A Saint Without Compromise

Today, according to the Gregorian Calendar, is the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. Kept as a solemn liturgical celebration and fast day among many Eastern Christians, this day—and one might argue the Baptist’s entire earthly ministry—has lost a bit of its import in the West. In his book The Friend of the Bridegroom, the Russian Orthodox theologian Fr. Sergius Bulgakov threw shade on the West’s elevation of St. Joseph, the spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the apparent expense of keeping St. John central in its liturgical and spiritual heritage. Although it is unlikely that many Latin Catholics would entirely follow Bulgakov’s assessment, particular since it smacks more than a bit of knee-jerk Orthodox anti-Catholicism, it is true that the Forerunner of Christ does not factor considerably in contemporary Catholic reflections on sainthood, witness, and martyrdom. Why that is so I cannot say. What I can say is that perhaps now more than ever, the Baptist deserves to be at the forefront of our minds.

Let me be clear. St. John did not mince words, nor did he retreat from the truth, even at the cost of his own life. In the face of public scandal and sin, he stood firm with the Law of God over and against earthly powers. While the Byzantine hymnography for today’s commemoration of the Baptist’s decollation tends to focus on the sinfulness of Herod Antipas and his vile stepdaughter Salome, there are numerous references to the Forerunner’s unrelenting preaching, both on earth and to the souls in Hades awaiting the coming of Christ, the Conqueror of Death. Any man with ears to hear cannot walk away from today’s cycle of liturgical services without a firm appreciation for St. John’s steadfastness in all things.

And where, might I ask, are we to find a St. John in our own day? At a time with hierarchs, priests, and laity cower from muttering any word which may run afoul secular-liberal “morality” and the tyranny of “tolerance,” the Baptist looks like a legend, or an ideal which we can no longer strive toward for fear of reprisal. Maybe some are even tempted to think that there were other, undocumented, reasons for the Forerunner’s death. Maybe it wasn’t because he spoke out against public sin, particularly public sexual sin. Perhaps he died because he held to some wrongheaded political beliefs or supported that “revolutionary” from Nazareth or forgot to pay his taxes, etc. Let there please be an intramundane explanation for his decapitation! Do not tell me this holy man met his end because he failed to do the one thing all of us crave to do every single day of our lives: capitulate.

Those illumined by the light of faith cannot set aside why St. John met his end any more than they can deny that all sins of the flesh, including open and unrepented adultery, are worthy of condemnation. They cannot deny that the Forerunner of Christ was, fully and faithfully, a man of God whose tongue was gifted to him for one reason and one reason alone: to speak the truth without reservation. Does this unsettle us? Does this make us uncomfortable? If so, then shame, for the life and heroic death of St. John the Baptist should inspire everyone, from the highest authority in the Church to the lowliest layman, to never waver in their witness, even at the highest cost.

Hilarion on Liturgical Worship

Recently, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of the Russian Orthodox Church gave an interview in which he discussed, inter alia, worship in the Orthodox Church as compared to other traditions. (You can find the interview at the bottom of Robert Moynihan’s Inside the Vatican Letter #49 here.) Here’s an excerpt.

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Fraught

Fraught, the second definition of which reads “causing or affected by great anxiety or stress,” remains one of my favorite adjectives to use when discussing not only our current political climate, but the situation in the Catholic Church as well. Some friends like to tease me for using the word too much. By my lights, folks don’t use it enough. Sticking to the Church for a moment, it is patently absurd that words such as “troubled” or “unstable” or “challenging” are used to describe one of the greatest ecclesiastical crises in Church history. Although some point to trying periods such as when Arianism ran rampant or iconoclasm reigned supreme (at least in the East), never before have we seen apostasy on such a grand scale, along with princes and leaders of the Church teaching manifest error without any apparent risk of official censure. Truth be told, those who like to bring up previous points of difficulty in Church history often do so in order to paper over what is going on today, at this very moment, throughout the Catholic world. Even if there is an argument to be made that there were worse times for the Church centuries ago, that does not relieve faithful Catholics living today from the duty to fight for a restoration of orthodoxy and sound leadership. And yet there appears to be no end to the excuse-making, no shortage of justifying rhetoric meant to lull otherwise vigilant Catholics into accepting “the times” and going about their business. After all, God won’t allow the gates of hell to prevail against the Church, etc., etc., etc.

