In 1984, Richard John Neuhaus, then still a Lutheran pastor, published The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. The book was, as they say, an “immediate sensation,” in no small part because Neuhaus’s central claim—that religious voices were being forced out of political debate by the federal courts’ mistaken emphasis on the separation of Church and state—seemed somewhat less compelling after four years of Ronald Reagan and almost a decade of influence of the Religious Right on national politics.
Give credit where credit is due: In the midst of those halcyon days of the first term of the Reagan administration, Neuhaus saw the handwriting on the wall. Almost 30 years later, in the second term of the Obama administration, with abortion a settled issue at the federal level, private contraception coverage mandated by federal law, and nationwide homosexual “marriage” only one or two more Supreme Court decisions away, there can be little doubt that the “separationists” have won. The influence of Christian morality in the public square is near an all-time low—even as the voices raised in favor of traditional moral teaching increase in intensity.
And now we must assign blame where blame is due, because Neuhaus, both as a Lutheran pastor in 1984 and in his later career as a Catholic priest, failed to see, much less understand, that having a strong and insistent voice on moral issues in the public square was not, in itself, enough. But a man that he professed greatly to admire—Joseph Ratzinger, later known as Pope Benedict XVI—did. As he told a gathering of Swiss bishops in 2006, a year and a half after his election,
I remember, when I used go to Germany in the 1980s and ’90s, that I was asked to give interviews and I always knew the questions in advance. They concerned the ordination of women, contraception, abortion and other such constantly recurring problems.
If we let ourselves be drawn into these discussions, the Church is then identified with certain commandments or prohibitions; we give the impression that we are moralists with a few somewhat antiquated convictions, and not even a hint of the true greatness of the faith appears. I therefore consider it essential always to highlight the greatness of our faith—a commitment from which we must not allow such situations to divert us.
When Richard John Neuhaus decried the “naked public square,” he was speaking of political reasons that prevented Christians from bringing their moral insights to bear on matters political. The influence of religion is necessary because otherwise man has a tendency to structure his political life in ways that comport with his fallen nature, rather than with the moral law. And that, in the end, undermines society, rather than strengthens it.
There is a danger in all of this, however: namely, that the Christian Faith becomes instrumentalized, subordinated to the needs of politics. Christian moral teaching becomes a political tool, shorn from that which gives it life: the lived encounter with Jesus Christ.
Why? Because allowing Christian voices to bring the moral teachings of the Faith into the public square is not the same as proclaiming the Gospel of Christ in the public square. Neuhaus praised the religious pluralism of the United States, going so far as to argue that the mistaken emphasis on the separation of Church and state was an attack not only on Christian morality but on that pluralism we Americans hold so dear.
But as soon as we accept religious pluralism as a good unto itself, we tacitly accept an external restriction on the Christian Faith. The powers that be can allow us to bring the moral insights of our Faith to bear on political life, but they cannot allow us to insist on the centrality of the Gospel, of the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation.
And so we end up in the situation that Pope Benedict saw clearly as early as the 1980’s, when Pastor Neuhaus was being celebrated for his book: Christianity publicly reduced to “certain commandments or prohibitions,” sapped of its vital force, “the true greatness of the faith”—the encounter with the Risen Christ.
Yet those “commandments or prohibitions”—say, the Church’s teaching on abortion, contraception, and homosexual activity—ultimately have force only insofar as they remain animated by that encounter with Christ. Shorn from their moorings, they become not a moral necessity but just another political position—and one that is increasingly less persuasive in a world that is rejecting the Gospel at a rapid rate.
That is why Pope Benedict, when he discussed, say, abortion or homosexual activity, always started at the very beginning—with the encounter with Christ from which the Church’s moral teachings flow. It’s why he wrote his three-volume work Jesus of Nazareth, to bring that encounter to life not just for those who have not accepted the Gospel, but for all too many of us who are, on the face of it, faithful Catholics, but have reduced the substance of the Faith to a series of abstract moral principles—to, as I wrote today in an article for Crisis Magazine (“Pope Francis and His Critics“) “the Law that condemns rather than gives life.”
