PEOPLE HOLD THE Catholic Church to a higher standard than they do any secular organization—or indeed, any other church. Ex-Catholics feel free to trash the Pope, his bishops, and their beliefs. Progressive politicians bemoan as “medieval” any social mores they find frustrating. Men who used to date Catholic girls write memoirs and pop songs (think Billy Joel) bemoaning their blue-balls of long ago, endured for a Brigid or Mary who “wouldn’t go all the way” because she dreaded next Saturday’s Confession. The New York Times conducts a running campaign to browbeat the Church into changing her morals to suit the modern age—by which it means the 1960s. The usual media tactic is to find someone who rejects important teachings of the Church, then cite him as a “dissenting” or “disaffected” Catholic. (Imagine, just for fun, The Times interviewing ex-Jews or ex-Buddhists every couple of weeks, urging the leaders of their old faiths to embrace pork chops and warfare…) The spate of scandal stories afflicting the Church in America rarely mention one fact—that churchmen show no higher incidence of child-abuse than any other group of men with access to children.
But I’m not complaining. As a Catholic, I welcome this scrutiny. Some activists, such as the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights, call it “bigotry” when a state-funded artist smears the Madonna with elephant dung, and “hate-speech” when comedians mock the cherished beliefs of a billion people. The League condemned a funny wind-up toy named “Nunzilla,” which shoots sparks and wields a ruler, as if it were an ethnic slur. Such defenders of the Faith reach back into the 19th century for incidents of genuine anti-Catholicism—church-burnings, murders, incessant discrimination—and try to draw a connection with the present. But it just doesn’t wash. The attempts of the Catholic League to gain the clout and moral authority of the Anti-Defamation League—or even Al Sharpton—have utterly failed. Even pious Catholics mostly roll their eyes at this endeavor.
Why? In part because we are 35 percent of the population, and growing. It’s hard to imagine the police rounding up the clergy—as Elizabeth I liked to do—or imitating the Spanish Republic, which massacred convents full of nuns. American Catholics have assimilated to the culture—for better and worse. We’ve even carried the Church along with us; as Michael Davies points out, the American bishops, led by Cardinal Spellman, pressed Vatican II to embrace religious liberty, renouncing centuries of papal policy (not doctrine) to embrace a human right spelled out in the U.S. Constitution.
Of course that wasn’t enough for The New York Times—which thought it smelled blood, and still thinks it can force the Church to embrace birth control and abortion, by citing surveys of unhappy laymen. But the Vatican simply isn’t free to reverse itself on issue of faith and morals, where it’s bound by the authoritative, irreversible teachings of centuries; unlike the Supreme Court, the Church’s whole credibility is bound up with the claim that its core teachings are consistent, reliable and right. Popes don’t receive ongoing “revelations” from God that allow them to junk 20 centuries of precedent. If the Pope embraced birth control tomorrow, and showered condoms from the balcony onto the crowds in St. Peter’s Square, the popularity he won with American journalists would soon be drowned out by the noise of priests and bishops quitting, and the most dedicated laymen leaving the Church. Imagine a U.S. President suspending the Constitution and declaring the U.S. an Islamic caliphate, with the full approval of Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court. How much legitimacy would our government retain? Such an errant pope would have less. His action would have proved the Church false at her very heart, and the reigns of every pope before him a kind of fraud, their claims to consistent, divinely-protected credibility a scam. The Vatican would be exposed as a theological Enron.
The reason for this is simple, and it explains why The Times is not guilty of anti-Catholicism, why those who mock and condemn and blaspheme Catholicism do not deserve to be called bigots (although they may be fools and haters): Unlike an ethnic group or national creed, the Catholic Church makes universal claims—like those in The Communist Manifesto, and The Declaration of Independence. The Catholic Church doesn’t claim to be a nice place to worship for Italians, Irish, Mexicans, and Filipinos. It’s not a “welcoming praise and spirituality environment,” like the Unitarians of Fifth Avenue. It doesn’t even say it’s the proper faith for a particular people, as the Anglican Church does for Englishmen, and Judaism for Jews. (Charles Maurras tried to cut the Church down to size, making it a chapel for bigoted Frenchmen; he was kicked out for his pains.)
No, the Church makes a wilder, bolder claim. Without saying that other faiths are devoid of truth, she asserts that she is the “universal sacrament of salvation,” the current, anointed heir to Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. The one God, the only one. The God perceived more dimly in other faiths, whose moral laws are written in the heart of every honest man. Wait, it gets weirder: The Church claims that this incarnate God comes down each day, thousands of times, in a way impervious to the eye, into the flat bread and cheap wine poured out on marble altars and plywood tables across the world, by the mostly celibate, grossly imperfect men she anoints as priests. St. John Chrysostom once wrote that he trembled for the salvation of every priest—since their immense importance brought with it the gravest possible burdens. Another sainted priest, John Marie Vianney, wrote:
If I were to meet a priest and an angel, I should salute the priest before I saluted the angel. The latter is the friend of God; but the priest holds His place. St. Teresa kissed the ground where a priest had passed. When you see a priest, you should say, “There is he who made me a child of God, and opened Heaven to me by holy Baptism; he who purified me after I had sinned; who gives nourishment to my soul.”
It’s hardly fair to expect the whole world to accept this; it’s a miracle that over a billion souls now do. I do. But I cannot condemn someone for declining—or blame those who hold the Church to a sterner code than they held Bill Clinton. Priests who claim to wield this kind of power, who have chosen to take up the cross, should behave better than scoutmasters, therapists, cops and (even) New York City firemen. When they don’t, when they violate children or recruit teenagers into sodomy, it’s the worst kind of scandal. It’s a rape of the soul.
Catholics should not be angry, or defensive, or self-pitying, when their Church is held to the stern, noble standards that she herself has set—believing that they come from God. They should be both chastened and flattered. It’s a sign of the greatest respect.