You May Not Be Interested in the Culture War, but the Culture War Is Interested in You
It will doubtless strike some as eccentric for me to play “Variations on a Theme by Leon Trotsky” in the title of this reflection on a crucial issue at Synod-2023. The riff on “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you” seems apt, however. And for two reasons.
First, because this Synod on Synodality is being held amidst numerous wars and rumors of wars, all of which have been largely ignored in the Synod’s discussions. This obsessive ecclesiocentrality creates an air of unreality here in Rome that is to the Synod’s detriment, and that should be noted.
And second, because the epithet “culture warrior” has been weaponized by certain Catholic factions to avoid debate over what seems to others of us a hard and unavoidable truth: that in the Western world, the Church must be a culture warrior because the dominant public culture is toxic, immiserating, destructive of social solidarity—and deeply hostile to the Gospel truth about the human person.
So a pox on assertions of eccentricity. Walking together synodally—at least when we’re walking together in the right direction, which is the Synodal Weg defined by the Lord Jesus in his dialogue with the disciples on the road to Emmaus (cf. Luke 24:13-35)—means reckoning with certain facts.
There is a culture war going on throughout the West.
The aggressors in the war are determined to export their reduction of the human person to a bundle of morally commensurable desires to the rest of the world.
This war inevitably involves the Catholic Church, for if the Church is faithful to its Lord, it will defend and promote the truth about the spiritual and moral dignity of those the Lord died and rose to save.
The Church must fight this culture war as a culture-reforming counterculture, with the distinctive weapons of evangelical clarity and pastoral charity.
How to think about all this? The Synod’s wrestling with these questions will be enriched by an encounter with Robert Louis Wilken.
Wilken is a distinguished historian and patristics scholar who grew up in Missouri Synod Lutheranism, taught at Fordham, Notre Dame, and the University of Virginia (among other distinguished institutions of higher learning), and entered into full communion with the Catholic Church in 1994. In the April 2004 issue of First Things, he penned a masterful essay, “The Church as Culture,” that included this assertion, which is of great importance these days in Rome:
The Church is a culture in its own right. Christ does not simply infiltrate a culture; Christ creates culture by forming another city, another sovereignty. . . .
If there are divisions at Synod-2023—and there are—one way to understand them is through the prism of the Wilken Doctrine. There are those here in Rome who thoroughly understand that the Church is a culture with a unique foundation in Christ, and who live that understanding in the living parts of the world Church. Then there are those who, while professing the Creed, do not quite grasp the full import of the fact that the Church is a unique, Christocentric culture, charged with converting to Christ the cultures in which she finds herself, from classical Greco-Roman to postmodern Western.
This division expresses itself in the synodal debate over so-called “hot button issues”:
Does the Church, as a unique, Christocentric culture, have (and live) an understanding of marriage as the stable, fruitful, lifelong union of a man and a woman? Does the culture that is the Church teach a way of expressing human love in relationships of intimacy that are formed and bounded by both divine revelation and the deep truths inscribed in human nature?
Should the culture that is the Church, in its interaction with society, give priority to the task of promoting a socially embedded and legally recognized reverence for the sanctity of human life at every stage of life and in every condition?
Does the culture that is the Church believe itself capable of ennobling all human cultures, because the culture that is the Church is an expression of the Christ who is the unique and universal savior of humanity? And if so, does the Church act on that conviction in its evangelization and the ordering its own life?
The last of these questions came into sharp focus this past August when The Australian published an interview with Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane. In that story, Archbishop Coleridge, whose served as president of the Australian bishops’ conference from 2018 until 2022, proposed an exemption in Australia for indigenous (aboriginal) men from the Latin-rite Catholic practice of ordaining only celibates to the priesthood, stating that there is “no way you’re going to recruit a celibate clergy in those cultures.”
