Time to Abandon Comfort And Defend Essentials

The issues that now put Catholics in opposition to secular public thought are too basic to ignore. The Church accepts God as our reference point, and views freedom to develop our relation to Him and act by reference to it as basic to our good and our dignity. In contrast, secular society has made our own outlook and desires our reference point. Those things make us what we are, or so it is thought, and freedom to follow them is considered the key to a good and dignified life.

That opposition leads to views of morality and justice in which drastically different claims and authorities carry weight. The Church values conscience, and accepts “this is right”—in general, this expresses the moral nature of a world that after all is God’s creation—as a claim that normally overrides other considerations. Today’s secular world values individual autonomy instead, and prefers the authority of claims such as “I want this” or “this is part of my identity as I define it.”

The contradiction is sharpened by conflicts in institutional loyalty. The Church accepts its hierarchy as the authority that defines, protects, and furthers the most fundamental human concerns. Secular society rejects that authority in favor of that of the state, with its courts, constitutional law, experts on human rights, and system of education and social welfare. At one time it was possible to reconcile the two by saying that they dealt with different matters, the Church hierarchy with fundamental spiritual and moral principles and the state with worldly practicalities and standards of conduct generally accepted as a matter of vernacular natural law (otherwise known as common sense).

That view no longer works because of growing state absolutism resulting from the decline of transcendent religion and the sense of a natural moral order. All social institutions, including the family, are now viewed as state creations, so that determining what they should be in light of ultimate values such as equality and personal autonomy is considered a basic function of government. On such an understanding there is no room for the moral authority of the Church.

From the Catholic standpoint the claims the secular world treats as authoritative are weak. “I want this” is a reason for doing something, but a weak reason, and “this expresses the identity I define for myself” is not persuasive at all. We don’t make ourselves, and our decision does not determine the value or reality of what we choose or believe ourselves to be. To say otherwise would make radical self-assertion the foundation of morality, which is indeed the tendency of modern thought.

Secular society of course views things differently. From its standpoint the Church’s claims are not merely weak but outrageous. “This is right,” where “right” is presented as obligatory without regard to desires, chosen identities, or the needs of a public order that makes freedom and equality its supreme goods, is seen as an attempt to make the speaker’s outlook and preferences trump other people’s. There is no place for those who make such assertions—prolifers, gay marriage opponents, and so on—in contemporary liberal public discussion. Against that background secular society is coming decisively to view religion as a matter of private lifestyle and symbolism that should be strictly subordinated to a general system of lifestyle freedom, prominently including sexual freedom. The latter, after all, has fewer explicit public implications than religion, especially now that human life is understood technologically, and is therefore likely to be more manageable. And in any event there seem to be more people today, especially influential people, who care strongly about it.

It is important to understand how bad the Catholic view looks to people who accept the current secular view, which includes almost everyone who has been formed by present-day education and pop culture, and is well enough attuned to current attitudes and understandings to become respected and influential. The Supreme Court’s opinion in Windsor, which argued against the Defense of Marriage Act by treating marriage as a creation of the state and refusal to extend it to same-sex couples as simple malice, makes it evident that mutual respect is not to be expected.

It is also important to understand that the Catholic view is indeed the Catholic view, and is correct no matter what the ruling powers may think of it. The points at issue are too basic to be finessed, and we can’t deal with today’s world and our fellow citizens without making an issue of them. Otherwise what we say will either be treated as incomprehensible or absorbed into the current secular outlook. A call for mutual love, for example, will be understood as a call for affirming and supporting the desires and self-defined identities of all people just as they are, subject only to the principle of mutual tolerance.

To deal with the current situation of fundamental conflict we must abandon comfort, mediocrity, and the habit of blurring our views on fundamental issues. Once we do so we will have advantages that will ultimately tell. Our opponents have power, position, and self-assurance, but not substance or stature. Public leadership and discussion is at a low ebb today. A public orthodoxy that says that man and the world are what we make of them, which is what we have now, takes us out of the world as it is into a world of fantasy. Willful delusion has certain advantages when it’s in power—on its own terms it’s impregnable—but it eventually leads to defeat because the world refuses to cooperate with it. Contemporary understandings of family life, for example, have not led to more happiness or better outcomes for much of anyone.

