Catholics need to demand moral clarity | Joseph Prebble

The Covington Catholic High School school website is still down after days of protest from organised groups. The school has undergone a nightmarish few days after its delegation to last Saturday’s March For Life was taped showing insufficiently solemn appreciation for Nathan Phillips’s percussive talents. Seventeen year old Nick Sandmann, the new poster boy for privileged Catholic hatred, has had to defend himself on TV, which has done predictably little to settle the controversy. Twitter has been aflame ever since he was filmed smiling at Phillips.
Normally the writing of articles based mostly on Twitter comments is the preserve of the Daily Express but this is no usual Twitter mini-furore. The most undiluted nature of the cultural left, in all its hatred and vice, has surfaced as in no other scandal, not even in the Kavanaugh saga. Alyssa Milano, who came to some attention during her attendance at the Kavanaugh hearings, has suggested to widespread popularity that opposing abortion is in itself a form of extremism. The morally putrid Kathy Griffin – she of the severed Trump head infamy – has been the most shocking, if not the most surprising, voice, explicitly calling for the teenage students to be doxxed. And Twitter is more than a snapshot of outer cultural battles: it is in large part the venue itself. The ordeal endured by these young men, their families, and their school would never have gained a hundredth of its traction had the drama not been circulated by a chain of Twitter accounts.
Since Kavanaugh’s nomination, pressure has been redirected towards another Trump nominee, Brian Buescher. Under scrutiny is his membership of the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic charity that blends many charitable works towards the poor with a resolute opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, asking him to terminate his membership, was given a promise to ‘abide by the Code of Conduct of United States Judges’ and ‘not affiliate with any organization in violation of the Code’. Nevertheless, she persisted. Senator Hirono asked a further five questions; Senator Kamala Harris of California proceeded to ask ten. It has been tempting for some, too tempting, to consider this a sort of discrimination against his faith. Maybe it is. Maybe it is a rigorous questioning of affiliation with a political organisation despite unambiguous assurances to uphold the law, including Roe v. Wade. The difference is not really important. Christian teachings are decreasingly welcome in the consciences of public office holders. There is no use in crying oppression as though that is any currency among the left. Christians will never prevail in indulging in victimhood.
This is as true in schools as in public office. United States Second Lady Karen Pence’s appointment to a teaching post in a Christian school has blended into the #ExposeChristianSchools fashion on social media. Alongside genuine abuses, some schools have been ‘exposed’ faithfully reflecting Christian teaching on abortion and chastity. Utterly out of step with conventional morality that these values are, and funded publicly as their teachers are, this inconsistency cannot necessarily survive forever. For a while Catholics could essentially be libertarians, practising their faith peacefully and raising faithful children through Christian schools, at peace with a state that would never itself affiliate with any creed. This may still be true, but for how long? Can unapologetic Catholicism prevail for another ten, twenty, fifty years, with Hollywood almost uniformly holding it in scorn and much of Congress increasingly treating it with contempt? Research by the Satanic group Catholics for Choice, presumably done in cohort with the Jews for pork coalition, shows 50% of Catholic voters approving of abortion in all circumstances. And what is true of the Catholic 20% of the country will be largely true of the half of the rest of the country describing itself as Christian. Even if Catholic social teaching were not overwhelmingly superior to secular morality, bishops would need to act a little more solidly to halt the indifference poisoning the American faithful. Cardinal Robert Sarah warned an American audience three years ago about a ‘battle of sickness that has pervaded our world’. True Catholics should listen.
As Catholic bishops defend their Church’s teachings with much the same vigour with which they crack down on sexual abuse, another victory has been won by abortion enthusiasts. In New York, the Reproductive Health Act passed, further relaxing restrictions on abortion. Among those adopting the interesting position of opposing abortion while supporting its legality and subsidy were ostensible Christians and in particular Catholics, among them Governor Andrew Cuomo. What are we to make of these characters who profess faith to their religion insofar as it serves their philosophical comfort or their vote tallies, and who will defy it as soon as is convenient? Governor Cuomo has already faced calls from Catholics to be excommunicated, presumably on the optimistic assumption that Cardinal Dolan, the state’s resident Cardinal, and other Catholic leaders have the stomach for anything more than a gloomy press release. Better yet, perhaps the Vatican should consider Cardinal Francis Arinze’s advice on dealing with pro-choice claimant Catholics in politics and send twelve Swiss guards to arrest them all.
