The National Catholic Review
Feb 24 2016 - 9:21am | Donald W. Wuerl
The place of Catholic values in a changing society

“Why is the Catholic Church so out of step with modern society?” This is a question raised with some frequency in the United States today. On the other hand, many Catholics are left asking, “Why is there so much animosity toward the church in the media? Why is the church having to defend her religious freedom in court?” 

To even begin to respond we must recognize as a starting point the fact that we live in a culture in which there are two very distinct worldviews that diverge on fundamental points. For a Christian the starting point is the Gospel. Those who strive to be followers of Jesus and members of his kingdom will see things differently than many whose vision of life is determined by a purely secular outlook and experience.

Faith in God’s word—and an identity rooted in that word—lead Catholics to a distinct appraisal of the meaning, value and orientation of life and how they should live. And they will necessarily look at issues like human sexuality, human dignity and marriage in a very different way than people who do not share the same faith and reading of creation and human nature. On the other hand, there is a vision in the United States today that is defined by radical individualism and autonomy, an outlook that finds its validation in popular approval. 

Because of this great divide in the way reality is viewed, we should not be surprised that Catholic teaching excludes the taking of innocent human life while another view says that in certain circumstances it is perfectly acceptable. Catholics insist that creation and human life are gifts from God and that we are stewards of both the planet and our life. Another vision says we can take unborn life in the womb, we can assist other people in taking their life and we can begin to prioritize who should live and who, because of their physical or mental condition, are too great a burden to support. These positions are usually advanced under the banner of individual “choice.”

Clash of Visions

We should not be surprised by some of the consequences of this alternative cultural vision. One unintended consequence is the violence we see today among young people who have been taught from their earliest age that it is permissible to take innocent life as long as you do it within certain limits. They are told that you can kill as long as the human is under nine months of age. Where does this logic lead? Some years ago I heard a youngster, arrested for a violent crime, ask, “How come you [referring to the political authorities] get to draw the line?” He was pointing to the recognized civil right to kill the unborn.

Nor should we be surprised at the promiscuity and reported increase in sexual abuse in a culture that glorifies individual sexual freedom. There are those who urge young women and men on college campuses to share the same dorms and even the same rooms—and then claim to be surprised by the results.

In the public square, these two worldviews are bound to clash. But now we are being told that anyone who dissents from the prevailing secular understanding of human life, its meaning and worth, and of human sexuality and activity is reductively a “bigot” who engages in “discrimination.”

This language is the new weapon used to force a single worldview on all of society. If a follower of Christ understands marriage to be the lifelong union of one man and one woman, that sexual activity should be reserved for marriage and human life in the womb has every right to live, the charge leveled by many in the secular world is that they are bigoted or anti-women. This accusation is further propagated and amplified by some in the media (both journalists and those with editorial responsibilities), the entertainment industry, politicians and opinion makers.

When the word “discrimination” is casually applied to Catholics, or to Catholic schools, parishes and charities, simply because they follow their beliefs, it is essential to remember that Catholics have as much right to their identity, faith and institutions as do others. The new “discrimination” is a form of intolerance directed towards those who disagree with the mainstream culture has defined as the politically correct rules for life and morality.

Blurring Identity and Action

The ease with which some brush aside the distinction between who a person is and what he or she does feeds into the intolerance toward the Catholic Church and Catholic teaching. This blurring or conflating of personal identity and specific activity is most notably evident when it involves people of same-sex attraction and homosexual activity. In almost all other cases, the difference between identity and activity is well understood and respected. Most people would affirm that persons are not to be judged on the basis of their ethnic or national heritage—but also that the behavior of individuals, whatever their background, is not above criticism. Yet when it comes to L.G.B.T. issues, we regularly read, see and hear not that the church is opposed to sexual acts outside of marriage but that she discriminates against people of same-sex attraction.

By contrast, most people know that the church is opposed to divorce because Jesus opposed it. We do not see or hear in the media that because the Catholic Church is opposed to divorce, she therefore teaches intolerance against all people who are divorced. It is common knowledge as well that the Catholic Church teaches sexual activity is reserved for marriage. But we do not hear charges that the Catholic Church discriminates against all heterosexual men and women because she denounces promiscuity.

