It’s a culture war, stupid

George Weigel

Those who persist in denying that the Church is engaged in a culture war, the combatants in which are aptly called the “culture of life” and the “culture of death,” might ponder this June blog post by my summer pastor in rural Québec, Father Tim Moyle:

Tonight I am preparing to celebrate a funeral for someone (let’s call him “H” to protect his privacy) who, while suffering from cancer, was admitted to hospital with an unrelated problem, a bladder infection. H’s family had him admitted to the hospital earlier in the week under the assumption that the doctors there would treat the infection and then he would be able to return home. To their shock and horror, they discovered that the attending physician had indeed made the decision NOT to treat the infection. When they demanded that he change his course of (in)action, he refused, stating that it would be better if H died of this infection now rather than let cancer take its course and kill him later. Despite their demands and pleadings, the doctor would not budge from his decision. In fact he deliberately hastened H’s end by ordering large amounts of morphine “to control pain” which resulted in him losing consciousness as his lungs filled up with fluid. In less than 24 hours, H was dead.

Let me tell you a bit about H. He was 63 years old. He leaves behind a wife and two daughters who are both currently working in universities toward their undergraduate degrees. We are not talking here about someone who was advanced in years and rapidly failing due to the exigencies of old age. We are talking about a man who was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. We are talking about a man who still held on to hope that perhaps he might defy the odds long enough to see his daughters graduate. Evidently and tragically, in the eyes of the physician tasked with providing the care needed to beat back the infection, that hope was not worth pursuing.

Again, let me make this point abundantly clear: It was the express desire of both the patient and his spouse that the doctor treat the infection. This wish was ignored….

Canada’s vulnerability to the culture of death is exacerbated by Canada’s single-payer, i.e., state-funded and state-run, health care system. And the brutal fact is that it‘s more “cost effective” to euthanize patients than to treat secondary conditions that could turn lethal (like H’s infection) or to provide palliative end-of-life care. Last year, when I asked a leading Canadian Catholic opponent of euthanasia why a rich country like the “True North strong and free” couldn’t provide palliative end-of-life care for all those with terminal illnesses, relieving the fear of agonized and protracted dying that’s one incentive for euthanasia, he told me that only 30% of Canadians had access to such care. When I asked why the heck that was the case, he replied that, despite assurances from governments both conservative and liberal that they’d address this shameful situation, the financial calculus always won out – from a utilitarian point of view, euthanizing H and others like him was the sounder public policy.

But in Canada, a mature democracy, that utilitarian calculus among government bean-counters wouldn’t survive for long if a similar, cold calculus was not at work in the souls of too many citizens. And that is one reason why the Church must engage the culture war, not only in Canada but in the United States and throughout the West: to warm chilled souls and rebuild a civil society committed to human dignity.

Then there is the civic reason. To reduce a human being to an object whose value is measured by “utility” is to destroy one of the building blocks of the democratic order – the moral truth that the American Declaration of Independence calls the “inalienable” right to “life.” That right is “inalienable” – which means built-in, which means not a gift of the state – because it reflects something even more fundamental: the dignity of the human person.

When we lose sight of that, we are lost as a human community, and democracy is lost. So the culture war must be fought. And a Church that takes social justice seriously must fight it.

COMING UP: Motown and the turbocharged Church

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Detroit hasn’t gotten a lot of good press in recent decades as it’s struggled to cope with the myriad problems of rustbelt American cities in the age of globalization. But the Church in Detroit is not playing defense. Under the leadership of Archbishop Allen Vigneron, it’s going on offense, challenging itself to become a diocese of missionary disciples.

The plan is laid out in Archbishop Vigneron’s recent pastoral letter, “Unleash the Power of the Gospel,” issued from the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament on the Vigil of Pentecost (http://www.unleashthegospel.org/). The letter synthesizes the conclusions and convictions of a remarkable process that began three years ago. Thus, in March 2014, the archbishop announced a year of prayer for a “new Pentecost,” a new outpouring of the Spirit. In 2015-16, missions were held throughout the archdiocese in order to give its people a new experience of the Lord Jesus – which is always the beginning of radical, missionary discipleship. In 2016, parishes were challenged to re-imagine themselves as launch-pads for mission, with parishioners coming together to discuss openly and candidly the future of the archdiocese under dramatically changed circumstances. In 2016, the archdiocese also held a Mass for Pardon in which the bishops, priests, and people of Detroit publicly repented the sins that had impeded the proclamation and reception of the Gospel, asking the Lord’s forgiveness so as to walk into the future with clean hearts and renewed courage.

Finally, in November 2016, clergy, religious, and laity from across the archdiocese met in synod to pray together and discuss together how to become, in a phrase that recurs throughout Archbishop Vigneron’s pastoral, “a joyful band of missionary disciples.” This was not the kind of diocesan synod often seen in the United States: an administrative exercise, internally focused on the Church-as-institution. Detroit’s synod had a different goal: in Archbishop Vigneron’s words, “nothing less than a radical overhaul of the Church in Detroit, a complete reversal of our focus from an inward, maintenance-focused church to an outward, mission-focused church.”

Archbishop Vigneron and the priests and people of the Archdiocese of Detroit have faced the facts: Catholicism-by-osmosis – Catholicism passed along by the old ethno-cultural transmission belt – is over in America. In forty years, perhaps in twenty, no thirty-something Catholic in the United States is going to answer the question, “Why are you a Catholic?” with the answer, “Because my great-great-grandmother came from County Cork” (or Palermo, or Munich, or Cracow, or Guadalajara). The cultural air of the early twenty-first century is too toxic to be a carrier of the faith. The faith has to be proposed, and future generations must meet and embrace the Lord Jesus, if Catholicism in America is to flourish, being salt and light in the world and offering healing to a deeply wounded and fractured society.

As I’ve watched the Detroit process over the past several years, I’ve been struck by its parallels to the Synod of Cracow, called by Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II, to help his archdiocese receive the Second Vatican Council and implement its reforms. Like Cracow, the Detroit process began with an extended period of intensified prayer. Like Cracow, the Detroit process was aimed, not at more efficient administration, but at more effective evangelization. Like Cracow, the Detroit process had extensive lay involvement. Like Cracow, the Detroit process faced squarely the challenges of preaching the Gospel and witnessing to it in a hostile cultural environment. (And like Cracow, the Detroit synod process was led by a philosopher-bishop whose thinking and leadership are nourished and informed by prayer, the Bible, and the sacraments.)

The extraordinary contention that has followed Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on marriage, Amoris Laetitia, has created a lot of problems; perhaps most gravely, that contentiousness has impeded what the Pope still insists is his grand strategy, laid out in Evangelii Gaudium: the transformation of Catholicism into a communion of missionary disciples. That is precisely the challenge that the Detroit synod process accepted. The follow-through plans – along with their biblical and doctrinal rationale – are laid out in detail in Archbishop Vigneron’s extraordinary pastoral letter.

Motown may no longer be the epicenter of the global automobile industry. The Archdiocese of Detroit, however, is well on the way to becoming a shining model of how to gather and organize a local Church for the New Evangelization.

Featured image by Circa24 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24680140