“Marginalization Gamesmanship” and Catholic Love
One of the most confusing issues in the Church today is the apparent conflict between orthodoxy on the one hand and service to the poor and marginalized on the other. This apparent conflict is particularly noticeable in the tensions between the Vatican’s disciplinary authority and wayward women religious in the United States (see my previous On the Culture essay, Sisters in Crisis: The Definitive Guide). Whenever the Holy See attempts to impose any sort of discipline, the aggrieved religious community uses the secular media to portray this as a devilish attempt by centralized power to stamp out the Christ-like determination of these generous women to live as outsiders, in identification with those on the margins of society.
This perpetuates a myth that is very useful to those who have lost the faith and wish to disobey ecclesiastical authority, the myth that the Pope and the Curia are aligned with Mammon, or the powers of this world, while the wayward religious communities are aligned with God and God’s poor. But in reality, the opposite is the case.
Who Has Really Sided with Worldly Power?
The first thing to notice is which side of the culture wars each party has taken. Without exception, the Vatican has opposed the greatest powers of this world—namely modern states—in their consistent efforts to promote and even enforce a culture of death. By now we should be under no illusions that the culture of death harms the poor more than any others in society.
Consider the diminishment of intermediary institutions (frequently choked out through excessive regulation); the atomization of the individual in the face of State power; the encouragement of selfish individualism, including sexual promiscuity, easy divorce, and inherently unstable “alternative families”; the pattern of deliberately weakening the authority of churches and undermining the public worth of religious conviction; the manufacture of rights to contraception, sterilization and abortion; the devaluation of the unborn, the elderly and the handicapped; the framing of all law based on a naturalistic and non-spiritual view of what remains of the human person; the refusal to recognize a source of moral principles superior to the laws of the State; the progressive release from legal restraint of one human passion after another. All of these things and more are fostered by the wealthy and highly-placed members of society to the direct disadvantage of the poor and marginalized, whose values are weakened, families destroyed, and communities impoverished as a result.
Taken together, these are the bitter fruits of an ideology of secularism. With respect to this ideology, it is in fact the disobedient institutes of women religious that are invariably on the side of the State. The leaders of these religious institutes, heady with revolutionary gender theories and New Age cosmology, typically advocate ever-increasing support for the overweening power of the modern political order, regardless of how much respect for both Christ and life itself will be diminished by that support. In contrast, the Vatican—with no worldly or financial power at all by comparison—upholds not only the value of the poor and marginalized but also the values which can most improve their situation in the long run.
Nothing could more clearly indicate the true power alignment of the institutes of dissident women religious than the recently-announced grant of $2.3 million from the Conrad Hilton Foundation to the National Catholic Reporter for the purpose of creating a “greater voice for sisters around the globe.” Here we have a major grant from a well-heeled secular foundation in the United States, to an American newspaper which has been disavowed by ecclesiastical authority in the United States for its abuse of the Catholic name, in order to increase the power of women religious at precisely the moment when the Vatican is pressing hard for their reform in this country. As the Chairman of the Board of NCR said, “We’ve been standing with [these] sisters from the beginning.”
An Inseparable Connection between Charity and Truth
The second thing to notice is the impossibility of effective service divorced from the full truth about the human person as revealed by Jesus Christ through His Church. This is one of the main points made by Pope Benedict’s 2009 social encyclical, as evidenced by its very title, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth). It is quite simply impossible to do good to others without knowing what the good is, that is, without knowing the truth.
Those who reject the teachings of the Church about what God has revealed to be both good and true necessarily give up the singularly independent perspective which only Divine Revelation can fully offer. The result is that people look to this world to validate their values, sinking into relativism. They end up making all the right noises about whatever causes the dominant secular culture regards as fashionable (for “everybody knows” such causes are right), while refusing to act on anything the dominant culture regards as unfashionable (for “everybody knows” such things are old-fashioned, superstitious, unimportant or just plain wrong). The State is all too happy to fill such a moral vacuum.
This is precisely what we see in dissident religious communities today. They talk about the immediate material plight of the poor and marginalized, and they especially talk about their solidarity with the poor and marginalized, but they do not talk about the moral and spiritual patterns which both perpetuate marginalization and lock people into lives of despair. The very teachings of the Church that they ignore or deny—sexual morality, the sanctity of human life at all stages, the dignity of the priesthood, the power of the sacraments, the particular content of Revelation, and the joy and peace the full Gospel of Christ can bring even in the midst of suffering—are precisely the things which can make their work spiritually fruitful even when it is not making political waves. These are also the very things which might enable that work to survive and grow.
Christ’s Love Engenders Hope
Another encyclical of Pope Benedict, Deus Caritas Est in 2006, particularly emphasized that Catholics involved in charitable work must be inspired by a truly ecclesial faith in Christ:
[T]hey must not be inspired by ideologies aimed at improving the world, but should rather be guided by the faith which works through love (cf. Gal 5:6)…. The consciousness that, in Christ, God has given himself for us, even unto death, must inspire us to live no longer for ourselves but for him, and, with him, for others. Whoever loves Christ loves the Church, and desires the Church to be increasingly the image and instrument of the love which flows from Christ. The personnel of every Catholic charitable organization want to work with the Church and therefore with the Bishop, so that the love of God can spread throughout the world. (#33)
How much more should this be said of all those in consecrated life?
The main point, then, is simply this: True happiness comes from participation in God’s love and conformity to His will. Any so-called “service” which obscures that tends to produce despair. There is not one of us who can make any progress at all without a deep interior sense of hope and an ever-deepening openness to grace. In the last analysis, this is the essential difference between what we might call marginalization gamesmanship and authentic Christian love.
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Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Sep. 02, 2013 10:06 AM ET USA
It seems that too many in appointed positions of authority have either rejected or are ignorant of what it means to be Catholic. True Catholic identity is a way of life that extends beyond the self out into the secular culture in which it now finds itself. Have bishops consciously failed in their duty to staff critical posts with those truly Catholic? Or is the problem that they do not know where to look to find those who live the Catholic faith as the essence of their being?
Posted by: jg23753479 -
Aug. 30, 2013 9:10 AM ET USA
Your vacation clearly benefited you in many ways. Your last two long essays, this one and the one devoted to what is going on over at First Things, are splendid, some of the best I have read on this site.
Posted by: Baseballbuddy -
Aug. 29, 2013 8:49 PM ET USA
What is the difference between an atheist, and an atheist who hides in a church closet? Why do we not just cut the "sisters" loose and wish them well? Why this 20-year-long goodbye? Strange.