This essay is offered to the Catholic people and to the bishops in a spirit of encouragement.
The Cross and the Persecution
"Put your sword in its scabbard.” (Jn. 18:11)
If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps. . . . When he was insulted, he returned no insult; when he suffered, he did not threaten; instead, he handed himself over to the One who judges justly. (1Pt. 2:20-23)
The Cross of Christ is the sign of our Catholic faith. Because the Cross is so central to who we are, especially in this time when the Catholic religion is being subjected to what might justly be called government persecution, we must reflect on the fact that the Cross in the time of Christ was an instrument of persecution. When Jesus hung on it, the Cross became the image of perfect humility under persecution.
Jesus was the antithesis of the violent man—he was the perfectly meek man. That does not mean that he was powerless. The gospels are full of accounts of the power that Jesus displayed. And Jesus’ injunction to Peter to put away his sword came just moments after he caused the whole gang of his captors to faint at a simple word from his lips.
Jesus was powerful, of course. But for the sake of his divine purpose, Jesus emptied himself of his power. To fulfill the will of the Father that Jesus should be perfected in obedience to God by suffering (Heb. 5:8-9), Jesus surrendered himself to the will of God and the cruelty of his torturers.
We too must be perfected in obedience to God’s will for us, and this obedience can be tested and proven genuine only in suffering. It is easy to enjoy “cheap grace,” but real dedication to God can only be achieved in the pain of dying—of dying to oneself. Only in those terrible times of agony, when we are barely clinging to our wits and to our trust that we are with God, can we live out genuine obedience.
If there is any payoff at all in persecution—any anger, any joy in giving myself up for God, any pride that I am accomplishing God’s will, any vainglory, any pity for my persecutors, any seeking of retribution from God—then the suffering is not pure. It is only when we have died to the payoff, died to the feel-good, and entered utter emptiness, complete desolation—only when we cry out with Jesus in simultaneous faith and the sense of abandonment, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”—that our journey of purification is complete.
Some of us, of course—and I include myself here—are so undisciplined and self-centered that even losing at cards sets us into a frenzy. We prefer our comfort and self-satisfaction, of course, to death.
But when we meditate on the Cross of Christ—the sign of our faith—when we see the Cross of Christ as the symbol of our salvation, of God coming to us (running to us) to forgive us and to welcome us home, we must come to see the Cross also as the sign of perfect emptiness and obedience, the sign of the perfect response to persecution—Jesus let them do that to him.
Jesus made no threats; he did not lose his temper; he never felt sorry for himself; he never attempted to negotiate with his persecutors. He remained patient and long-suffering. He never used his power in any way. – What he did do was to tell the truth: the truth about who he was and why he was here among us, and the truth about the source of civil authority and the mastery of God over everything.
And in the end, Jesus let them kill him.
There is a lesson here for us individually as we suffer the animosity of others while we strive to grow in holiness. And equally important, there is a lesson here for us as a community, as we are confronted by a society which has begun (again) to persecute the Catholic Church.
In previous generations, when the United States styled itself a “Christian nation,” the religions, and particularly, the Christian denominations, were held in public esteem. This esteem expressed itself as a series of exemptions of various sorts, particularly, exemption from taxation and the recognition of a “wall of separation” between the principles which the churches taught and acted upon, and intrusion into these teachings by the government.
The bishops, too, because of the unique status of the religions vis a vis the government’s power to regulate and to tax, were recognized as occupying positions of power and influence. They were courted at election time, and in fact, in “Catholic cities” like New York and Boston they were key players in the day-to-day political process.
The Democratic Party was the primary beneficiary of this comfortable relationship with the bishops because the Democratic Party platform most closely reflected the social teaching of the Catholic Church: justice for immigrants, for the poor, and for common laborers; protection of human rights abroad and of civil rights in this country; opposition to capital punishment, to nuclear weapons proliferation, and to unjust war; and so on.
The end to this sweet and comfortable alliance has come in the past two decades, chiefly due to three factors: the ignominious Priest Sex-Abuse Scandal and the efforts of the bishops to cover up these crimes and to protect the offenders; the Catholic Church’s teachings against elective abortion, artificial birth control, and same-sex marriage; and a change in the bishops’ approach to social issues. This last factor identifies an historical process. Since Pope Leo XIII’s late 19th century encyclical, Rerum Novarum—the Church’s first official foray into social justice issues—the American bishops have been offering to anyone who would listen an extensive set of well-reasoned teachings on a broad range of social justice issues in this country and in the world: from agricultural policy, to end-of-life decision-making, to “just war” theory. In this collection of episcopal letters, the bishops clarify the Church’s teaching on the wide variety of social justice issues which they address, and they attempt to guide public opinion “from the sidelines,” as it were.