So in the long run truth and reason win. But what do we do now? First, like Paul, we should preach the word in and out of season. People may not seem to listen or understand, but on some level they don’t really accept the official theory—it’s not the sort of view that can be held through and through—and we don’t know who will be ready to hear something different. Further, we should do so with clarity and intelligence. As Peter said, we should “always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15). So we should get beyond sound bites and soothing ambiguities, and present the best arguments we can for the Faith. Most people will shrug them off, but some will be looking for a better way of dealing with life and the world.

To prepare the way, we should insistently confront ingrained falsehoods and confusions wherever and whenever perpetrated. Black legends exist because there’s a demand for them, so debunking this claim about the Crusades or that one about Pius XII won’t register immediately with most people. Still, the truth should be readily available for the day someone is interested. We also need to take charge of the language of discussion, at least the language we use ourselves. Instead of talking about “banning same-sex marriage,” we need to talk about opposing the new requirement that everyone view a relation between two men as a marriage. Otherwise we are conceding most of the issue by our very way of talking about it.

Above all, we need to live like Catholics. There are much more important reasons to do so than the argumentative advantage it confers, but it remains true that in a time of moral confusion living well is the best offense. People know that the current order of things doesn’t help them lead good lives, and if they see someone who has something better many of them will eventually want to know more about it. We should live in a way that makes that the natural turn for their thoughts to take.

 Editor’s note: This column first appeared June 12, 2014 on Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. (Photo credit: Reuters.)

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • The majority of Catholics in America don’t know their faith. And I’m talking about those who go to mass regularly. We have to admit it.

    Not only that, but we are shy and afraid.

    Shy because we are hesitant, confused, not knowing how to reply and what to say because we lack knowledge.

    Afraid to face the world because even if we have a solid knowledge of our faith, we are cowards, we don’t want to debate, we refuse to “offend” people’s sensitivities, we want to be “nice”, etc.

    I don’t how we can say that we’re Catholics if we don’t live what we believe and defend our faith.

    We might as well stay home, not go to church, watch TV, go online or gossip about the latest “smart phone” or “tablet.”

    • GaudeteMan

      Spot on! But at the risk of offending your sensitivities can we begin the revival by calling ‘mass’ Holy Mass with appropriate capital letters? It reminds me of a priest who used to say, “if you like prayin the beads, pray the beads.” So much of what we believe is given its appropriate honor and due respect by the terms we use to describe them. Additionally, its the posture, dress, etc. we utilize when we engage in the Sacred Worship that has an impact. Regarding the youth, the only thing that drives them regarding supernatural things is that for which they would die. Boys are motivated by martyrs being torn asunder for their faith in the One God. Read 2Maccabees, 7 to a group of junior high kids see their response.

    • Ladasha Smithson

      Agreed. Trying to talk to my fellow Catholics about modesty, chastity, or virginity has scared me from trying to talk to non-believers.

  • The Real America is emerging and it is not pretty …

    • Micha Elyi

      It’s not “the Real America” that’s emerging but an Obamanation. And that’s not a sudden development, the rot that led to this has been ongoing for over 50 years. Where have our bishops been?

      • Thank you @Micha Elyi! I believe it was flawed from its very founding …

  • Scott W.

    Excellent and succinct.

  • Therese

    You have addressed an issue that really bugs me, especially when dealing with children and teens. I am in full agreement that we should speak up even if “they’re not listening anyway” – we can’t say who hears what or when! This applies to parenting, teaching, catechesis and defending the faith.
    “Silence means consent” was never more relevant.

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  • AcceptingReality

    James, I love your articles and wholeheartedly agree. I would also like to add that the reason the Church is growing more and more irrelevant is her unwillingness to assert that which is true. June was so-called “Pride” month. How many priests and bishops mentioned anything about sexual morality, chastity or the true definition of marriage from the pulpit? How many ever touch on sexual freedom, explaining that the concept of sexual freedom is actually enslavement. How many ever talk about any of the main moral issues of the day? It’s rare. This silence from the pulpit on the main moral issues of the day is the problem. I know it takes great courage and sensitivity to preach on those things but I think the people in the pews are hungrier for it than they even know.

