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Being Catholic in the United States: Living Faith in a Pluralistic Society

Grand Rapids, MI

I. Introduction
Allow me to thank you most warmly for your kindness in inviting me to address you this evening. In particular, I am grateful to Bishop Walkowiak & Bishop Huley for your warm welcome, together with the kindness I received both from Msgr. Edward Hankiewicz, Moderator of the Grand Rapids Serra Club, and its President, Mr. Timothy Hile.

Coming here this evening brings back memories to trips I made to Grand Rapids with James Cardinal Hickey, an eminent son of Michigan. I think especially of the Cardinal’s visits to his classmate, Msgr. Moran, in Lowell. I understand that Cardinal Hickey ordained Bishop Walkowiak to the priesthood and he was also the Moderator of Serra International. Bishop Hurley and I worked together on numerous projects over the years, and, of course, I am always happy to see my brother Knights of Columbus! To complete my bona fides, I will mention that my grandmother came from Michigan – she was one of 18 children – and so you can imagine that I have quite a few cousins in this state!

II. Living in this Passing World
Now to the matter at hand – living as a Catholic in the contemporary, pluralistic society we call the United States of America. Let me begin with a few quotes from a letter to Diognetus, dating from the second or third century, a passage well known to the clergy from the Liturgy of the Hours, a passage in which, dear friends, I hope we can recognize ourselves:

“Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language, or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.”

Then the author adds: “And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, yet they live on a level that transcends the law.”

This is a letter that purports to explain to non-Christians what it was like to live as a Christian during the height of the far-flung Roman Empire. Thanks to the so-called “pax Romana”, which facilitated travel and commerce, the early Christians lived in a very diverse culture. To understand this, all we have to do is to remember the account of the first Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles which tells us that people from various places speaking many languages were present in Jerusalem on that day when Christianity first began to spread.

Thus, living in a pluralistic society is not new to Christianity but rather has been a constant part of the Church’s experience. Christianity has learned to adapt itself to virtually every culture and yet it has never simply melded itself into the cultural woodwork. Rather, in its best days, the faith has shone from within or to switch metaphors, has served as a leaven in society. The Church, it seems, has always gotten into trouble when it identified too closely with any one culture or political system, too much at home in the corridors of earthly power, wealth, or influence, in a word, too much at home in this passing world. Ironically, when the Church may appear to be its strongest, then it is weakest. At a personal level, all of us know only too well how our faith wanes when we become so absorbed in the things our culture values that we forget the Holy Spirit of love as well as the truths and values that flow from faith in Christ Jesus.

Years ago, Cardinal Hickey was called to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Then, as now, it was a formidable experience, even for Cardinal Hickey, to do so. The subject of the hearing was the activities of the Church in Nicaragua at a time when the Sandinistas were in the ascendancy. Some on the panel thought that the Church was too sympathetic to the Sandinistas and Cardinal Hickey was “in the dock” because, as Bishop of Cleveland, he had sent missionaries to Central America and remained very involved in the region. “How’s the Church in Nicaragua?” one Senator wanted to know. “It’s flourishing,” Cardinal Hickey responded to the incredulous Senator and when challenged, His Eminence simply said: “The Church always flourishes when it is persecuted. ‘The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians!’” In his reply Cardinal Hickey quoted the ancient Christian author Tertullian whose words are perennially true. In the midst of persecution, the Church grows exponentially.  

III. The American Experiment in Limited Government
What about the United States of America? Let me begin with an expression of gratitude and patriotism. I am grateful to live in this country with its many blessings, especially its constitutional guarantees of our God-given freedoms. Among the many reasons I love our country is indeed the welcome it has given to people from so many lands, the religious freedom and tolerance it has sought to practice, the unity that has come forth from our diversity.

Yet, in the 19th Century, a dispute arose in the Church in the United States. At the risk of over-simplifying, I will offer you a summary. Some bishops led by my predecessor in Baltimore, James Cardinal Gibbons, believed that the American experiment in limited government, for all its flaws, including a virulent strain of anti-Catholicism, offered the Church – her members and her institutions – a wonderful opportunity to plant the seed of the Word of God, to flourish and to grow. Other bishops, led by Bishop Bernard McQuaid of Rochester, saw dangers. They were patriotic Americans who loved their country yet they could see how American pluralism and tolerance could give rise to a culture of relativism (my truth is not your truth) and to a culture of indifferentism (one religion is as good as another).

In hindsight, we can see that both points of view have something to teach us. Cardinal Gibbons and company seemed to be vindicated in the astonishing growth of the Church in the twentieth century, by the rising educational and economic levels of Catholics, and by the assimilation of Catholics in the higher echelons of politics and business, the high-water mark of which was the election of a Catholic president. While time is certainly testing the solidity of that growth and the wisdom of assimilating too completely with the dominant culture, nonetheless the United States remains fertile soil for the Gospel and in the minds of most, the Church can still go about her mission in a relatively unfettered fashion, especially when compared with the bloody religious persecutions in other parts of the world.

