Among some committed Catholics in the United States, there is a sense that the public sphere is becoming increasingly unfriendly toward a Catholic worldview. In the last two years, Catholic schools and institutions have been affected by a variety of legal challenges over same-sex marriage, funding for contraception and laws that make it increasingly difficult to care for the most vulnerable among the human family, whether the unborn child or the immigrant.
In this context, questions have arisen about the viability of the Church’s involvement in public life in the present age. Should the Church retreat for a time in order to form an alternative way of life outside of the present culture?
Fruits of the Faith
It is not the first time that the American Church has been faced with the option of creating alternative institutions that form Catholics in a distinctive way of life. Catholic primary and secondary education within this country came about because of the American bishops’ wariness over the kind of religious education required by compulsory, public education instituted in the mid-1900s. Likewise, Catholic colleges and universities served both immigrant Catholics and non-Catholics alike who could not find a place in the firmly established Protestant colleges and universities. In both cases, retreat from public life resulted in the creation of institutions that have been beneficial for public life as a whole.
Hence, a retreat of Catholics away from public institutions and the cultural norms that such institutions presume is not a choice between withdrawal or engagement. Rather, it should always be a retreat into Catholic particularity so that the Church might be better prepared to offer the fruits of her life for the world.
Perhaps now is the right time for the Church to once again retreat into Catholic particularity for the sake of deeper engagement in the world. In the context of Catholic education, it has become the case that many institutions once established to pass on a Catholic worldview have bought in wholesale to secular paradigms that deconstruct the Catholic genius. Theological education, rather than an encounter with the discipline of faith seeking understanding, becomes a thin introduction to generic spiritual principles. Many Catholic schools, once established to educate the least among us, are now recognized as premier places to climb the social ladder toward success. Mission statements, except for an occasional reference to God or the Church, are seemingly taken verbatim from secular peers. Catholic identity, in the end, is not a free-floating term, reducible to a series of universal principles. Rather, it is the result of immersing oneself into a series of narratives and practices found within the Church that constitute a way of life. To maintain these narratives and practices will necessarily involve, at times, a retreat away from those other narratives and practices that compete with the Catholic worldview.
Yet, this retreat into particularity can never become sectarian. The ecclesial vision of the Second Vatican Council is not a Church radically against the world, attempting to construct an alternative community apart from the human family. Rather, the Church must retreat into particularity precisely because it is only in the particularity of our vision of human life taken up into Christ that we have anything to offer the world to begin with. The Catholic school is a witness to the world that the disciplines of mathematics, science and engineering are not the only authentic ways of knowing something (but they are authentic ways of knowing!). The Catholic school proposes that the purpose of education is not some vision of worldly success but first and foremost the awakening of the human being to wonder and gratitude. That theological education is not a pleasant diversion from real forms of education but is instead integral to what it means to have knowledge of the world in light of the triune God’s involvement in human history. That faculty, staff and students in such a school find their deepest identity in the Eucharistic gathering, where we receive and are invited to become the self-sacrificial love of Christ for the world.
It is often only in the context of such a retreat into particularity that we can return to those core principles of the Gospel, which might support us in our missionary engagement to the world. The purpose of this retreat is not about creating a community that will be able to survive the onslaught of secularity, waiting the very moment in which the world desires to turn to us as savior of culture. Rather, the Church in a particular place turns inward for the sake of contemplating the riches that she seeks to pass on. A retreat, in this sense, is always preparation for authentic engagement in public life.
Members of the Body of Christ will need to recognize that this turn inward for the sake of engagement comes with a cost in a way that a sectarian retreat from the world does not. In some ways, it would be far easier to form small communities of the committed, who subscribe to the full worldview of Catholicism and who exist outside the influence of public life. But, the Church does not exist for herself but for the transformation of the world. To retreat inward and then to head outward is to risk the possibility of rejection. Nonetheless, it was Christ himself who came into a world where he was not understood to reveal the Father’s plan of love for the human family, ultimately to be rejected by those he loved the most. Yet, Christ loved this world even in the midst of its rejection, sending forth disciples to announce the Good News that power and violence do not have the last word. Love alone conquers death.
The Church in all of her particular narratives and practices, doctrines and histories, contemplates this mystery of divine love through the ages. Indeed, her institutions, including schools and hospitals, may grow forgetful of the uniqueness of this narrative. These institutions need to return inward with some frequency, to retreat toward a contemplation of this particular mystery. But, this retreat remains something that the Church performs for the sake of mission, of creating missionary disciples, who seek to go to the ends of the world in the name of this love.
In our time, a complete disengagement from public life would silence an important voice that reminds the politician and lobbyist alike that every human life matters. That human dignity is not some construct that can be employed whenever it is politically expedient to do so. That the unborn child, the immigrant, the poorest of the poor, the criminal sentenced to death — these lives matter because each person is created in the image and likeness of God. We need to form women and men who can preach this Good News in the public sphere, risking the possibility of radical rejection.
Of course, we need institutions that form Catholics in the particularity of our way of life, including our narratives and practices. But, we will need these institutions to be created not as sects apart from the world but as leaven within time and space.
Timothy P. O’Malley is director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.