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No Bishop Will Die for Religious Liberty

Cardinal George's dire prophecy is probably not going to come true, if Catholic universities are any indication

A few years ago, Cardinal Francis George, the Catholic archbishop of Chicago, issued a dire prophecy about religious liberty in America:

“I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.”

Well, we all must hope and pray it doesn’t come to that, but if it should, we Christians must hope and pray that Catholic bishops, and all Christians, will accept persecution and martyrdom before betraying the faith in the face of pressure from the State.

There is a bad omen on this front from Catholic colleges (though not yet from the bishops). Rusty Reno writes that more of them — including Notre Dame — are slowly but surely making their peace with same-sex marriage. What sparked his column was the announcement by the president of Creighton, Reno’s former employer, that it was going to offer benefits to same-sex couples, but that this should not be seen as endorsement of same-sex marriage. Reno points out that no bishop is compelling Catholic colleges to do this; the Archbishop of Omaha strongly criticized the Jesuit-run college for its move. Nor is the State forcing it; Creighton is in Nebraska, which does not have gay marriage.

So why are Catholic institutions embracing same-sex marriage? Jesuit (of course) Father Timothy Lannon, the president of Creighton, told the local newspaper that his decision was inspired in part by Pope Francis, and also: “I asked myself, what would Jesus do in this case? And I can only imagine Jesus being so welcoming of all people.”

How nice of Jesus to have reversed 2,000 years of clear Christian moral understanding of sexuality, at just the time when public opinion shifted.

Among the non-Jesuit-friendly answers Reno gives:

1.   Creighton, like nearly all American Catholic institutions, is run by upper-middle-class Americans. They are more loyal to their class and its values than the Catholic Church, which over the last fifty years has for the most part renounced its own intellectual and moral culture. This doesn’t mean Catholic leaders lack faith. What it means is that it’s existentially painful for them to be out of sync with dominant opinion. Like all normal people, they want to avoid pain, and so they find ways to conform while pretending to be dissenters, a trick Americans perform very well. Expect more announcements that conformity to the gay liberation project doesn’t constitute “approval.”


4.   Pope Francis routinely denounces Catholic conservatives as small-minded and warns us not to “obsess” about things like homosexuality. However one reads the Pope’s intent in these and other statements, there can be no doubt they’re very handy instruments for justifying capitulation on gay marriage (and other issues that prevent Catholic organizations from being “mainstream.”) Expect many references to Pope Francis as Catholics in America adjust themselves to the new marriage regime.

Read the whole thing. Reno goes on to say that he doesn’t despair, because this is far from the first time that the Church has given itself over to the priorities of the State and the wider culture, even if those priorities run contrary to the faith. Still, it’s depressing to see that the battle lines don’t run between the Church and Society, but right through the heart of the Church (and not just the Catholic Church).

Alan Jacobs has a disturbing question  for Christian institutions like Creighton, Notre Dame, and others that are “evolving” on same-sex relations, to suit the changing times. He goes through several possible rationalizations explanations the institutions could offer for their shift, but is not persuaded by the consistency or integrity of any of them. Excerpt:

Note that there is no way to read this story as one of consistent faithfulness to a Gospel message that works against the grain of a dominant culture.

And that’s the key issue, it seems to me — that’s what churches and other Christian organizations need to be thinking about. Either throughout your history or at some significant point in your history you let your views on a massively important issue be shaped largely by what was acceptable in the cultural circles within which you hoped to be welcome. How do you plan to keep that from happening again?

Meanwhile, someone over at The Mitrailleuse has some sharp words about Christians who take their convictions not from the Holy Spirit, but from the Zeitgeist. Quoting Solzhenitsyn, in a letter to Sakharov about the dissent in the USSR:

Our present system is unique in world history, because over and above its physical and economic constraints, it demands of us total surrender of our souls, continuous and active participation in the general, conscious lie. To this putrefaction of the soul, this spiritual enslavement, human being who wish to be human cannot consent. When Caesar, having exacted what is Caesar’s, demands still more insistently that we render unto him what is God’s — that is a sacrifice we dare not make!

The most important part of our freedom, inner freedom, is always subject to our will. If we surrender it to corruption, we do not deserve to be called human.

But let us note that if the absolutely essential task is not political liberation, but the liberation of our souls from participation in the lie forced on us, then it requires no physical, revolutionary, social, organizational measures, no meetings, strikes, trade unions — things fearful for us even to contemplate and from which we quite naturally allow circumstances to dissuade us.

No! It requires from each individual a moral step within his power — no more than that. And no one who voluntarily runs with the hounds of falsehood, or props it up, will ever be able to justify himself to the living, or to posterity, or to his friends, or to his children.

Look, I don’t believe we are close to a dire situation, at least not yet, but the principle Solzhenitsyn identifies still applies. And though liberals are going to invoke Godwin about the part of Reno’s column in which he refers to the Concordat, again, the principle he cites applies to our much less critical situation. Once bright lines start being crossed and rationalized, it’s harder to stop them from being crossed.

Again, so far the Catholic bishops are not yielding. I don’t expect that to last, unless the next pope comes in and stiffens their spines before this trend goes too far. It’s interesting to observe that none of these Catholic institutions independent of the dioceses seem all that concerned about getting on the wrong side of their bishops. Power has shifted decisively, has it not?

UPDATE: Reader Aaron Gross finds that Alan Jacobs wrote specifically on this issue — and criticized Rusty Reno. I post it because he makes a reasonable point, and I don’t want you to think my citing him earlier means he agrees with Reno on this issue. Excerpt:

This comparison doesn’t help anyone or anything. It is ratcheting up the culture-war rhetoric to the highest possible pitch, and I think inappropriately, since the issue at hand is Creighton University’s decision to provide benefits to legally married same-sex spouses.

Isn’t that an eminently defensible action on specifically Christian grounds, namely the grounds of charity? After all, Jesus didn’t subject people to tests of their morals before healing them. In this case, isn’t the university just saying, “We may not approve of your sexual behavior, but we don’t want people you love to get sick and die?” In a country without universal health care, an employer who seeks to deny benefits to spouses comes off simply as punitive. Wouldn’t it be both wiser and more Christ-like to err on the side of compassion in these matters?



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