One of the most reliable of Catholic commentators is Msgr Charles Pope. He always has something good to say, and unlike some, he does not court controversy. So, when he writes it is the end for ‘comfort Catholicism’, it is an invitation one should take seriously. He comments:
There is a growing consternation among some Catholics that the Church, at least in her leadership, is living in the past. It seems there is no awareness that we are at war and that Catholics need to be summoned to sobriety, increasing separation from the wider culture, courageous witness and increasing martyrdom.
The Church is not, he says, preparing its people for the moral and spiritual war in which we are engaged, and its leaders prefer soft words and ambiguous formulations to addressing serious issues in what the world would perceive as a controversial way.
We who are supposed to be the light of the world, with Christ shining in us, have preferred to hide our light under a basket and lay low. The ruins of our families and culture are testimony to the triumph of error and the suppression of the truth.
We should be prepared, he thinks, to defy ‘unjust’ laws and if necessary go to jail rather than obey them:
We have to retool and provide every opportunity to get clear about our faith. Sermons and other teachable moments must sound a clear call to personal conversion and to battle for souls and to stop treating lightly the sinful disregard for God’s law in our families and communities.
How, one is tempted to ask, did it come to this? Msgr Pope seems to be suggesting that it was the failures of the 1970s – a fashionable scapegoat, but ultimately unsatisfying as an explanation. The failures of the 1970s were not confined to the Catholic Church, and had the Church been solid in the preceding decades, then it is hard to see how the 1970s could have taken the route it did. What went wrong was due to deep-seated defects and not confined to the Catholic Church. No one, I suspect, would accuse the Irish Church of the 1960s of an excess of liberalism, and as late as the 1980s Ireland was still a conservative Catholic country; the crash when it came was in large measure due to the conduct of those in the Church – and their faults were not undue reverence for the Spirit of vatican II. The fault, as Mary O’Regan noted last year in the Catholic Herald, lay with the Church which had failed to recognise the sex abuse crisis, and a hierarchy which had failed to deal properly with it once the media forced it to do so; this produced a loss of faith in the institution. There is a strong argument to be made that this has been a disaster for Ireland as much as for the Church, and that the country desperately needs the faith.
It is easy and tempting, to fall for what one might call the ‘American culture war’ explanation of the decline in the position of the Church in the Western world; but we should resist it. For one thing, it is far from clear that the American ‘culture war’ narrative has any result save for an increase in partisanship, in which both sides demonise the other to gain political brownie points; whatever his partisans say, Mr Trump’s attempt to use this to gain himself the presidency is going to end in the sort of failure the Republicans last saw with Barry Goldwater; one fears, however, that his supporters will see it all as the results of nefarious forces fighting against them. If that is where they go after November, they will both further inflame a bad situation, and, from the political point of view, fail to arrive at an answer which will get them back into power. Under Mr Corbyn, the Labour Party seems to be moving in the same direction. The paranoid style is the fashion of the moment. Msgr Pope seems to be in danger of joining a long list of public figures who see their own movement as being under threat and who warn of being ready for the coming persecution. It is a style which risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
None of this is to say that the Church should not fearlessly proclaim the Good News, nor to say we should somehow conform to the ways of this world, but it is to suggest that succumbing to the American culture wars narrative would be to conform in an especially unhelpful way, not least for those Christians in the world who are subject to genuine severe persecution. Is this really the moment to be alienating our governments, or is it a time to remind them of the duty they owe to Christians who have been driven from their homes by the forces of evil? Might we put the needs of others above the virtue-signalling of our own desires? We can send any message we want to the governments which represent us, but I suggest this is the one to send now. As for ‘comfort Catholicism’, I’m not sure we need yet another dismissive slogan to aim at our fellow Catholics. We all stand in need of comfort, we all stand under judgment, and we are called to love one another. I know this last command of Our Lord is one which ignites some readers to impatience, but it is His command, not mine, and they might, perhaps, meditate on why the word ‘love’ creates such un-loving emotions? Misuse is no excuse for ignoring the proper use.