An out-of-state friend was telling me about a recent homily at his parish. The priest was apparently upset by some feedback that he should speak out on political issues. He stated that it wasn’t the job of the clergy to talk publicly about politics: that was the laity’s job.
I was saddened to hear this. The impression such a homily gives is that we laity are on our own in the political realm: that the sheep need to shepherd themselves, because the shepherds aren’t allowed to (?); or it’s not their job (?); or they’ll get in trouble with the government (?). As I noted in my inaugural post, the culture is shouting an anti-gospel, and if we don’t speak up, the anti-gospel will win the day. Who but our clergy should lead the preaching of the gospel message? Who but the clergy should be on the front lines in speaking out against the culture of death and for the culture of life? How could a priest arrive at such (to me) an alarming and discouraging conclusion?
As I reflected, I thought back to the years from just after Vatican II until the last decade: years I refer to as the Church’s “Babylonian Captivity”. The uncertainty and disarray following on the Council (this is not a condemnation of the Council, but of how abysmally its implementation was managed in the U.S.) left a vacuum in terms of piety and catechesis. The Baltimore Catechism was out – what was in? Devotion to Mary and the saints; novenas and Benediction; Aquinas and hierarchical authority; sex as an exclusively marital activity: all of these were dispensed with by many of the “clergy-and-laity-of-the-world-unite-we-have-nothing-to-lose-but-our-chains” party, with nothing of substance to replace them. The tumult in the culture at large during the 1960s exacerbated the disorder.
During this era, confusion reigned regarding what was authentic Catholicism: what one must believe and practice to be Catholic. The widespread rejection of “Humanae Vitae”, especially, engendered the scourge of “cafeteria Catholicism”: to the point where, in many cases, a person’s self-identification as Catholic signifies virtually nothing about that person’s beliefs or lifestyle.
In the midst of the chaos, even sincere clergy and laity suffered an identity crisis: who am I? What is my role in the Church? How am I to be in the world as a Catholic Christian: what is healthy dialogue and engagement with secular culture, and what is compromise? Do I incorporate “pre-Vatican-II” piety in my “post-Vatican-II” piety? And if so, how? (George Weigel wisely notes that the idea of a “pre-” and “post-conciliar Church” is itself a fallacy. We have to assume that every era of the Church is “interconciliar”: that is, there will be more councils, so no single council is “the last word”.)
So during the Captivity, we endured about 50 years of largely content-less preaching and teaching, in the parish and in the Catholic educational system. In two of the dioceses I resided in, the homilies boiled down to “be nice” and “help the poor” (although, in most cases, the latter admonition generated vague guilt but no practical action). In the high school seminary religion class, we listened to the Beatles’ “Nowhere Man” and discussed what it meant to us. In Chicago, at least, Catholic educational institutions either left graduates unscathed by any but the shallowest knowledge of Catholic teaching and practice (not to mention the Bible!), or trained in how to dissent from the hierarchy. Stanley Hauerwas, a Mennonite theologian, nicely summed up the pathetic state of catechesis and lived relationship with the Lord in the liturgical churches in his marvelous book, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony. He wryly noted that mainline denominational preaching, including the Catholic Church’s, often leaves the impression that Christianity is equivalent to “being slightly to the left of the Democratic Party”.
You reap what you sow. The many threats to religious freedom we are facing now; the catastrophic decline in church attendance and practice; the increasing numbers of agnostics, atheists, or people who identify with no organized religious body; the dissent and disobedience of many clergy and laity who still do attend the Church; the increasing conformity of Catholics to secular practices and values; the yawning absence of the twenty-to-forty-somethings at Mass (who, if they’re in church at all, are at the nearest nondenominational megachurch): all of these are the fruit of years of silence from the pulpits and Catholic institutions – including the U.S. Catholic Conference, until very recently – regarding solid Catholic doctrine. We have suffered from a blight: of people pleasing, not wanting to offend, avoiding controversy, and – scandalously – not wanting to upset or alienate wealthy or influential donors by preaching the unadulterated gospel.
I think the tide began to turn with the papacy of Blessed John Paul II. The renewal continued with the release of the Cathechism; the emergence of unabashedly Catholic universities such as Franciscan University; the establishment of EWTN, and in its wake a surge of Catholic radio stations, periodicals, and other media; and a rediscovery by many clergy and laity of the treasure of two thousand years of Catholic tradition, through Bible studies, faith sharing groups, and programs such as “That Man Is You”.
More recently, since the HHS mandate (forcing Christian institutions to provide contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilizations under their insurance) has come forward, it has been refreshing to have the U.S. bishops – at last – speak out strongly and unitedly. In a number of Omaha parishes, including my own, the homilies have begun to address issues I’d never heard preached about before in a Catholic homily: contraception; fornication; same-sex attraction and same-sex “marriage”; pornography. It’s a good start.
But on the parish and national level, the pushback against the culture of death has come very late and needs to be FAR stronger and more widespread. ‘Tis NOT the season, in this day and age, for innocuous, “why can’t we all just get along” homilies; or sermons about fine liturgical points; or simply vague references to the hostility of U.S. culture to living the Christian life. Catholic preaching must frankly acknowledge the toxicity of the present culture, the war on Christianity in general and on Catholicism in particular by the vast majority of the media. As someone once said, “The Vandals are storming the gates of the city, and we’re discussing the size of lettering on public monuments!” – or rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic: pick your metaphor.
So I urge, I plead with our clergy to SPEAK OUT about what’s going on: to address it boldly, clearly, and frequently. You WILL lose parishioners and donors – the tepid, dissenting, cafeteria-Catholic crowd – but you will gain people who are passionate about the gospel, sick to death of being pummeled with Ping-Pong ball homilies, and hungry for preaching that presents the Gospel in all of its demands and glory. You will be called hateful, bigoted, homophobic: Jesus was slandered, hated, and crucified. But you will also come into the fullness of living unashamedly for the Gospel, and will experience a new level of unity, support, and fellowship with the faithful you shepherd.
I don’t know if clergy have any idea how strengthening, encouraging, and invigorating it is for us laity to hear our shepherds speak out clearly and fearlessly. When our associate, Fr. Michael, first began to do so, many in our congregation (not all!) applauded. We’d been waiting our whole lives for such preaching on the parish level.
I’m not saying, “Speak out, priests and deacons, because we laity can’t.” I’m saying, “Speak out, because we laity need to know that we’re not alone; that our shepherds see and care about the crisis.” We need your preaching to set ablaze the fire in our bones; to validate our distress as well as our unbounded hope in the Lord; to encourage us to speak the truth in love boldly and clearly. Speak! We will support you; we will encourage you; we will love you; we will pray for you; we are with you. We need to know that you are with us.