Are some cultures impervious to Christ’s call to live celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom? Are some cultures impenetrable to the Gospel? One can imagine such claims being made in the past about any number of “indigenous” peoples: peoples of different races and ethnicities, people with different histories. But at the risk of veering into the minefields of wokery, doesn’t the assertion that indigenous Australians are incapable of living celibacy verge on racism? Or to get down to the theological bottom line: Isn’t the claim that people in certain cultures cannot hear, much less accept, the more challenging demands of the Gospel blasphemous? Is the power of the Holy Spirit so circumscribed?
Similar questions arise from the assertions of the LGBTQ+ insurgency, not unheard at Synod-2023 (if largely sotto voce thus far), that certain people are “made” a certain way and thus can only love a certain way. This would seem to contradict one of the basic Christian truths that form the Church as a unique culture: the truth that, as we all “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), we are all “justified”—i.e., made whole—by the grace of God poured out through Christ crucified. Which is to say that, whatever our desires and whatever our confusions, everyone is called to an ongoing, deepening conversion, sanctification, and, ultimately glorification that is available to all: if we allow ourselves to be welcomed by Christ on his terms, not our own.
The culture that is the Church has converted cultures that may originally have seemed impervious to the Gospel for two millennia. Synod-2023 must reckon with that truth, or it will end up tacitly denying the Lord who said, “. . . and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). Not some. All.
As for “culture wars”:
The threats to civilization today—the threats to the human future today—seem almost innumerable. If there is a common thread running through them, it is their denial of the inalienable dignity and infinite value of every human life from conception until natural death. That is what the “culture of death” (which promotes abortion-on-demand and euthanasia or “physician-assisted suicide”) denies about the unborn, the vulnerable elderly, and the severely disabled. That is what Hamas and its imbecile supporters in elite Western universities deny about Jews. That is what Vladimir Putin denies about Ukrainians. That is what Xi Jinping denies by persecuting Christians and committing genocide against Uyghurs. The list goes on and on.
In the face of these assaults on the humanum and the vast human suffering they cause, the Church as a culture has no option but to be a counterculture: to being a culture-reforming counterculture that offers humanity a nobler view of itself through the Gospel, in the acceptance of which we learn the truth about ourselves as well as the truth about God. That means being culture warriors who wield the sword of the Spirit and call all to conversion in Christ: not only, and perhaps not primarily, by argument, but by displaying a nobler, more humane way of life.
In that very Catholic sense, “culture warrior” is a title to be welcomed, indeed embraced.
WHAT I WOULD SAY TO THE SYNOD
The three essays that follow—one discursive, two by way of witness—address various aspects of the unavoidable culture war in which the Church, as a culture-reforming counterculture, must be engaged. XR II
On the Priority of Human Life
by Richard M. Doerflinger
During the 2020 presidential election season, the Catholic bishops of the United States re-issued their guide to important issues for Catholic voters, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. While highlighting critical concerns such as poverty, racism, the environmental crisis, and the death penalty, they said that “the threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed.”
That reaffirmation prompted questions from commentators. Was this more a political than a moral statement? Was it trying to signal support for the candidate who opposed abortion? Did it disagree with Pope Francis’s emphasis on a broad range of issues affecting human dignity?
The answer to each question is “No.” Explaining why requires some background.
Why Human Life Comes First
Catholic teaching defends the right to life in order to obey the divine commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” but also because all other earthly goods and rights are meaningless without it. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith observed in 1974, “The first right of the human person is his life. He has other goods and some are more precious, but this one is fundamental—the condition of all the others. Hence it must be protected above all others” (Declaration on Procured Abortion, 11).
It is no accident that Thomas Jefferson, in drafting the American Declaration of Independence, cited life first among the “unalienable rights” with which human beings are “endowed by their Creator.” Jefferson was no Catholic, and what he wrote is simply common sense: If others are allowed to take my life, all my liberty and all pursuit of happiness in this life are forfeit as well.
Moreover, the Church teaches that direct killing of an innocent human being is always gravely evil—a teaching formally reaffirmed as unchangeable by Pope St. John Paul II in the 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). Whatever right we may have to defend ourselves or others against attack, the inviolability of innocent human life is absolute, with special concern for those who are “weak and defenseless” at any stage of life (Evangelium Vitae, 57).
