Anyone who has been to a Catholic conference has heard the following remark rise up out of the audience: “What we really need to do is to pray and get before the Blessed Sacrament!” Anyone who has spoken at a Catholic conference has had to confront this statement. Usually, in order not to appear like a pagan, you will be tempted simply to remind the audience that you were not invited to discuss prayer or Eucharistic adoration.
Having been put in this situation more times than I can remember, I am comforted by the spectacle of seeing speakers like Jeff Cavins, Fr. Benedict Groeschel, and the redoubtable Alan Keyes placed in similar circumstances.
For the sake of argument, let’s call this kind of comment the “spiritually obvious move” (SOM). There is nothing particularly wrong with stating the spiritually obvious, except when misunderstandings follow. As the temperature of millennial fervor begins to rise, we need to be wary of the SOM, and those who use it espouse a self-defeating retreat from the world.
The rhetorical force of the SOM resides in two assumptions, one valid, the other invalid. Every Catholic should know that prayer and the grace of Christ’s real presence is the foundation of life and the grounding of all our evangelical efforts. A radical commitment to mental prayer is simply obvious, but not simply done.
Nothing here poses a problem, that is, until you subscribe to the second assumption. What irks me, and what constantly erupts in public debate, is that second assumption of the SOM: the false dichotomy—or should I say trichotomy—among politics, culture, and the Church.
The job of evangelization, to which we are all called, is undermined by this false dichotomy, but the problem can be easily adjusted by two points that should be even more spiritually obvious. First, the Church and the Gospel that is proclaimed by the Church are about human life and the institutions that nurture life. Therefore, the Church that seeks to awaken all persons to a realization of their basic dignity is unavoidably concerned with culture and politics. So a Christian does not retreat into his faith; rather, his faith propels him into a usually agnostic relationship with his world.
Faith may seem like a private matter, but it has consequences in the public sphere that cannot legitimately be pushed aside. A Christian has no neutral vantage point from which to observe casually the vulgarity of culture or the compromises of politics. Like it or not, the work of the Church must pass through both tainted vessels. And sometimes it doesn’t. After all, articulate defenders of life, such as Crisis columnist Hadley Arkes, have documented for 25 years the cultural decline instigated by Roe v. Wade. Rot and nonsense, like bacteria, can travel in any direction, from culture into politics, from politics into culture.
False dichotomies now threaten to hatch an unfortunate political strategy. One defeatist course of action espoused in some pro-life camps proposes letting the political scene totally deteriorate until some sort of countervailing spiritual backlash occurs. Such a strategy seems to me as heartless as withholding a cure for AIDS. And as this century’s two world wars demonstrate, cultural collapse is accompanied by horrendous repercussions. The demands of charity make it our Christian obligation to oppose evil at all times; it is never an option to encourage or countenance evil in hopes that goodness may abound as a result of its destructive advances.
The impulse behind such tactics is nothing less than a postmodern form of medieval Catharism—a radical, uncharitable impatience with anything less than total purity of mind and heart. Purity, in the true sense, is always attractive and compelling. History shows how purity, often bathed in spiritually obvious platitudes, leads to a divisive demagogery in which everyone is the loser. Ideological purity in any guise leads to misunderstanding the living tissue that connects politics, culture, and the Church.