Letting the King be king

Sunday’s Solemnity of Christ the King comes between the memorials of two of my favorite Jesuit martyrs, Bl. Miguel Pro (Nov. 23) and St. Edmund Campion (Dec. 1).  These priests were killed in the religious persecution of twentieth century Mexico and sixteenth century England respectively.  The proximity of these feast days reminds me of the issue that has lately been atop the list of the American bishops’ concerns:  religious liberty.

I was asked to give a reflection for a community gathering on the feast of Miguel Pro, and as I thought about his life and martyrdom the question that I couldn’t shake was:  why are American Catholics not more concerned about religious liberty?  Catholic institutions have already been shuttered in Illinois and Massachusetts, and powerful cultural voices are explicitly calling for the exclusion of Christianity from the public square.  Pro’s death occurred less than a century ago and on this continent.  Do we think it cannot happen here?  Why do American Catholics seem so sleepy?

There are obvious answers:  the indifference (and often hostility) of the media; a general climate of secularism and religious indifferentism; political commitments that make raising the question uncomfortable for some, especially in an election year.  But it’s perhaps more instructive to look a bit deeper, at attitudes ingrained in our American outlook that make us drowsy when it comes to religious liberty.  Among other factors, three modern myths stand out.

The Myth of Progress.  We like to think that we’re more enlightened than past ages.  Technical and scientific progress have conquered diseases, increased material prosperity for millions, and expanded our knowledge of how the universe works.  A great deal of political and commercial sloganeering relies upon the assumption that newer is always better.

And though it feels very good to think we’re better people than those of ages past (and rather easy, since they’re no longer around to defend themselves), we are no less susceptible to original sin than were the people of the Dark Ages.  After all, which was history’s most bloody century?  The twentieth, hands down.  And much of the carnage came in the name of progress.  We are not less vulnerable to the drives that produce persecution because we live in 2012 instead of 1220.  But perhaps, because of the Myth of Progress, we are less likely to notice them.

The Myth of American Exceptionalism.  America is unique and special nation, has been a tremendous force for good in the world, and provides much to be proud of and thankful for, politically, culturally, and even religiously.  But Americans also are just as susceptible to original sin as, say, Germans or Cambodians.  History has shown that Americans too are capable of evil on a breathtaking scale; slavery was with us from the beginning; what was once called “manifest destiny” would today be known as “ethnic cleansing”; more children have been killed through abortion than died in the Holocaust—and we’re still going.

The point is not to demean a remarkable nation, but to remind ourselves that there have been lots of remarkable nations in history.  Many began with noble ideals and lost them along the way.  We are not immune to serious moral error.

The Myth of the 1950s.  This myth applies specifically to American Catholics and comes out of an era that still shapes how we think about ourselves as a Church, an era in which Catholicism was for its adherents an all-encompassing reality.  One did one’s banking at a Catholic credit union, stood in line for confession on Saturday, socialized mostly with other Catholics, and even planned one’s meals around Church discipline.  Teaching catechism was no worry because everybody knew it.  The Church enjoyed great social prestige, to the point that Hollywood producers trembled at the thought of offending the Catholic hierarchy.  The Church was a mass cultural phenomenon, and it was easy to think as Vatican II unfolded that the culture really was on the verge of mass conversion, that soon every screen in every theater would be showing Going My Way and Catholicism would continue as a mass cultural phenomenon—but bigger.

The 1950s are over and will not come again.  Yet still we sometimes continue to talk as if the culture is on the verge of conversion en masse, and all we have to do is make ourselves just a little more likeable, tweak the Catholic formula just a tad, drop our six most unpopular teachings (or perhaps just the sixth commandment), pay a bit more attention to pop culture, and then (then!) there will be a seamless melding of Church and society.  If only we can make ourselves just a wee bit more appealing, the world will fall at our feet.  The problem is the world did not fall at the feet of our Lord.  It crucified him.

The Church’s job is not to win popularity contests (or to win elections).  It is to be faithful.  The first reading for Miguel Pro’s feast day comes from Jeremiah, a book that records great persecution and destruction but nonetheless contains great hope.  The hope found in Jeremiah, however, is not that the Babylonians will be won over to right worship of Yahweh, nor even that the Israelites themselves will turn back to the covenant in time to salvage their political independence.  The hope found in Jeremiah is that despite Israel’s imminent political annihilation, a faithful remnant will endure.  We need to let go of the hope that we can somehow resurrect Christendom and concentrate on nurturing a faith that can endure.

And what might that faith look like?  I turn back to Miguel Pro.  When I read his biography as a novice, two aspects of his life stood out.  The first is that when Fr. Pro was a priest in hiding in Mexico City, using disguise and subterfuge to evade the anti-clerical authorities, his ministry was quite ordinary.  He distributed food and clothing to poor people; he heard confessions; he brought communion to the sick; he said Mass with devotion.  He simply did good pastoral work.

There is much to recommend Miguel Pro’s approach.  External circumstances—persecution or prosperity—do not change the essence of Christianity.  Fundamentals are still fundamental.

And the second aspect of Miguel Pro’s life that struck me was his sense of humor.  His classmates remember a jokester, though a pious one, and there are no indications that Fr. Pro’s personality ever changed because of external persecution.  This speaks to the profound sense of peace that comes from a deep and abiding trust in God.

Miguel Pro’s last words were “Viva Cristo Rey!”  Witnesses say that he did not shout these words in defiance, but that he spoke them calmly, confidently.  They were, in short, the words of a man who believed them, who knew that the governments of Babylon and Rome and Mexico and America would come and go, but the Lord of lords and King of kings will reign forever.

