It is a very good thing that Cardinal Sean O’Malley spoke at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast earlier this week. Someone needed to remind the assembled diners about the Joy of the Gospel. Because, before the cardinal took to the microphone, the assembly was treated to a culture war diatribe from Professor Robert George that might well have been entitled “The Misery of the Gospel.”
Professor George opened with these strange words:
The days of socially acceptable Christianity are over. The days of comfortable Catholicism are past. It is no longer easy to be a faithful Christian, a good Catholic, an authentic witness to the truths of the Gospel. A price is demanded and must be paid. There are costs of discipleship—heavy costs, costs that are burdensome and painful to bear.
I say “strange” because it had never occurred to me that Catholicism was at its best when it is comfortable. It had never even entered my mind that it was easy to be a faithful Christian. And, all these long years trying to be a faithful Christian and a good Catholic, silly me, I just assumed that the price of discipleship was a life of conversion, painful, slow, two-steps-forward-one-step-back, sometimes even comically inept, conversion. And, when the heavy costs seemed burdensome and painful, what a fool I was to think that this sense of burden and pain united me to the sufferings of the Lord Jesus.
The idea that the golden age of socially acceptable Christianity is over assumes that there was a time when socially acceptable Christianity was present. I wonder what time Professor George has in mind? The 1950s? Certainly, that was a decade in which civic religion, which has little in common with orthodox Christianity, was socially acceptable. That was also a time when Christian ministers in the South justified Jim Crow and ministers nationwide did not ask any difficult questions about the atomic weapons race, still less the practice of bombing civilian populations, with or without nuclear weapons, during the Second World War. That was a time when the consumer culture came on in full swing with very little in the word of objection from the Christian clergy. Maybe Professor George is one of those conservative thinkers who believes the time of the American founding was such a golden age, although most of the founders were Deists and religious observance was more uncommon than not. Maybe he wishes to harken back to the Middle Ages, when at least the culture had not yet begun to privatize religion the way Republicans like to privatize government services. But, the Middle Ages, with their pogroms, provide many examples of a Christianity that was certainly socially acceptable but was also frequently betraying the Gospel.
There are two issues – and two issues only – that Professor George called his listeners attention to in order to make his case that we Catholics are a persecuted lot: abortion and same sex marriage. Professor George certainly seems disinclined to heed the Holy Father’s warning that we Catholics not appear obsessed about these issues. I share Professor George’s horror of abortion. But, I find it telling that he only really spoke about abortion in terms of its political and cultural significance. There was no mention of the desperation of a probably young, probably poor woman, finding herself pregnant, confused, worried, unable to imagine how she can get through a pregnancy still less raise a child. No amount of youth, poverty, confusion or worry justifies recourse to abortion. But, if we fail to show empathy for women for whom the news that they are pregnant is troubling rather than joyous, of course we will be perceived as anti-woman. And, when a Christian male speaks about abortion without mentioning women, the charge of misogyny is at least a tad deserving.
Professor George’s take on same sex marriage is similarly devoid of any human feeling. The issue makes a good bumper sticker for him, and that is all that matters. He states:
Do you believe, as I believe, that the core social function of marriage is to unite a man and woman as husband and wife to be mother and father to children born of their union? Do you hold, as I hold, that the norms that shape marriage as a truly conjugal partnership are grounded in its procreative nature—its singular aptness for the project of child-rearing? Do you understand marriage as the uniquely comprehensive type of bond—comprehensive in that it unites spouses in a bodily way and not merely at the level of hearts and minds—that is oriented to and would naturally be fulfilled by their conceiving and rearing children together? Then these same forces [in the culture] say you are a homophobe, a bigot, someone who doesn’t believe in equality. You even represent a threat to people’s safety. You ought to be ashamed!
I find it stunning that anyone can discuss marriage and not once mention the word “love.” And, while I believe all that the Church teaches about marriage in its entirety, I also believe that we can defend that teaching without indulging in homophobia and bigotry. And I know, for this does not require belief, that far too many Christian ministers and lay leaders have indulged plenty of homophobia and bigotry while purportedly defending the truth about marriage.
Professor George wishes us all to run to the barricades in the culture war with him. He states:
To be a witness to the Gospel today is to make oneself a marked man or woman. It is to expose oneself to scorn and reproach. To unashamedly proclaim the Gospel in its fullness is to place in jeopardy one’s security, one’s personal aspirations and ambitions, the peace and tranquility one enjoys, one’s standing in polite society. One may in consequence of one’s public witness be discriminated against and denied educational opportunities and the prestigious credentials they may offer; one may lose valuable opportunities for employment and professional advancement; one may be excluded from worldly recognition and honors of various sorts; one’s witness may even cost one treasured friendships. It may produce familial discord and even alienation from family members. Yes, there are costs of discipleship—heavy costs.
This is a bit rich coming from a tenured professor at Princeton who chairs an official government committee, runs an advocacy organization, and, well, gets himself invited to speak at fancy D.C. breakfasts. But, again, look at the words he uses – “security,” “ambitions,” “polite society,” “prestigious credentials,” “professional advancement,” “worldly recognition and honors.” Are these the goals proper to a disciple of Him who said, “Whoever saves his life shall lose it”? What has caused Professor George, who enjoys to the full all these attributes of worldly recognition, to be so dour? Did he get disinvited from a cocktail party?
More stunning than what is contained in this painfully repetitive rant is what is missing. Did I miss the section about the poor? Perhaps the costs of discipleship demanded of us who live in such an affluent society when so many of our brothers and sisters have nothing to eat, perhaps that is one cost best not discussed when addressing a room full of people who forked over $75 for cold scrambled eggs and soggy hash browns. Talk about exposing oneself to scorn and reproach. But, seriously, Pope Francis has made it clear, as his predecessors before him did, as the Master did, that caring for the poor is at the heart of the Gospel. Mightn’t Professor George have mentioned the poor? He states, “One day we will give an account of all we have done and failed to do.” And so we shall. And, as Professor George states, we should consider the judgment of God not the judgment of peers or cultural elites or history in making our decisions in this life. I, too, am annoyed by those who claim they are “on the right side of history,” before Clio has had a chance to render her verdict. But, the Master gave us a very clear indication of the criteria He will use when we stand before His Judgment seat: “Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” Alas, this passage does not neatly fit with Professor George’s politics, so it went unmentioned. The poor can fend for themselves; Professor George has a culture war to fight.
I agree with Professor George when he stated, “History is not God. God is God. History is not our judge. God is our judge.” But his whole depressing, culture warrior riff misses the most important thing to know about our God. When Professor George states, “A price is demanded and must be paid. There are costs of discipleship…” he seems to have forgotten that the price was paid, once and for all, and that the reign of God has begun. Professor George can’t seem to find the joy of the Gospel because he is so embattled, so quick to lean into his argument, so defensive. Thank God Cardinal O’Malley showed up, full of mirth and great stories, focused on the poor, unwilling to engage in the culture wars, content to preach the Gospel, reminding the audience that however difficult the times, however challenging the culture, the victory is ours in Christ Jesus and it is okay, and more than okay, to be joyful.