Cardinal Wuerl reflects on 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.