The American Jesuit scholar Father John Courtney Murray once said that “Anyone who really believes in God must set God, and the truth of God, above all other considerations.” (4)
Here’s what that means. Catholic public officials who take God seriously cannot support laws that attack human dignity without lying to themselves, misleading others and abusing the faith of their fellow Catholics. God will demand an accounting. Catholic doctors who take God seriously cannot do procedures, prescribe drugs or support health policies that attack the sanctity of unborn children or the elderly; or that undermine the dignity of human sexuality and the family. God will demand an accounting. And Catholic citizens who take God seriously cannot claim to love their Church, and then ignore her counsel on vital public issues that shape our nation’s life. God will demand an accounting. As individuals, we can claim to believe whatever we want. We can posture, and rationalize our choices, and make alibis with each other all day long—but no excuse for our lack of honesty and zeal will work with the God who made us. God knows our hearts better than we do. If we don’t conform our hearts and actions to the faith we claim to believe, we’re only fooling ourselves.
We live in a culture where our marketers and entertainment media compulsively mislead us about the sustainability of youth; the indignity of old age; the avoidance of suffering; the denial of death; the nature of real beauty; the impermanence of every human love; the oppressiveness of children and family; the silliness of virtue; and the cynicism of religious faith. It’s a culture of fantasy, selfishness, sexual confusion and illness that we’ve brought upon ourselves. And we’ve done it by misusing the freedom that other—and greater—generations than our own worked for, bled for and bequeathed to our safe-keeping.
What have we done with that freedom? In whose service do we use it now?
John Courtney Murray is most often remembered for his work at Vatican II on the issue of religious liberty, and for his great defense of American democracy in his book, We Hold These Truths. Murray believed deeply in the ideas and moral principles of the American experiment. He saw in the roots of the American Revolution the unique conditions for a mature people to exercise their freedom through intelligent public discourse, mutual cooperation and laws inspired by right moral character. He argued that—at its best—American democracy is not only compatible with the Catholic faith, but congenial to it.
But he had a caveat. It’s the caveat that George Washington implied in his Farewell Address, and that Charles Carroll – the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence—mentions in his own writings. In order to work, America depends as a nation on a moral people shaped by their religious faith, and in a particular way, by the Christian faith. Without that living faith, animating its people and informing its public life, America becomes something alien and hostile to the very ideals it was founded on.
This is why the same Father Murray who revered the best ideals of the American experiment could also write that “Our American culture, as it exists, is actually the quintessence of all that is decadent in the culture of the Western Christian world. It would seem to be erected on the triple denial that has corrupted Western culture at its roots: the denial of metaphysical reality, of the primacy of the spiritual over the material, [and] of the social over the individual . . . Its most striking characteristic is its profound materialism . . . It has given citizens everything to live for and nothing to die for. And its achievement may be summed up thus: It has gained a continent and lost its own soul.”(5)
Catholics need to wake up from the illusion that the America we now live in – not the America of our nostalgia or imagination or best ideals, but the real America we live in here and now – is somehow friendly to our faith. What we’re watching emerge in this country is a new kind of paganism, an atheism with air-conditioning and digital TV. And it is neither tolerant nor morally neutral.
As the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb observed more than a decade ago, “What was once stigmatized as deviant behavior is now tolerated and even sanctioned; what was once regarded as abnormal has been normalized.” But even more importantly, she added, “As deviancy is normalized, so what was once normal becomes deviant. The kind of family that has been regarded for centuries as natural and moral – the ‘bourgeois’ family as it is invidiously called – is now seen as pathological” and exclusionary, concealing the worst forms of psychic and physical oppression.(6)
My point is this: Evil talks about tolerance only when it’s weak. When it gains the upper hand, its vanity always requires the destruction of the good and the innocent, because the example of good and innocent lives is an ongoing witness against it. So it always has been. So it always will be. And America has no special immunity to becoming an enemy of its own founding beliefs about human freedom, human dignity, the limited power of the state, and the sovereignty of God.