We live in a time of both danger and opportunity for the Catholic Church in the United States. The danger is that large numbers of Catholics will, as a result of clergy sex scandals and the large, highly publicized cash awards and settlements following in their train, lose confidence in the reliability of the Church as a teacher of truth, particularly in the moral domain.
Given the powerful dynamics of secularization already unleashed in American culture—dynamics whose impact was discernible even before clergy sex abuse became front-page news—the further demoralization of the Catholic faithful could all too easily result in widespread abandonment of belief in those teachings most severely under challenge from secularist ideologies dominant in universities (including Catholic universities), the print and broadcast media, and the elite sector of American culture generally. In particular, it would erode confidence in the principles of marriage and sexual morality and the sanctity of human life that are integral to the Christian understanding of human nature, dignity, and destiny.
Moreover, the loss of faith that characteristically begins with the abandonment of moral teachings cannot be restricted to such teachings. It tends to undermine belief in those doctrines of faith that require for their meaningful affirmation a sound (if ordinarily informal and implicit) understanding of the meaning and significance of the human person as embodied; these include, above all, the doctrines of the incarnation, the resurrection of the body, Christ’s own bodily resurrection and ascension into heaven, the bodily assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
It is worth noting that even those among these doctrines that were fully accepted by the Protestant Reformers are now widely rejected—even (or perhaps I should say especially)—by certain theologians and leading clergy in the mainline denominations in which the moral teachings to which I have referred were first compromised. The history of the Anglican Church, beginning with its abandonment of established Christian (Catholic and Protestant) teaching on contraception at the Lambeth conference of 1929, is a particularly instructive example.
When Pope Paul VI dramatically reaffirmed this teaching in 1968, clearheaded commentators—not only supporters of the pope such as the eminent Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, but also astute critics, such as Fr. Charles Curran—saw that far more than the issue of contraception was at stake. The whole body (if the reader will forgive an innocent pun) of Catholic teaching on the nature of the human person, of the one—flesh communion of spouses in marriage, and of the meaning of human embodiment in relation to questions of, for example, homosexual conduct and relationships, monogamy, and marital fidelity and indissolubility was on the line.
The liberal Catholic writer Scott Appleby, writing a few years ago in the New York Times , noted that Paul VI’s reaffirmation of the immorality of anti-procreative acts (well, Appleby didn’t put it quite that way, he said “the Pope’s repudiation of the recommendation of the commission he had established to advise him on the question of artificial birth control”) was the key factor in preventing a fundamental transformation of the Church. Of course, Appleby regrets this; I give thanks to the Holy Spirit for it. If you wonder which of us is right, may I recommend that you consider the progression of events in the Anglican Communion, leading to its current condition in Britain and the United States.
Of course, on any account of Catholic orthodoxy, there are a range of issues on which there is room for legitimate disagreement about what the Church ought to teach and even does teach, or whether a particular teaching is proposed by the Church’s authority structure (its Magisterium) as binding the consciences of the faithful. The application of the principles of authority set forth in the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church Lumen Gentium of the Second Vatican Council and elsewhere is not in every case straightforward. Sometimes this has to do with the nature of the subject matter. Other times it is a result of the terms in which the teaching is cast (at least thus far). An example of the former is the specific posture we are called on to adopt toward the relation of labor, capital, management, and government in the context of concrete disputes under the teachings of the papal Magisterium on social and economic justice. (Some other examples pertain to precisely how we ought to go about assisting the poor, combating terrorism, and protecting people from abuses of their dignity and human rights by tyrannical regimes, and when a nation should resort to military force to prevent or halt aggression.) An example of the latter is the teaching of the encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae of Pope John Paul II, as incorporated into the Catechism of the Catholic Church , on the matter of the death penalty.
In any event, for those of us who believe that the Church is a reliable teacher of truth, and that her doctrine is fundamentally sound, the last thing we desire is a transformation of the Church’s historical teachings. (If we wanted that, we would become Unitarians or join the United Church of Christ or, at least, cast our lot with the Episcopal Church in the United States.) What is in need of transformation is not the teaching of the Church but the human mind and heart to which these teachings are addressed. Christianity is a religion of transformation. No one is literally born into it; even infants at baptism are converted to it. There is not a Catholic on the planet or in the history of the Church who is not a convert.
Conversion is effected, by God’s grace, by transformative acts of the intellect and will. And the process of conversion is lifelong, whether one begins it a few days or weeks after birth or on one’s eighty-fifth birthday. Christ is constantly calling us to conversion and making available to us the divine graces that are its fundamental resources. We falter and fail; he lifts us up and puts us back on track. We grow in him, so long as we are faithful in responding to his acts of love for us by our acts of love of God and neighbor.
