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Why America's Catholics Need an Apocalypse

By Deal W. Hudson
3/13/2014 (4 years ago)
Catholic Online (https://www.catholic.org)

When Obamacare ignited a debate over religious liberty in 2011, especially among Catholics, it hit the same nerve that motivated Evangelicals to become politically active 40 years ago. Catholics, however, rattled their sabers but never stepped onto the field.

There is nothing more clarifying to a group or an individual than an apocalyptic moment - when the choice you make in response to that disaster reveals the bottom line, what really matters. Once such moment occurred with the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, out of which the very powerful and lasting pro-life movement was born.  But we need to witness the birth of a larger, more audacious movement, a cultural movement, one that reorients the political towards a higher, more fundamental goal.

WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) - The so-called "Christian Right" was born in the late 70s as a protest against the power of the federal government in regulating Christian schools across the South.  It was not initially about abortion, gay marriage, or any of the "life issues" but about pushing back against government encroachment on religious liberty. I tell the complete story of the birth and development of the "Christian Right" in my book, Onward Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States (Simon & Schuster, 2008). 

When Obamacare ignited a debate over religious liberty in 2011, especially among Catholics, it hit the same nerve that motivated Evangelicals to become politically active 40 years ago.  Catholics, however, rattled their sabers but never stepped onto the field.  It was another chapter in the ongoing saga of angry Catholics who denounce cultural and national decline among friends but wait for the "bishops" or the "Church" to do something about it. 

When these angry Catholics are told it's their responsibility, the responsibility of the laity to forge political change, they look confused and start complaining about the bishops and clergy again - "Why don't they do something? Why don't they speak out?"

After 15 years of intense involvement in Catholic political matters, I've come to  the conclusion that the clerical mentality of America's Catholics is so deeply embedded in their religious self-understanding it will take more than Obamacare to blast them out of their deceptions and excuses for inaction.  That such an event is coming, there is no doubt. But, by the time it arrives, the Church in this nation may have lost so many teeth that its bite will hardly be felt by the offending parties. 

I've led Catholic outreach for two presidential elections, both successful, advised on another one, unsuccessfully, and spoken to groups in nearly all 50 states on the Church's teaching in regard to political participation.  At the beginning of each event, I tell the audience that I will not entertain any questions about "the bishops or allow any "bishop bashing."  Then I explain that their finger pointing at the clergy is either a misunderstanding of their unique responsibility as laity in the political process or a technique of avoiding that responsibility.  It's my observation that most Catholics are genuinely surprised to find out it's not the bishops who are to carry the political football. 

Clericalism has created a myopia that only an apocalyptic event can remove.  I had hoped that the successes of 2000 and 2004 in mobilizing Catholic voters towards a pro-life, pro-marriage candidate, and away from two candidates who espoused precisely the opposite, would create a pattern to be followed. My hope was that religiously active Catholic activists and voters would offer their support to candidates only if they affirmed the settled, or non-negotiable, issues of political significance.

The last two national elections have shown that moving Catholic voters cannot be based upon the tactics of social conservatism alone. Especially when many prominent Catholics, including political leaders who were involved with me in the Catholic outreach effort of 2000 and 2004, have evidently decided that affirming the settled issues of the Church is no longer necessary before endorsing a Catholic candidate (See my earlier columns on the 10th District Virginia congressional race.) https://www.catholic.org/politics/story.php?id=54213

There is still time for these highly respected leaders to withdraw their endorsements, but it appears the power of the GOP is beginning to trump the faith of the Church, with the result that Catholics in the Republican Party may well be starting to take the path tread by the Democrats for the past four decades. The examples of Congressmen Henry Hyde and Chris Smith and Senators Sam Brownback and Rick Santorum may no longer be serving as role models for Catholic candidates and their Catholic supporters. 

There is nothing more clarifying to a group or an individual than an apocalyptic moment - when the choice you make in response to that disaster reveals the bottom line, what really matters. Once such moment occurred with the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, out of which the very powerful and lasting pro-life movement was born.  But we need to witness the birth of a larger, more audacious movement, a cultural movement, one that reorients the political towards a higher, more fundamental goal.

If we put all our chips on the political table we are bound to lose sooner or later - on their turf the politicos play the game of compromise, by necessity to a great extent but also out of cowardice. When we speak of a cultural form of conservatism we are not abandoning politics or the social issues, we are putting them back into the larger context where they belong: the norms and values, the human aspirations that shape our lives, our families, our institutions, our nation, and our care for the world.

© Deal W. Hudson, Ph.D

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Deal W. Hudson is president of the Morley Institute of Church and Culture, Senior Editor and Movie Critic at Catholic Online, and former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.This column and subsequent contributions are an excerpt from a forthcoming book. Dr. Hudson's new radio show, Church and Culture, is heard on the Ave Maria Radio Network.

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