Common Wisdom: Modern Catholics and the Wimp Factor

In two solid weeks of Olympic television watching, in interview after interview of boxing and track-and-field stars, I have heard the name of God spoken (reverently!) more than I could have in a year’s worth of prime time. The simplicity and unself-consciousness with which people like Florence Griffith Joyner gave credit where credit was due were enormously refreshing and also instructive.

This quadrennial reintroduction of God into prime time brings home with special force His absence from the tube in recent years. The fault, obviously, lies not with God, but with ourselves. The major religious denominations in America have grown much less isolationist in our generation, but not always in the right way or for the right reasons. We Catholics, like many mainstream Protestants, have been seduced too frequently into identifying religious pluralism with relativism—with the idea that different beliefs about God and man can coexist because they don’t matter.

They do matter, which is why God’s absence from the public square has coincided with suicidal national moral disorders like legalized abortion. Polls show an astonishing number of people willing to label themselves religious, willing to label abortion as the taking of human life, yet unwilling to “impose their beliefs” on others. We are developing an almost pagan idea of God as a non-transferable protector of the tribe, a local deity unwilling or unable to assume national responsibilities. We claim to be followers of Yahweh, but unlike the ancient Israelites (or like them in their less admirable moments), we coexist rather comfortably with Moloch.

Younger Catholics have largely abandoned the spiritual ghettoes that Catholic intellectuals used to decry, but often the unackowledged price has been the ghettoization of their religious beliefs. In subtle ways, successful yuppie Catholics can downplay their minority religious status by cleaning their lives, their vocabularies and even their thinking of Catholic peculiarities. Minor, seemingly innocuous collaborations with the spirit of the times or with secular society eventually leave desacralized Catholics diffident and at a loss when they are confronted with ridicule of the Church’s sexual teachings, or with pro-abortion remarks, or with the espousal of a coeducational priesthood in the interests of sexual equality. What terrorizes Catholics into uncomfortable silence? Not lions in the Coliseum, but the threat of exclusion from the Inner Circle whose allure C.S. Lewis has described so powerfully.

The example of the Olympic athletes—and of Mother Teresa and Cardinal O’Connor and many other good people who clearly are untroubled by their exclusion from secular Valhallas—suggests that even our shameful little fears of social rejection may be exaggerated. Too many Catholics have too little confidence in the power of Christ and His Church to command respect even when they attract opposition. And too many Catholics treat the “unchurched” as invulnerable to religious argument or behavior. Jonah, though he did not share God’s interest in the conversion of the Ninevites, at least upheld the moral and spiritual superiority of Judaism. Too many of us today claim allegiance to an inherited Church we are socially half-ashamed of; too often we are unbecomingly eager to write off non-members as invincibly ignorant.

Anxieties over the etiquette of religious expression in a secular society and a disproportionate desire to fit in can obscure our duties to God—especially the central duty of so cooperating with His grace that we are fit to “fit in” in heaven. The past 30 years have seen an extraordinary opening up of relations between American Catholics and non-Catholics. In the beginning, our elementary agreements on moral principle led us to conclude that our Protestants and Jewish, neighbors were like us in most important ways, differing chiefly in rhetoric, ritual, and religious custom. As we began melting wholeheartedly into the modern world, and as the mainstream Protestant we were most comfortable with began loosening their hold on dogmatic certainties, we overconfidently assumed that we would be able to accommodate ourselves almost as easily to an America growing publicly agnostic. But there is a great deal of difference between ecumenical relations with, say, Missouri Synod Lutherans and peaceful coexistence with Dan Rather or the A.C.L.U.

Legalized abortion finally abolished the myth of an easy accommodation between Catholics and the modern, pluralistic state, but earlier events, such as no-fault divorce, the explosion in pornography, and the onset of the contraceptive era, were warnings that should have been taken more seriously. Increasingly, central teachings of Catholic moral theology have been pushed into little legal and social ghettoes because society has “moved beyond” them. And in our social lives, as well as in our public life, we are often tempted to leave them there, accepting the anti-dogmatic formula of “you have your beliefs, I have mine.” How else, after all, is an inescapably pluralistic society to survive?

How we should combat the anti-dogmatic spirit of the age publicly and politically, as citizens, is a large and difficult and crucial question, with too many ramifications for a short column’s space. How we should behave socially is perhaps easier to understand, though not so easy to put into practice. We must accept our Catholic faith not as a personal quirk or a tribal inheritance but as an independent reality, whose truth does not depend upon our ability to sell it persuasively to all corners. Our belief in God and our understanding of His demands upon us shouldn’t be rammed down non-Catholics’ throats, but they should be clear to those we work with, socialize with, love. They should make a difference in the things we say, the way we behave, the stands we take—and they should receive credit for making a difference.

Our beliefs should also make a difference in the advice we give to others, and even in the kind of comfort we give them. It’s not that we should be forever preaching at people, forever laying down the law. But if we are to treat our beliefs seriously and non-solipsistically, if we are to treat God non-solipsistically, then we must recognize the universality of our faith. We must believe that it would be better if all people accepted the truths we accept, and acted as we are called upon to act.

To wish that other people might come to accept the truths you have mercifully been reared in, and to try to defend those truths clearly and persuasively, is hardly a threat to a pluralistic democracy. To insist that certain ways of exercising human freedom are sinful is not a tyrannical act. In fact, to oppose the large-scale sacrifice of the innocent unborn is to take on the reigning tyranny of self-absorption that threatens to leach the modern West of its moral foundation.

  • Ellen Wilson Fielding

    Ellen Wilson Fielding is a writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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