Christianity on trial.

AuthorAnderson, Carl

    We will always need good, ethical Catholic lawyers. This is especially the case now, since, as I am sure you all have noticed, Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular often find themselves on trial in the United States.

    Let me give you an example that struck close to home. In Connecticut, just eight months ago, several legislators essentially found the Church guilty, and proceeded directly to sentencing. They introduced a bill to strip priests and bishops of their administrative roles in parishes and dioceses, and turn those responsibilities over to lay trustees. (1)

    New York had tried this once before, and had even succeeded in the 1850s--under the Know-Nothing party--whose name adequately describes their knowledge of constitutional law.

    In Connecticut, Catholics from throughout the state rallied to their Church. Embarrassed by the public outcry, the legislators withdrew the bill.

    It was really the only legal outcome imaginable. Even a first-year law student can see that if the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses mean anything they prevent government from stepping in to re-organize church structures in order to restrict the authority of clergy with whom they disagree.

    After all, the First Amendment isn't that hard to find, even in Connecticut, "the Constitution State."


    But why would such a bill even be proposed today? Why would a church face such a trial? I would suggest that it is because there is a growing influence within certain social elites that views Christianity not as a positive force for good, but as a social pathology--something akin to drug dealing.

    This suspicion about Christianity goes back more than a century, at least to the time of Karl Marx, who called religion "the opium of the people." (2) Marx then made what he thought was the only reasonable response---remove religion and its influence from society. (3)

    Marx wasn't the only one.

    Another was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche famously declared that God was dead, and described Christianity as a slave religion that "crushed and shattered man completely." (4) One might describe the effects of heavy drug use in the same way.

    Another was Sigrnund Freud. Freud frequently called religion an illusion, even a "universal obsessional neurosis," attributing to religion something akin to addictive and hallucinogenic properties. (5)

    No wonder the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur called these three icons of modern secular thought the "three masters of suspicion," because they were able to place the entire Judeo-Christian patrimony of Western Civilization on trial. (6) But it is a trial which we might recognize from Alice in Wonderland since in this case Christianity is guilty until proven innocent. (7)

    And while these three "masters" are no longer with us, their methodology remains and continues its influence in such best-selling books as The God Delusion (8) which have done much to foster what we might describe today as an emerging Culture of Suspicion.

    This culture has had a devastating impact on the formation of the religious conscience and, in particular, the Catholic conscience. In fact, we might well ask whether the suppression of religious conscience is becoming the norm--in family, law, business, medicine, social services, immigration, and art.

    This is the root cause of the rise of secularism and relativism, as well as for phenomena like the de-Christianization of Europe. Because if religion generally is viewed with suspicion, then conscience--which enables us to adhere to our religious belief--is viewed with suspicion as well.

    And in the long history of Western Civilization the two pillars upon which conscience has been supported are traditional Judeo-Christian values and the natural law--which as we know is that universal law inscribed in the heart of man.

    A Culture of Suspicion sees in these two pillars the consistency that makes possible a moral compass that is constant and enduring. And it is this moral compass which is the primary obstacle to a political and cultural agenda which seeks to eliminate God wherever possible.


    But as we are well aware the influence of secularism is not an influence completely separate or outside of the Christian community. Indeed, not all Christians have seen secularization as a bad thing.

    In 1964, a Baptist minister and professor at Harvard Divinity School named Harvey Cox wrote his own blueprint for Christians in a secular world. He entitled his book, amicably enough, The Secular City. (9) To Professor Cox, secularization was something positive, an emancipation liberating man "from religious and metaphysical tutelage," even as part of a divine plan which Christians must embrace. (10) He even encouraged that we begin to speak of God in secular terms.

    This is essentially what Pope Benedict warned against when he came to the United States last year. (11) He spoke of a distinctly American brand of secularism. (12) Obviously, this is a complex subject. But essentially, as a cultural force, secularism in America allows room for faith, but restricts it in ordinary life and especially in public life to a faith that passively accepts truth as remote, without practical relevance, with the result that those who believe in God are nonetheless expected to live in society "as if God did not exist." (13)

    But American secularism didn't come out of nowhere. We might say that American secularism emerged from the gradual but persistent secular "evangelization" of the Christian conscience---a process that has blunted the distinctiveness of Christian life, turning it into something amorphous and in too many ways indistinguishable from other lifestyles.


    We saw this influence in Connecticut's lay trusteeism bill.

    Its ever-so-careful wording protected clergy solely regarding religious tenets and practices, allowing them only advisory roles in other areas, including such basic tasks as "[d]eveloping outreach programs and other services to be provided to the community.... " (14)

    In other words, it sought to force clergy out of the public square and into a ghetto. Priests would be permitted to speak from the pulpit, but they could no longer oversee a soup kitchen. It meant faith, but not works.

    So how then does a faithful Catholic confront the challenges of secularism? Or in the words of Cardinal Ratzinger, "How can Christianity become a positive force in politics without being exploited politically and, conversely, without usurping the political sphere?" (15)

    I would suggest that Catholics can do this by continuing what the French philosopher Jacques Maritain called one of the great accomplishments of Christianity in modern society--namely, by continuing the Christian evangelization of the secular conscience. (16)

    But in order to do that, we must first recognize the need to re-evangelize the Christian conscience. The way we do this is first and foremost by witness--in other words, by showing precisely how a distinctly Christian life is actually lived.

    Rather than becoming little secularists, living lives indistinguishable...

To continue reading

Request your trial