However, in the past two decades, the bishops’ control of their own teaching process has deteriorated steadily. During this time, the bishops—and the public—watched the bishops’ unanimity fracture and then collapse into arguing, pettiness, defensiveness, and individual action initiatives.
And now, as the bishops try to respond to the current HHS Mandate, which withdraws the exemption of Catholic (and other not-for-profit) institutions from having to provide health insurance coverage for contraceptive procedures which the Church finds immoral, the first-cousin relationship between the bishops and the Democratic Party has soured. The Democrats appear willing to ignore the impact of this mandate on Catholic voters, and now the bishops are at sea. The Democratic platform remains more consonant with Church social teaching than is the Republican platform, except in the areas of abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage.
As a result, the bishops now find themselves, as individuals, deeply involved in a rash of political crisis issues (not only the HHS mandate, but also same-sex marriage, birth control, abortion, women's access to Holy Orders, reception of the sacraments by pro-choice Catholic politicians, the world-wide priest scandal), and each of the 180 or so diocesan ordinaries seems to be his own rudderless ship in the storm.
The HHS Mandate has brought the bishops’ situation to a boiling point. The Obama Administration apparently considers “women’s reproductive rights” to be at stake here—that it is beyond the authority of any religion to refuse to provide this insurance coverage to those employees who desire it—and the Administration presumably hopes that this approach will appeal to its activist liberal power base in the November elections. The Catholic bishops, on the other hand, see the issue as an infringement on freedom of conscience and on the separation of church and state.
The government clearly has the upper hand in this battle. What is troubling about all this to me is the bishops’ response to this mandate, which might legitimately be considered persecution of the Catholic Church on the grounds of its principled position on artificial contraception.
It’s not my purpose here to defend or attack one position or the other in this contest. I wish simply to note and comment on what some of the bishops have publicly stated their intentions to be at this time: to accept any White House invitation to negotiate a compromise resolution to this issue, to rally congressional support for protection of what the bishops see as the Church’s “rights,” and to resort to litigation.
Where is the Cross of Christ in these responses? Where is the meekness and surrender to God’s providence and to the cruelty of the persecutors which this sign of our faith represents?
The Church should not see itself as having “rights” which it must defend. Did not the God/Man have greater rights than these? And did he not forgo them all on the Cross?
The Church must see itself as a politically powerless, but pure and good, way of life which is offered as an alternative to the mainstream way of life of the secular society. The sole purpose of the Church is to announce a way of life conceived by the Source of All That Is and made accessible to us by the Cross of Christ—a way of life that leads to joy through justice, peace, and human harmony.
The Church must sit on the sidelines, as it were, and teach true peace based in justice for everyone —by word and by the example of its leaders and adherents. It must demand nothing from the secular society—no tax breaks (see Rom. 13:7), no place at the political table, no deference to its godliness, no attention to its teachings, no recognition of its works of mercy. The Mystical Body of Christ must simply be an infinitely more rewarding alternative to the secular way of life.
Regardless of the Church’s First Amendment “rights,” the bishops, as Catholics, must imitate Jesus in their response to persecution. Jesus never negotiated with any secular authority. He simply accepted their dictates in silence. (Sometimes he acted with intentional “civil disobedience,” but always with his eyes toward the eternal Truth and never toward his position in the society.) Jesus never sought to rally his power base nor any political figures to protect him from persecution. In fact, at one point (Jn. 6:60-69) Jesus spoke the Truth so powerfully that his followers, in shock, deserted him so that he was left with just twelve. And Jesus never turned to the courts for protection. He recognized—and taught—that the judges were themselves powerless and had their authority from God alone (Jn. 19:11).
The Truth that Jesus taught never made him politically powerful, and the Truth which the Mystical Body holds and proclaims cannot be the basis for any political power, either. The rest is froth. If at one time the society accorded the bishops honor and dignity, that era has passed. The society has changed its mind—as it is prone to do. It has reinterpreted the separation of church and state so that this phrase no longer has its original intent—namely, to protect the religions from any government attempt to legitimize any one religion and exclude the rest. Rather, now the phrase protects the secular public from the intrusion of religious teaching and practice, thus privatizing the religions and excluding them all from the public forum. So much for rights.
And now, the Democratic political machine has decided that the liberal vote is more valuable to it than the Catholic vote. And so, it has cut its ties with the Church and set the Catholic voters adrift. So much for political alliances.
The HHS Mandate may be the first salvo in a new persecution of the Catholic Church. If so, it presents the Church with an opportunity—an opportunity to share the sufferings of Christ. But after so long a period of slumber and comfort, the bishops must teach themselves first, and then their flocks, not how to resort to secular politics for protection, but how to accept persecution with meekness and faith—how to imitate Jesus in his glory (Jn. 13:31)—how to live the Cross of Christ.
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