On the political level, there is a noticeable shift within certain Catholic circles away from either longing for some age that never existed or believing that the “right set of candidates” with the “right set of policies” will bring order back into the world. The fruits of the liberal order are now fully apparent; there’s no reason to think the situation will improve. Similarly, there is no reason to hope that some half-witted “strong man” is the answer to our present maladies. Seeking salvation in a buffoon would be risible if it wasn’t so catastrophically sad. How many more election cycles will it take before a sizable enough portion of the Catholic electorate wakes up and fights back? Or will the bulk of American Catholicism succumb to secularism once and for all, praying for political peace at the cost of their very souls? Never underestimate the power of cowardice fueled by promises of comfort and entertainment. Given how leaderless many Catholics feel today, and the fact that our very shepherds have abandoned fighting for the fullness of the Faith, is it any wonder the sheep are picked-off so easily by the wolves?

Now comes the hard part. For no matter how often I make mention of these realities to an increasing number of people willing to accept them, I am always hit with the question, “What do we do about it?” And here I must say, without a trace of glibness or irony, “Pray.” For prayer is where we draw our strength from the only true source of hope in dark times, Christ our Lord and Redeemer. It is in prayer and participation in the Church’s divine services that we find the fortitude to press ahead, to be witnesses to the truth, and endure whatever evils may come because of our most sacred convictions. No design, no artifice of human thought with an accompanying socio-political program, can possibly provide more than prayer. If we cannot be Catholics, if we cannot hold together in charity and truth, then nothing we might pull together from the teachings of the popes on society and the learned reflections of theologians will mean much of anything. And even if such endeavors can succeed for a time on the mundane level, what use will they be for orienting us toward our highest end, which is the beatific vision?

Further Comments on Grasping for Political Relevance

My post from earlier this week discussed briefly the tendency in American Catholicism to chase after political relevance, even at the cost of following what the Church actually teaches with respect to society, economics, and politics. It would be a mistake to read my remarks as focusing solely on older generations of Catholics who buy into one form of liberalism or another. Yes, they are the most visible and, arguably, politically influential, but they are hardly alone. A very modest amount of footwork can quickly reveal a contingent of younger Catholics (though some are now entering their 30s and 40s) who ostensibly claim to reject liberalism (however defined) in favor of some quaint fusion of very generalized Catholic principles with some form of socialism. Ignoring glibly the social magisterium’s routine condemnation of both socialism and communism, this group of Catholics take on the socio-political postures of mainline college activism and dress them up in worn-out vestments leftover from the days of “social Catholicism.” Instead of positing the salvation of souls as the highest end, they prefer instead to rail against “social injustices” while setting to the side pelvic matters which, they fear, will somehow undermine their mainline political credibility.

Granted, this shift is not exactly new in Christianity. Starting at least eight years ago, in the run-up to Barak Obama’s election, a significant contingent of evangelical Christians, many of whom were once disposed toward upholding traditional “Life” issues, started to speciously expand the menu of such issues to include, inter alia, the environment, poverty, war, the death penalty/criminal justice system, etc. In other words, they looked for a way to circumvent making abortion a supremely important political matter in order to get behind candidates and policy platforms which many evangelicals traditionally considered morally problematic. Sure, some of these young evangelicals still spoke of abortion “as bad” and sometimes whispered that “gay rights” and so-called “same-sex marriage” weren’t “ideal,” but by and large they acclimated themselves to what the Democratic Party promotes — and they’ve never looked back. If anything, they have drifted further to the Left, embracing more radical social ideals and economic reforms which, even if intended to ameliorate concrete evils, often seek to do so illictly. But, without a magisterium to guide them, it is not entirely unsurprising that these well-meaning Christians have lost the way in the name of retaining some modicum of political relevance.

Not so with Catholics. As Fr. Robert Taft, S.J. has stated repeatedly, if one wants to know what the Catholic Church teaches, look it up. Google it. Do what is necessary; it shouldn’t be hard. Even though certain forces have conspired to obscure the Church’s social magisterium, that teaching has not been lost — and it certainly has not changed. The only thing that has changed (or is changing) is the willingness of Catholics living under the horizon of secular-liberalism to take that teaching seriously. Admittedly, that’s not always easy, especially in today’s fraught political climate, but no Catholic has the right to dissent from the truth; no Catholic can ignore what is plainly taught in favor of political relevance or, worse, social-media posturing.