    • Bill

      What you write is on target. A recent poll shows that in the United States, 54% of Catholics surveyed “support marriage between two persons of the same sex”. Now one might argue that not all these Catholics are weekly worshippers, but the fact remains that many Catholics do support same-gender marriage and I have heard not one word against this abomination from my parish priest. The bishops and priests must inform parishioners about their moral obligation not to support grave sin the consequences of which could be terrifying.

      • david

        As Mr. Kalb said, “We also need to take charge of the language of discussion”.
        Rather than say, “many Catholics do support same-gender marriage”; how about ‘many Catholics do support recognizing sodomific relationships AS EQUAL TO marriage’. Call a spade a bloody shovel 🙂 Use language that forces people to think about what it is they “support”. If they are forced to think about it they may realize their error.

        • Guest

          That is the basis of the problem. Language forms our perception of reality. Speak plainly and you are uncharitable or a hater. Words have become so deformed we cannot reason clearly anymore. Murder is now pro choice. Sodomy is love. It is sickening.

  • Fred

    James, excellent article as usual – it couldn’t have expressed how I feel any more perfectly. Excellent comments too, I especially connect with Paul Ben. It’s past high time that we recognize what is going on around us and to be bold in our faith, because the enemies of the Church are emboldened by our lack of courage to show our faith. I know a big part of that comes from the feeling that we don’t know how to defend every challenge, and we never will unless we’ve dedicated our whole lives to study, however, we can take small steps to learn or re-learn, especially in apologetics. More important than that though is we need to be good will ambassadors for Christ by controlling our own rage against the madness around us and draw others to have a relationship with him by our joy and confidence. When I reflect on how best to deal with insanity I think about my own path. I never hated Christ but I was ambivalent about him until I let him into my life in my 50’s, and it was the most amazing transformation event I could have ever imagined. For sure there are many who profess to hate Christ who may never see the light, but I think a great many more in their heart know things aren’t right and want to have a relationship with him, and have a hunger that isn’t being satisfied by the world (including people) around them. Therese’s comments below are so true but don’t only apply to children. People don’t respond like a light switch instantaneously to hearing the word so we must be patient and kind in helping others find the path that leads to him.

  • I really enjoy James Kalb’s reasoning and articles. There are distinctions that were lost long before the ‘gay’ movement took on that word. The difference between a marriage contract and a sacramental marriage is the heart of the current marriage debate. The church gave up any rights to contract marriage. What most people have even at a Catholic wedding is mere contract and HOPE the sacrament takes hold. What if priests had to declare their average number of failed contract marriages in their life time compared to those seeking/holding to the sacrament. Does a priest carry the authority to say I will not marry you two, you are not ready? How many use it?

  • windjammer

    Excellent article as usual. IMHO, In a word? It’s all about “Leadership”…or the lack thereof at every level of the Church. Since the “updating” of the Church aka Vatican 2, a self inflicted disaster has unfolded before our very eyes over the last 50 years. The real problem lies within the Church which essentially adapted to man and his world as the preferred method of “updating”. In effect we surrendered the battlefield i/n/o “ecumenism”, “religious freedom”, “collegiality” and “pastoral care” at precisely the wrong time. We in effect consciously rejected Pope Leo’s XIII statement..”Catholics are borne for combat”. Worse yet is that we have followed along like sheeple in the name of that most treasured of Catholic virtues..”Obedience”. Satan could not be more pleased at the execution and implementation of his diabolically clever game-plan. His infectious spiritual disease of “modernism” has metastasized and inflicted irreparable damage and suffering on the Church and countless souls. Not the least of sufferings is the scourge of abysmal leadership (with a few exceptions) at all levels. Unfortunately and most sadly the terms..”Holy”, “Humble”, “Courageous”, “Selfless”, “Honest” do not come to mind when one considers the men leading the Church. Their primary purpose to “Save Souls” seems nowhere to be found and the results speak for themselves. There is an adage that “people get the leaders they deserve”. The Church decided to go man’s way 50 years ago and we have been “gifted” with the leadership of our choice.

  • When comparing and contrasting the “Two Cities”, as St. Augustine called them, I always think of the Satan’s infamous “Law of Thelema”:

    “Do what you will.” (Aleister Crowley, The Book of the Law)

    For those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, the infinite abyss which separates Antichrist from Christ hinges on the One Word: Love.

