By Msgr. Francis X. Meehan
What will the future hold? Our financial situation has made the question all too real. We are unsettled. What if more dominoes fall?
There are other questions about the future. One in particular reaches very deep; namely, the religious question. Here is one simple version of it: Will our Catholic faith find a welcome home in the future North American culture? Or will our culture turn hostile to Catholicism?
Sometimes it is just a simple word that gets one to thinking. A few weeks ago, I noticed the word of well-known New York Times columnist Frank Rich. He writes in favor of President Obama’s stem cell policy – a policy that stamps out the human life of the embryo. It was not so much Rich’s position on the issue that got to me. It was his language – one word in particular. He characterizes those against President Obama’s stem cell policy as “ayatollahs.”
Though the word in itself simply means a Shiite Muslim religious leader, the author is trying to use the word in a negative way – to convey a sense of dictatorial fundamentalism – and so cast an entire group of faith people, including the Catholic Church, into his twisted image. Thus do wordsmiths use words! Thus is an atmosphere of hostility prepared!
In these larger and broader issues of future and culture, our present Pope Benedict seems to have a special gift. The editor of America Magazine, Father Drew Christiansen, once wrote that the Pope has shown himself to be “a subtle critic” of our Western culture. Pope Benedict has traced the way of Europe’s secularization, all the while hoping and praying that North America does not follow.
What kind of Catholic needs to emerge if things do take a downward turn – if the cultural atmosphere becomes more openly hostile to Catholic values?
Already, one senses in the air a kind of spirit preparation, a new call to conversion. Young adults on campuses come together to act against the grain. High schoolers take on life-changing retreats. Seminarians, amid a historic scandal, plunge into a faith commitment of genuine self-offering. Religious men and women imaginatively engage new needs in every part of Catholic life. Priests and deacons form support groups and pray themselves into fresh visions. Lay people volunteer leadership gifts and adopt ancient and new prayer spiritualities. For the future, a merely conventional Catholicism will not do!
How far into the future will it be until the cultural elite’s hostility become more openly hostile and pervasive? All is hidden in God. Yet, even now, pro-life people are conveniently lumped together as “zealots.”
As for Catholic “justice and peace” groups, they seem to be more acceptable to some cultural elites but only at a certain level! I am reminded of how one historian (Paul Elie) characterized the elite’s acceptance of Dorothy Day – “admiringly, benignly and from afar.”
His phrase “from afar” is key. In peace and justice work, there does seem a certain acceptance accorded by certain media elites but only “from afar.” That is, provided such work is shorn of any “embarrassing” connection to institutional Church, to chastity or abstinence movements, to struggles against pornography, to witnesses for unborn life. Some major media would like to keep all these connections at a distance (“afar”).
What will be our future – as a Church, as a people? Only God knows. Now, for sure, there is a new call to conversion for each of us, – old, young and middle-aged. We are not a Church of ayatollahs but a community of love and faith, willing to give witness in the public square with hearts purified and minds illumined.
Msgr. Meehan is a former teacher and pastor who now helps in spiritual direction for students at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.