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January 16, 2013
The nation's other pastime
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

Would we Catholics feel at ease in the company of the Early Christians? Would they feel at ease in our company?  For the moment, let us put aside these questions.

A few weeks ago on Christmas Day, approximately 1,700 signatures were collected by an online group petitioning the White House to target the Catholic Church as a “hate group” for its teaching on marriage. The petition aims for 25,000 signatures by January 24th. This news recalls observations of American historians who describe anti-Catholicism as: “the most luxuriant, tenacious tradition of paranoiac agitation in American history” (John Higham); “the deepest-held bias in the history of the American people” (Arthur Schlesinger);” “the one remaining acceptable prejudice in America” (Philip Jenkins); “the anti-Semitism of liberals” (Peter Viereck). For New York’s Cardinal Dolan, anti-Catholicism is “the nation’s other pastime.”

A Thumbnail Sketch of Anti-Catholicism

Transformed by the power of the Resurrection, the early disciples radiated Christ from every pore. Because of their radical choice to follow him, they could be rounded up at any time or place and executed for refusing to worship pagan gods.  In fact, they were blamed for whatever the current disaster.

Persecution of Catholics has persisted down through the centuries; the martyrology is long and diverse.

Today, the social media, tongue dipped in vitriol, spews biting sarcasm at the Church, its teachings and its Eucharistic ritual, doing so with impunity. After all, “it’s the nation’s other pastime.”

Students at non-Catholic universities link the Church with corruption and scandal, with repression and stagnation (Thomas Woods, How the Church Built Western Civilization, 1).  Fearing ridicule and possible reprisal, young Catholics are embarrassed to profess their faith or even practice it. 

We Americans jealously guard our First Amendment with its freedom of religion and its free exercise to all, even to those of no religious faith. The amendment also protects free speech, a well-guarded sacrosanct right. Free speech however is not an equal-opportunity offender.  Its hate-target is focused predictably on the Catholic Church for real or imagined sins. Who would dare to mock any other faith-tradition?

Our new health-care law has enacted a social agenda that violates conscience rights and restricts the religious liberty of those who oppose it.  Failure to comply with the law by summer 2013 will result in censure, harassment and steep fines. This prosecutorial activity is targeted at religious groups, mostly Catholic. Why so?

A Real but Imperfect Holiness

Despite human sinfulness, the Church upholds the natural law and the God of natural law, the dignity of every person from the moment of conception to natural death; every person is a sacred image uniquely fashioned in the likeness of God.  The Church upholds in the family the natural community of man, woman, and child.  The Church condemns sin but not the sinner.  These principles anger secularists who seek a society where no one is offended or coerced by moral standards and moral judgments. Though the Church is by no means the sole faith-tradition to uphold these universals, it is the most public voice to do so.

Builder of Western Civilization

It is to the Church that Western civilization is indebted.  As the beneficiaries of Greek and Roman culture, the Church transmitted their values to us.  Monks and nuns composed plainchant and notated more than 3,000 melodies in manuscripts. The Church founded the first universities, educated boys in monastery schools and girls in convent schools, promoted and supported the arts, architecture, literature, music, the sciences, especially astronomy.  Monks and nuns have excelled in the practical arts, from farming and nurturing arboreta, to viniculture and baking breads, preserving jams, building organs, making medicinal salves, and training service dogs. The Church opened the first hospitals and orphanages, gave hospitality to wayfarers, works that continue to this day. Consecrated women and men built the American Catholic school system, educated millions of the faith and those of other faiths.  We received not a living wage but a small stipend for our contributed services.
Today, the Cristo Rey and Mercy schools are educating at-risk youth without tuition. Battered women with their children and pregnant unmarried women are befriended in halfway houses by consecrated religious women. Poor and indigent men are cared for by religious priests and brothers.  In India, Mother Teresa was given a state funeral.  Her sisters are among the first to nurse those afflicted with AIDS and the dying untouchables. This Church desires only to serve others, free and unhampered.  Is this the Church being branded a hate group?

Degrees of Sympathetic Engagement or Hostile Rejection

According to the theologian Avery Dulles, there are four models in which faith-traditions deal with each other: coercion, convergence, pluralism, and tolerance (“Christ among the Religions,” in “Church in Society,” 36 1ff).
Coercion and Convergence

The history of religious coercion is a long and painful one, excluding no one faith-tradition.  In Europe, it was customary for the people of a given country to follow the religion of its king or leader, but the bloody wars over religion taught the painful lesson that the cost was too great. 