Another point of agreement between Jefferson’s declaration and Catholic teaching touches on the responsibility of government. Because the right to life is inherent in being a member of the human family, no public authority can deny it, or recognize it for some and not others. To do so does not change the right itself but undermines that authority’s reason for existing.
Abortion involves distinctive elements that make it an especially egregious attack on life.
As to the victim: There is no one more helpless and innocent than the unborn child, relying on the care of others for his or her very survival. The child’s right to life is equal to that of everyone else but protecting that right depends entirely on the rest of us.
As to the agents involved: A child’s first protectors and advocates are his or her parents, beginning with the mother, as the sacred responsibility of every family is to be the “sanctuary of life” (Evangelium Vitae, 11). And medical personnel, members of the healing profession, must be defenders of human life against illness and injury. Both these sacred vocations are betrayed when parents and doctors unite to ensure a child’s death.
Governments also betray their fundamental obligation to serve the common good when they allow such killing, especially when they declare a “right” to destroy the most basic right of helpless members of society. The U.S. Supreme Court did this in 1973 when it claimed, on the flimsiest of grounds, to discover a constitutional “right” to abortion throughout pregnancy. That decision has encouraged similar policies in other nations and helped advance crimes such as infanticide and euthanasia. While the court’s decision has been overruled, over a half-century it has generated powerful political and cultural forces in favor of reaffirming and expanding its abortion policy, allowing the lethal neglect of abortion survivors, and forcing pro-life citizens to fund and promote abortion.
Finally, the sheer number of abortion victims surpasses the number of people killed in wars throughout history: 64 million abortions in the U.S. alone since 1973, and about 73 million worldwide every year. Each of these abortions also entails grave moral and spiritual harm to those involved, who suffer grievously as a result or must resolve to harden their hearts against the claims of the helpless. As the Second Vatican Council taught, crimes like these “poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury” (Gaudium et Spes, 27). Therefore the U.S. bishops have devoted themselves to “radical solidarity” with women facing difficulties during pregnancy, and to post-abortion reconciliation and healing.
Abortion and a Consistent Ethic of Life
Some may say that this focus on the defense of unborn children is opposed to the “seamless garment” or “consistent ethic of life” championed by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, or to Pope Francis’s broader critique of modern society’s “throwaway culture.” That claim is misplaced.
Cardinal Bernardin’s first known use of the “seamless garment” image was in 1976, when he was president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. At a Mass commemorating the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1973 abortion decision, he declared that “life before and after birth, from the moment of conception until death, is like a seamless garment . . . If we become insensitive to the beginning of life and condone abortion or if we become careless about the end of life and justify euthanasia, we have no reason to believe that there will be much respect for life in between.”
Then and later, the cardinal did emphasize the Church’s need to address a range of threats to human dignity, and the need for Catholics addressing a particular issue to appreciate that need. But he rejected efforts to downgrade the special evil of abortion. In 1988, for example, he distanced himself from the organization JustLife, which had issued a “seamless garment” scorecard that seemed to allow pro-abortion candidates to win a high “pro-life” rating due to their other positions. In an interview with the National Catholic Register published on June 12, 1988, he said, “I feel very, very strongly about the right to life of the unborn, the weakest and most vulnerable of human beings. . . . I don’t see how you can subscribe to the consistent ethic and then vote for someone who feels that abortion is a ‘basic right’ of the individual.” He came to prefer the term “consistent ethic,” concerned that “seamless garment” may be taken to imply that all issues involving life have equal priority.
Pope Francis has also cast a wider net, speaking of a “throwaway culture” that ignores and discards many human beings thought to be of little or no value. That has not kept him from speaking with special force about the unborn child. Thus in his address to the Italian Pro-Life Movement on April 11, 2014, the pope, citing Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, said, “It is . . . necessary to express the strongest possible opposition to every direct attack on life, especially against the innocent and defenseless, and the unborn in a mother’s womb is the example of innocence par excellence. Let us remember the words of the Second Vatican Council: ‘Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes’” (Gaudium et Spes, 51). In his general audience of October 10, 2018, Francis compared abortion to “hiring a hitman” to resolve a problem, an image to which he returned on May 25, 2019, in an address to the participants in the conference Yes to Life!: “Never, never eliminate a human life or hire a killer to solve a problem.”
