In March of 1938, when the naïve among his contemporaries still thought they might cut a deal with the National Socialists, Winston Churchill saw his country “descending incontinently, fecklessly, the stairway which leads to a dark gulf.” A gulf beckons today, and no amount of forced optimism or self-conscious jollity will stop the descent to its shadows. There is nothing inevitable about what lies ahead, but providence will overcome fatalism only if people absorb what Pope Benedict XVI said last January to a group of American bishop on their “ad limina” visit: “…it is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres.”
Those words would probably confuse the comfortable man who objected to me about a prayer that mentioned “enemies of the Faith.” He said with suburban unction that “there are no enemies anymore.” He was unaware that somewhere around 200 million Christians live under daily threat in 131 countries. Last year, nearly 100,000 Christians were killed because of their Christianity, in lands from North Korea and China, to Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia, Laos, Sudan, and on and on, including some supposed allies of our nation, such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt.
The man who saw no enemies might plead with good reason that the media have, to put it mildly, inadequately publicized these persecutions. That kind of plea, however, can no longer be sustained when elements of our own government have declared war on the Church, and persecution both subtle and blatant has gone domestic. Catholics have not been prepared to deal with this, and some have even been compliant. If we rely only on institutional bureaucracy to be our line of defense, we may find it to be a Maginot Line. The Allies were unprepared when Churchill spoke in 1938 because people wanted butter not guns, but found soon enough that butter was being rationed, and guns were pointing at them. The continued course of our nation’s freedom depends on the disposition of its people to heed the warning signs of threats to its moral integrity. Churchill was half-American, and so it was especially fitting that the British government lend the White House a bust of him by Sir Jacob Epstein as a token of common bonds after September 11, 2001. Immediately after his inauguration, President Obama returned the bust, which now waits nearby in the British Embassy. Churchill was accustomed to waiting.
Pope Benedict told the American bishops:
“Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion. Many of you have pointed out that concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices. Others have spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.”
It is not possible to look through stained glass windows, so that man who saw no enemies outside his air-conditioned and centrally heated church will be surprised if he tries to visit a Catholic hospital two years from now and finds that there is none, only dark gulf. The Archbishop of Chicago has considered that possibility if the Health and Human Services regulations are not rescinded.
Hope is a theological virtue. Optimism is not. The wise have warned that pessimists are unhappy fools and optimists are happy fools. But the hopeful are not foolish. Christ began his war with a forty-day battle in a desert filled with wild beasts, but as they prowled about, He could hear angels.