“The days of acceptable Christianity are over. The days of comfortable Catholicism are past.”
So spoke Princeton Professor Robert P. George during his address at last week’s National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC. The thesis is especially remarkable coming from George—one of America’s foremost defenders of marriage and the family, and a thinker noted for his hopefulness about the power of reason to prevail in the public square.
George is not talking about restrictions on worship. The cultural clime is not about to make it more difficult to get to Mass (at least, not directly). What he means is that the whole Gospel—in particular, the Christian teaching on marriage and the family—is no longer acceptable in public. “The Gospel of Life,” once considered tolerably retrograde, is now considered bigoted, even hateful.
The signs of a shift are numerous. Think of the lawsuits filed by Christian institutions, notably the Little Sisters of the Poor, in response to the mandates of the Affordable Care Act. Think of Mozilla’s former CEO or the two television hosts at HGTV—all three of whom apparently lost their jobs only because of previous opposition to same-sex marriage. It has recently been reported that the U.N.’s Committee Against Torture is currently trying to frame the Church’s teaching on abortion as a human rights abuse. The suggestion is that Christian sanctions against abortion are forms of torture. And one hears more and more about individuals being pressured to suppress their Christian opinions, under pain of financial and professional setback.
George is warning that Christians are increasingly liable to encounter dilemmas where previously there were none. Those who espouse the Gospel are thereby more likely to jeopardize their professional ambitions, risk familial discord, and lose friends. It is George’s suggestion that they ought to be ready to accept these losses. Otherwise, Christians are at risk of finding themselves ashamed of the Gospel.
Not that George reduces the Gospel to the Church’s teaching on sexuality. The doctrines of the Triune God, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and the rest of the articles of the Creeds—these doctrines are absolutely central to the Gospel, but it does not therefore follow that the Church’s sexual doctrine is an unnecessary accretion. The claim of the Church is that “the Gospel of Life” is entailed in the revelation of God in Christ. It is this part of the “seamless garment” that has become intolerable to the mandarins of our society.
The solution that George proposes is for Christians to think of the present time as Good Friday: Will we stand with Jesus, or will we flee? The point is not that we should cultivate a martyrdom complex—no more than the Blessed Mother did at the foot of the cross. The point, I take it, is that Christians should recall why they got into Christianity in the first place. Are comfort and social acceptance all we really want from the absolute goodness of God in Christ? “Billy, what do you want to be when you grow up?” “I want to be comfortable!” “What do you want to be, Sally?” “Socially acceptable!”
It would also be a mistake to interpret George’s remarks as an invitation to bunker down and hole up. In the keynote address, Sean Cardinal O’Malley emphasized the centrifugal force of the Church. The Cardinal called for the Church to move from “maintenance” mode to “missionary” mode, propelled by the joy of the Resurrection. Ultimately, the focus of the Cardinal’s speech is the same as that of George’s more somber words. What’s the point of taking up one’s cross, anyway? It is Jesus, the Resurrection and the Life. This is the Gospel—woe to us if we do not preach the Gospel!
Image: Fra Angelico, St. Peter Preaching in the Presence of St. Mark