The Pope's Siege Mentality
"The problem with John Paul II is his 'siege mentality'." "Exactly,"
comes the "liberal" response. "You see, he has been conditioned by
the Polish experience where the Church was constantly under attack
and so can't appreciate the American tradition of freedom and
dissent." "Never," say the "conservatives." "The Holy Father is not
conditioned by anything but is a brilliant man and, most importantly,
the Vicar of Christ on earth." To which, I say, in a sense, "A plague
on both your houses."
Pope John Paul II does have a "siege mentality," in my opinion. And
yes, he has been heavily influenced by his Polish experience (but not
limited by it, as his detractors assert). And it seems to me that
Providence could not have offered the modern Church a more thoroughly
modern Pope to deal with the modern world. To say that he does not
understand the situation of the Church in the United States is
tantamount to saying that he never understood the situation of the
Church in Poland. The environments in which the two Catholic
communities have functioned have been very similar, even if the
historical responses to those respective environments have been very
different. I leave aside for the moment any reflection on the Church
in Eastern Europe since last year.
The Holy Father sees the cracks in the steeple of the so-called
"American Church," and he believes he has the cement to make it whole
and keep it whole. The cement is a healthy dose of Christian realism,
combined with a siege mentality.
I would submit that the position of the Church behind the Iron
Curtain was, in many ways, more conducive to a faithful living out of
the Gospel than is the case in our own society. Even the persons most
favorably disposed toward rapprochement with the Communists had to
acknowledge that religious persecution is part and parcel of
historical Marxist philosophy and politics. Therefore, anyone living
in a Marxist state should automatically be on guard against
government encroachment on the Faith. Eternal vigilance is joined to
solidarity in faith, resulting in a strong religious community. No
one can lay hold of minds and hearts prepared to resist such a
process. To be even more effective, the persecuted populace must
demonstrate a united front, lest those seeking to undermine the
community achieve their ends by the insidious means of "divide-and-
conquer." For the Church in Poland, that meant not only unity in the
essentials of the Catholic Faith but also the avoidance of any public
airing of "dirty linen," no matter how insignificant. This kind of
approach is not unique to Polish Catholics; we see it operative among
black Americans and world Jewry, so that an attack (even justified,
at times) on one is perceived as an attack on all. With this
sociological model, there is no room for the equivalent of "Her
Majesty's Loyal Opposition," for no opposition could be loyal as it
would give aid and comfort to the enemy.
I doubt if anyone would question my analysis to this point. The
critical question to be answered, however, is if the Polish situation
has a parallel in the United States. I believe it does and would
argue further that this is likewise the case in most of the developed
nations of the West. This would certainly seem to be the conclusion
of Solzhenitsyn, another Slavic observer. I also believe that my
analysis of the American situation could be paradigmatic for many
other traditionally Catholic nations: France, Germany, Italy and
Is the Church under siege in America? Consider the facts. Christian
values on sexuality and the family are ignored at best and attacked
at worst in a variety of ways. The powerful secular media elite have
decreed that America is to be liberated from its sexual hang-ups.
Thus heavy doses of innuendo, double meanings and overt sexual
misconduct are administered to our people, and especially our youth
who are conditioned to believe that sex-on-demand is a part of the
Bill of Rights _ just like its twin, abortion-on-demand.
Considering the influence of television, that would be bad enough,
but when traditional teachings are reiterated by religious
authorities (whether they be Catholic bishops or Fundamentalist
preachers), the media transmit such information in sneering and
condescending manner. Immediately following such a news item, one
usually hears something like this: "Although the Pope has repeated
his stand on this issue, there is growing dissatisfaction among
American Catholics with this new position. Father X and Sister Y with
us in our studios will explain their problems with the Pope's point
of view." Divide-and-conquer. Ideally, too, the dissidents who are
given the ink or the air should have outstanding academic
credentials, look very modern, and protest their intense love and
loyalty for the Church and the Pope. What the dissenters fail to
realize is that the secular media types have no more use for them
than they do for John Paul II (and may even have less respect for
them because of their disloyalty and/or personal confusion). They are
offered prominence in exchange for serving as pawns to advance the
secularists' goals for the Church: That she would be a quiet kind of
art museum and not a troublesome upstart which influences peoples'
lives. After all, the media cannot afford to have clergy tell people
how to think and evaluate life; that is now a prerogative of the
In the creeping secularism encountered in modern America, we find a
judicial system which has moved from neutrality vis-a-vis religion to
outright hostility. Consider these rather alarming examples.
The most blatant attack on religious freedom came in 1947 when the
Supreme Court of the United States came up with an entirely new
doctrine of separation of Church and State. The case, dealing with
bus rides for parochial school children in New Jersey, was decided in
favor of the bus rides, but the logic brought forth called into
question any kind of intercourse between religion and government. The
falsification of history and constitutional principles in that
decision has been used against parochial school parents for over 40
years. Only recently have we begun to witness a change in mood among
members of the Supreme Court.
In a series of decisions from 1948 through 1963, the Court removed
from the government schools any acknowledgement of religion, whether
through released time classes on public school grounds or voluntary
prayer. We have heard the Courts tell us that even silence is
forbidden. Now, I am not a strong proponent of prayer in government
schools _ for a variety of reasons _ but I think we have presently
reached the point of total absurdity. As former President Reagan has
noted, "I just happen to believe the school children of the United
States are entitled to the same privileges as Supreme Court Justices
Religion in public places has become more controversial every year _
not in the minds of the American people or even their elected
representatives but among the self-appointed secular elite who oppose
any public evidence of a religious commitment in America. They have
had no small degree of help from an equally secularized judiciary.