On the other hand, Bishop McQuaid and company had a point. While no one of us would want to turn the clock back to the days of nativist anti-Catholicism or to the pre-ecumenical days of overt hostility among denominations, we do now find ourselves in a culture where many do not believe there is such a thing as religious truth, or any sort of truth, except that which can be observed and measured; and we do live in a culture where many think that one religion is as a good as another, or that one’s being religious or irreligious is as just as good, so long as one’s needs are being met.  

IV. The Debate Goes On
In a different key and in very different circumstances, the debate of a Gibbons vs. a McQuaid seems to continue, even among those who love their country dearly, who are concerned about persecuted believers around the world, and who love their Church passionately. The question really is the subject of this talk: how do Christians live in a secular, pluralistic culture?

Of course, no one can analyze our culture in a matter of minutes. But it is important for us to take stock in at least a few ways of how American culture has changed within the last few decades. When I was growing up, nearly 75% of Catholics went to Mass every Sunday. If your Olds Vista Cruiser did not back out of the driveway each Sunday and make its way to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, the neighbors on Indiana Avenue would ask you when next they saw you, “We missed you at Mass on Sunday. Were you sick?” Today, if you pile six kids into a Chevrolet Tahoe and back out of the driveway on Sunday morning for Mass, no one is likely to see you but they will ask why you’ve been so impolitic as to have six kids! Today only about 25% of Catholics attend Mass regularly. And, dear Serrans, if you have a son who enters the seminary or a daughter who enters consecrated life, as you know so well, you might receive a few questions as well.

While we are still a nation that largely believes in God, we cannot miss the fact that our culture is becoming less religious. Many who say they believe in God do not believe in a personal God but rather in something more akin to an impersonal force, perhaps that’s something they picked up from “Star Wars”. Many also see themselves not so much as religious – in the sense of belonging to a specific religion or adhering to religious doctrines, but rather as “spiritual” – and while it’s not at all bad to be spiritual (it’s good) – in this instance it means a kind of dreamy, self-satisfying relationship with whatever form of a deity one chooses to believe in. Pope Francis spoke of this in his new encyclical on the Light of Faith where he said: “Faith without truth does not save, it does not provide a sure footing. It remains a beautiful story, the projection of our deep yearning for happiness, something capable of satisfying us to the extent that we are willing to deceive ourselves” (LF, no. 24). We should note in passing that there is less and less denominational loyalty and that the practice of the faith among Millennials is not promising.

One might think that a secular culture would be a more tolerant culture but it doesn’t seem to be working out that way. In fact, there are concerted efforts to ensure that religion is confined to churches, that its voice in the public square is muted, and that its institutions are made “to play the rules” of the secular state.

This is different from the days of Gibbons and McQuaid, it’s even different from the days in which I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s. Professor Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard has observed that before challenges to religious freedom are legal or judicial, they are cultural. In other words, as fewer people embrace a religious faith, as the transmission of faith from one generation to the next falters, the presence and the mission of religion, religious institutions, and religious people has less regard within our culture. Or to put this matter somewhat differently – and we will return to this point in just a minute – Professor John Garvey, President of Catholic University, recently said: “If you want to protect religious liberty, love God more!”

So, in view of the gains of a godless secularity in our culture, we might revisit the debate of Gibbons and McQuaid in our own day. And let’s wade right into the response we should be making to the Health and Human Services mandate that requires virtually all employers to include in their employee health insurance plans coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception, as well as reproductive counseling that would extend to the underage daughters of employees even of Catholic institutions. Needless to say, private conscientious for profit employers have no protection under these same HHS rules. Here I want to pay tribute to Mr. John Kennedy whose firm, Auto Cam, is resisting the HHS mandate in court. We thank you, sir, for your great courage and determination! Houses of worship are exempt as well as other religious entities but religious institutions such as hospitals, charities, and universities are not. They are “accommodated” by a “Rube Goldberg” arrangement that claims to absolve them from paying for the proscribed services while nonetheless ensuring that these so-called “services” are made available to employees of this class of religious institution.

The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops has taken a firm stance. We believe that this substantially burdens the exercise of our religious freedom. We believe that it entangles us in facilitating if not funding so-called “services” at odds with our teaching. We think that the HHS mandate insinuates the culture of death in institutions dedicated to promoting the culture of life. We also believe that in providing exemptions to some religious groups & not to others the government has picked winners and losers among religious denominations. I’m no constitutional lawyer but I don’t think they’re supposed to do this.

