The crisis of a second Obama administration

President Obama’s re-election and the prospect of a second Obama administration, freed from the constraints imposed by the necessity of running for re-election, have created a crisis for the Catholic Church in the United States. In the thought-world and vocabulary of the Bible, “crisis” has two meanings: the conventional sense (a grave threat) and a deeper sense (a great moment of opportunity).            Both are applicable to the Church in America these next four years.

The immediate threat, of course, is the HHS (Health and Human Services) mandate requiring Catholic institutions and Catholic employers to include coverage of contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortifacient drugs in the health insurance offered to their employees. The legal challenges mounted against this obvious violation of the first freedom, religious freedom, may well be vindicated. But with Obamacare now seemingly set in concrete, the Church will face a host of such implementing “mandates” and it will be imperative to contest those that are morally unacceptable, time and time again. Authentically Catholic health care in America is now in mortal danger, and it is going to take a concerted effort to save it for future generations.

A further threat comes from the gay insurgency, which will press the administration to find some way to federalize the marriage issue and to compel acceptance of the chimera of “gay marriage.” Thus it seems important to accelerate a serious debate within American Catholicism on whether the Church ought not pre-emptively withdraw from the civil marriage business, its clergy declining to act as agents of government in witnessing marriages for purposes of state law.

If the Church were to take this dramatic step now, it would be acting prophetically: it would be challenging the state (and the culture) by underscoring that what the state means by “marriage” and what Catholics mean by “marriage” are radically different, and that what the state means by “marriage” is wrong. If, however, the Church is forced to take this step after “gay marriage” is the law of the land, Catholics will be pilloried as bad losers who’ve picked up their marbles and fled the game—and any witness-value to the Church’s withdrawal from the civil marriage business will be lost. Many thoughtful young priests are discussing this dramatic option among themselves; it’s time for the rest of the Church to join the conversation.

Yet another threat to the integrity of the Church comes from the re-election of a vice president of the United States who has declared “transgender discrimination” to be “the civil rights issue of our time;” who has openly celebrated the abortion license; who has grossly misrepresented the Church’s teaching on the life issues; and who is, in myriad ways, an ecclesial embarrassment. So are Catholic members of the House and Senate who not only vote against truths known by moral reason, but then have the gall to justify their irresponsibility by a faux commitment to “pluralism” or, worse, by recourse to what they are pleased to call “social justice Catholicism.”

Thus pastors and bishops must continue to explain why the life issues are “social justice issues,” and indeed priority “social justice issues.” And some effective way must be found to make clear, publicly, that men and women like Vice President Joe Biden and Representative Nancy Pelosi are living an auto-defined Catholicism so incoherently that their communion with the Catholic Church is severely damaged. Absent such clarity, ill-catechized Catholic voters will continue to misunderstand both the nature of discipleship and the responsibilities of citizenship.

As for the opportunity embedded in this crisis, it is nothing less than to be the Church of the New Evangelization, full-throttle. Shallow, tribal, institutional-maintenance Catholicism is utterly incapable of meeting the challenges that will now come at the Catholic Church from the most aggressively secular administration in American history. Only a robustly, unapologetically evangelical Catholicism, winsomely proposing and nobly living the truths about the human condition the Church teaches, will see us through the next four years. Radically converted Christian disciples, not one-hour-a-week Catholics whipsawed by an ever more toxic culture, are what this hour of crisis, in both senses of the term, demands.

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.