An odd thing happened in Ireland on Easter Sunday. A politician, a senator who had been chairperson of the parliamentary committee established, with a thin democratic veneer, to steer the government’s abortion agenda past the alleged representatives of the people, expressed outrage at encountering Christian teaching at a Mass at the historic Knock Shrine in County Mayo. “Easter mass in Knock Basilica this afternoon with my parents,” Sen. Catherine Noone tweeted, “an octogenarian priest took at least 3 opportunities to preach to us about abortion—it’s no wonder people feel disillusioned with the Catholic Church.”
Knock is a world-famous shrine, the location of an apparition in 1879 of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, St. John the Evangelist, and Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. It should hardly seem unexpected or out of place that, from time to time, one would hear Church teaching articulated from the pulpit there.
People’s feeling entitled to attend Mass, and afterwards objecting to being exposed to the articulation of Church doctrine, is a new phenomenon. It suggests that the Church has become for some people a kind of emptied-out public service, disconnected from any duty to the Truth.
This is not your standard relativism. Nor does it merely express—as some would argue—the belabored binarism of Jesus and Caesar. That case may have traction in the public square, in which the Church might be deemed entitled to have its say but not to impose its way upon the polis. These new trends take things a step further, into the very sanctuary of Truth. Those who have been given the run of the square now want the run of nave, transept, and belfry. Even more disturbingly, many within the Church are willing to give in.
There is a virus at work here that as yet remains unnamed. Its symptoms can be observed in the escalating drift toward schism, but its core nature is not being precisely diagnosed. We might call it “Moralosis,” because it is an attempt to separate the “moral issues” from the core of Christianity. It is not merely about the balance between pastoralism and doctrine, but about the entitlement of the Church to speak of morality at all.
I would trace the earliest signs of this tendency back to 2013, when, not long after his election, Pope Francis spoke to Fr. Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civiltá Cattolica, concerning a number of the headline “moral” issues which had been the flashpoints of Catholic-liberal conflict for many years.
The pope said: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the Church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the Church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”
This superficially confused and confusing statement becomes on examination a kind of prophecy of the response outlined at the start of this article. The pope says he is not deviating from Church teachings. But he is not insisting “only” on such teachings, which must be talked about in “context”; they are “clear” and he does not dispute them, but he does not feel the need to talk about them “all the time.” His central point appears to be that an “excessive” emphasis on moralism serves to suffocate the deeper message of Christianity.
There is something in this. In Ireland, certainly, it has been true that the Church has had much to say on sexual morality but seems incapable of rendering Christ attractive. I, for one, have long protested the tendency to equate Christianity exclusively with certain ethical prescriptions—to see this dissociated moralism as an emblem of Christian honor, when really it is mere literalism or a badge of moral superiority. Most Catholics would agree that the Church should not pursue rules and ethics as discrete, self-standing realities, but only as concepts contextualized in the patterns of human freedom—a freedom defined ultimately by the Resurrection. But now a contrary tendency has developed, whereby any attempt to express a moral position—however firmly rooted in human anthropology and freedom—is dismissed as “moralism.”
The pope’s statement seems to have been a hastily conceived attempt to communicate a degree of relaxation in respect of certain aspects of Church teaching—overlooking that these hints would happily be passed on to the world by a media delighted to report that the pope had finally come around to their way of thinking. Out of this collision of affability and agenda, a new dispensation was born. The pope’s “all the time” was recast as “not ever,” his “only” erased, and only his “we cannot insist” remembered.
Pope Francis was articulating something unexceptionable: Christianity is not an ethical program. But this (by no means new) idea has been reduced to something untenable and quite contrary to Christianity: the notion that not only can morals be customized, but their articulation is somehow inimical to Christianity; that it is possible to know a Christ divorced from all morality. This clearly bogus idea has put down deep roots in the time of Pope Francis.
But Jesus was the most intensely moral presence the world has ever seen. There is no “either/or” between love of Christ and engagement with the secular world about matters that may be cordoned off under the signpost “moral.” There is, instead, a “both/and,” amounting to a singular call to unite our sense of Christ’s presence with the exigencies of the world and its human quotient. It is right that we place our hope in the free gesture with which God chose to enter history, but in doing so we are enjoined to gird ourselves and enter into questions about the actions and organization of men.
Nowhere can the perniciousness of the current evasions be seen more clearly than on the question of abortion. If we imagine that a Jesus reborn in the twenty-first century would do other than excoriate and denounce those who seek to spill the blood of innocents—as though the era of Herod had returned also—then we have to concede that Christianity has been rendered a husk of its former reality. Our secularized, de-absolutized anti-culture reaches now even into our churches and other sacred spaces, dictating a partly unconscious watering-down into “niceness” of tough Christian understandings and an emptying-out of Christian words and concepts.
All that notwithstanding, only propaganda, grotesque selfishness, and the avoidance of the plain truth prevent us from seeing that abortion is a crime crying out to heaven for vengeance. And yet, in the spaces between words, some among us have managed to convince ourselves that not only is it possible to be civilized and legislate for killing innocents, but one may have abortion and Christ as well. If this could be remotely true, it would be time to walk about the windows of Christ’s Basilicas and, one by one, pull the blinds over the stained glass.
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of nine books, and a playwright.