From cases to do with nuns wearing habits in public schools, to the
erection of nativity scenes or menorahs on public property, we have
witnessed the suppression of even the appearance of religion.
While we are told that voluntary prayer in public schools would be
harmful to children not opting for prayer (and there is something to
be said for such a position), that same sensitivity is not
forthcoming in regard to sex education. Such courses have been
introduced in government schools around the country and although such
programs theoretically permit parents to have their children excluded
from these classes, we know that such exemptions often have been made
most difficult as some schools officials do everything possible to
indoctrinate all children in a completely secular and amoral
understanding of human sexuality.
It is ironic that those calling most often for the free exchange of
ideas are among the ring-leaders of the movement to silence the so-
called "creationists" in the evolution controversy. As a Roman
Catholic, I have no problem with the theory of evolution, properly
nuanced, and so I can function as a disinterested third party. To say
that I am amused at the rhetoric and about-face of the "liberals" on
this issue is to succumb to gross understatement. If the position of
the creationists is so untenable, don't these erstwhile advocates of
openness and academic freedom believe the folly of the creationists
will surface? Or are they simply terrified of an alternate point of
view which claims religious authority?
Freedom of expression or artistic freedom have become the cloaks
behind which the secularists hide to pillory religion in the arts.
While not calling for censorship of such works, one must draw the
line where government monies are involved, lest a gross injustice and
inconsistency occur. In the past several years virulently anti-
religious plays (like "Haunted by the Holy Ghost" and "Sister Mary
Ignatius Explains It All for You") and art exhibits on state college
campuses and in other public fora have served up their bigotry to the
American people at taxpayers' expense. If tax dollars cannot be used
to advance religion, neither can they be used to attack religion. The
ACLU-types in the Courts, however, usually disagree.
Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are perceived as basic
American liberties, but there is a condition placed on them _ they
cannot be exercised for religious purposes on public property. Thus
public high school students may meet to discuss Karl Marx as a club
activity, but not Jesus Christ. The Nazis may march through Skokie at
great public expense, but a platform built for Pope John Paul II in
Philadelphia for reasons of public safety was judged an
unconstitutional use of tax monies.
When government bureaucrats do not like to see or hear the religious
point of view on matters of public policy, at times the long arm of
the Internal Revenue Service has reached into those institutions and
threatened to withdraw their favorable tax status. Catholics and
Evangelicals alike have known this form of harassment in regard to
their efforts to secure a constitutional ban on abortion.
From this survey of cases, one can draw a disturbing composite
picture of a Church under siege from the two most powerful forces in
contemporary American life: the media and the courts. All of this
produces what Joseph Sobran has insightfully dubbed as "the
established irreligion," in which traditional religion has been
marginalized and then replaced by the secularist dream of a
comfortable religion of nostalgia, chant and incense, but one devoid
of power _ very much like the Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union.
And that is why the Holy Father has pleaded with clergy and religious
to be faithful to their commitments and to keep God on the streets by
wearing their distinctive garb. He believes that progress is not
served by caving in to pressure for programs or attitudes that
dehumanize, whether that be abortion, divorce, promiscuity or
contraception. He has willingly accepted the prophetic mantle his
office imposes on him and now asks American Catholics to wear a
similar mantle imposed on them by virtue of their baptism.
The Catholic Church in Poland has been able to stave off further
incursions by the State by refusing to be neutered. The Church is
determined to be and to remain the Church. That means absolute
fidelity to the demands of the Gospel and being comfortable with a
prophetic role which challenges the prevailing secular wisdom.
Catholics in Poland have seen themselves as "the leaven in society,"
to use Pope John Paul's expression. The New Testament doctrine puts
it in the context of being conformed to the image of Christ rather
than to that of the world. Of course, this vision of life is that of
the Christian realism I mentioned early on in this talk; that vision
regards the world as being in need of salvation, not a world to be
shunned or despised, but a world to be evangelized. The Church loves
the world by preaching to it, so as to save it.
The "Loyal Opposition" usually concludes its discussion by expressing
the fervent hope that the Pope will begin to listen to the "American
Church." Ironically enough, these are often the same people who would
frown upon American imperialism in other contexts. I submit that the
Pope has indeed listened to, and studied carefully, the "American
Church" and has found it wanting. I think he deems it ailing and
prays that it is not a sickness unto death. His antidote for the
poison of secularism is the adoption of a siege mentality. The
insights gained from his Polish experience and his combination of
Christian realism with eternal vigilance could well provide the
prescription to save both the Church and the world.
_ Rev. Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D.
Address delivered at Christendom College
September 10, 1990
is an adjunct Professor of Religious Studies at Seton Hall University and the founding editor of He holds a Ph.D. in school administration from Fordham University and an S.T.L. in Systematic Theology from the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
This article was taken from the Fall 1990 issue of "Faith & Reason". Subscriptions available from Christendom Press, 2101 Shenandoah Shores Road, Ft. Royal, VA 22630, 703-636-2900, Fax 703-636-1655. Published quarterly at $20.00 per year.
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