In the upcoming edition of First Things magazine, editor Joseph Bottum takes up a very important theme — Catholic culture and identity — in light of the scandal over Notre Dame University granting an honorary doctor of laws degree to the President. A shorter version of the article can be found already at the Weekly Standard website. I think it’s a must-read article for those who wish to understand what it means to be a Catholic in the public square in this age.
Mr. Bottum’s theme is really very simple. He argues that the leadership of NDU, along with many, many other prominent public Catholics, particularly the leaders of Catholic universities, have found themselves on the other side of a cultural divide from mainstream Catholics. He summarizes it as follows:
…they live in a different world from most American Catholics. Opposition to abortion doesn’t stand at the center of Catholic theology. It doesn’t even stand at the center of Catholic faith. It does stand, however, at the center of Catholic culture in this country. Opposition to abortion is the signpost at the intersection of Catholicism and American public life. And those who — by inclination or politics — fail to grasp this fact will all eventually find themselves in the situation that Fr. Jenkins has now created for himself. Culturally out of touch, they rail that the antagonism must derive from politics. But it doesn’t. It derives from the sense of the faithful that abortion is important. It derives from the feeling of many ordinary Catholics that the Church ought to stand for something in public life — and that something is opposition to abortion.
I think that is absolutely dead-on correct. To be Catholic in this age is to be pro-life. The two are inextricably interwound. All of the most dynamic parts of the Church today — the new religious orders and ecclesial movement, the emerging Catholic colleges, the World Youth Day alums — are more orthodox and more pro-life than the generation that passed throught the 1970’s. That’s where the future of the Church is going.
Meanwhile, in a perfect illustration of Bottum’s thesis, Peter Steinfels wrote last week in the Times on the “civil war” in the Church over abortion, as illustrated by the NDU situation. Mr. Steinfels has been writing these same kind of articles for many years now, and this latest example is pretty much the usual kind of stuff you would expect.
He just doesn’t get it. He seems to think that a division on this point is a bad thing, that it threatens the unity of the Church unnecessarily. He manages to interview or quote several sources who take that position, but he just wasn’t able to find anyone who disagreed with the decision by NDU to honor the President. All he managed to do was to find a public address by a bishop, and use that as the example of all the opposition. Are people like George Weigel, Deal Hudson, Mark Shea, et al. really that hard to find? Or is that he just didn’t think he needed to look for them?
It seems clear to me that Mr. Steinfels (like a lot of Catholics of his and my generation) is living in a culture that is far removed from the average American Catholic. Perhaps he should put down his copy of America Magazine or Commonweal and get out into the parishes or youth events or Knights of Columbus councils or Rosary Convocations more often, to get a better sense of where the Church is today. Hint — it’s not 1975 any more.
What I think is particularly valuable, though, is the cultural mindset revealed by Mr. Steinfels’ use of the “civil war” analogy. Let’s play that one out for a moment. One side believes in the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings and that all human beings should be protected by the law (think of Abraham Lincoln here); the other side thinks that private parties should be able to treat some human beings as if they were mere property and that those human beings should have no legal protection at all (think of the Dred Scot decision here).
Is it really that hard to see which side of this “war” Christians and all people of good will should be on? Why would anyone want to be on the other side? And isn’t it a “war” worth fighting and winning?
It seems obvious to me that this “war” — which is ultimately over the importance of human dignity and the value of every single human life — is the struggle that God has given to our generation, in order to test our fidelity. And we will be judged based on how we wage it.