Advice for Europe—and for us

At an international symposium in honor of the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, held in Paris on Feb. 11, I offered closing remarks on what the Church might do to combat aggressive secularism in Europe. As the same prescriptions apply in the United States, let me share them with an American audience:

1) Intolerance in the name of “tolerance” must be named for what it is and publicly condemned. To deny religiously-informed moral argument a place in the public square is intolerant and anti-democratic. To identify the truths of biblical morality with bigotry and intolerance is a distortion of moral truth and an intolerant, uncivil act, which must be named as such. To imagine that any state…has the authority to redefine marriage, a human institution that [is prior to] the state ontologically as well as historically, is to open the door to what John Paul II called … “thinly disguised totalitarianism” – and this, too, must be said, publicly. This will require (western) Christians … to overcome what (sometimes) seems to be a deeply-engrained and internalized sense of marginalization within contemporary society.

2) We must speak openly … about the empirically demonstrable and deplorable effects of the sexual revolution on individuals and society, while calling our contemporaries to a new appreciation of the dignity and nobility of human love. In John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, believers and unbelievers alike have a more compelling account of our human embodiedness as male and female, and the reciprocity and fruitfulness “built into” that embodiedness and differentiation, than theories of human sexuality that reduce sexual differentiation to a question of plumbing and human love to another sport. … Young people, deeply wounded by a culture of promiscuity that tells them simultaneously that they must be sexually active and that sex could kill them, are yearning for the truth about love, as the remarkable impact of the Theology of the Body on … university campuses and in marriage-preparation programs demonstrates. This weapon in the conversion of culture (must) be fully … deployed: and if that requires making the public claim that the Catholic Church understands human sexuality better than the prophets of sexual liberation, then so be it.

3) The reduction of Christian history to the Crusades, the European wars of religion, Galileo’s trial, and the Inquisition must be publicly challenged, for these “black legends” … put obstacles in the way of the conversion of culture. … Contemporary scholarship has deepened our understanding of the Crusades as a legitimate, if often mismanaged and brutal, response to Islamic aggression, even as it has demonstrated that such horrors as the Thirty Years War were far more about politics than about the fine points of the theology of justification. As for the Inquisition, the Church has repented, publicly, of this and other unsavory alliances with state power; when will the (western) Left apologize for communism, which killed more men and women in a slow week than the Inquisition did in centuries? As for science, absent Christianity and its convictions about a world imprinted with the divine reason … it almost certainly would not have developed as it did in Europe (or anywhere else). I raise these matters of historical record, not to score debating points, but to suggest that part of the challenge we face today is to recognize … that the West is suffering from a false story about itself, and about the relationship of biblical religion to its formation and its history.

4) The Catholic Church, while enriching its interior life through a deepened encounter with the sources of its faith in the Bible, the Fathers, and the sacraments (ressourcement), and while developing ever more winsome ways to make the Church’s proposal to a post-Christian Europe (aggiornamento), must also join forces with men and women of conscience who may not be believers, in order to challenge publicly the (encroaching) dictatorship of relativism of which Cardinal Ratzinger warned (in April 2005). The Church’s engagement with … culture and politics, in other words, must be less diffident, less defensive, and more assertive – not in the sense of aggression, but of truth-telling “in and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2).

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.