In the post-modern West, well before believers can proclaim revealed truth, they’re forced to combat the epistemological consequences of the dictatorship of relativism—to explain the possibility that truth claims can have real, objective, and unalterable meaning. It is an absurd, but nonetheless real, challenge to defend the idea that “true” and “false” exist, that “right” and “wrong” have meaning, that the contours of the natural world have significance, and order, and law.
For the past few years, we’ve been ridiculed and persecuted for proposing that gender has something to do with physical sex. The libertine guardians of the sexual revolution brook no dissent from the idea, so famously articulated in Casey vs. Planned Parenthood, that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
As transhumanism becomes more prevalent, as the sexual revolution identifies more perversions as “rights,” as technocracy overtakes ethical reasoning and truth is more frequently confused with power, believers will find themselves ever more frequently in the position of explaining that some realities are not contingent on the prevailing ethos of culture, or on our judgments, or on the fleeting whims of self-definition.
To combat the dictatorship of relativism, we have to approach the truth with humility. The philosophical project of our time, Matthew Crawford says, is to “reclaim the real,” responding to reality, rather than trying to define reality according to our preferences, or bend it according to our agenda.
In the 2016 Presidential election, both vice-presidential candidates are Catholic. In circles of faithful Catholics, both have been referred to as “Catholics in Name Only.” One journalist has labeled them both “Catholic-ish.” Pundits in the Catholic media say that Mike Pence is an “ex-Catholic,” and remind us that Tim Kaine can’t really be Catholic and also be pro-choice.
It’s obvious that Mike Pence and Tim Kaine have strained relationships with the Catholic Church. Pence, who worships at an evangelical church and professes an evangelical’s faith, seems to have rejected the authority of the Church’s Magisterium. Kaine, who supports abortion rights and the redefinition of marriage, might believe that the Church has authority, but he has obviously chosen to defy that authority.
The communion of the Catholic Church is a communion of faith, sacraments, and governance. Both vice-presidential candidates seem, at least, to have rejected that communion.
But there really is no such thing as an “ex-Catholic.” Catholicism is not a congregationalist religion. Membership is not a self-defining proposition. Grace—the grace of baptism—makes one a Catholic. The Church teaches that “by baptism, one is incorporated into the Church of Christ and is constituted a person in it.”
Catholics believe that baptism has certain objective and unalterable consequences. That Catholic identity is not the subject of self-definition. Nor is it the consequence of proper Catholic behavior, or assent to the Church’s teachings, or even obedience to the Magisterium.
In 2009, Pope Benedict affirmed that Catholicism comes without an escape clause: Once a person is baptized or received into the Church, there is no getting out.
Of course rejecting ecclesiastical communion or the Church’s doctrine has consequences, among them the penalty of excommunication. But excommunication is a punishment, not a shunning. Disobedient or dishonest Catholics might face damnation for their choices, but they will go their deathbeds as members of our Church. One can be a Catholic and be pro-choice, but having rejected the truth and the Church’s communion, he had better be prepared to face his judgment.
The fact is that among the People of God are those who have rejected the grace God has given them. That our Church includes the reprobate, and the dogmatically impure, and that we ourselves sometimes fill out those categories. The unpleasant truth is that one can be Catholic, and still be damned.
We’re formed to believe that religious ascription, like so many other things, depends on our free choices. That changing a religion is like changing a political party: We need only sign up at the place that agrees with our view. Catholicism doesn’t hold that view. The Church teaches that in baptism, the Church confers a reality that is not dependent on our assent.
Among other things, baptism frees us for the fullness of ecclesiastical communion. Freedom doesn’t go away because we reject it. Lost through obstinance, ecclesiastical communion can be had again through repentance. In fact, this is the project of the New Evangelization—to call Catholics who have lost the faith to live out the remarkable potential of belonging to Christ’s Mystical Body.
This matters. It matters because we blaspheme when we presume to undo the consequences of baptism by differentiating between “so-called Catholics” and the genuine article. We also capitulate to the dictatorship of relativism when we substitute the sociological idea of “religious identity” for the objective reality of religious fact.
We can’t credibly oppose self-defined genders or marriages while redefining the meaning of our Church’s own sacraments. We teach that some facts cannot be altered by judgment or force of will. Men are men. Women are women. Catholics—no matter how odious or recalcitrant—are Catholics. Our task is to call them to be saints.
JD Flynn writes from Lincoln, Nebraska.