The church upholds and teaches the Sixth Commandment that forbids adultery. But that does not mean that by such teaching, the church or individual Catholics discriminate against those who do not honor their marriage vows. Such people can be respected as individuals and still be told what they are doing is wrong. It is not unjust discrimination to say so, any more than it is to say that adultery violates God’s law.

And yet so often when the church speaks of the true purpose and place of sexual activity and the issue involves gay and lesbian people, the charge of discrimination is raised. So much of our secular culture today seems to have a difficult time distinguishing between a person and his or her actions in this area. This essential distinction is reflected in the words of Pope Francis: 

Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.

The new and alarming element in today’s clash of cultures is first the blurring of the distinction between our identity and our actions, and then the demand that Catholic teaching fall in line with the new politically correct standard. But the church does not change her received and revealed teaching just because it is culturally unpopular. It is important to affirm that other groups no matter how much popular support and media attention they receive, have no right to force their values, morality or lifestyle on others simply by leveling the charge of “discrimination.”

We live in a culture with at least two major different worldviews. Thankfully, in a country as large and diverse as ours, we can make room for many beliefs and values, if we only learn to tolerate true diversity. 

Cardinal Donald Wuerl is the archbishop of Washington, D.C.

Show Comments (8)

Comments (hide)

Lawrence Phelps | 2/29/2016 - 5:52pm

I agree with much of what the Cardinal states. I do have these thoughts to add. The early Christians were definitely not approved of by the Roman Empire since Christ's teaching exposed their sinfulness. The result was persecution and martyrdom. Catholics are getting a modern taste of that from the secular world and also by martyrdom of Christians overseas.

I am confused by the Cardinal's statement in reference to diversity and the acceptance of many beliefs and values. The Church did not take such a stance in ancient Rome when the beliefs were against the Commandments. Hence many of the early Popes were martyred also.

As an aside, I feel that the Church is under attack not just externally but also internally. My dealings with a number of Catholic clergy have startled me when some integrate New Age philosophies and secular thought. One stated at a Lenten retreat in a local parish that Jesus is a male body with a female soul and also that as mature Catholics we no longer should believe in mortal sin but just need to compare our actions against our inner God. To me that is an internal attack in the Church.

Mother Teresa spoke out strongly on the value of life without concern about what her detractors would think. She walked the walk. We need clergy who speak out strongly without mincing words.

Ed Dailey | 2/25/2016 - 8:28pm

I have read this commentary by Cardinal Wuerl three times, wanting to agree with him because I have such regard for the Cardinal. And indeed, he is on the mark when he states,"Faith in God’s word—and an identity rooted in that word—lead Catholics to a distinct appraisal of the meaning, value and orientation of life and how they should live." But then Cardinal Wuerl misses the mark widely, claiming that secularists charge Catholics with discrimination for our values and demand that we fall in line with their "politically correct standard".

Unfortunately, Cardinal Wuerl fails to consider at least two significant facts: 1) Too often, the moral dogma he attributes to "Catholics" are the dogma defined by insulated and isolated and privileged bishops and vicars and provincials who simply do not listen and do not understand the values and wisdom of all of the people of God who are the Church. 2) The fundamental message of God's unconditional love and promise of life are lost on the secular world when the bishops approach the larger society as judgmental moralists who seek only their own counsel, pursue foolish crusades such as seeking to ban Girl Scouts (see the Archdiocese of St Louis), and fail after more than a generation to expunge the abuse sin.

If the institutional Church will listen beyond the institutional walls, if the institutional Church will "tolerate true diversity", and if the institutional Church will embrace mercy as Francis defines mercy for all people, perhaps the gulf will be narrowed with the secular world....

William Rydberg | 2/25/2016 - 10:28pm

Dailey - FYI-I assume that you are not a coreligionist. However, for your information, in the Catholic context, the "Ordinary" is the Chief Moralist within the Diocese. The Cardinal as Bishop of his Diocese (in his case Archdiocese) is viewed as a direct Successor of the Apostles, and is in fact that particular Church's Chief Moralist. Such is the Catholic teaching.

Not being a coreligionist, you might see the Secular equivalent (in my opinion) invoked every time a majority opinion (as a body) is enacted by the United States Supreme Court. I concede there is more to it, but everyone will agree that if the Supremes are on your side, one has the equivalent of a kind of secular moral high ground in the secular life... Point is, saying that the Ordinary in the Catholic context is the Diocese Chief Moralist should not lift you out of your proverbial chair while reading this point...

