President Obama’s re-election and the prospect of a second Obama administration, freed from the constraints imposed by the necessity of running for re-election, have created a crisis for the Catholic Church in the United States. In the thought-world and vocabulary of the Bible, “crisis” has two meanings: the conventional sense (a grave threat) and a deeper sense (a great moment of opportunity). Both are applicable to the Church in America these next four years.
The immediate threat, of course, is the HHS (Health and Human Services) mandate requiring Catholic institutions and Catholic employers to include coverage of contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortifacient drugs in the health insurance offered to their employees. The legal challenges mounted against this obvious violation of the first freedom, religious freedom, may well be vindicated. But with Obamacare now seemingly set in concrete, the Church will face a host of such implementing “mandates” and it will be imperative to contest those that are morally unacceptable, time and time again. Authentically Catholic health care in America is now in mortal danger, and it is going to take a concerted effort to save it for future generations.
A further threat comes from the gay insurgency, which will press the administration to find some way to federalize the marriage issue and to compel acceptance of the chimera of “gay marriage.” Thus it seems important to accelerate a serious debate within American Catholicism on whether the Church ought not pre-emptively withdraw from the civil marriage business, its clergy declining to act as agents of government in witnessing marriages for purposes of state law.
If the Church were to take this dramatic step now, it would be acting prophetically: it would be challenging the state (and the culture) by underscoring that what the state means by “marriage” and what Catholics mean by “marriage” are radically different, and that what the state means by “marriage” is wrong. If, however, the Church is forced to take this step after “gay marriage” is the law of the land, Catholics will be pilloried as bad losers who’ve picked up their marbles and fled the game-and any witness-value to the Church’s withdrawal from the civil marriage business will be lost. Many thoughtful young priests are discussing this dramatic option among themselves; it’s time for the rest of the Church to join the conversation.
Yet another threat to the integrity of the Church comes from the re-election of a vice president of the United States who has declared “transgender discrimination” to be “the civil rights issue of our time;” who has openly celebrated the abortion license; who has grossly misrepresented the Church’s teaching on the life issues; and who is, in myriad ways, an ecclesial embarrassment. So are Catholic members of the House and Senate who not only vote against truths known by moral reason, but then have the gall to justify their irresponsibility by a faux commitment to “pluralism” or, worse, by recourse to what they are pleased to call “social justice Catholicism.”
Thus pastors and bishops must continue to explain why the life issues are “social justice issues,” and indeed priority “social justice issues.” And some effective way must be found to make clear, publicly, that men and women like Vice President Joe Biden and Representative Nancy Pelosi are living an auto-defined Catholicism so incoherently that their communion with the Catholic Church is severely damaged. Absent such clarity, ill-catechized Catholic voters will continue to misunderstand both the nature of discipleship and the responsibilities of citizenship.
As for the opportunity embedded in this crisis, it is nothing less than to be the Church of the New Evangelization, full-throttle. Shallow, tribal, institutional-maintenance Catholicism is utterly incapable of meeting the challenges that will now come at the Catholic Church from the most aggressively secular administration in American history. Only a robustly, unapologetically evangelical Catholicism, winsomely proposing and nobly living the truths about the human condition the Church teaches, will see us through the next four years. Radically converted Christian disciples, not one-hour-a-week Catholics whipsawed by an ever more toxic culture, are what this hour of crisis, in both senses of the term, demands.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.