Day by day it seems to be getting more and more difficult to be Catholic. Catholic, that is, in the sense that we ask the question, “Is the Pope Catholic?”, in other words a full shilling Catholic. It is probably time that the Catholic Church introduced something like a trade descriptions Act. It would clear up a great deal of confusion. If for no other reason we should encourage it do this in the interests of peace. Otherwise all we are going to have is a shouting match across the room – or even fisticuffs like they had recently in the Venezuelan parliament.
Just now it seems anyone can call themselves Catholic – ranging from the most rigourous adherent to all sorts of principles which the magisterium of the Church tells Catholics are matters of personal preference and opinion, to people for whom religion is entirely a matter of “whatever you’re having yourself and call it Catholic if you like it that way”. Between these extremes you find any number of positions, all ready to define themselves as Catholic, most of them missing the point that being Catholic is not a matter of self-definition but a matter of communion with One Word, One Body and One Bread. The trouble is that the brand identification has now become completely muddled and it would seem that we need a good judge to clear up the mess and say definitively who has a right to the registered trade mark, Catholic. OK, it is much more complex than this, but bear with the clumsy metaphor to help us be more focused.
But if we do get things in focus – and I think that the culture wars are forcing us to do so more and more – then it is not going to make things easier for straight-down-the-line Catholics. These are the Catholics who are not prepared to leave their consciences at the gate when they enter the public square populated by a majority – or a vociferous and hijacking-minority – who are looking for support for actions which offend a straight-down-the-line conscience.
They are also the Catholics who have to find a way of resolving dilemmas within their own families when a brother or sister, cousin, or whatever, with whom there are strong ties of affection, decides to follow a life-style contrary to the laws of God and the laws of Nature – which in the last analysis are the same thing. Social institutions like marriage, Christian and Catholic in their origin as we know them in the West, are now in the hands of institutions of the State and are being used to legitimise unions of men and women – not to mention other unions – totally at variance with the terms and conditions of true Christian marriage. How do Catholics for whom this institution is a sacred sacrament reconcile their commitment to this sacred thing with their love and affection for those who – as they might see it – wilfully abandons this commitment and essentially make it a sham from a religious point of view? It is not easy but some choices, although difficult, have to be faced up to. You can’t always have it both ways – and blurring the map is a foolish option for anyone on an important journey.
While this choice might be difficult and a source of great disappointment, pain and suffering, it is not a matter – in Western society in any case – which will involve loss of human rights, freedom, or in extreme cases a matter of life and death. But “straight-down-the-line Catholics” as we are calling them, magisterium-loyal Catholics, are now increasingly facing the loss of all these things in Western democracies. These democracies are now in the near-tyrannical grip of a movement which was the object of derision when it first began to manifest itself in the public square 20 or 30 years ago. This is the so-called “political correctness movement” and it is imposing rules and regulations on societies, the like of which have not been seen since the imposition of the Penal Laws on Catholics in the British Isles in the 18th century and since the French revoked the Edict of Nantes for its Protestant population in the last decades of the 17th century.
A prime example of this is states redefinition of marriage to give respectability and social status to same-sex attraction and explicitly to the sexual self-indulgence which it generates. This is now trampling on the consciences of those for whom these actions are an offence to man’s true nature and an offence to the God who went to the trouble to provide a Church to teach the truth underlying all our human relationships, sexual or not. “Cooperate with us in facilitating these things or get out to the margins of society”, Christians are now being told. “If you do chose to go to the margins of society – which is where you belong if you don’t agree with us – be careful not to express your views on all this in public or we will have to silence you forcibly”, the powers-that-be add ominously.
Then there is the current battle in the United States where the Obama Machine has imposed obligations on Catholic institutions to fund the provision of contraceptive services. This includes abortifacient medications masquerading as contraceptives. The Catholic Church is resisting but the power of this Machine is so mighty that Catholics would not need to be holding their breath for a vindication of their rights of freedom of conscience on this one.
In Ireland the current Government is riding roughshod over the consciences of Catholics in its steamrolling action to provide legislation for abortion – a legislation which only the disingenuous are maintaining will not eventually lead to abortion on demand. Under the proposed legislation there will be no provision for conscientious objections by either hospitals or hospital staff to refuse to carry out the procedures which the law will then sanction. Furthermore, when the Bill comes to a vote, Catholic members of parliament who are serious about their consciences will be given the choice of voting for the legislation in line with party policy or leaving the parliamentary party to which they belong. Once again, it a matter of “come with us or get to the margins”. Oliver Cromwell is notorious in Ireland for having offered the Irish Catholics of his time the option of going “to hell or to Connacht” – a wild and beautiful place but in the 17th century not exactly a place for human flourishing. The sentiment of the Irish Government today is not too different towards those who are trying to stop it in its tracks on this issue.
But this is good. Did anyone ever think it should be otherwise? Search the original documents of this Faith and will you find in them a promise that in the World its followers would ever reach a point where all would be sweetness and light? No. The promises there are for something else – something as strong as hatred. All this makes the clarification of the terms and conditions of being Christian and Catholic more urgent. It should not be that difficult either. They are all there in the handbook, The Catechism of the Catholic Church – with multiple cross references to the original documents of this Faith, the books of Sacred Scripture, the teaching of the Fathers of the Church and the entire magisterium down through history. No excuse. Just Do It.
And Catholics should not be discouraged by any of this. Christ asked his followers to pray to their Father, “Thy kingdom Come.” But that was not for a heaven on earth. He said clearly, “the kingdom of heaven is within you.” That was then and this is still in the terms and conditions today. The battle of all time is the battle for personal conversion, not for the conversion of kingdoms and empires, democratic or otherwise. It is in this battle that victory is assured, no matter what forces lie in wait on the other side of the gates to the public square. Victory will be in the measure of the faithful adherence to the terms and conditions – which in this case are not in the small print but are writ clear and large in the teaching of the Catholic Church.
Someone said recently that the history of the Church shows that after a period of slippage – and there have been many before this – there comes a period where the truth is firmly reasserted in a clear an uncompromising way. Then comes a period in which many abandon their half-held beliefs and drift away, leaving reduced numbers behind. But then comes a period of new evangelisation when the faithful go out again into the highways and the byways and a new Pentecost dawns. Don’t take my word for it. Check up the history. It is all there.