The Church doesn’t need fundamental transformation; it needs to be about the business of transforming us. This is a task for the whole Church: bishops, priests, and other religious, and the laity. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, this work of transformation of minds and hearts necessarily includes work of cultural transformation. For better or worse, culture is character-shaping and, thus, person-forming. That’s why the task of cultural renewal and reform is part of the Christian task—an essential part. It may not be rejected or neglected by the Church or her leadership in the name of evangelization of individuals; indeed, it is crucial to the project of evangelizing individuals. The task of evangelization is immeasurably more difficult where culture works powerfully against the witness of the Church by fostering, facilitating, and encouraging sin and undermining the efforts of religious communities and families to encourage in their members, especially young people, respect for themselves and others and fidelity to the law of God and moral truth.
Given the sad state of affairs in so many dimensions of our own culture today, should we be daunted by the task of reform and renewal? Well, we shouldn’t be under any illusions that this is going to be easy. Nor is success, short of the return of Christ in glory, a foregone conclusion. But, nevertheless, here is where there is an enormous opportunity for the Church in the United States—despite our failings, despite the scandals, despite our demoralization and even humiliation. As the Church, all of us—again, bishops, priests, religious sisters and brothers, deacons, lay Catholics—need to pick ourselves up off the ground, dust ourselves off, and with God’s help (and in cooperation with our faithful Protestant and Jewish brothers and sisters) get about the business of cultural renewal.
Of course, different Catholics occupying different positions inside and outside the formal structure of the Church have different roles. There are not assigned positions on a playing field. But all of us have roles to play; and the Church herself, through her formal structures, must play an essential role in encouraging and challenging us to discern and do what we are called to do.
There are many profound respects in which our culture is in need of transformation. Work is needed in every sphere. There are two issues, however, that are so central to our future and, indeed, to the future of mankind that they must, surely, be given a certain priority. Both are on the table now and will be resolved—for better or for worse-in the next decade or so. Critical (possibly irreversible) decisions will be made in the next year or two. I speak of the issue of marriage and the complex set of issues sometimes referred to compendiously as “bioethics.” In respect of both matters, things will go one way or the other depending on the posture and actions of Catholics.
If the Catholic community is engaged on these issues, working closely with evangelical Christians, observant Jews, and people of goodwill and sound moral judgment of other faiths and even of no particular religious faith, grave injustices and the erosion of central moral principles will be, to a significant extent, averted. Indeed, with respect to both marriage and the sanctity of human life, earlier reverses may themselves be reversed. If, on the other hand, the Catholic community compromises itself, abdicates its responsibilities, and sits on the sidelines, the already deeply wounded institution of marriage will collapse and the brave new world of biotechnology will transform procreation into manufacture, and nascent human life into mere disposable “research material.”
An alert and engaged Catholic community would recognize that these issues are in our hands. We cannot do it by ourselves; but our allies cannot win without us, nor can they lose with us. Our activity in the political sphere and in other dimensions of the culture will make the critical difference. I believe that Catholics need to be told so by the leaders of the Church in no uncertain terms. We faithful need to be challenged to make the difference we can make—by the example we set in our own lives and by carrying out our duties as citizens of a democratic republic. God, in his wonderful and mysterious providence, has set before us an opportunity for a special kind of greatness, the greatness that comes only in times of the most profound danger.
This is no time for Catholics to be looking inward, gazing at our navels, too embarrassed (or desirous of the approval of cultural elites or fearful of their disapproval) to speak to the moral crisis of the culture. On the contrary, now is the time to bring our Christian witness, the very practical and effective love of Christ, unabashedly to the culture. Bishops need to lead on this, but not by becoming politicians; the primary responsibility to work in the political sphere falls to the laity. But bishops and clergy do their part when they challenge those of us in the laity to fulfill that great responsibility. Their role is to encourage, exhort, and even cajole us to do the right thing. Moreover, they should never hesitate to reprove us when we fail in our obligations to defend human life, marriage, and the common good, as far too many Catholics, including Catholics prominent in public life, have done and, alas, are doing.
Nothing undermines the cause of justice and cultural reform and renewal more than the bad example of prominent Catholics who have made themselves instruments of what Pope John Paul II bluntly described as “the culture of death.” The scandal given by these individuals over the past thirty years, particularly with respect to the exposure of the unborn to abortion and, more recently, embryo-destructive research, is far greater in its cultural effects even than the horrific—the word is not too strong—scandal of clergy sex abuse. Some bishops, to their credit, have taught clearly that any Catholic who seeks to deprive the unborn of their fundamental human right to life profoundly weakens his relationship with Christ and breaks communion with the Church. More need to be heard from. It is, I believe, the duty of bishops to speak forcefully on the obligations of Catholic voters and public officials to stand unambiguously for the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every member of the human family, irrespective, to be sure, of race, sex, and ethnicity, but also irrespective of age, size, location, stage of development, or condition of dependency.
The bishops must make clear that being a faithful Catholic means many things; but among the things it means is bearing unambiguous witness to the sanctity of human life. By bearing such witness, Catholics can seize the opportunity now before them to renew and reform the culture.
Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.