In sum . . .
Abortion is a uniquely grave threat, not because other concerns are unimportant, but because allowing direct attacks on human life, especially at its weakest and most vulnerable, undermines every right and every earthly good for which God has bestowed on us the gift of life. The Church should continue to recognize that defending this precious gift is a primary moral concern for Christians, and for any society that is truly human.
[Richard Doerflinger is retired from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, where he served for 36 years. He is a Fellow at the University of Notre Dame's de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, and at the National Catholic Bioethics Center.]
Abandoning the Abandoned and Betraying the Betrayed
by Mary Hallan FioRito
Alyson* was thirty years old when Brad, her husband of seven years, left her and their six-month-old son, Bobby. After several years of struggling with infertility issues, the couple had been overjoyed when they learned of their son’s impending arrival. Although the pregnancy was not without complications, friends and family provided tangible and spiritual support to the couple both before and after Bobby’s birth. Alyson was overjoyed to settle into her new life as a mother and wife.
So when Brad announced he was leaving the marriage, Alyson was stunned. “I was completely blindsided,” she told me. “Our son was not even a year old when his father moved out.”
A serious practicing Catholic, Alyson began to attend Mass every morning, infant in tow, praying for Brad’s return to the family. Brad, a music director for a large Catholic parish, was unmoved, eventually marrying out of the Church, without first seeking an annulment.
Although Brad was no longer a Catholic in good standing, he continued to receive the Eucharist for many months, in full view of the entire congregation at the parish where he worked, until a parishioner privately confronted the pastor. “Many people in this community know he’s in an irregular situation, and know he left his wife and baby,” she told him. “His weekly reception of Holy Communion is giving scandal—and people don’t understand why you are allowing it.” The pastor became enraged, telling the concerned parishioner that she “didn’t know the whole story” and that she was a “busybody” and needed to stay out of “internal forum issues.”
When Alyson learned of the pastor’s angry response, to say she felt betrayed by the Church is an understatement. She had entered into marriage believing it to be a life-long, faithful union. “I thought at the very least the Church would have my back,” she said. “But the Church seemed more interested in ‘ministering’ to my husband and his civil-law partner than it did me and my son.”
Alyson’s story is, sadly, far from unique. Tamara, who had been married for almost twenty years and had six children with her husband, a college professor, found herself divorced after he announced he was in a relationship with one of his graduate students. Tamara’s husband and his girlfriend also married outside the Church without a declaration of nullity and, adding insult to injury, the judge in their civil divorce case awarded partial custody rights of Tamara’s children to her husband and his new spouse. “The thought of another woman—a woman who had an extra-marital affair with my husband—raising our children was an incredibly heavy cross,” she recalled. “I looked to the Church for resources, for comfort, but other than my daily reception of the Eucharist, I had none.”
Joe had been married for ten years when his wife announced she was leaving him. During the divorce proceedings, Joe discovered that his wife had been having an extra-marital affair with a co-worker—and that their youngest daughter, aged four, was not his biological child. After Joe’s wife civilly remarried, the judge in the divorce case gave complete custody of that child to his wife and her husband, prohibiting Joe from seeing or speaking to the little girl he had raised as his own.
When Joe’s eldest daughter was being confirmed, he learned that his wife had made arrangements for her “new husband” to serve as her Confirmation sponsor. It took Joe multiple telephone calls and emails to the pastor, the principal, the director of religious education, and, finally, a canon lawyer in his diocese in order to have his daughter’s sponsor changed. Joe was accused of “stirring up trouble” and “trying to get revenge”—all because he asked that the Church’s own regulations regarding sponsors be enforced.
In each of these cases, the divorce marked much more than the end of a relationship. Divorce marked the death of a family.
