The night after Election Day, rioters took to the streets of Portland armed with guns, knives, hammers, and fireworks. Reporters on the ground said that the group had gathered to “rally against authoritarianism,” which, in effect, was a rally against the sitting president of the United States—a “fascist,” in the minds of his more excitable critics—who has not been officially unseated by his Democratic challenger. Rioters destroyed the storefronts of local businesses, vandalized private property, and desecrated a local Catholic church in an all-too-familiar orgy of destruction in the genre known as the “mostly peaceful protest.”
Saint Andre Bessette Catholic Church is a small parish that takes pride in its service to the poor and downtrodden in Old Town Portland. The church’s exterior was defaced by rioters, and several windows were smashed by a man clad in black. The parish priest, Father Tom Gaughan, suspended operations at the parish’s homeless-outreach ministry, citing safety concerns. “The actions of one person,” Father Gaughan said, have “disrupted the opportunities for hundreds to be fed.”
The Archdiocese of Portland, to which Saint Andre Bessette belongs, is one of the most progressive dioceses in the United States. Crisis readers will recall the fracas at Saint Francis Church in Portland last year, where parishioners revolted against their new African priest, Father George Kuforiji, who reformed many of the parish’s liturgical excesses. Father Kuforiji insisted on using the male pronouns for God (manifestly His preference) and trading the parish’s plain, earthen Eucharistic vessels for gold and silver receptacles for the Body and Blood of Christ, as per the Church’s specifications. Many parishioners were indignant.
The last change in particular upset one parishioner, who asked, “How can we use silver and gold up there and see people hungry in this place?” The parishioner’s lament finds a parallel in the Gospel of John, when Our Blessed Lord is anointed by Mary, the sister of Martha, with expensive perfume. Judas Iscariot indignantly asks Jesus—in a manner not dissimilar to the parishioner—“Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?”
The answer to both the parishioner’s and the traitor’s questions is that Jesus Christ—present both in Bethany 2,000 years ago and the Eucharist in Portland, Oregon in 2020 A.D.—is owed our love and reverence simply for His being God. Loving “the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind,” is, in Christ’s words, “the greatest and the first commandment.” Loving our neighbor is the second commandment, subordinate to and incomplete without the first.
Indeed, love of neighbor divorced from, or given primacy over, love and reverence for the One who created self and neighbor is a perversion of the Lord’s command. It’s hard to mistake the presence of this perversion in the rioters and revolutionaries who defaced Saint Andre Bessette in Portland last week, each of whom surely felt their violent demonstration against the Orange Bad Man as an act of revolutionary solidarity with the marginalized. (They should, for what it’s worth, consider the plight of the unborn.)
The notion that we can have Christianity without Christ—a neutered fraternity among men without doctrinal commitments, beliefs, or convictions of any sort, save the vague good-feeling of one toward another—is perhaps the central error of our age. If we think of Jesus simply as a “good teacher,” He will offer the vexing reply He gave to the rich young ruler: “Why dost thou call me good? None is good but God alone.” If we don’t think Jesus is actually God, then, of course, the parishioner’s question makes sense. Why bother with that hokum about the Body and Blood of Christ when there are real people suffering?
Saint John Chrystosom rightly cautions us not to “adorn the church and ignore [our] afflicted brother,” for to do so is to ensure our own damnation. But this cautionary note is hardly what is being proposed by the discontented parishioners in Portland, many of whom, one suspects, don’t believe in eternal damnation. The dispute runs deeper. Some of the parishioners at Saint Francis, for instance, refused to kneel at the consecration of the Eucharist in defiance of an order from their archbishop. One begins wonder whether their problem is with the golden vessels used at Mass or the doctrine of the Real Presence itself.
We arrive now at the center of the problem. Archbishop Sheen once said that “our unsouled age wants a Christianity watered so as to make the Gospel of Christ nothing more than a gentle doctrine of goodwill, a social program of economic betterment, and a mild scheme of progressive idealism.” The brand of “social-justice Catholicism” that de-emphasizes truth, doctrine, and evangelism in favor of a nebulous creed of niceness not only betrays the Christ of the Gospels, whose commands of love and peacemaking the parishioners claim to adore. It renders impossible authentic human love, the sort of love that can only arise in the context of knowledge of one’s neighbor as a created being made in the image of the Creator Himself.
Loving humanity instead of human beings—indeed, loving human beings to the exclusion of their Creator—is to love and worship oneself. Yet man is not lovable in himself; he is a fallen, broken, often contemptible creature. Rather, he’s made lovable by his being made in the image of God, redeemed by God’s Son. To forget our Catholic anthropology is to miss the point of the Gospels, and to ever resemble the rioters who defaced Saint Andre Bessett in their godless “rally against authoritarianism.”