If there is one word Christians should be wary of, in the political and religious spheres, it is “moderate.” Though it denotes a prudent, middle-of-the-road approach to contested issues, “moderation” is often ascribed to people who hold very immoderate views.
The mainstream media, for example, frequently describe politicians who endorse every aspect of the culture of death and ongoing sexual revolution as “moderates.” It’s not difficult to understand why: Doing so helps sanitize the enormous evil of abortion and promote a do-as-you-please morality—exactly what the media desire.
In the religious sphere, “moderate” is frequently applied—albeit inconsistently and for different reasons—to Catholic bishops who speak out for social justice, but who are also strongly pro-life and pro–traditional marriage. Again, the reasons are obvious: Championing the supposed “moderate” side of Catholicism will, as the media see it, delegitimize “conservatism” within the Church, and thus weaken the Church’s repressive and outdated moral teachings.
The latest example of this second use of the term “moderate” can be seen in reaction to the Pope’s appointment of Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell to head the new Dicastery for the Laity, Families and Life—which will make him the highest-ranking American prelate in Rome.
As soon as Farrell’s appointment was announced, the media began describing it as indicative of a “more moderate direction for Vatican offices responsible for hot-button, culture war issues such as abortion, contraception, marriage and divorce.” He has been depicted as a moderate and a “Francis bishop,” in contrast to the “cultural warrior” bishops appointed by Francis’s predecessors.
But there is no evidence that Bishop Farrell has any intention of backing away from these vital “culture war” issues in his new post. The facts reveal just the reverse. In 2001, St. John Paul II appointed Farrell an auxiliary bishop to the Washington Archdiocese; Pope Benedict XVI appointed him to lead the Diocese of Dallas in 2007. If anything, Francis is following the lead of his predecessors in recognizing the episcopal talents of Bishop Farrell—not creating bishops in his own supposed image.
Furthermore, and contrary to what has been reported, Bishop Farrell is no one’s idea of a cultural and moral appeaser. In 2008, shortly before the presidential election that year, Bishop Farrell and Bishop Kevin Vann, then of Fort Worth, issued a powerful pastoral letter, describing abortion as “the defining moral issue, not only today, but of the last 35 years.” The letter was hailed by pro-life groups throughout the world and widely seen as a warning to Catholics about supporting Barack Obama. It led to protests outside the Dallas chancery.
A visit to the Diocese of Dallas’s website finds many helpful explanations of Catholic teachings in the realm of life, morality, the family, and social justice—complete with links to essential Church documents—and how the Diocese is implementing them. Bishop Farrell is clearly a Catholic who does not pick and choose which teachings in the Catechism he likes, but joyfully embraces them all.
The Bishop, moreover, has never hesitated to bring a sharp Catholic perspective to bear on debates surrounding poverty, immigration, healthcare, the environment, violence, and racism, regardless of what critics say. Indeed, he had the perfect answer to those who would segregate victims into racial categories: “All lives matter: black, white, Muslim, Christian, Hindu. We are all children of God and all human life is precious.”
After the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, Bishop Farrell released two powerful statements, encouraging the faithful to stand with the Church and not lose hope. “Catholic teaching on the Sacrament of marriage remains as it always has been,” he wrote. “Of course, there will be no same-sex marriages in Catholic churches” for “the Catholic Church can never condone same-sex marriage.”
Declaring that the Church’s liberty to preach the truth about marriage is sacrosanct, and affirming that the Church would continue to respect the dignity of people with same-sex attraction, Bishop Farrell nonetheless warned: “As a result of this action by the SCOTUS, we know that some are taking it as one more opportunity to characterize the Church and the Catholic faithful as bigots opposed to a fundamental human right guaranteed by the Constitution.” Bishop Farrell predicted there may be “dark days” ahead for the Church in America, but he maintained, “the Church has seen much darker days. It is no stranger to adversity.”
Bishop Farrell remains unbowed, citing St. John Paul II’s, Redemptoris Missio, on the Church’s missionary mandate: “As Catholics, our response to these legal and societal changes is still the same: to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed and to witness the healing and forgiving love of Jesus.” More eloquent Catholic words could hardly have been spoken, for they advance a truth that is becoming clearer every day: One cannot be a faithful disciple of Christ, and expect not to be persecuted, or in conflict with the age.
Bishop Farrell is not, therefore, a “moderate” Catholic, ready to negotiate his beliefs away—but a faithful and admirable one, holding firm to Catholic teaching. Francis is to be commended for elevating him to a such a high-profile and influential position.
Farrell’s courageous witness notwithstanding, it is true that there remain Catholics—including even bishops—who continue to subordinate their faith and morality to our secular culture. But any Catholic who rejects Catholic teaching, or who technically accepts it but minimizes it to the point of insignificance, is not a “moderate” Catholic but a dissenter, or one seeking approval from the world (a temptation Our Lord warns against)—and should be identified as such.
What the Church needs now are not more mythical “moderates,” but strong-willed, committed Catholics like Bishop Kevin Farrell, who are not ashamed to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, for “it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.”
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.