Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, made a rather frank, and very true, statement recently: “There has always been the message out there that if only Christianity were less Christian, we’d be able to reach more people. It doesn’t work. Otherwise, we’d be seeing a booming Episcopal church.”
Moore made these remarks as American institutional religions discuss the acceptance of same-sex marriage.
Overwhelmingly, Southern Baptists oppose same-sex marriage, believing that their views proceed from the Scriptures, especially the Gospels. On the same principle, they oppose cohabitation outside marriage and condemn any form of adultery. They are also against abortion, but they tolerate artificial birth control.
The point here is not Southern Baptists and their beliefs. It is the argument by many Catholics that if their own Church relaxed its moral requirements and encouraged people to do as they wished then multitudes would swarm to Catholicism.
This demand comes when birth control enters the picture, or cohabitation, or even same-sex marriage. Check the history and example of the Episcopal Church. Once upon a time, the Episcopal Church was quite firm in its moral teachings, and they differed little from those of the Roman Catholic Church.
For instance, in 1936 the British Empire was rocked by the romance between Britain’s King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced woman whose husbands were still alive.
The majority of people opposed the king’s marriage to a divorced woman. The Anglican Church, as Episcopalianism is called worldwide, denounced his marriage, insisting that divorce cannot be recognized. Edward VIII abdicated under this pressure.
The Anglicans’ rigid position began to change, however. The Anglican Church eventually officially condoned birth control — but only under certain restricted conditions. Then the conditions went away, too. The Anglican Church waffled on divorce. Now many Episcopalians accept same-sex marriage.
As Moore indicated, the Episcopal Church is hardly seeing a surge in new converts. Just the opposite.
Catholics who want radical change in their Church should think about the Episcopalians’ experience and that of other Protestant denominations, such as United Methodists, Presbyterians and Lutherans.
Yet it cannot be argued that merely standing firm and resisting change assures any church of a strong constituency. Church leaders have relentlessly held to traditional beliefs in once solidly Catholic societies, such as Austria and France, and the numbers of members are in free-fall. Other “modernized” Christian religions throughout Western society also are drastically losing adherents.
Christianity always has called upon believers to swim against the tide. In Christianity’s earliest times, this meant the likelihood of persecution. Martyrdom fills the pages of Catholic history, from the days of the Roman Empire until now.
Today, in this country and across the Western world, persecution is more subtle. The police do not search Catholics out, but the culture enveloping everything increasingly is anti-Catholic and indeed anti-God.
All of us drink in the culture without realizing it. Without thinking, it infects us. All too often, it “just makes sense,” as a practicing Catholic told me yesterday about cohabitation. “Everybody lives together! Why not?”
This allurement is the Gospel’s enemy. It offers nothing permanently rewarding, and it prevents a full grasp of the peace, joy and hope that come with knowing the Lord.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.