As for convergence, there is no satisfactory platform for dialogue, not theocentric, polytheistic, and not atheistic. The way to God is disputed, whether through Jesus Christ, Moses, Allah, or the Buddha. 

Pluralism

Pluralism describes a stance in which all traditions reflect certain aspects of the divine.  All faith-traditions are united in that they grow out of a sacramental basis beginning with an experience of the holy in the here and now.  They hold to a sacred transcendence whose presence issues an ethical call to organize one’s life within a context larger than the everyday. 

In Judaism, God saves in the present moment; likewise in Catholicism, with the faithful participating in the Trinitarian and sacramental life. In Islam, prayer throughout the day puts a Muslim in constant contact with Divine Presence who is always transcendent. Hinduism pursues the integration of the self with the All.  God is in all, all is in God.  Buddhism holds to the integration of self into nothingness.  Confucianism seeks harmony and balance.  To possess yourself, you must lose yourself into something higher and greater. 

Our experience of the numinous suggests that God is close by, near, and immanent;  God is also beyond and transcendent. Some religions make God too immanent, as in pantheism and polytheism; others make God too transcendent, too numinous as in deistic and Greek philosophy. Every religion is uniquely different in its connection to the sacred.  

Tolerance

Tolerance allows all religions and no religions to exist without prohibition.  Tolerance does not require religions to approve of each other’s doctrines and practices.  It does insist that they avoid any effort to coerce the members of other denominations to agree with them (Dulles, 365). In the process, one religion can come to respect certain tenets and practices of another, as in methods of meditation and prayer.  Of late, tolerance resembles a drum roll whose ominous crescendo has ushered in the return of coercion.

A Useful Scheme for Global Religions and God

The schema found below determines the degree of sympathetic engagement or hostile rejection of a religious tradition other than one’s own.  It was developed by my brother whose Ph.D. in comparative religion from Harvard University prompted him to devise a continuum in which global religions encounter each other from both affirmative and negative, and from  acceptable and unsatisfactory ways.  Whereas the positive tipping point may lead to conversion, the negative may lead to annihilation.  This schema and the Dulles’ models are intended to inform this essay, tinged with darkness and light.

Progression for Global Religions

1. Sympathetic Engagement (from 1-5 in ascending incremental order)
Five steps that ascend from tolerance to full acceptance of a religion may be outlined as follows:

Tolerate: To allow to exist and without prohibition; minimal acceptance
Respect: To affirm positively one’s freedom to believe as conscience dictates
Accept: To approve of another religion
Advocate: To be taken in by another religion
Appropriate: To participate in another religion
Share: To participate more deeply in another religion
Identify: To become an integral part of another religion

2.  Hostile Rejection (1-5 in descending and destructive order)
Five steps that descend from tolerance to full annihilation of a religion, with the worst case being the Holocaust:
Reject: To feel bigotry, to refuse to recognize or to tolerate
Restrict: To confine by means of restraint
Censure: To strongly disapprove; to issue an official reprimand
Persecute: To subject to harassing or cruel treatment
Erode: To destroy by slow disintegration
Destroy: To put an end to; to render useless
Annihilate: To destroy utterly; to reduce to utter ruin, to wipe out

The Golden Rule

If any principle can be considered a universal tenet, it is the Golden Rule. To do unto others as you would have them do unto you, this is its classic definition.  Gandhi added:  “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” In principle, we are all in agreement.

Contemporary Apologists Needed

The year 2013 has the incipient feel of Early Christianity. The first Christians, our companions in the Lord, may very well be standing above and beside us, in front of and behind us, rallying us to vigilance and to irenic fortitude.  Wasn’t Jesus fond of repeating to the Twelve: “Do not be afraid?” The first and surest way to counter anti-Catholicism is to clasp our hands in prayer for those who treat us poorly.  It is the beginning of a true revolution against hatred.

In one of his Resurrection appearances, Our Lord tells Peter: “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (Jn 21:18). He was hinting at the type of death Peter would undergo for his sake.  The ‘gospel’ of Bette Davis clinches the point: “Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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