Good Catholics, good citizens

The Catholic love affair with the United States of America is heading into rough and uncharted waters – and not only in this 2016 election cycle, but for the foreseeable future.

U.S. Catholics have, in a sense, been there and done that, given that the history of the Church in this country includes fending off anti-Catholic bigots like the 18th-century Know Nothing Party (about which 99% of Catholics today know  nothing) and the late-19th century American Protective Association (another puzzler, these days, in Catholic Jeopardy). But there’s something different about today’s turbulence. Identifying that difference, understanding it, and knowing how to respond to it are all imperative if we’re to navigate these troubled waters in such a way as to advance the New Evangelization and give our country a new birth of freedom, rightly understood.

The difference today is that the assault on the Church by militant secularism and its allies in the federal government is a struggle over first principles. That wasn’t so much the case in the past. The Know Nothings and the American Protective Association claimed to honor the Constitution; so did U.S. Catholics. The Know Nothings and the APA said we were lying, because we owed our first allegiance to a foreign potentate (they meant the pope, not the Lord Jesus Christ); we proved that Catholicism and American patriotism weren’t antinomies. Still, everyone in these battles affirmed the first principles inscribed in the Constitution and the self-evident moral truths, articulated in the Declaration of Independence, that the Constitution was crafted to embody. Today, it is precisely those truths and those principles that are being sharply contested.

That’s the unprecedented situation, perilous and yet full of possibility, that a new book by my colleague Stephen White, Red, White, Blue, and Catholic (Liguori), intends to clarify and address. In this brief but incisive look at the issues of the day – and of the likely future – Steve White makes several important points:

(1) Our politics is often reduced to a tug of war between crude caricatures: the party of government and the party of the individual. When this happens, a humane accounting of the realities of social life becomes impossible and the fundamental purpose of politics—living well, together—gets overlooked. Most of our lives happen in the variegated social spaces between the individual and the government. We call this “civil society.” It is there—in the family, the parish, the school, the business, the local community, and so on—that the vast majority of our lives happen. It’s in these spaces, and not just in the voting booth, that most of the work of citizenship happens.

(2) The family, the cradle of new life and the font of civil society, is in jeopardy in unprecedented ways, as our society increasingly disregards basic facts of human existence and tried to alter them by technologically empowered acts of willfulness. Each of us comes from a mother and father. Each of us begins life in a state of utter dependence. Each of us needs to be educated, formed, and civilized. The defense of human life is intimately bound to the defense of marriage and family. These are not the only social issues of concern to Catholics, but they are priorities in the literal sense of the word. Without the begetting and rearing of new generations, and the defense of human life, there simply is no society, let alone a stable, flourishing, and free society. “As the family goes,” said Pope John Paul II, “so goes the nation.” Pope Francis would certainly agree.

(3) Given the current state of affairs in these United States, it is important to remember that religious freedom is not something bestowed on individuals by a tolerant, benevolent state. No, the religious freedom of individuals and the liberty of the Church are necessary preconditions for a flourishing society. Religion is emphatically a public good, and one indispensable to limited government, as the Founders were constantly pointing out. The Church ought to be free to be herself for her sake, for the sake of the faithful, and for the sake of the common good.

Do read Red, White, Blue, and Catholic. Then get copies for your Catholic neighbors.

COMING UP: The most important day of your life

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During talks around the country in recent years, I’ve been asking Catholic audiences how many of those present know the date of their baptism. The high-end response is a little under 10%. The average is about 2-3%. This, brethren, is a problem.

You know your birthday. You know (or you’d better know, gentlemen) your wedding anniversary. You know your children’s birthdays. So why don’t you know the date when you became a friend and companion of the Lord Jesus Christ – the most important day of your life?

I started thinking about this some thirty years ago, when I began working with evangelical Protestants on religious freedom and pro-life issues. (“Religious freedom” in that innocent age meant prying “dissident” Christians and Jews out of the clutches of the KGB, not trying to keep the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from bullying the Little Sisters of the Poor.) And I discovered that these folks had an interesting way of introducing themselves at meetings.

Throw a dozen Americans, unknown to each other, together, and the normal way of letting people know who you are is by saying what you do: “I’m Jane Smith and I’m a pediatrician.” Or “I’m John Jones and I work for Microsoft.” That’s not how my new acquaintances identified themselves, however. They’d say, “I’m Jane Smith and I was born again on” such-and-such a date, usually a few years back, when Jane would obviously have been an adult. “I’m John Jones and I was born again on….” And so forth and so on.

When the introductions came around to me, I would say, “I’m George Weigel and I was born again on April 29, 1951 – at which point I was precisely twelve days old.” It was a shock to some, but it did get a few interesting conversations about sacramental theology going.

Then, when I was working on the first volume of my John Paul II biography, Witness to Hope, I had to describe the Pope’s visit to his home town, Wadowice, during his first papal pilgrimage to Poland in June 1979. He of course went to the church he had known as a boy; but what did he do when he got there? He went straight to the baptismal font, knelt, and kissed it. Why? Because St. John Paul knew that the most important day of his life was the day of his baptism: not the day he was ordained a priest, or consecrated a bishop, or elected pope. The day of his baptism was, literally, the font from which everything else in his life flowed.

And that’s not just true of saints. It ought to be true of each of us. Because on the day we were baptized – as infants or teenagers or adults – we became friends of the Lord Jesus Christ and we received a missionary commission: we were commissioned to “Go…and make disciples of all nations…teaching them all that I have commanded you.” That instruction in Matthew 28.19-20 was not just addressed to a ragtag band of eleven men from the cultural and political fringes of the Roman Empire. It was addressed to you, and to me, and to everyone else in the Church, on the day of our baptism.

So after my little quiz, I suggest to my audiences that they go home that night, dig out the file where they keep the “Catholic paper,” look up the date of their baptism, memorize it – and then celebrate it every year. Having done this for years, I now find out that there are special graces to be obtained from partying on the date of your baptism: a plenary indulgence may be obtained on the anniversary of baptism by renewing your baptismal promises “according to the approved formula.” Which every Catholic ought to know from the Easter Vigil or Easter Sunday Mass, when we renew our baptismal promises as a community.

Owning your baptism is the precondition to being a member of that “Church permanently in mission” which Pope Francis calls us to be. So own it, celebrate it – and then put that renewal of grace to use in inviting others to become friends of the Lord Jesus Christ.