No-fault divorce is partly to blame—when one party to a contract can abandon that contract with no serious reason, rates of divorce will increase. When marriages undergo the pressure or strain that comes with a lifelong partnership, divorce appears a fairly quick and easy “solution.”
The almost-complete disappearance of the social stigma of adultery and divorce has also likely contributed to attitudes within the Church towards the “divorced and remarried.” In fact, it is rare now that even the admission of an extra-marital affair results in a man or woman facing any social repercussions. Twelve years ago, David Petraeus, the director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, stepped down after an extra-marital affair was made public—but only due to the national security risk it posed, not because of the betrayal of his wedding vows.
In decades past, men and women who were abandoned by their spouses viewed the Church as the last institution that understood the pain and the devastation caused by divorce: the only remaining institution, in fact, that recognized the gravity of violating marriage vows and fully comprehended the lasting ripple effect it had on children and other family members. They believed the Church was an institution that stood with them, publicly acknowledging that an injustice had been done to the abandoned party: the last institution that recognized that the vows that they made were binding, and that both natural and spiritual consequences existed if those vows were broken.
Synod participants need to understand that even the mere discussion of permitting the divorced and remarried to receive the Eucharist is tremendously painful for those who believed the Church was their protector and advocate. If the Church permits those who have left their spouses to create a “new family” to receive the Eucharist without first seeking a declaration of nullity and subsequent marriage convalidation, she too will have abandoned the abandoned and betrayed the betrayed.
This will also give the impression that the Church does not understand the pain of the children of divorce, who are deprived of the joy of milestone celebrations—birthdays, graduations, engagements—because of the conflict between their parents. She will join a culture awash in “disposable marriages.”
Mercy towards those who have sinned and grievously wounded others by violating their marriage vows must be tempered with the justice due to those who have been harmed. That includes the injured spouse, certainly, but also any children from the marriage, as well as the greater society.
The damage that a “culture of divorce” has wrought is vast. Social scientists have universally concluded that children who grow up in homes with their two married parents enjoy a host of benefits not experienced by those raised in step-families. In fact, children raised by their married parents (even when there is occasional marital conflict in the home) fare better on every measurable metric. They have more economic resources, more consistent “father involvement,” better physical and mental health, better academic achievement, experience fewer teenage pregnancies, and exhibit fewer problems with drugs and alcohol.
No good can come from any further erosion of the family. The Church should not contribute to the demise of marriage by indiscriminately welcoming into eucharistic communion those who have willingly, and without serious reason, left their spouses to enter into a new union. The ramifications are too profound, and the damage far too serious.
*While the stories here are factual, names have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.
[Mary Hallan FioRito is an attorney and the Cardinal Francis George Fellow at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. She writes from Chicago.]
The Boundaries of Love
by Gwyneth A. Spaeder
Earlier this month I attended the funeral of a beautiful four-month-old baby girl, the daughter of a friend from college. Regina Marigold (named for the Blessed Mother: Mary’s gold as she was born in Mary’s month of May) had been prenatally diagnosed with Trisomy 18 and it was never certain that she would live until delivery, let alone be able to go home with her parents and six older siblings. But she defied all medical odds for several months and in her short lifetime became a radical witness to Truth with a capital T—the Truth that all human life is precious, and that love freely given and received in our families, in our friendships, and even between strangers is the same love Jesus Christ showed us by His death and resurrection. As I think about the current Synod from the perspective of a Catholic mother and physician, it is apparent to me that what Catholics throughout the world need to hear at the conclusion of this meeting is the message of Regina Marigold’s life proclaimed and ratified. This Synod must—without qualification—reinforce and proclaim that all human life is of inestimable worth, and that this truth can be known with certainty through both the heart and the mind, providing a foundation from which we can share the joy of the Gospel to the rest of the world.
