It is always a little sad when the miracle doesn’t happen. So, when the Supreme Court waved its magic gavel last summer and rhetorically ended the citizens’ debate over the newly discovered “right” to same-sex “marriage,” the decision was greeted with frustration and a deep sense of betrayal on the part of many faithful Catholics. We had hoped our highest court was still capable of a rational ruling.
For many, the decision was ominous, both as an indicator of just how far we have come off our moorings as a society, and of how law and government will now be bent against the truth and those who defend it. After all, to tell a lie you must deny the truth, but to sell a lie you have to silence it.
It was, of course, quite clear which direction the court was leaning before the vote, so the decision itself was not shocking. But the rhetoric the court used to defend it, and the triumphalist crowing of the opinion makers in society that greeted it was sobering, indeed. No further denial is possible; the forces arrayed against us are formidable—in strength, if not sanity.
In the wake of all this, we are left to wrestle with the question of where we go from here.
In substance, I think Obergefell simply reaffirms what we already know to be true: the divide between the Catholic Church and our increasingly secular culture is widening, and there are rough times ahead for Catholics, and for the Church as an institution. The signs of the times flatly contradict the assumption that it will continue to be business as usual for the Catholic Church.
As the volume and vigor of those opposed to both Church teaching and our right to teach it grows, it is becoming clear that we, as Catholics and followers of Jesus, are now an island of unwelcome oddballs in the ocean of the new paganism, and the tide is coming in.
And while the cultural counter-narrative to reality is ever more deeply entrenched—as evidenced by Obergefell, and surreal instances like the disparate response to the undercover Planned Parenthood parts-trafficking videos and the killing of Cecil the Lion—it is no cause for despair. The threat of the immoral, anti-religious social consensus rising around us may be fairly new to us, but it is not at all new to Mother Church. This is by no means her first rodeo.
What all this called to mind, for me, was then-theology professor Josef Ratzinger’s 1969 radio address, in which he speculated that the Church would become much smaller, much poorer, and much more marginalized in the years to come. For anyone watching the turning of the tides in society, it seems like his assessment is both prophetic and imminent.
Societal sea changes notwithstanding, what we must not miss is that Ratzinger also said the Church would become both stronger and more faithful—a pruned tree ready once again to flourish and bear the fruit capable of nourishing man, and healing a poisoned culture. Most importantly, he foresaw that postmodern man—in the despair born of a life lived in thrall to the empty ideologies of the post-Christian culture—would find in the Church the home he had always been searching for.
The Church, so envisioned, would certainly be a Church of persecution, maybe even martyrdom, but we have been here before. Obergefell, and the ringing exultation of the growing immoral minority which followed, recalled sharply to me the astonishing reality that, at its origins, the Church was essentially 12 men leading a couple hundred faithful followers against the massive, institutionalized cultural, moral, and intellectual paganism of Rome. And yet, astoundingly, these 12 men and their disenfranchised followers won, and they won by witness, not warfare. They paid dearly for the victory—as Christ promised his followers they would—but they won.
They were, as we are, an island of unwelcome oddballs in an ocean of paganism.
This should serve as a rousing reminder to us that to Christ belongs the victory. The work of evangelization in his Church is his, not ours, and both in life and death we belong to Christ, not to the world. Our part is to put on the full armor of God and step boldly into the fray. The rest is a work of the Holy Spirit, in which we are privileged to have been granted a part.
If we can remember this truth, and stand in it, we will be able to give the same joyful witness the first Christians did, and it is that witness—given in some cases even unto death—that won the world, and can do so again.
When the day comes that this new paganism has exhausted itself and collapses, and that day will come, the faithful Church will be there—indeed will have always been there—to welcome and gather our brothers and sisters broken and disillusioned by what this brave new world promised, and failed to deliver. This is what Benedict saw all those years ago, and it is for this reason that we, the faithful remnant on Oddball Island, must strap on our sandals and shoulder our packs for the long, good work before us.
The Church, the Bride of Christ, has what the world needs. In every age, she is pleased to give her truth, goodness and beauty to her children, so that we, in turn, might give it to the world. It is the only effective inoculation against the diseased ideologies that obscure the truth in our time, and the only adequate answer to the lies of a world gone mad; the world in which the Church, then and now, must work and witness.
So let us, to whom the great good news of the Gospel has been entrusted, be sharp and ready weapons in the Holy Spirit’s hands. Let us diligently learn our faith, live our faith, and share our faith, come what may, out of love for Christ and the multitudes around us dying for lack of the nourishment that only the Church can give.
In the dark days ahead, the earliest saints and martyrs may be our brightest beacons. May God grant that, through their intercession and the patronage of our Blessed Mother, we may have the courage, faith, and humility to follow their lead; leaving the island to put out into the deep for a catch.
(Photo credit: Archbishop Ratzinger in 1977 / Ludwig Hamberger)