Robbie George: Agent of Secularization

Professor Robbie George has again donned his culture warrior armor and pronounced himself satisfied with the decision to fire a Montana Catholic school teacher who got pregnant out of wedlock or, perhaps, he is intending to defend the decision to fire a gay administrator from a Catholic school when that man got married to his partner. George is not specific about which case he is addressing, but in both cases, his message is clear: A violation of the moral norms of the religious community warrant, indeed demand, that the violator be fired.

Professor George makes his case with an interesting analogy drawn from a hypothetical Muslim school faced with an administrator who violates certain prescriptions of the moral code of that community. First, let me stipulate, unlike some of our friends on the religious liberty bandwagon, George has been insistent, and rightly so, on the subject of the religious liberty rights of Muslims. He is to be commended for it. Unfortunately, he now counsels this hypothetical Muslim community to join him in becoming an agent for secularization.

My friend Cathleen Kaveny, writing at Commonweal over the weekend, has already, and finely, pointed out some of the difficulties in George’s argument. All three of us agree that a religious school has the legal right to fire any of its teachers or administrators when they fail to model the moral examples the religious school seeks to embody. But, as Kaveny notes, “a legal right isn’t a legal obligation.” And, Kaveny rightly refrains from giving counsel to the Muslim community about how best to assess their obligations.

Kaveny’s basic argument is one that I wish to associate myself with: The firing of the pregnant unwed mother sent the wrong signal. That said, I differ a tad with Kaveny’s conclusion and that difference points to my case that Professor George is unwittingly being an agent of secularization. She writes of the Montana case, “Did the school act in accordance with the cardinal virtue of prudence, steadied by justice, and informed and elevated by Christian charity, in firing the pregnant, unmarried school teacher? Did it act in a pro-life manner? Did it teach Gospel values? Robbie, what sayeth thou about this particular case?”

As a Christian, we are certainly called to act in accord with the virtues, to pursue justice, and to inform and elevate Christian charity. We are called to be pro-life. And, we are called to embody Gospel values. But, we are called to these things because we confess the Lord Jesus as our Christ and Savior. That confession requires justice, but more than justice, mercy as well as charity, and it goes deeper than values. The additional, specifically Christian, question the school superintendents and bishops – in both cases – should ask of this and other such decisions is this: Does our decision reveal the face of God? Do we recognize the merciful, endlessly forgiving, loving beyond our desserts face of God in this decision, because that is the face of God revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

In Professor George’s analogy, the Muslim identity of the school is entirely bound up with upholding the moral law. By inference, and with even a vague familiarity with his previous writings, we know that George thinks that the Catholic identity of our Catholic schools is similarly bound up with upholding the moral law. Here we have the most consistent ecclesial problem in the modern age, the willingness to reduce religion to ethics. The public square is all too willing to let us in if we confine ourselves to the role of an ethical authority. Professor George warms to the role; It permits him to keep his finger wagging. But, our truest identity as Catholic Christians, as I think Pope Francis has been trying to tell us this past year, is not our ability to adhere to the moral law, but our understanding that the moral law is derivative of, and subservient to, the higher law of divine love that Jesus Christ revealed.

If we engage the culture wars as ethicists, we have already lost. This is what George and his other Catholic neo-con friends never understand. They endlessly proclaim the fact that without an ethically rigorous populace, America – or any democracy – cannot long survive. That is true, but it is not the reason Jesus died on the Cross. Newsflash: Jesus did not die to make America great or to make the world safe for democracy (nor to make our schools free of unwed pregnant teachers or gay administrators.). He died to expose the depths of God’s love which, as its deepest level, is found in the fact of faithful, merciful love surrounded by suffering.

The moral code Professor George champions is one I share as a Catholic. But, that moral code does not persuade in today’s world when it is shorn from its authoritative roots in the Gospel. The culture warriors have been complaining that we don’t spend enough time preaching about the specifics of Humanae Vitae, or that our catachesis on the natural law is insufficient, or, in George’s case, that too much focus on the “negotiable” issues of poverty and injustice, have created Catholics insufficiently focused on his five “non-negotiable” issues of abortion, euthanasia, same sex marriage, etc. For me, all the Church’s teachings are non-negotiable because they spring from the empty tomb of Jesus and are cloaked in apostolic authority. Contra George, I believe the problem with most preaching in most Catholic churches is that it focuses too much on us and not enough on God. I would submit that the Holy Father has captured the world’s imagination precisely because he talks about God, God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s willingness to subvert our standards of justice to bestow His mercy as revealed in the parable of the Prodigal. As well, Pope Francis has, like his predecessor Pope Benedict, reminded us that the moral law is not the essence of Christianity. Our dogmatic claims about the Godhead are the essence of Christianity.

Ever since the Reformation, however, it is precisely those dogmatic claims that have been barred from the public square. No one wants to re-kindle the Thirty Years War, right? But, because no believer can live one life in public and another at Mass, if we allow ourselves to be reduced to ethicists in the public square, leaving our dogma at the door, we will eventually acquire that self-image and see ourselves primarily as ethicists. This is the reduction of religion to ethics, but it also promotes, at the same time and because of that reduction, the secularization of religion. This is what George and the other neo-cons have never admitted. They are complicit up to their eyeballs in the very thing they denounce, the secularization of the culture. They may be culture warriors, but because they misunderstand the culture, they are fighting the wrong war and, indeed, have already lost the war they are fighting. They are like that poor Japanese soldier who never heard that the war was over and was discovered years later, holed up in a cave on a remote Pacific island.

If we as a Church really want to push back against the forces of secularization in our culture, we need to do more than fire a gay principal here and an unwed pregnant teacher there. We need to be able to say to the world, and also to ourselves and to each other: As Christians, all of our decisions must be evaluated by a simple measure: Do they reveal the face of a loving, merciful God, or not? If they do not, however smart, however ethically correct, however “non-negotiable” they may be, they do not deserve the name “Christian.” Is this not what Pope Francis has been saying to us this past year? That is why he understands what the Church needs most is the ability to warm hearts, not to wag fingers, and that the only warmth the Church has to offer, is the warmth of God's love. It is a lesson Professor George and his fellow neo-cons have not learned, too busy fighting the culture war to notice that Pope Francis has done more in one year to counter the forces of secularization than the Church has, as a whole, in the past thirty-five years, and his secret is simple: Preach the Gospel.  


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