RATIONAL HOPE, OR A MERE DREAM?
Part 1 – broad background
by Anthony Hofler
Writing of his baptism in the Trinity United Church of Christ, Barack Obama said that “kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.” To a committed Christian considering support for a political candidate, such statements would be encouraging signs. They would be useful criteria also by which to judge an elected candidate’s conduct.
The original purpose underlying this article was to highlight lessons from the life of Barack Obama for Catholics (especially in the energetic
the languid U.K.)
who are interested in acquiring power for good purposes. Engagement in that
work brought, however, a realisation that Catholic-significant aspects of
President Obama’s life should be combined with a comparison, from a
recognisably-Catholic standpoint, of the situations in the U.S. and in Britain. Lessons can be clearer and
more memorable when learned in their appropriate contexts. So before focusing
predominantly on President Obama, it will be useful to take a broader view.
For a long time, black Americans were down-trodden by law and culture; today, so are recognisably-Catholic principles. That should matter to us. Catholicism and its adherents are recognisable as such to the extent that they differ from other creeds and people. If we sink those differences we sink our religious identity, and the faith goes down with us. Pope John Paul the Great, never one to sink, said that
Typical Catholics seem uninterested in this. Parishes lack any significant counter-revolutionary activity. Now-retired Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue of
found languor and reticence, even hopelessness in the Church. He wondered what
had caused it, and lamented ‘back-pedalling’ on fundamental principles.
Despite Scriptural and high ecclesiastical exhortation to conform society to God’s laws, attempts to energise defence of controversial Catholic teachings are either deftly turned aside or met with a “granite exterior” or a “puzzled stare”. Clerics will, of course, dispute that, but their ‘look-on-the-bright-side’ policy is characterised by vagueness and incapable of ending the endemic torpor.
Indicative of a wish to make religion recognisably (although – a very important proviso –uncontroversially) ‘relevant’ and thereby stem the loss of ‘credibility’ in an ever-more secular society, statements by the hierarchy give material matters at least equal weight with subjects which seem comparatively peripheral to people’s ‘normal lives’. Similarly, politicians often neglect ‘moral’ subjects and promote attention to those which ‘people care about’/ which ‘matter to people’. Promotion of ‘marriage’ status for same-sex relationships was an exception to that. Catholic bishops did speak up against same-sex ‘marriage’ (although not very cogently), but not long beforehand Archbishop Vincent Nichols (as he then was) said during a televised discussion of Pope Benedict’s visit to
Britain that the hierarchy’s
priority-subjects are poverty and education. Those
subjects are indeed addressed directly by Church teachings, but they are not distinctively-Catholic subjects. The
comparative neglect and ‘soft-pedalling’ on other matters, especially the
greatest modern triumphs of secular permissiveness, reflects the fact that very
few Catholics in Britain show any concrete interest in what does not affect
them materially, directly, and recognisably. That is a formidable obstacle to
the reversal of secularism.
As well as apathy within the Church, Catholic counter-revolutionaries have to consider how best to defeat adversaries outside it. During the secularists’ rise to power, they had to consider how to defeat us, in so far as the law enshrined our principles, just as American ‘civil rights’ campaigners had to consider how to defeat deeply-entrenched resistance. Probably the greatest practical asset was the existence of a large body of supporters who cared enough to respond. Opinion produced practical effect because of “those who marched and those who sang, those who sat in and those who stood firm, those who organized and those who mobilized,” as President Obama described them. There is no equivalent body of Catholics in
or Europe; that is the greatest difference
between achieving civil rights for black Americans and re-asserting
down-trodden Catholic principles.
Former “Catholic Herald” editor Peter Stanford has written that the Church “instinctively keeps a low profile and shrugs off criticisms rather than confronts them,” but that this is “now being mercilessly exploited” by “the new breed of abrasive secularists.” He wrote that the “innate reluctance to be drawn into public confrontation,” and “to hammer home…contentious Catholic teachings,” is a “legacy of the history of the faith here and its accommodation to the prevailing norms of the wider society.” He described this as “being realistic,” and as “pragmatism” .
It amounts to an admission of subservience, perhaps with an underlying (and hitherto-unfulfilled) hope that we can turn our adversaries’ criteria against them (e.g. ‘equality’) just as they have been adept in using ours against us (e.g. ‘conscience’). According to American Catholic Judge Albert C. Walsh, St. Thomas More wrote, in “Utopia” (p.47f): “…that which you cannot turn to good, so order it that it be not very bad”. The temptation to ‘make the best’ of an unsatisfactory situation is understandable. Everyone can see the attraction of ‘why hold out for perfection when you can’t get it?’ Courage v. compromise. It is true that “when valour preys on reason, it eats the sword it fights with”, but a rather similar result arises when pragmatism preys on principle.
The black civil rights campaigners in
managed eventually to persuade the Supreme Court that the language of the law
was on their side, and to persuade the Congress that further laws were needed.
It was the psychological weight of sustained large protest which wore down
resistance. Black Americans believed in the justice of their principles, and
(aroused by strong leadership) had enough tenacity and perseverance to win.
Those factors are lacking among Catholics, not only where Catholics are a
minority but also even in the few places where they are, at least nominally, a
majority (ascertainment of the true numbers is impossible, because (i) a claim
to be a Catholic is not a reliable indicator of beliefs (“A man may claim he
loves his wife. His wife will want to see the evidence. … Saying we’re Catholic
does not mean we are, except in the thinnest sense”,
and (ii) self-declaration is not conclusive. America
A lamentable example occurred in October 2016, when the Parliament of (according to the Reuters news-agency) “staunchly Catholic”
by 352 to 58 a Bill which, reported Reuters, proposed “a near-total ban on
abortion.” Reuters described the result as “an embarrassing setback” for the
Polish Government and for “the powerful” Catholic Church. For two reasons, that
seems an untenable conclusion. Firstly, the Government withdrew its earlier support
for the ban; so apparently it wanted the result which occurred. Secondly,
Reuters seemed to contradict themselves by alleging that the Church’s influence
has been “steadily eroded” (by democracy and “market reforms”). Obviously it is
not powerful enough to procure a much-improved compliance of the law with this
fundamental aspect of Catholic moral doctrine. The impossibility of achieving
that even in Poland
emphasises that it is a mere dream elsewhere. A 100,000-strong public protest
against the Bill was ‘credited’ with swaying the vote (and thereby negating
450,000 signatures on a petition supporting it). Lesson: results depend on
whether the powerful are receptive to a campaign, not necessarily on the number
of campaigners. Few power-holders are receptive to distinctively-Catholic moral
principles. ‘Empower allies of Catholicism’ is the solution, but there is no
practical effort to do so. Poland
Such failure to give practical effect to Catholic principle is a grave dereliction of duty.
Part 2 coming soon...
 “Birmingham Catholic News,” April 2002, at p.2.
 “Fit for Mission? – Church,” Catholic Truth Society, 2008, p10-13, & 93.
 “Sunday Plus,” Redemptorist Publications, 10th July 2011.
 BBC 2, 19th September 2010; reported in “The Catholic Herald,” 1st October 2010, p.3.
 Article entitled “Pope Benedict’s visit: beleaguered Catholic Church struggles against secular tide,” in “The Observer,” 29th August 2010.
 “Thomas More – The Greatest Englishman,” distributed as a supplement with Hamish Fraser’s “Approaches” magazine, no. 61, May 1978.
 Enobarbus, in “Antony and Cleopatra,” Act III, Sc. XI).
 Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., “Render Unto Caesar”; Doubleday, 2008, p.37.
 See “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” paragraph 837, last sentence.
 cf. “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” paragraph 2273.