    “Love, and do what you will.” (St. Augustine, Homily 7 on the First Epistle of John)

    How simple! Only someone who has misplaced (lost?) his child-like innocence could possibly miss this clear tenet of our precious faith. You don’t need a Masters in Divinity or a Ph.D. in Philosophy to be a good Christian, simply “seek God and have a good will!” (Pope Francis) because those who seek God will find Him, and those who find God will Praise Him. (cf St. Augustine, Confessions, Chapter 1, and Psalm 22:26)

    God help us all.

  • cestusdei

    In the end we will suffer for our faith, sooner or later, probably sooner.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    St Augustine is very good on desire and delight.

    Thus, On John’s Gospel 26.4 “If it be allowable to the poet [Vergil, Eclogues 2.65] to say “his own pleasure draws each man,” not need, but pleasure, not obligation but delight, how much more ought we to say that a man is drawn to Christ, who delights in the truth, who delights in happiness who delights in justice, who delights in eternal life and all this is Christ?” http://www.augustinus.it/latino/commento_vsg/index2.htm

    Also, On Epistle to Galatians 49 “ in acting we necessarily follow what gives us most pleasure” where he contrasts the delight in feminine beauty with the delight in chastity


    Then, in On the Merits and Remission of Sins 2, 17, 26: “Men are not willing to do what is right either because the fact that it is right is hidden from them, or because it does not please them… It is from the grace of God, which helps the wills of man, that that which was hidden becomes known, and that which did not please become sweet.” http://www.augustinus.it/latino/castigo_perdono/index2.htm

    For St Augustine, the whole paradox of grace and free will is explained by this: free will consists in doing what we want to do. Grace does not, and has no need, to interfere with our power of choice; rather, it affects what we want to do; free will requires freedom of choice, but not freedom to determine our own likes and dislikes.

    • There is no John 26. Typo? Also, what does he say about Luke 22:42, “not my will but thine be done”?

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        No, a reference to Tractate 24 of the Commentary, in which St Augustine comments on Io. 6, 1-14

        At the heart of St Augustine’s teaching is delectatio coelestis victrix – the all-conquering delight in heavenly things; not for nothing is he called, “the Doctor of Grace”

        • Sounds all very Platonic. Still, Luke 22:42 suggests that there are also other ways of speaking about desire and decision within the Christian tradition.

          • Michael Paterson-Seymour

            “Sounds all very Platonic.”

            St Augustine could have taken it, not only from Vergil, but from Lucretius, an Epicurean, rather than a Platonist

            “libera per terras unde haec animantibus exstat,
            unde est haec, inquam, fatis avolsa voluntas,
            per quam progredimur quo ducit quemque voluptas”

            [whence comes this free will in living creatures all over the earth? Whence I say is this will, wrested from the fates, by which we proceed whither delight leads each?]

            The will does not act without motive and what is truth, goodness, beauty, but being itself, as known, as desired, as admired?

  • Connie Boyd

    Right. It’s time to start defending the Crusades.

    • If you want to do some debunking, which is what you seem to be saying, you can find resources by sticking “crusades” in the search box toward the bottom of the page.

  • margaret Allain

    Thank you excellent.

  • John

    Recently I spoke with two people 20 and 17, both basic atheists but willing agnostics if only I could scientifically prove the existence of God. Their thought patterns, idealogies, and philosophies were rooted in error and even communicating basic ideas of God was difficult because they were imbued in a foreign language of thought. A process of thought so narrow and inaccurate as to be seemingly incapable of seeing a wider view, almost inoculated against sanity. This denial of reality is very very deep in our society, and is found at the highest levels of governance and finance. One has only to consider trillions upon trillions of dollars in national debt and using the printing press and pretend for a solution, and observe the dereliction of leadership to know we are on borrowed time and the clock is running out. In such a world where genocide against the unborn is legal one must realize that it will not be contained for long to merely the helpless children but eventually to those who offer opposition on their behalf , and indeed any group declared unworthy. If murder can be redefined as a choice and even a right, then sanity is not merely on vacation but indeed left the building. Ultimately death, destruction, suffering of all kinds and social chaos collapse and confusion will continue to ensue. In the short run, the bread and circuses will continue, but once the money runs out – watch out. They will need to blame someone. But, in season or out you may as well speak out and tell the whole truth, that’s what we are called to do.