Like other Catholics, I have been reading about the Synod over the past weeks and months. As I reflected on Regina’s life, I realized that were I to be able to speak to the members of the Synod, this is what I would want to say: The fact that I recognize such parallels in the teachings from the life of a terminally ill infant in 2023 and the life of a thirty-three-year-old Jewish carpenter two millennia ago should not be brushed over. The truth about what it means to be a loving human being has not changed in the first two thousand years of the Catholic Church and it should not change now. It should not be influenced by time or culture. In fact, it cannot be changed by time or culture, for it is written into the very essence of our being by our Creator.
To some, insistence on this truth and the ramifications of living a life of radical Christian love sounds harsh, judgmental, and limiting. It should be seen as the exact opposite. The existence of truth and the ability to know it through reason and revelation provide boundaries that are essential to human freedom.
I mentioned earlier that I am both a Catholic mother and a physician. More specifically, I am a pediatrician, and so there is often a certain amount of overlap between my vocation as a mother and as a doctor. Whether I am discussing raising my own children with my husband or counseling other parents about their children, it is often helpful to remember that consistent boundaries are what allow children to thrive. Anyone who has spent any amount of time with young toddlers or adolescents knows this very well.
Children must test boundaries throughout their development. Testing boundaries is what allows them to learn about themselves, the world around them, and the strength of the relationships they need to depend on to grow into healthy, happy individuals. While sometimes painful for both parent and child alike, maintaining boundaries paradoxically allows more exploration and growth—physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Imagine a previously unknown island surrounded on all sides by steep cliffs and rough water. Imagine the amount of exploration and discovery that is possible if the edges of that island are carefully and clearly marked, versus hidden and difficult to determine because of trees and foliage. And imagine the danger of suddenly moving a previously established boundary marker.
Parenting children has always been hard. Raising children in the Catholic faith today is both easier and harder, I think. Easier because we have confidence that we are not alone, that we are working with the grace of God the Father, and that we understand that our children’s ultimate happiness and fulfillment is not of our doing but rests in God’s perfect plan. But much harder because at so many points in our children’s lives our culture is working ceaselessly to teach them to question the existence of objective truth, and to question who they are, right down to their biological identity.
Such moving boundaries are dangerous to young bodies, minds, and souls. Suggesting that who we are as human beings, male and female, created in the image and likeness of God, has different meanings depending on when or where in human history you are living, causes some children to run straight off the cliffs of that imaginary island and crash into the surf below: a surf that today is churning with confusion, fear and sadness, as so many of my patients have no steady ground to grasp as they explore who they want to be in and to the world. For other children, recognizing that the boundaries are permeable will mean they shrink in fear from a healthy exploration of the wonder and love to which God is calling them. In either situation there is loss.
The dangers here do not touch only my children, their peers, and my patients. The ramifications of failing to clearly assert that divine revelation and apostolic tradition, previously codified as immutable Catholic teachings, will remain unchangeable would intensify real dangers within the medical profession. I am reminded again of Regina’s short life. Her parents have told me how many physicians and other medical providers dismissed them as radical religious zealots for refusing to terminate the pregnancy. How, even after she was born, so many refused to look past the medical codes on her chart and see her as a precious individual, beloved by her family and their friends.
Our dignity as human beings cannot ever be seen as dependent on time and culture or we are all in danger. One only needs to look at trends in the acceptance of medically assisted suicide, abortion on demand, ever advancing fertility treatments that move further and further away from procreation belonging to and occurring between man and woman, and the mutilation of children at the altar of transgender medicine to realize the minefield we are currently traversing.
How, then, are we to move forward in our mission to evangelize the world? By drawing boundaries of love. The love between God and Jesus Christ that breathes forth the Holy Spirit to guide us. The love shown forever and for all on the cross at Calvary. The love of Michelangelo’s Pietà and the love of my friend, holding her dying daughter. This love is not always easy or without painful sacrifice. But it is a love that will allow us all to provide a firm foundation for our children and a consistent ability to minister to our patients. It is this love that must be proclaimed by the Synod, and I pray that its members have the courage to do so.
[Gwyneth A. Spaeder, M.D., is a graduate of the University of Dallas and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. She practices pediatrics in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where she lives with her husband and three children.]
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