In this climate, it only takes a small moment to expose moral weakness, and smirkgate provided it. Nick Sandmann, wearing a MAGA hat and surrounded by a lively group of his Covington Catholic High School contemporaries, stared out Nathan Phillips with a slender smile that enraged many. Even when later video footage showed Phillips approaching the Covington entourage, many outlets and writers refused to recant. For a significant portion of the admonition is based on his identity: not only as a Catholic, but as a white male. His smile – a beautiful smile, as it happens – is supposed to convey a sense of disrespect, both in itself and as representative of his alleged privilege. Similarly treated is his politely worded Twitter statement. His manners are denigrated because of his identity. This is not in the least rational. It is not how sane, good natured minds work. And it is frightening, because not all conservatives will have the better sense to ignore racial politics. Unfortunately, white nationalism, such as it exists in the US and elsewhere, feeds openly off this kind of hatred and other perceived attacks on white identity. Racial disparities in income, education, crime, life expectancy, and other metrics are stark enough to merit discussion, because too many aspects of life as an American citizen are statistically unfair against people of colour. Just as it is wrong to purposefully ignore this sadness, so it is wrong to direct any sense of injustice towards members of a privileged class individually.
It is just such as shame to see some Catholics now sticking their oar in too. All instances of racial politics, and those who engage in it, need to be avoided as irrelevant to the ideal course of a nation. It is not race or gender, but faith and morality that should underpin a country. It may be culturally insensitive to suggest that in any circumstance approaching someone and banging a drum is, well, a little odd, or perhaps even slightly rude. What are definitely insensitive, and actually appalling, are Phillips’s attempts to disrupt a Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception last Saturday night. Secretary Clinton argued in 2016 that ‘America is great because America is good’. She may herself be far from an ideal example of this ideal, but her words were correct: America is defined by its moral code.
Her 2016 opponent Donald Trump is not exactly a brilliant example this either. His vanity, his dishonesty, and, for those who care for it, his personal history reflect neither the goodness of Christianity nor of secular decency, and would once have precluded him as a morally acceptable candidate for Christians. He is not fond of evoking his faith every few seconds like past Republican Presidents, yet is accepted as a firm ally of Evangelicals and Catholics. In more Christian times past, Americans could take comfort in the ideal of bipartisanship: the hope of two political parties, each in respectful disagreement, working together in good conscience to help the afflicted – a mindset increasingly the relic of John Kasich and Joe Biden in their ever-diverging parties. Talk of good and evil was misplaced, even dangerous. Now, good and evil bear themselves more clearly. Republicans are no saints, nor all Democrats intrinsically wrong, but there is now a more nakedly anti-life, anti-Christian hue to many political flashpoints. Trump, for all his personal nastiness and possible corruption, consistently takes the side of good. He threatened Turkey with sanctions to secure the release of pastor Andrew Brunson. He persisted with Kavanaugh as the justice faced intense calumny from a cultural left whose wicked practice of easy abortion he seemed to threaten. And now he has condemned the media for its treatment of Sandmann and his colleagues, calling them ‘symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be’. Consider how more surely he reached this position than a number of fashionable e-Priests and Catholics hastening to condemn Sandmann. Moral clarity is in crisis and the Catholics need to demand it of their leaders.
This President is well versed in attacking the media. In calling them the enemy of the people, as he has taken to doing, he is outrageous, self-serving, distasteful, and quite possibly correct. The press has traditionally enjoyed a rightful reputation as guardians of the public good against corruption with freedoms provided by the First Amendment. This has over decades provided what George W. Bush termed a ‘symbiotic relationship’ between the executive and the press: necessarily difficult and uncomfortable, but in need of each other to function in the public interest. The trust that the press has enjoyed is predicated on the basis that it will faithfully hold the powerful to account. It will not always get everything right, but it will endeavour towards transparency and public service. When a number of journalists and outlets turn their influence from the powerful to a seventeen year old student trying to complete his education and standing peacefully for the rights of the unborn, that trust will vanish. In an era when social media is rapidly supplanting the press as the most immediate source of knowledge, it is high time to demand a more honest and, yes, more Christian approach from news sources.
This may very well be where the UK is headed. The stereotype may or may not be true that British politics takes itself a little less seriously than the American variant. Even with the Conservative and Labour parties perhaps more resentfully opposed than at any memorable time, it is possible to look for the moment at the partisan divide in the US with a little humour and relief. Parties represented by Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn cannot really be said to be opposing sides in some simmering cultural war. Even the most obviously divisive issue in this country is not so much a moral one. The best outcome for Brexit probably actually is some compromise option in the EEA, perhaps via EFTA, with the remain and so-called WTO Brexit extremes being democratically or economically defeatist, or both. As effective as it has been in removing all pretences that the current polity has at competence, genuine moral issues are considerably more important, and for that matter exciting. Don’t try to convince this writer that a lack of sovereignty over standards of extraction solvents used in foodstuffs production is some moral crisis. Abortion is becoming ever easier and families ever weaker. The Archbishop of Canterbury has said that he is content for Anglicans to become Catholic. Perhaps they should. The Church and Christians more widely need to decide whether life is worth standing for.

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