There is no doubt that the Church in America is being tried and tested. Not that she hasn’t been through this before, and not that it is a test isolated to the American prelates – but let not this diminish the current reality in which we find ourselves. Make no mistake: the American Church is at a crossing point, or rather at the point of the Cross. If the events of the last four years are not evidence enough, the sufficient proof lies in the unprecedented, stalwart response by our Episcopacy to at least two events: the invitation of President Obama to speak at Notre Dame’s general commencement ceremony, and the recent attack on religious liberty by the Department of Health and Human Services led by Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Yet those opposed to the Church (in many cases from within the Church herself) will not relent so easily; it would be naive to think otherwise. The attacks of the last couple years have not been the first, and they most certainly will not be the last. While Christian hope teaches us that the battle has been won … while we know ahead of time the outcome of the great cosmic struggle between good and evil … we also know that it will be a battle until the end. And each of us, as a Catholic faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, must decide what part he will play in the inevitable victory. So too must each Bishop. He must listen to the call of our Lord present in his consecration as the successor of the Apostles, and he must stand firm in his role to defend and protect the Church from the onslaught of prejudice, injustice, and violence against the human person. When we stand before the Lord at the end of it all, we will not be judged on the final outcome of the war – that victory belongs to Christ and His Cross – but we will be judged on what part we played, or failed to play, as individuals to bring about the triumph of the Cross.
“The gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” How often have we as Catholics read these words from our Lord? How often have we rested in the comfort of a promise that speaks to the Church’s indefectibility? And rightly so, for contained in these words is the assurance that the Church will prevail until the end. Yet lest we reduce these words to merely a defensive strategy, consider that the Lord did not say, “The gates of the Church shall withstand the attacks of Hell.” The “gates” of which he speaks are not those that protect the Church from the advance of Hell’s army. No, the gates in this passage are the gates of Hell, and Christ’s promise is that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against the Church. These words are words of spiritual warfare, for in them we find more than the Church’s charge to defend herself against evil – we find too a clarion call for the Church to attack the gates of Hell.
The Church finds herself in a time of trial, and the Bishops are to be commended for there defense against evil. Yet it seems that we are forever being reactive. Of course, this will always be the case to one degree or another – for the advance of evil will not cease. Yet perhaps it is time to go on the offensive so we can see the reality of Christ’s promise to Peter, a promise that foretells the crumbling of Hell’s gates. Perhaps it is time to call a spade a spade, to refer to evil by its proper name, and to stop waiting for events that will eventually require a response.
This is all contextual, of course, for on Friday morning we read that Georgetown University, a Catholic institution, has invited the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, to be a commencement speaks at their Public Policy Institute. (For the sake of clarity, this is not the university’s general commencement.) Is this better or worse than the Notre Dame scandal from a few years ago in which President Obama was invited to speak at the general commencement? I leave that to those who want to attempt a more formal analysis of the two situations. For my own part, there are at least three reasons why this event at Georgetown stands out even from Obama’s infamous “common ground” speech in which he promised to work with the Catholic Church.
First, this event comes after the Notre Dame speech. For the first time in a recent memory, the United States Episcopacy spoke out vigorously against a University that would invite a speaker who is in public and direct conflict with the teachings of the Church and the message of Jesus Christ. The impressive thing about the response was its form, not as a generic letter from the USCCB, but as individual letters from over 80 bishops. The message was clear: those opposed to basic teachings on life and liberty should not be invited to spread their message at a Catholic institution. Moreover, they should not be bestowed degrees of honor. In light of this, there is no other way to interpret Georgetown’s invitation to Ms. Sebelius: this is a deliberate statement that the administration at this Catholic university cares not what the American episcopacy thinks or teaches. They have no intention of listening to their Church, but rather will continue to act as they see fit. In other words, they are attempting to usurp the bishops and make themselves a separate magisterium.
Second, Secretary Sebelius’ invitation comes in the context of the HHS debacle. If the response to Obama’s presence at Notre Dame was impressive, consider that 191 bishops representing 100% of dioceses in the United States issued a personal statement agains the HHS mandate. To make it worse, the invitation was extended to the individual who is largely responsible for the mandate. Once more, there is no other interpretation: the Georgetown administration is in direct conflict with the entire American episcopacy, saying to them that the staunch rejection of the HHS mandate matters not. They are an independent university, and they will invite who they will.
Third, Sebelius is Catholic. While President Obama’s lack of membership in our Church does not give him license to violate the basic principles of natural law in his private opinions or public policies, the Catholicism of the Secretary of Health and Human Services does seem to add a bit more weight to the scandal. This is an individual that has persisted in grave, public, and manifest sin by supporting policies in contrary to her own Church, and for this reason she has been instructed not to present herself for communion in both her home diocese of Kansas City and the diocese of Washington D.C. While she has not been formally excommunicated, what does it say that a Catholic institution would invite to speak an individual who has consciously separated herself from full communion with the Catholic Church? If Kathleen Sebelius is guilty of scandal, how much more is the administration at Georgetown?
I began with a call to battle, a call to not wait until situations such at these present themselves, but rather to attack them at their root. Instead of defending the gates of Church against the advance of evil, perhaps the Church should beginning realizing her mission to advance on the gates of Hell. An positive example of this in recent news is the instruction from the Vatican regarding the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. In writing about this document, I mentioned how impressed I was with its specific nature. In particular was the directive that “LCWR programs for (future) Superiors and Formators will be reformed, Speakers/presenters at major programs will be subject to approval by Delegate [Archbishop Sartain].”
Here’s a suggestion: in light of recent failures on the part of Catholic universities to exercise prudence in selecting candidates for large public speeches and the bestowal of honorary degrees, perhaps the American hierarchy should insist that any university wishing to consider themselves Catholic will have their list of speakers subject to the approval of the local Ordinary. Perhaps they should take this upon themselves before the Vatican requires it, before “local Ordinary” is replaced by “the Delegate.” Then again, maybe a Vatican response would be more effective.