Needless to say the position of the USCCB is not universally shared. Among those who love their church and their country are those who say that the church will just have to learn how to get along in an increasingly diverse culture. “We have to see how we can live with this,” someone told me. Others have said, “Well, we pay taxes and we know that our tax dollars go for things that are against the teachings of the Church...” though, ironically enough, the Hyde Amendment and the Mexico City policy sought to ensure that our tax dollars would not be spent for abortion. Still others would say, “you’ll never recapture the “status quo ante” – that is – the accord reached with the federal government in the early 70’s just after abortion became the law of the land. Senator Frank Church of Idaho introduced an amendment that gave religious individuals and groups broad conscience exemptions and added to this were the Hyde and Weldon Amendments. With the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the situation changed, and many think it has changed forever… so, as one of the lawyers said to me, “You have the accommodation. Why not declare victory?”

V.Bearing Witness to the Gospel
To be sure, there are hidden but very real religious dangers when it comes to resisting a government rule or law. One of the dangers is that one becomes a cultural warrior rather than a servant of the faith and of the truth that comes from Christ. As citizens and believers, however, we need to be engaged in the struggle to create what successive popes have called “a civilization of truth and love”, to be leaven from within.

Which brings us back to the Letter to Diognetus, where it says: “Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor but that is for their glory. They are attacked [by everyone] yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred…”

Well, we readily acknowledge that religious persecution occurs elsewhere but truth to tell most people don’t believe that religious freedom is under challenge here at home. Churches are open, our institutions are functioning, and religious leaders are not being jailed for their beliefs. Some would go so far as to say that religious persecution is not possible for we live in an enlightened order, in fact, too enlightened to engage in something as archaic as religious persecution. So when Francis Cardinal George of Chicago said that he expect to die peacefully in bed, but that his successor would die in prison, and his successor would ‘die a martyr in the public square’ – some were horrified. Some though he was raising a preposterous specter and that in our age and in our culture we are beyond the age of martyrdom.

It may indeed seem like a long distance between the seemingly apocalyptic vision of Cardinal George and the arcane world of federal rule making, the local ordinances, the unfriendly state laws, the bad judicial decisions, the licensure disputes, the denials of accreditation – all of which challenge religious liberty in a hidden way – not to mention the move to exclude religious groups from college campuses. But religious persecution always begins slowly and quietly. While, like Thomas More, we shouldn’t rush to the gallows, nonetheless, we might do well to recognize that we’ve turned a corner and that we find ourselves less at home in our culture and more like the early Christians who lived in the Roman Empire.

And this brings us to Pope Francis and his famous interview in America. The day after it appeared, reporters began calling. One of them asked if I would repent of all I’ve been saying about religious freedom, the life issues, and marriage, now that the Pope has told us to back off of such things. Needless to say, I don’t think that’s what the Holy Father is asking. The day after his interview, he spoke to a group of Italian physicians and called them to be defenders of life, unborn human life. And as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he never hesitated to defend the Church when he felt that the authorities were encroaching on its freedoms.

What the Holy Father is saying to us at this moment is, “first things first” – and the first thing is being open to the love of God, it’s falling in love with God, it’s encountering the Person of Christ, crucified & risen, it’s allowing the faith we profess to transform every aspect of our lives, both personal and social, and it’s being ready to bear witness to the faith beyond the walls of the Church. The very thing our secular culture wants to do – to confine religion in the four walls of the Church – is the very thing Pope Francis is warning us against. He is telling us that we need to bring the faith into the culture, to our contemporaries, and especially to the poor and needy. He is telling us to become personally involved in the wonderful work which our institutions of charity, healthcare, and education do so well and so massively across the face of this great nation. Indeed, he compares the Church to a field hospital set up on the battlefield of the dominant culture – a culture which wounds many because it permits everything and forgives nothing. The Church applies the mercy of Christ to the wounds of human existence and once the healing of mercy begins to take place, then it is that people’s eyes are opened to the truth of what the Church teaches about the moral life, about the dignity of human life, about freedom – for by then they can see Christianity not as a set of disjointed doctrines but a way of life – of faith, worship, virtue, and service.

In any case, we are called to be martyrs, witnesses, for Christ, not merely adherents to the faith. Pope Benedict once spoke of the ‘white martyrdom’ to which we are called – the sort you have already experienced if you’ve defended the Church at a dinner party, or at the office, or among a wide circle of friends. You, the laity, are much more on the front lines of this than we the clergy.

VI. Conclusion
... all of which brings me to two final thoughts. The Serra Club has always recognized the beautiful partnership that must exist between laity and clergy for the Church’s mission to advance. Your love for the priesthood means much to me and to my brother priests; your love for consecrated life means much to those seeking to live the heart of the Gospel in vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. One thing we need to live as Christians in this passing world is unity – unity of faith, unity of worship, unity in the complementary of our vocations – unity around our dedication to the mission of Jesus Christ to save the world. And the second thing we need is the intrepid missionary spirit of St. Junipero Serra whose motto is, “always forward, never back!”

May we advance, dear friends, in bearing witness to Christ, in season and out of season, whether convenient or inconvenient, welcome or unwelcome – for the good of souls, out of love of country, out of love for our Church, to the glory of God’s name. Thanks for listening, God bless you!