For conservatives like me, who think that most of our problems are essentially moral and religious, the current moment in our culture is a significant one. I am also a conservative who, though no longer a Catholic, retain enormous sympathy for the Roman Catholic Church, and see in it and its teachings the only substantial basis for a conservative retrenchment and renewal of our culture and civilization. Though the United States is not a confessional state, nor has this ever been anything but a Protestant country, I believe that the moral and spiritual health of this country and the civilization of which it is a part depends on the flourishing of the Roman church. I say that as a social fact, irrespective of my personal opinions about Rome’s theology, or the character of its bishops. The late Father Richard John Neuhaus once wrote:
In 1987, while I was still a Lutheran, I published a book titled The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World. There I argued that the Catholic Church is the leading and indispensable community in advancing the Christian movement in world history. In evangelization, in furthering the Christian intellectual tradition, in the quest for Christian unity, in advocating the culture of life, and in every other aspect of the Christian mission, this was, I contended, the Catholic Moment.
I agreed with that as a Catholic, and I agree with that as an Orthodox Christian. In that same First Things essay, Father Neuhaus went on to talk about what decades of dissent had done to the Catholic community in the US:
The great question, a question that has ramifications that go far beyond assent to Catholic teaching, is the relationship between freedom and obedience — or, more precisely, between freedom and truth. The question includes ecclesial obedience to the truth, as Catholics believe the truth is made known. We are bound by the truth, and when we are bound by the truth, we are bound to be free. The relationship between truth and freedom is as true for non-Catholics or, indeed, for non-Christians as it is true for Catholics, as is magnificently argued by John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth).
What went wrong with aspects of liberal Catholicism has its roots in what went wrong long before the 1960s. What went wrong was the submission to an Enlightenment or rationalist tradition — found also in a romanticism that too often mirrored what it intended to counter — of the autonomous self. Still today there is a liberal Catholic reflex, shared by secular liberalism, against the very ideas of authority, obedience, and the truth that binds. The Catholic insight about human freedom, an insight that we dare to say has universal applicability, is that we are bound to be free. The truth, in order to be understood, must be loved, and love binds. And so also with the apostolic community that embodies and articulates the truth.
Coming to terms with the question of obedience means coming to terms with the one who said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” The modern regime of secular liberalism adopted the slogan “The truth will make you free,” but pitted it against the one who is the truth. More radically, it pitted truth and freedom against any authoritative statement of truth, and against authority itself. The liberal ideal was that of the autonomous, untethered, unencumbered self. The consequence of that impossible ideal is conformism to the delusion of autonomy or, as the history of the last century so tragically demonstrates, blind submission to totalitarian doctrines that present themselves as surrogates for the truth that makes us free.
Fr. Neuhaus ended that essay by reaffirming his belief that we are still in a Catholic Moment. I wonder what he would say today, seeing what’s going on with the US government and the HHS ruling, and observing that most American Catholics polled take the side of the state over their own bishops, and indeed oppose what their own church teaches about same-sex unions. The usual thing conservative Catholics point to is that among Catholics who actually attend mass regularly, there is far more agreement with the Church’s authoritative teaching. But that’s cold comfort. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that for all intents and purposes, American Catholicism is functionally Protestant — and not even Evangelical Protestant, given that on key moral issues, Evangelicals agree with Catholic teaching more than Catholics do.
It’s a long, complicated story as to why the Roman Catholic Church in this country has lost so much influence, especially over its own people. Conservatives like to blame it all on the Catholic left, but that’s neither fair nor accurate, in my view. I’d say church liberals bear most of the blame, but it cannot be denied that many of us on the right played our part. A Catholic moral theologian friend — who identifies as a Democrat, by the way — e-mailed this morning saying how gratifying it is to talk about the Church’s teaching on contraception, and to see how engaged lay Catholics are by it. As he sees it, they have never had the opportunity to hear the teaching explained to them in ways they could understand, and accept. I find this easy to believe. Non-Catholics who have this idea that the Catholic Church is obsessed with abortion and contraception are out of their minds. It’s very rarely talked about in churches. I bet 999 out of 1,000 Catholics you stopped on the street couldn’t explain to you what Humanae Vitae is. They have rejected what they never had the honest opportunity to affirm.
Anyway, I won’t go down the rabbit hole of woulda-coulda-shoulda (though commenters, have at it if you like). And maybe I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong. I hope some of you can tell me that I’m wrong. The future looks dark to me, though. I will just here register my despair over the passing of the Catholic Moment, and of the influence of the Catholic Church in this post-Christian culture. It is something all small-o orthodox Christians will sooner or later regret.
An interesting question: to what extent has the death of the Catholic Moment been a murder, and to what extent has it been a suicide?