by Sheila Liaugminas
Time and again last year I heard people complain that those of us who work in media to spread truth about the natural law and moral order and the dignity of the human person were talking to people who already “got it.” Though we were giving our Catholic or other Christian audiences useful information, we were not breaking any new ground with people who didn’t already “get it.” At one of these events, as the 2012 elections drew near, during a discussion of the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate on contraception, an exasperated woman said, “But after all this, you’re preaching to the choir.” I engaged her point energetically and others jumped in to affirm the need for these discussions, but her remark stuck with me.
Consider this: All choirs need to have skill in the art of communication, must learn the words and melody and harmony, and rehearse over and over, improving on the power to stir souls. If some are off-key or disagree with the pitch or tone, or haven’t yet heard the correct notes at all for the true resonance of a certain piece of music, they won’t be able to capture attention and move hearts and minds with its beauty. In fact, they may just irritate people.
A couple of weeks later, I spoke before a very large gathering on the issues at stake in the election and the importance of religious freedom. Wrapping up, I recounted the woman’s remark about preaching to the choir at which point I smacked the podium and blurted out, “If that’s the case, then it’s time for the choir to sing.” To my astonishment, the entire hall erupted in applause, which turned into a sustained standing ovation.
People are hungry for action and for encouragement to act.
Consider yourself encouraged. The bishops of the United States are unified as never before in defending “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty.” (See the USCCB Committee on Religious Liberty’s statement of that name: usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/our-first-most-cherished-liberty.cfm). The bishops spent a year of pitched efforts to engage the US government on religious freedom and conscience rights, newly threatened by the federal HHS mandate that employers must provide contraceptives, abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization under threat of punishing fines and penalties for non-compliance, regardless of their moral and religious beliefs.
After the “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” rallies and the “Fortnight for Freedom” initiative and novenas and action initiatives across the country, the bishops continue to do everything they can think of to prompt lay Catholics into action. They’re writing pastoral letters and asking them to be read at Masses and inserted in parish bulletins. Time and again, at the expense of personal attacks and criticism for becoming “political,” our bishops are vigorously calling us to action. They may have engaged late but they’re fully engaged now!
I don’t buy the argument that it’s too little too late. The abortion movement has had four decades of alliance-building and fortification, not to mention major funding and access to political power. But those decades also compiled incalculable evidence of the ravages of abortion on women, children, families, and society. So there’s no excuse not to use this evidence and share it through every means possible which is considerable today, with social networking and multimedia access on a global scale.
The movement to redefine marriage has built a powerful campaign and has immense funding, with influence at the very highest levers of power, through sustained, unrelenting, creative, and determined activism. But defenders of natural marriage have access to sociological, psychological, medical, legal, and economic studies showing the effects of this social experiment on individuals, couples, families, society, and especially children. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be widely known, discussed, debated, and engaged to influence social policy and law, vigorously.
It takes each person doing whatever he or she can each day to make a difference, whether it’s a phone call, e-mail, Facebook post or share, Tweet, text, letter to the editor, or real live conversation with others. We are fired up over setbacks on moral issues, but really galvanized over the threat of losing our right to express Catholic faith, Christian beliefs, and Gospel values in public, and to remain free to let our convictions inform our decisions and actions.
So here’s my question: how well have we stood up for our beliefs until this threat to our religious freedom escalated in 2012? We tend to appreciate what we had after we’ve lost it, and we find ourselves imagining the real loss of this freedom for the first time.
Archbishop Charles Chaput recently commented that “Catholic and other Christian influence on daily life in the developed world is rapidly diminishing.” And he asked: “How did this happen?”
“The American Founders were far friendlier to religious faith than their French revolutionary counterparts,” the archbishop said. “Well into the 1940s, American government and religious bodies often worked in a mutually supportive way and very effectively to serve the common good.” He elaborated:
But there’s a flaw in the American gene code. The Jesuit scholar John Courtney Murray named it more than seventy years ago. Murray said that America is simultaneously a land “of immense material comfort” and “immense suffering of a peculiarly soul-destroying kind” a nation driven by the anxiety for money and the fear of life without it.
From its founding, America has always been a paradox: a country of fierce individualism and hunger for material success, tempered by widespread Christian faith and community. If the churches decline, selfishness and greed rise which is exactly what’s happened in the United States since the end of the Second World War.
Father Murray, writing in the mid-twentieth century, hoped that Catholics would provide a Christian soul to American life in a way that Protestants no longer could. We know how that turned out. Notre Dame social researcher Christian Smith and his colleagues have tracked in great detail the spiritual lives of today’s young adults and teenagers. The results are sobering. So are the implications for Catholic life in the decades ahead.
The real religion of vast numbers of American young people is a kind of fuzzy moral niceness, with an easy, undemanding God on duty to make people feel happy whenever they need Him. It’s what Smith calls “moralistic therapeutic deism.” To put it in the words of a young woman from Maryland, “[Faith is] just whatever makes you feel good about you.”
This is the legacy that my generation has left to the Church in the United States. For all practical purposes, American Catholics are no different from everybody else in their views, their appetites, and their behaviors. This isn’t what the Second Vatican Council had in mind when it began its work fifty years ago. It’s not what the council meant by reform. Left to itself, the life of the Church in my country is not going to get better. It’s going to get worse.*
And that brings us to now. Archbishop Chaput’s “Holy Impatience” article pinpointed the problem. We must ask ourselves: “What difference have we made as Catholics in the public square? And what difference are we willing to make now that we have to fight for the right to make a difference?”
I am not holy, but I’m feeling the impatience. So are many people gathered in church pews and halls and in discussion threads online and inboxes and comment boxes.
Good. Lift up your voices. It’s time for the choir to sing.
* “Holy Impatience” appeared on the First Things website December 1, 2012, based on the archbishop’s address to the leaders of Sodalitium Christianae Vitae in Lima, Peru, on November 29, 2012. It is accessible online: firstthings.com/onthesquare/2012/12/holy-impatience.
Sheila Liaugminas, a member of the Voices editorial board, is a Catholic journalist who lives in Chicago. She hosts the daily program “A Closer Look” on Relevant Radio (relevantradio.com), and serves as network news director. Visit her blog: Sheila Reports (mercatornet.com/sheila_liaugminas).
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