Jesus Christ is the king of the universe.  The rest is details.  If we keep this in mind, and let the King be king, whatever may come, then we too will be able to say with peace and confidence, when the time does come, “Viva Cristo Rey!”

AL, SJ

7 Responses to Letting the King be king

  1. From reading this account I suspect that a sense of persecution is clouding perspective. There is much to criticize in American culture but religious liberty is not being threatened. The Catholic Church is not under attack except perhaps from within and the rest of the world notices. Any Catholic is free to practice their faith freely, openly and without threat of persecution. You seem to long for the conversion of the population as a whole. That does not sound at all like religious liberty to me.

  2. Martha M says:

    Conversion implies the application of religious liberty, not the removal of it. As for the rest of your reply, it seems apparent you didn’t actually read the article. Maybe a re-read is in order before you accuse the author of attitudes that are not present.

    • I did read it again Martha. I made my first reply based on my observation that the church is in no way threatened by the liberties of the public at large. It is those very liberties that protect religious liberty. It is the strength of the message that builds the church community. I know the author has an interest in Original Sin and its impact on the church. That is defeated by the strength of virtue. The good work of the church is its true strength. The battle over religious liberty is a false fight. You could call that the lure of Original Sin. If you would convert the populous do not hassle them about liberty. Practice it as if you are free to and own it by doing so. It is the exercise of strength, based on its simple existence, that gains notice.

  3. Qualis Rex says:

    Very good points, Anton. The infringement upon religious liberties in the US in the name of “public health” or “freedom FROM religion” has certainly gained traction these past 4 years. To draw an analogy, the creeping liberalism/heresies of the 70’s infiltrating the church was like a very slow morphine drip; one heresy begets another and is simply accepted as fact without any basis in church documents or reality (although the perpetrators always cite Vatican II without actually quoting an actual document). Such is the case of the anti-Christian/Catholic attitudes in the US; a precedent is set such as the healthcare mandate or forbidding a Nativity Scene on public property and it is instantly assumed this is a) legal b) binding forever. I personally don’t think it will ever get as bad as it was last century during the Mexican revolution. But I do think ennui and apathy can be far more toxic. And we know what the bible has to say about those who are lukewarm in their faith.

    • Last I checked not one person is being forced to use birth control. Any church is free to make a public Nativity display and many do. The Healthcare mandate applies to businesses. The church itself is clear of it. When the church is involved in a public business they are no longer acting as the church and the rules of business apply. No ones religious practice is being challenged. Do you imagine that the church is so weak that its members are not able to stand on their convictions and practice what they preach, what they are taught? If that is the case, as it seems to me you are saying, well then the problem is with the church itself. Religious liberty is what protects the church as well as what protects the greater public from religious trespass. Use the liberty you have to build a stronger church. You are not being threatened. Any threat to the Catholic Church in the U.S.A. comes from within. If you are looking for ways to heal the church, to make it stronger, stop following the red herring of an external threat and begin the hard work of building the church.

      • Qualis Rex says:

        Unfortunately you have swallowed the liberal kool-aid to the point that you are regurgitating bile in the form of propaganda. Are you completely unaware that the Obama administration is being sued by the bishops of the US because Catholic charitable institutions an hospitals are being forced to provide not only contraception by abortificients against the beliefs of the church? And I said very specifically “Nativity scene on public property” (i.e. not church property), since public spaces across the country are used for displays ranging from memorials of events to protesting policy…all in accord with the 1st amendment which guarantees freedom of speech. A nativity scene commemorates an event that happened 2 millenia ago; it does not infringe on anyone’s personal liberty or cause anyone’s eyes to explode upon viewing (although many radical liberals an atheists do seem to use control of certain bodily functions when they see them). There is a very real threat to the church and religious liberty, and it is stoked by people like you who pretend it is not there, when all facts speak to the contrary.

        • Qualis, I am aware of the suits against the administration. I consider them groundless. I am a liberal minded individual, that is true. It is a healthy position for religious liberty and its protection. I have stated that the church, in my view, is exempt from the provisions of the healthcare mandate. It is only when the church is involved with the public, as a public entitie, as the public employer, that falls under the mandate. If the church is so offended by the public, and its norms, it can exclude itself from this exposure. To complain that the public is involved in the church’s public enterprise is hypocritical. No church member, involved with or employed by, these institutions, is required to violate their religious conviction. Not a one. You are entitled to be in the world but not of the world. Is not that the position the church wants to be in? To stand with the public, in our shared square, and provide example, friendship, outreach, so as to bring the convert into the fold.

          Your notion that the public entity should use the public square to promote your religion, and if it does not your liberty is threatened… Can’t you look at this yourself and see that your liberty does not trump mine? That if it does it is a violation of everyone’s liberty. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, on the peninsula, a bastion of liberty. There is no shortage of public displays of the Nativity. They can not be avoided, and yet you claim your liberty is threatened. I say to you that your liberty is threatened by your false complaint and the strain that creates with those who are not your members.

          The leadership of the church has long been out of step with the church itself, the actual church members. Clearly there is something missing at the top. If the church stands in a different place, than its supposed leadership, the question I ask is; Is the leadership relevant? When the leadership and the church hold completely different positions, is the leadership still a part of the church? Haven’t they divorced themselves from the actual church by holding positions that the body of the church, the people, do not?

          I know plenty of Catholics who are upset about the Health Care Mandate and the way church leadership has framed their argument. Leadership has managed to rally many of its members to be upset, to feel victimized. A failure of leadership as near as I can tell. In the short term this may seem helpful but I see church leadership slipping further and further away from the church itself.`Many people still enjoy the sense of community and continue to attend and participate, but increasing numbers simply leave. You can call this an assault on the church and perhaps it is, but it is from the top down and from within.

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