Just my opinion...

Sandi Sinor | 3/2/2016 - 12:42pm

Why do you assume Mr. Dailey is not Catholic? Do you know him personally? You repeat this comment all the time, often to Catholics. You disagree with them, so you start off with your snide little "assumption".

We must follow God, not bishops, in spite of them proclaiming themselves the successors to the apostles.

Sometimes I wonder if you ever actually read the articles and comments, or just like using this website as a place to write whatever random thoughts come into your head.

William Rydberg | 2/25/2016 - 1:06pm

There is only one world. Good points if yours and the author's point of view ends at the grave, mine doesn't. Why do Clerics nowadays write as though the Church, Militant, Suffering, and Triumphant were not a reality based upon our Faith in Jesus-God come in the flesh? We all know that that Freud's psychoanalysis teaches that should one live their life with the expectation of future reward (i.e. the next life), that one is considered clinically "psychotic". We too also know that psychoanalysis is treated as a secular Religion still by many. So what?. Nowadays, the culture of "pop psychology" accepts that it's likely there is "something else". Why not "go for it"? No matter the point of view of people of Religion or no Religion, there exists in the human culture a sense of "something else to come". Yet our Clerics seem to kowtow to the prospect of "oblivion". In spite of the fact that even Scientific Method" cannot begin to understand because spirit is not something that can be measured with a test tube or a ruler...

In my opinion, a Cleric as prominent as the Author should talk as though he really believes there is a next life, that this life is a preparation for the next.

Doesn't the Author remember the reason why we are all here? St John Chrysostom was able to make the point in a similar position to what the Cardinal occupies today, many years ago. I suggest the Author re-read St John Chrysostom. AND GET BUSY SPREADING THE GOOD NEWS OF THE TRINITY!!!

Be more like Pope Francis - move away from an implicit approach to the explicit, launch in to the deep!

in Christ,

Sandi Sinor | 3/2/2016 - 12:45pm

If the only reason people live good and moral lives is because they expect a reward in "heaven", one must wonder what kind of faith they have.

John Chrysostom said some good things. He also preached hate. Have you read his Eight Homilies Against the Jews?

Blindly following men, no matter what kind of hat they wear, or what color the trim on their robes, is a pretty dicey course.

Michael Malak | 2/25/2016 - 3:12am

The normally cogent Washington, D.C., Cardinal Donald Wuerl, took a step backward when he raised the specter of a voracious, cultural apparatchik seeking to obliterate the faith of U.S. Catholics through intimidation, fear, and force of persuasion. Oh ye of little faith!

Four of nine U.S. Supreme Court Justices, down from five with Anton Scalia's passing, are Catholic. Before the winnowing, there were more Catholic Republican candidates for the Presidency, including Jeb Bush, than any other religion. Until recently, John Boehner, a Catholic, was the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. The Pope spoke to a Joint Session of Congress on Capitol Hill where he praised Dorothy Day. In Philadelphia, the Holy Father spoke at a lectern used by Abraham Lincoln. Francis is, frequently and authoritatively, cited on matters of public faith and U.S. moral decision-making. The Church is not cowering in this country. If anything, it's moral power is overwhelming to many of its detractors.

The RSHM principal of my parochial grade school voted for Nixon, in 1960, because she was afraid that if Kennedy won and did a bad job the Church would be blamed. We've grown up since then. There is no reason for the Church to be afraid of its own shadow, anymore.

Cordoning off Catholicism into the haves, and whatnots, is xenophobic and makes light of the command to go forth and make disciples. Wuerl, sadly, missed the opportunity to reiterate that call and, instead, got bogged down in the faintly worded, typical, musings on personally responsible sexuality, the evils of popular culture and, least we forget, individuality, thought the latter, actually, seems like a solid Gospel virtue.

In contrast, we urge all to re-read Bishop Stephen Blaire's recent column on what he took away from the Pope’s address to the Mexican Bishops. It was deep, prayerful, filled with humility, and was, infinitely, more practical.

William Rydberg | 2/25/2016 - 11:35am

See above

Recently by Donald W. Wuerl

Cardinal Wuerl Homily at Red Mass (October 5, 2014)
A Pastoral Invitation (October 8, 2013)
Francis in ‘America’ (September 24, 2013)
The Noble Enterprise (January 23, 2013)
Pass It On (February 28, 2011)