Like following Canon Law – specifically, applying Canon 915, for starters.

When that happens, Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Relief Services, even “Catholic” universities and hospitals that receive government funds, will see those funds dry up. The bishops have drawn a line in the sand. Well, as Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker used to say, “That door swings both ways.” The Left knows how to play that game better than we do. One look at the barbaric, even diabolical rage that met the unremarkable decision by “Komen for the Cure” to terminate its funding of Planned Parenthood should be sufficient: they shoot to kill. When that rage swells into a vulgar, violent attack on our Church, her leaders, her members, and her institutions– and it will — let’s not be asking, “How could we not see it coming?” – It’s coming. 

Charity: Voluntary? Or Mandatory?

During the twentieth century, charity was transformed from a private, voluntary endeavor to a “sector” that today is dominated by government. The number of “private” charities in the U.S. has mushroomed in recent years, but so has their dependence on government funding. That is also true for the Church. Our charities could not survive today without taxpayer dollars.

Eventually, they’re going to have to. There are two ways in which this will come to pass: either the Church will renounce all government funding – and, eventually, even its tax-exempt status – or a hostile government will revoke them. Either way, it’s going to happen.  For too long the Church’s attitude has been, “Let the government do it.” But as Pope Benedict put it, the enemy that confronts us is driven by “powerful new cultural currents which are not only directly opposed to core moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but increasingly hostile to Christianity as such.” Compromise is not possible with the Angel of Death. It never has been. What began as an attack on the principles shaping the placement policies of Catholic adoption agencies will soon target every aspect of truly Catholic charity.

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield recently decided to end the “historical partnership” between his diocese and the state child welfare bureaucracy (including state funding, of course), telling the Chicago Tribune that “[t]he silver lining of this decision is that our Catholic Charities going forward will be able to focus on being more Catholic and more charitable, while less dependent on government funding and less encumbered by intrusive state policies.” Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Tulsa has also seen the light. In December it renounced all government funding, for practical as well as principled reasons. The decision “enables the organization to remain true to its Roman Catholic values and to act swiftly to help people in need without wading through a bureaucratic morass,” executive director Deacon Kevin Sartorius told the Tulsa World. Observing that many diocesan Catholic Charities receive as much as 80% of their funding from government, Deacon Sartorius uttered this gem: “It’s natural to want to please the one who is providing the money for your program.”

How can you please a virulently anti-Catholic government? Answer: you can’t.

The Age Of The Laity – Ready Or Not

What Is To Be Done?” – Vladimir Lenin 

When the government money goes, that leaves us – the laity. Charity in the twenty-first century will be like that in the nineteenth – when the glorious institutions of Holy Mother Church flourished without government aid. The laity has already taken the lead on several fronts. Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, ardently champions the lay vocation of volunteering – by his knights and by the rest of us. Crisis pregnancy centers like the Women’s Care Center and Expectant Mothers Care, founded and led by lay volunteers and prayerfully supported by many bishops, have multiplied across the country. Soup kitchens, health clinics, and food pantries have sprung up everywhere — most of them funded by the unpaid volunteers who run them, often aided by donations – all of them voluntary – from individuals as well as groups like the Knights of Malta.

We’re going to need more. Yes, the Church’s charitable efforts will be more Catholic without intrusive government, but they will also depend more than ever on a vibrant, faithful, and generous laity. The government’s massive welfare behemoth – including everything from Social Security and housing to Medicare and Food Stamps – is going broke. This generation of laity – our generation — will be challenged to carry out a “New Evangelization” that demands the Corporal Works of Mercy like nothing we have seen in our lifetime. “Giving of our substance, not just our excess,” will become our daily bread.

Only the “well-formed Catholic laity” called for by Pope Benedict can successfully meet this challenge.  But many Catholics today rarely see the inside of a church, don’t know how to say the Rosary, and haven’t been to Confession for years. To confront this crisis of formation, the laity will often have to catechize themselves – the bishops already have their hands full. Lay apostolates can help (my favorites: Crisis, EWTN, Real Catholic TV and The Wanderer). But that won’t stop the secular hostility – in fact, it will soon morph into outright persecution. As night follows day, the secular state that defies the Prince of Peace will turn to war. Solzhenitsyn had it right: falsehood always brings violence in its wake. So we must “put not our faith in princes,” especially when they lie to us – all too often, in bipartisan fashion, alas.

In the midst of the coming hard times, tens of millions of Americans who today rely on government subsidies will be at sea when the money runs out (or is rendered worthless by hyperinflation). They will need our help. We must rise to the occasion and serve our neighbor, responding as never before to the Catechism’s mandate: “And so, worshipping everywhere by their holy actions, the laity consecrate the world itself to God, everywhere offering worship by the holiness of their lives.” (CCC 901)

The Church’s alliance with the government should have ended 100 years ago, with World War One, when Cardinal Gibbons sided with Woodrow Wilson instead of Benedict XV. Or with the New Deal, when the Catholic Conference’s Msgr. Ryan was known as “The Right Reverend New Dealer.” Or with the School Prayer Decision. Or with Roe v. Wade. Admittedly, predicting earthquakes is not a hard science, but we’ve just had one. The alliance is over, and so is the Church’s dependence on government funding. It’s time for a comeback of charity that is “more Catholic and more charitable,” as Bishop Paprocki puts it. And it’s up to the laity to take the lead.

 

Christopher Manion

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Christopher Manion served as a staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many years. He has taught in the departments of politics, religion, and international relations at Boston University, the Catholic University of America, and Christendom College, and is the director of the Campaign for Humanae Vitae™, a project of the Bellarmine Forum Foundation. He is a Knight of Malta.

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