A seventh-grader recently asked me how to respond to his peer’s obstinate claim that he and the rest of his Catholic co-religionists are just as bad as ISIS. After all, did not the Catholic Church impose a host of rules and regulations upon its hapless flock with threats of eternal condemnation for disobedience? The Church, like ISIS, is a harshly judgmental organization with a particularly reprehensible intolerance of earnest folk seeking to love in the manner they see fit.

The young boy’s parents were distraught. They wanted to know how they could address this dismissal of their moral and religious convictions—with their son’s friends, and with their own, grownup friends, whose cocktail party polemic was often far more aggressive than any sleepover dispute. In short, they wanted to know how they could explain, defend, and live out their faith in the public square.

It was gratifying to inform this bewildered couple that I would the next day begin a two-month internship with a journal that has been pondering such concerns for more than twenty-five years. The couple had never heard of First Things, but I trust that they will soon subscribe.

No, the Church is not quite the same as ISIS. As a professed religious who has devoted his life to serving Holy Mother Church, I dare say I can detect some distinctions between the two bodies. For the record, we do not condemn all the naughty people who fail to follow our arbitrary rules. We are most certainly attentive to that which our Lord commands for the good of our own flourishing. We even think that many of these truths about the fundamental goods of man and right moral behavior are rationally accessible to non-believers. However, these truths, whether philosophical or theological, are proposed and not imposed. I wonder how many Rite of Christian Initiation programs around the Church report high influx of converts who receive the sacraments of initiation at the Easter Vigil to save their skin.

Nor does the Church thrill in persecuting sinners, whether heterosexual or homosexual. While she refuses to profess the dogmas of the sexual revolution in unrestrained exaltation of any and all forms of consensual sex, the Church does not judge the hearts of those persons who struggle with their attractions. In a fallen world, recalls the Church, each one of us needs redemption.

The parents of this young boy were receptive to these truths and did their best to translate our discussion into wisdom accessible to babes. As our dialogue progressed, one of the couple’s young daughters interrupted us to recount the penguin joke she had lately learned. Assessing the challenges to religious believers in contemporary American society is an often grim affair that a child’s innocence can quickly relieve.

Observing these parents of eight attending to the various moods, mentalities, and needs of their children in a joyfully self-sacrificing manner confirmed for me the wisdom of Yuval Levin’s First Things lecture on the “Perils of Religious Liberty.” After encouraging his audience at George Washington University and online to continue the good fight in the courtroom to protect legally free religious exercise, Levin went on to exhort religious liberty advocates to build committed communities that present their ideological adversaries with an attractive alternative to the naked public square. Here before me was just such an attractive community that was eager to question, joke, and console me as I planned to explore the same distressing cultural trends that could prompt a young boy to compare the Catholic Church to ISIS.

Any society that could deform a child into confusing the two organizations needs the ongoing work of First Things. It needs to hear again and again that the Judeo-Christian tradition does not stifle rational thought and societal progress, but contributes positively to both. It needs the witness of First Things subscribers old and new, working to build communities of virtuous flourishing.

And it needs people to contribute directly to the First Things project. I did so this summer, toiling as an intern in a good cause. Now it’s your turn. ’Tis the season to give generously, and our fall campaign is just getting underway. Hit the “donate” button early and often.

Michael Baggot, LC is a Legionary brother and was recently a summer intern at First Things.

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