Countercultural Catholic, chapter 2: The Worst of Both Worlds

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 19, 2013

In September, Pope Francis caused an international sensation when, in an interview, he said that the Catholic Church “cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods.” Instead, he proposed, the Church should emphasize “what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn.”

This is an abbreviated version of a chapter in a new book I am developing on building a Catholic counter-culture in a post-Christian world. Comments are welcome!

From the outside, the Church is perceived as obsessed with issues of sexual morality and intent on imposing sectarian rules on society at large. From inside, active Catholics only infrequently hear these issues mentioned in their parish churches. They may read about formal statements issued by bishops, usually to friendly audiences. But the condemnations of abortion and same-sex marriage—to say nothing of contraception—are not translated into action at the grassroots level.

So the Church today suffers the worst of both worlds: condemned for using strong-arm political tactics while in fact being politically ineffectual; criticized for obsession with the culture wars while actually abstaining from the crucial battles. The Church is definitely not shaping the nation’s culture. At this point, it may not even be an exaggeration to say that the Church is being shaped by the culture.

In an era marked by dissent, bishops cannot assume that their voices will carry the debate even on matters of doctrine. Still less can they assume that their voices will prevail in public arguments, when non-Catholics must be convinced and the bishops cannot claim any special grace of state.

During the last few presidential election campaigns, American bishops have been caught up in debates over whether Catholic politicians who support the “culture of death” should be barred from receiving Communion. Pro-lifers have begged bishops to enforce #915 of the Code of Canon Law, a canon that obliges priests to protect the Church from scandal by withholding the Eucharist from unrepentant public sinners. Most bishops have demurred. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired Archbishop of Washington, D.C., famously remarked that he would not be “comfortable” invoking the Church’s law in such cases.

For the Church and for the cause of life, however, the frustration of the pro-life movement is only a sign of a deeper problem. It is true that the American bishops have failed to exercise appropriate ecclesiastical discipline, and it is true that this failure has aggravated the difficulty. But ultimately, the problem is not a failure to enforce rules. The problem is the yawning gap between the formal statements of the hierarchy and the actual behavior of most Catholics at the parish level. The problem is that after issuing admirable statements about the dignity of human life, Church leaders have not worked assiduously to build up support for the Gospel of Life among the Catholic faithful, let alone in society at large. Regrettably, Church leaders have treated the “culture wars” debates—abortion and homosexuality and contraception and euthanasia and embryo research—as political issues to be managed, rather than as challenges for evangelization.

The American bishops have chastised Catholic politicians who support the culture of death, and warned that these Catholics have separated themselves from the community of the faithful. But where is the outward evidence of that separation? At a minimum, Catholics who flout the Church’s teachings on key moral issues should feel uncomfortable attending Mass. They should find their vote totals plummeting in Catholic neighborhoods. They should find that their fellow parishioners shun them, or better, remonstrate with them at every opportunity, seeking to show them the error of their ways. If a politician who supports abortion persists in receiving Communion, perhaps some other members of his parish should abstain, demonstrating that they are not “in communion” with him. None of these things has happened.

If politicians who support the culture of death truly have separated themselves from the Catholic community—and they have—then why is the separation not evident to the public? Because there has not been a concerted effort at the grassroots level to teach the Catholic faithful and, more important, to motivate them for action in defense of life. There have been many reminders of what the Church teaches, but few efforts to show, by precept and by example, that individual Catholics can be held accountable for honoring the Church’s teachings.

Many bishops fear that if they take disciplinary action against a prominent Catholic public figure, their efforts will backfire, creating sympathy for the politician and gaining him votes. Quite likely they are right. Similarly, parish priests fear that if they condemn artificial birth control in their Sunday homilies, they will foster resentment among their parishioners, the couples who use contraceptives will stop coming to Mass, their congregations will shrink, and thus they will lose opportunities to deliver at least some portion of the Gospel message.

But bishops and priests have a moral obligation to execute the laws of the Church faithfully and to preach the Gospel message in its fullness. A bishop should not be deterred from taking responsible disciplinary action because of the likely political fallout. A pastor should not withhold some portion of the Church’s teaching—hiding a light under a bushel basket—because some parishioners might find the truth painful to accept. The role of the clergy is to teach, to govern, and to sanctify—not to calculate the political consequences.

When Church leaders are clear and consistent in their statements and their actions—when they preach the Gospel in season and out of season, without worrying about their popularity ratings—their people rally around them. True, the parish congregations may shrink. True, many people who cannot accept the “hard saying” of the undiluted faith may desert the Church, just as many deserted Jesus when his preaching made them uncomfortable. [Jn 6:60-62] But those who remain will be firm in the faith, and for those who fall away, the clear teaching of the Church will be a constant reminder, a prod to their consciences, spurring them toward reform.

On the other hand, when the teachings of the Church are muted, the bonds that hold together the Catholic community are not as tight. Thus when Church leaders tone down their preaching, hoping to gain some political advantage by taking a subtle approach, they endanger the only real basis for their public leadership. Bishops have clout when they represent a strong, unified Catholic community. If the bonds of that community are eroded by confusion and dissent, the bishops’ influence is undermined. So ironically, when Church leaders seek popular approval, in the long run they lose public influence.

Ultimately a bishop’s teaching authority rests on the common faith of the Catholic people. Ultimately the faithful accept the bishop’s leadership not because he puts forward convincing arguments (although he can and he should) but because they recognize him as a successor to the Apostles, entrusted with the power of the Holy Spirit. The measure of his leadership on any issue, political or doctrinal, is the strength of his people’s faith.

Indeed the faith forms the only basis on which the Church can claim any authority. George Weigel writes in Evangelical Catholicism: “The Church of the 21st century cannot, however, invite men and women to faith on the basis of authority. It must deploy a bolder, more evangelical appeal. It must change the game.”

In that controversial September interview, Pope Francis was suggesting a way to change the game. He saw the futility of repeating arguments that have already been advanced again and again. The people who are not already convinced will not be swayed by one more repetition. We need to find new ways to reach people, to establish a new basis on which to proceed with the discussion. The Pope suggests that if we rediscover the primacy of evangelization, if we excite an interest in the Gospel, and stimulate faith in Jesus Christ, we can gradually escort people through the steps that lead to a wholehearted embrace of the culture of life.

So the Pope encourages us to concentrate not on the neuralgic public issues, but on the deeper needs of the human heart—on “what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn.”

Previous: 1. The Sign of Jonah
Next: 3. With Apologies to the Martyrs

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Nov. 29, 2013 7:43 AM ET USA

    Superb analysis, totally in line with the approach of Pope Francis! Phil Lawler wrote the best book on the scandals in Boston and it's clear he's lost none of the acuity he demonstrated there in the years since.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Nov. 26, 2013 7:04 PM ET USA

    I wonder if the politicians and the Bishops act the way they do is because both afraid of losing the same thing. MONEY!!! Politicians get most of their money from people whose issues are in opposition to the issues the Bishops should be advocating. The Bishops tread lightly on "social" issues because government money is tied to it so many different ways. I say the Bishops need to exhort the Catholic faithful on the truth and demand they pray earnestly for the change of our country's morals.