Friday, February 09, 2007

Orthodoxy and freedom

I'm increasingly convinced that the best combination of circumstances for growth of the Catholic Church is orthodoxy and religious freedom.

Religious freedom in society does two good things: it forces the Church to compete with other religions being offered, and it allows the Church to enjoy such rewards of that competition as it may earn. That is, the Church has to make itself appealing, and if it does so and thereby attracts converts, those converts aren't risking life and limb.

Latin America gives us an example of what happens when the Church is given more or less a religious monopoly. The church there never had to struggle to make its message attractive, and so very few people who self-identify as Catholics actually attend Mass or pay much attention to the Church's positions on issues. Latin American men are particularly turned off by the Church, and it's been that way for generations. No great wonder: the Church never had to explain why the Christian life is actually more heroic, and therefore more attractively masculine, than the superficial bravado of machismo.

But the freedom to compete isn't enough by itself. To attract people to the Faith and keep them, the Church also has to remain true to its own teachings, that is, it must remain orthodox, and it must be seen to take effective action to enforce -- yes, enforce -- orthodoxy within its own ranks.

To see that principle in action, we can look at our own country. While the Church remained orthodox and disciplined in its teachings and the guiding of its clergy and lay people, its influence in American society grew and grew. As American culture was stumbling into the 60's, the Catholic Church was well positioned to help it keep its feet. But at that moment, many influential Catholics, especially among the hierarchy and in Catholic universities, abandoned orthodoxy for the trendy ideas of the times. And when they dared the Church to enforce its teachings, the Church blew the now-familiar uncertain trumpet that inspires no one, backed down, and started mumbling about taking a 'pastoral' approach.

That's exactly when the Catholic Church in the United States started losing its influence in American culture and politics, the influence that had taken two centuries of patient effort to earn. The effective abandonment first of tradition, then of orthodoxy, led from carelessness in small things to carelessness in bigger things. Ultimately, it led to the terrible pederasty scandal in the priesthood. Time and again, the tale was told of priests who went bad and -- what was much worse -- of bishops who looked the other way.

It was said in defense of this that we were about forgiveness now, not sin. We were a Resurrection People, yada yada yada. But what we were really about was nothing so special. We were simply about not caring how badly our members behaved. Organizations that do that simply rot from within. The people inside such organizations who care about keeping to the rules see that those who don't are simply allowed to get away with it, or are even preferred for promotion. The people who care are the ones that any organization needs to keep. Instead, we lost them. To Evangelical Protestantism, to non-denominational churches, even to Islam. A few stayed and fought, and some are coming back, and these now embody our hope for the future.

The Church had a spectacular opportunity at the opening of the 1960's and fumbled it. It probably won't get another in my lifetime. Maybe in yours. Given the rising animus against religion in general in influential parts of American culture and politics, the next one may not play out in such circumstances of religious freedom as presented themselves in 1960. That part of the equation is not so much under our control as the other part: orthodoxy. Let's see if we as a Church can get that back and keep it, so we're ready when that next big chance is given to us.