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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXIII, No. 3
Michaelmas 2008

Inside Voices:
On the Present Position of Catholics in America

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

Anniversaries, whether celebrations of births or weddings or observances of world events, are a time of taking stock — of renewing memories, of evaluation and reassessment.

This year the Church observes the fortieth anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae and the other events of the fateful year 1968 — and also the twentieth anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, On the Dignity of Women, issued at the crest of the feminist movement’s influence within the Catholic Church. (WFF held a Day of Recollection in June in observance of the anniversary of Mulieris Dignitatem. See the report in this issue.)

This year is also a presidential election year in the United States. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, moral issues concerning the family and human life, especially abortion, head the list of issues that concern Catholics and others in considering candidates.

We decided to publish Humanae Vitae in its entirety in this issue of Voices. Pope Paul’s succinct encyclical on human life, reaffirming constant Church teaching and moral principles, has been among the most controversial, discussed and debated works of any pope in history, though — paradoxically — few people have actually read it. From a distance of four decades, we can understand that this encyclical was truly a “sign of contradiction” to the world at the time it appeared. And it still is.

We asked our editorial board to contribute articles on the subject of this historic encyclical and its implications for our time. It seemed particularly timely to do this now, during this election year, when our attention is focused on fundamentally the same issues that Pope Paul addressed.

It is especially necessary for Catholic women to review papal teaching on the meaning and value of all human life at this time, for it helps us understand our responsibility, indeed, our obligation, not only as Catholics but as women who are intrinsically connected to human life, from its earliest beginnings to its natural end, to defend this truth by our actions — in season and out of season.

One example of the importance of the voices of women can be seen in the massive media attention focused on a woman — a mother of five children and a Christian who opposes abortion — chosen by the Republican party as candidate for vice-president of the United States, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

Another example: the publicity surrounding comments by a Catholic woman — the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi. She claimed in a television interview to have studied Catholic teaching, and stated that “the Doctors of the Church have not been able to” define when life begins. Even more astonishingly, she said that abortion “is a matter of controversy” within the Church.

Almost immediately, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement correcting her false statements about what the Church teaches on abortion and human life (Cardinal Justin Rigali, head of the Pro-Life Committee and Bishop William Lori, head of the Committee on Doctrine). Several other bishops also issued clear statements of Church teaching to counter the false statements. (The bishops’ statements appear on our regularly updated WFF web section Catholics and Political Responsibility).

Catholics throughout the country were much encouraged by the bishops’ forthright responses on such a politically charged matter. It is not exactly expected, in our time, that Church leaders will publicly proclaim and defend Church teaching — especially if it is as controversial as abortion is and has been for at least 35 years. (Yes, this past January was the 35th anniversary of the infamous Supreme Court decision permitting abortion.)

There’s one more anniversary of sorts in 2008. As I was going through one of the many stacks of books in our house over the Labor Day weekend, I happened across a monograph my husband, James Hitchcock, wrote — exactly thirty years ago: On the Present Position of Catholics in America, the first publication of the National Committee of Catholic Laymen.

Re-reading this book after three decades, I was struck simultaneously by two things: how much things have changed since 1978, and how much they have not. One of the most trenchant observations in the book, I thought, was that while American Catholicism has been politicized, secularist politics has become “sacralized”. Here are a few excerpts:

“The politicizing of American Catholicism … has not meant, for the most part, a serious attempt to apply Catholic moral principles in the public forum, to bring Christ into the marketplace. Rather it has meant the sacralizing of politics, the transferal to politics of the passion, conviction, and commitment which formerly characterized religion. Not only has the Catholic Church been perceived — even by many within it, even by many of its own leaders — as a declining institution, religion itself has been so perceived”.

“Secular humanism has calculated that Christianity is presently vulnerable at two points — its sexual ethics and its affirmation of the sacredness of human life, neither of which can remain tenable in a hedonistic society, the former for obvious reasons, the latter both because certain lives … are too burdensome to others and because the hedonistic imagination cannot conceive that a pain-filled or otherwise ‘unhappy’ life can possibly be meaningful to the person living it. The attack directed at Christian morality at both of these points has revealed many collaborators within the Christian camp, eager to do their part in what they regard as the inevitable triumph of a new ethic”.

“The decline of the public authority of the churches, not only politically but also of their influence over their own members, has been paralleled, inevitably, it might be suggested, by the sacralization of politics. Having first declared its independence from religion, politics increasingly claims for itself those domains formerly thought of as proper to religion. For many people, including many Christians, politics has become a sacred duty and a kind of liturgy, an activity which summons forth their whole moral energies, their whole personal commitment, the doctrinaire rigidity which they forswear in religion. This is true not only of those who are attracted to various forms of totalitarianism … but even to those whose political interests are confined to ordinary electoral politics, where the adoption of the correct platform plank, the election of the right candidate, or the passage of the correct law can come to have an almost holy significance”.

“Moral relativism — the belief that there are no ultimately true and binding moral principles — must also be recognized as a creed in competition with the creed of moral absolutism. As such it cannot be permitted to function as the working moral code of governmental agencies or tax-supported schools”.

“The full significance of the dissent from Humanae Vitae which was given maximum publicity by the media, can now be appreciated. The modern ‘liberated’ Catholic chose to take his or her stand precisely on the question that directly relates to the population-control issue. The badge of being a ‘free’ and ‘independent’ Catholic was the embracing of the contraceptive mentality, including the cries of alarm about world overpopulation and the acceptance of the proposition that small families tend to make for a more ‘fulfilled’ life”.

“The totalitarian and manipulative possibilities inherent in this are virtually endless, since it seeks to reach into the most remote recesses of the human soul. Of immediate concern to Catholics is the area of sex education, where a ‘healthy’ attitude is increasingly coming to be equated with wholly permissive and ‘non-judgmental’ attitude towards practically all sexual practices except rape, in which those who adhere to traditional Christian concepts of right and wrong are deemed to be in heed of therapeutic assistance”.

“The Catholic complacency of the 1950s was rudely shocked by the remarkably swift change in the moral and political climate which occurred in the 1960s. Momentum, once lost, is not easily regained. For fifteen years the momentum has lain with the secularists, and their boldness increases daily. The very survival of Catholicism in America depends on that momentum’s being stopped. At present all that seems lacking, from the Catholic side, is the intelligence and the will”.

The challenges have not changed much since 1968 — or 1978 — or 1988. Except that it is even more clear now where the destructive momentum is leading. If we have hope of countering this momentum — if we may hope for positive change in the moral and political climate of today, Catholics still must have the intelligence and the will.

Early in this election year, Archbishop Charles Chaput published a helpful guide, “Ten Points for Catholic Citizens to Remember”. The archbishop observed,

“Personal witness is always the best proof of what we claim to believe. And this year, like every other year, with or without an election, we need to apply the idea of Catholic witness in a special way to our public life as citizens.…

“The heart of truly ‘faithful’ citizenship is this: We’re better citizens when we’re more faithful Catholics. The more authentically Catholic we are in our lives, choices, actions and convictions, the more truly we will contribute to the moral and political life of our nation”.

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