The Twin Cities

The Christian dismayed by the workaday anti-Americanism of many of his more active coreligionists is often invited to consider that there is an enmity between religious faith and the world and that belief inevitably puts one on a collision course with the society in which one lives. And there is something right in this reminder.

We have here no lasting city. That is true for believer and non-believer alike, of course, but the former lives in the conviction that there is another city. Schooled in Augustine, he will acknowledge the difference between the City of God and the City of Man. These are not geographically separated, but interpenetrate one another. And the citizens of the City of God cast a baleful eye on the City of Man and pass a judgment on it that is not flattering.

For Christ comes in judgment upon sinful mankind, on the worldly in each of us, on the worldly spread out around us. The kingdom that is to come is no more found in the United States of America than it would be found in some Central American country if only the present oppressors were replaced and efforts at reform begun. No amount of reform of that sort could ever erase the difference between the City of God and the City of Man. It is no disparagement of politics to point out that politics is no solution to the gulf between the two cities.

One of the attractions of the early Graham Greene was his fine instinct for the futility of “political” solutions to the problem of evil. A sot of a priest is pitted against El Jefe in The Labyrinthian Ways and, by the standards of the wisdom of this world, there is everything to choose in the Jefe and nothing to choose in the whiskey priest. But the priest remains the representative of the City of God and the Jefe of the City of Man. Greene, alas, has become confused of late and shows a decided tendency as in The Honorary Consul, to equate the two cities, to see the standards of the City of Man as relevant and decisive for the City of God.

Let us nonetheless accept in good spirit the reminder that our religious beliefs may put us on a collision course with the canons of the society in which we live. The old oppositions of God and Mammon, Christ and the Word, the two cities, still obtain. We must be grateful to those who remind us of this fact and warn of tendencies in ourselves to overlook the opposition. By the same token we should not shy away from the tu quoque which then leaps to our lips.

Not so long ago, active Christians were engaged in the civil rights movement and marched in opposition to the war in Vietnam. Today many of our fellow believers have joined the Peace Movement and thereby set their face against the World as represented by the government of the United States. The crusade against nuclear weapons is portrayed as one against the spirit of this world, as a prophetic judgment passed from a Christian perspective, as a reading of the signs of the times as advocated by Vatican II. So construed, such activities and judgments and positions make a claim on every believer and convict those with misgivings of siding with the world against Christ, with the City of Man against the City of God.

Would that matters were so simple. That they are not is indicated by the suspicion one has that a certain kind of anti-war activity, some types of criticism of the government, not a few instances of condemnation of nuclear weapons, far from being a lonely, daring, Christian opposition to the World, look very much like an alliance, and a rather comfortable one, with the world. Is it not true that Christians against war, nuclear weapons, the draft and so on are not so much initiating a protest as joining one already begun and with a direction all its own? Are protesters and dissidents assuming positions against or for the zeitgeist?

Permit me an autobiographical reference. I am a northerner by birth and upbringing. I never met or talked with a black person until my mid-twenties. When I was in the Marine Corps, I lectured my Southern brethren on race relations with a conviction and sincerity borne of total ignorance of what I was talking about. But I was and remain an admirer of the Hubert Humphrey of the 1948 Democratic Convention. He was the mayor of my native city as I became aware of politics. The Civil Rights Movement seemed to me to owe more to the Bible, to Christian faith, than to the constitution. I came to fear for it when it seemed a bid for all that was grubby and consumerist in American society. But when Martin Luther King was slain, I marched through the streets of South Bend to express my outrage.

To express my outrage. To protest. And to savor the sweet liquor of righteousness. What I did not feel was that I had taken a stand against the zeitgeist. It was far more like an overt acknowledgement of an unstoppable trend. If my action that day had been noticed, and it was not, I would have expected only a favorable interpretation of it. If that march was a protest, what exactly was it a protest against?

Well, we have come to see that many of those who were interested in civil rights had a further agenda. So too many of those opposed to the war in Vietnam, had more things in mind than did the poor clerics who flew off to Saigon and manacled themselves to gates in protest.

What is the tu quoque that we should, in a spirit of fraternal correction, return to our fellow Christians who, having reminded us of the opposition between the spirit of the world and the spirit of Christ, conclude that we should join them in the Peace Movement? There is a meaning the World gives to “peace” which is inimical to the Christian meaning of the term. Christian social activists would speak with more authority if they exhibited even a smidgin of critical outlook toward the movements they are joining, joining not initiating. The chorus of praise for the recent bishops’ meeting in Washington should be a warning, not an assurance, to our spiritual leaders. When the major media approve of what Catholic bishops say this is prima facie evidence that the praise should be critically examined.

I await an assessment of the Peace Movement as an embodiment of the City of Man. So too bishops who look to radical feminism for guidance in the treatment of women within the Church cannot be taken seriously. The Catholic Church does not stand in need of instruction from secular feminists with respect to the nobility and dignity of women. But our sense of that nobility and dignity is very unlikely to coincide with that of radical feminists. God forgive us if it did. Pope John Paul II has no difficulty seeing that worldly pleas on behalf of women are in fact assaults on the dignity and mission of women. Our bishops should take their lead from him, not from Germain Greer, Betty Freidan, Gloria Steinem and their ilk.

Archbishop Roach, during the bishops meeting in Washington, drew a timid link between the confused episcopal stand on nuclear weapons and abortion. The link was not pursued. Perhaps the acoustics of the occasion did not accomodate the linkage. It would be dreadful to think that, sensing that their worldly audience was slipping away, the bishops retreated swiftly to the approved high ground of disarmament. And to their oddly anti-administration posturing, as if this were an index of courage when confronting the Washington Press Corps.

It is easy because it is worldly to oppose national defense and appropriate punishment for capital offenses. That is simply the way of the world, at least until proved otherwise, and believers with a modicum of skepticism concerning the company they are being asked to keep on such matters may well ask their bishops if there is not a surer sense of the opposition of believer and unbeliever to be had when the matter pressed is not on the liberal, worldly agenda. Abortion. Sexual morality. The sustained campaign to demean and cheapen women under the guise of liberating them. Our bishops know that when they express the mind of the church on these matters, they are guaranteed a hostile reception. Condemnation of pornography will confront a worldly interpretation of the First Amendment. Condemnation of abortion will be greeted as the imposition of the views of some upon the many. Here we feel almost infallibly the opposition of the City of God and the City of Man.

It is important that none of us lose the ability to discriminate between the World and Christ, the City of Man and the City of God. And we must, in all charity and civility, aid one another in not locating the opposition where it does not obtain or finding it where it does not exist.

  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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