After Talking About Integralism

Last Friday I gave a talk on integralism for a Catholic men’s group here in Grand Rapids. It was my fourth talk for them, the most “popular” being my lengthy lecture on the (in)compatibility of libertarianism with Catholicism. Much of what I had to say was built upon articles, blog posts, and my ever-expanding book manuscript. At the outset of the talk, I half-jokingly said that integralism is nothing more than Catholics following what the Church has always taught, not just with respect to politics and society, but all facets of natural and supernatural life. It became clear to me over the course of my 90-minute speaking engagement that I wasn’t saying anything “new.” That is, I was not attempting to advance a pet ideology or catchy socio-cultural posture; I was imply explaining, inter alia, the relationship of spiritual and temporal authority; the social kingship of Christ; and the duty of all Catholics to follow divine and natural law, even when they conflict with civil positive law.

So it is strange (and depressing) to look at ostensibly Catholic publications, blogs, and social media to see so many self-professed conservative and traditional Catholics promoting ideas, positions, and candidates which are at odds with what the Church professes to be true. Pragmatism—and a last desperate grasp at political relevance—seems to be animating far too many Catholics to support the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump along with policies that uphold economic liberalism, war mongering, and religious indifferentism. Granted, this is not a new problem. For more than a century, American Catholicism has capitulated to the spirit of the times in order to prove that Catholics, like Protestants, Jews, and atheists, can be “good Americans” while (privately) holding fast to their (personal) religious beliefs.

A year ago I had thought that, given the deplorable state of American political life, this election cycle would witness a noticeable rise in outspoken Catholics who simply cannot abide by the despicable choices secular democracy has furnished us. Instead, what I see are more and more Catholics who love to go on about “orthodoxy” and “tradition” doubling-down on liberalism because they have duped themselves into believing that our state of affairs will be noticeably improved by the Republican Party over the Democratic Party. Granted, some of the panic-button pushers are willing to concede that the GOP is a shell of its former self with very little left on its platform to appeal to so-called social conservatives or the religious right. However, these same folk fear that another four (or eight) years of Democratic rule will yield catastrophic results for both Catholicism and the United States.

Personally, I am not willing to give in to fear, at least not yet (and, God willing, not ever). No credible evidence, coupled with a cogent argument, has yet been presented to convince me that I ought to cast a single vote this November which runs contrary to conscience—a conscience shaped by reason and revelation. If someone asks me what integralism “looks like” in action, that is it. Integralism means following the Church, not the Zeitgeist. Integralism means foregoing compromises with evil even at great professional and personal cost. Integralism, above all else, means upholding the social rights of Christ the King and never genuflecting before earthly powers and temporal thrones which have divorced themselves from God’s appointed spiritual authority, our Holy Mother Church.

Shall We Vote?

No one with eyes to see and ears to hear should be the least bit surprised that Alasdair MacIntyre’s 2004 essay, “The Only Vote Worth Casting in November,” is once again making the rounds on Facebook, Twitter, and lowly web-logs. What’s probably not making the rounds are two 2014 articles from the Michigan news and politics magazine Bridge, namely my piece, “Why Did This Conservative Stay Home on Election Day?,” and a rebuttal penned by dear friend Conor Dugan entitled “This West Michigan Conservative Pulls the Lever for Voter Participation.” While both articles are centered on Michigan political realities which may not be particularly interesting to voters in America’s 49 other states, Dugan and I tried to articulate both sides of the “vote or not” debate by relying on more general principles and facts.

Were I inclined to rewrite my article in light of this ongoing election cycle, I probably wouldn’t change much. There is nothing about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton that I find so laudable (or odious) that makes me feel compelled to vote for either. In other words, I am not so “fearful” of Clinton that I now believe I “need” to vote for Trump in order to “save the country,” nor do I find something better in having Hillary at the helm over The Donald. If that makes me a “bad American,” then so be it. I so rarely receive compliments of that magnitude.