“I think,” Pope Benedict told the Swiss bishops,
that this is the great task we have before us: on the one hand, not to make Christianity seem merely morality, but rather a gift in which we are given the love that sustains us and provides us with the strength we need to be able to “lose our own life.”
In 2006, so far as I can tell, those words passed without a New York Times article suggesting that Pope Benedict had changed the Church’s moral teaching. Seven years later, Pope Francis wasn’t so lucky when he echoed Pope Benedict’s insight in his interview last week with the Italian Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica:
The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.
What has changed? It would be all too easy to say that the New York Times cynically exploited the public perception that Pope Francis is “soft” on the Church’s moral teaching—a public perception that the Times itself has done much to foster, beginning before the papal conclave, when it argued both in news stories and on its editorial page that any successor to Pope Benedict would have to embrace a changing moral universe if the Church were to remain “relevant.”
That is certainly part of it. Part, too, is the fact that Pope Francis’s speaking style is less precise than that of his predecessor. Where Benedict spoke methodically, Francis speaks enthusiastically, which makes it easier for the secular media and his critics in the Church to rip words and phrases from their obvious context.
But more than that is something that neither Pope Benedict nor Pope Francis has come out and said in so many words, but which (I would argue) is implied in what they have said: For all too many Catholics today, who by any “objective” measure—Mass attendance, willingness to self-identify as Catholics, support for the Church’s doctrines and moral teachings—are among the most faithful, opposition to abortion and homosexual “marriage” (and, less so, to contraception) has become a religion unto itself. Rather than being the “moral consequences” that flow from the encounter with the Risen Christ, these “commandments and prohibitions” have become for an increasing number of Catholics a substitute for the substance of the Faith.
A few years ago, at a pro-life dinner in the basement of a Catholic Church here in Rockford, a teenage girl received an award for her pro-life activities. In her brief remarks accepting the award, I was struck by one phrase, “When I converted to the pro-life cause . . . “
It is, of course, unfair to expect a teenage girl to see the implication of those words—that the pro-life movement is itself a religion—but it is disturbing nonetheless to consider that this girl was a cradle Catholic who, by her own admission, had not always accepted the Church’s moral teaching on abortion.
And I hear the answer now: “But that’s the point! Obviously, the Church isn’t speaking out loudly and clearly enough about abortion. No wonder that girl was so confused!”
Really? Does anyone really believe that the average Catholic in the pew does not know what the Church’s teaching on abortion is? Or that dedicating every homily at every Sunday Mass to abortion would somehow make that teaching any clearer?
Is it not more likely that the problem goes much deeper: that this girl and so many other Catholics of all ages see the Church’s teaching on abortion as simply one among many possible political positions, because they do not see how it flows from “the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel”? And that the reason they do not see how it flows from “the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel” is because our experience of the Gospel, and our encounter with Christ, has been attenuated, at best?
In other words, is it possible that the Church has succeeded in making it abundantly clear what the moral consequences of the encounter with the Risen Christ are, while failing miserably in leading the faithful to that encounter? And that, in doing so, the Church—especially in the United States—has unwittingly helped create a counter-religion, based on Her own moral teachings?
Might that not also explain why, outside of the question of abortion and homosexual activity, many self-identified faithful Catholics in the United States find it all too easy to dismiss or even reject other moral consequences of the encounter with Christ, such as the Church’s social teaching or just-war theory? And why those same Catholics are just as confused as the New York Times is when they encounter Catholics who adhere to the Church’s teaching on abortion and homosexual activity but also question the morality of predatory capitalism and oppose unjust wars?
That, to me, is a much better explanation of the problem we face than the claim that people are confused about what the Church really teaches on abortion, contraception, and homosexual activity. And that is precisely what both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict, seven years apart, have recognized and attempted to address.
There are no political solutions to cultural problems. But in the public square, all problems are political, so, by definition, all solutions must be, too. Let me be blunt: How’s that been working out for you?
The real solution must be public, but it must not be constrained by the artificial political limits of the public square. “We need,” as Pope Francis said in his interview last week, “to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound.”
Do that, and “the moral consequences then flow,” as they did when Christianity blossomed within the Roman Empire. Fail to do that, and with the way things are going, those who remain truly faithful may one day find themselves literally naked in the public square, facing their martyrdom.