To Propose the Truth: The Catholic Moment Requires Five Transformations

Author: Richard John Neuhaus



Richard John Neuhaus

SEVEN YEARS AGO in , I contended that the premier responsibility for the Christian mission rests with the Catholic Church-the premier opportunity, and therefore responsibility, for evangelization and cultural transformation in America and the world. I am regularly asked whether The Catholic Moment has been missed or is now past. The answer is emphatically No. In part because, if the Catholic Church is what she claims to be, every moment, from Pentecost until Our Lord returns in glory, is The Catholic Moment. In part because my "reading of the signs of the times" suggests that the world is newly open to, newly hungry for, a sure word of truth and hope, a word that is most certainly possessed and most convincingly presented by the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church offers the word of truth and hope also for the family. , the 1981 apostolic exhortation on the family declares that "humanity's passage to the future is through the family." In this year's World Day of Peace Message, the Holy Father's argument is that to care about the human project is to care about the family. And the Church cares-lovingly, intensively, passionately-about the human project, and so about the family, which today is challenged on many fronts. Indeed it may seem that the family is overwhelmed by challenges. Distinguished experts often address economics, work, gender roles, law, education, popular culture, and how each of these poses a challenge to the family. But such work all begins with, and ever comes back to, and the family.

The Church has a doctrine of the faith, a truth divinely inspired and humanly informed, regarding marriage and the family. With this truth she challenges the Catholic faithful and the world. Families that meet the challenge of faith are equipped to meet the many other challenges that will surely come their way. With faith, everything is possible; without it, all foundations rest upon shifting sand. In reflecting on family life, we are haunted by the question of Our Lord, "When the son of man returns, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke I8:8). It is no secret that the Church's teaching on sexuality, marriage, and family is ignored by many Catholics and is derided by the world. This is not to say that the teaching is rejected, for to be rejected it must be understood, and to be understood it must be taught. All too frequently the Church's truth about marriage and the family is not taught-not confidently, not persistently, not winsomely, not with conviction.

IT IS NOT TAUGHT, in part, because in our culture it is frequently derided and distorted. The Archbishop of Baltimore has recently addressed with refreshing candor the ways in which the communications media are captive to a twisted version of "the Catholic story." A central component of that story is the claim that most Catholics dissent from the Church's teaching on sexuality and family life. But of course that claim is false. In order to dissent one must know what one is dissenting from. Yet that claim of the media, repeated often enough, has an intimidating and inhibiting effect upon the Catholic people, upon catechists, upon priests, and, dare I say, even upon some bishops. Repeated often enough-and it is repeated incessantly-it insinuates the suspicion that, in this vital area of human life, the effective teaching of Catholic doctrine is a losing cause, perhaps already a lost cause.

Our situation is best described not in terms of dissent but of widespread ignorance and confusion. Admittedly, the problem is compounded by the fact that there are some who do dissent-theologians and others who are not above employing ignorance and confusion to advance their own views. One speaks of this with sorrow and hesitation, and yet speak of it we must. It is not a matter of making allegations, for those responsible could hardly be more public in identifying their views and declaring their purposes. Theirs is not the quiet and conscientious dissent of scholarly service to the Church; rather, it is all too often a dissent of bitter opposition and angry alienation. It is a dissent that confuses opinion research with the and attributes magisterial authority to "the spirit of the times" as authoritatively expressed by academic guilds and the most prestigious media.

This is the phenomenon addressed, no doubt with a heavy heart, by the Holy Father in his recent encyclical, . "Dissent, in the form of carefully orchestrated protests and polemics carried on in the media, is opposed to ecclesial communion and to a correct understanding of the hierarchical constitution of the people of God." As this Pope has affirmed again and again, revealed moral doctrine is truly doctrine of the faith. What is at stake is infinitely more than intramural squabbles between liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists. What is at stake is whether people understand that they are invited to the high moral drama of Christian discipleship, of living in the truth. Souls are at stake. And if we do not believe that souls are at stake, we must seriously ask ourselves what business we think we are in.

The Church has not the time, the world has not the time, countless men and women eager to live the adventure to holiness have not the time for interminable intramural disputes that obscure the splendor of Christian truth about marriage and the family. It is time to move on.


If we have the will and the wit for it, if we have the faith for it, a world that has lost its way is waiting to receive the gift of the Church, which is the good news of the One who is the Way. A world that has come to doubt the very existence of truth waits to hear from the One who is the Truth. A world falling headlong into the culture of death looks with desperate hope to the One who said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). If we have the will and the wit for it, if we have the faith for it, this is our moment in The Catholic Moment which is every moment in time, and is most certainly this moment in time.

At the edge of the Third Millennium we stand amidst the rubble of the collapsed delusions of a modernity that sought freedom and life by liberating itself from the author and end of life. Many of the best and the brightest announced the death of God; what appeared, is the death of man. It is for man-for the , for men and women in their personal dignity and vocation to community-that the Church contends. The Holy Father has tirelessly reiterated that the revelation of God in Christ is both the revelation of God to man and the revelation of man to himself. Father Avery Dulles has aptly said that the teaching of John Paul II should be described as "prophetic humanism." This is the prophetic humanism that the Church proposes to a world that is wearied and wasted by false humanism that deny both man's nature and his transcendent glory. The Church neither can nor wants to impose this authentic humanism on the contemporary world. In the words of the encyclical , "The Church imposes nothing, she only proposes." But, if we understand the crisis and opportunity of our historical moment, we propose the truth-urgently, winsomely, persuasively, persistently, "in season and out of season" (II Timothy 4:2).

There is reason to hope that, after the long winter of its jaded discontent, the modern world may be entering a season of greater receptivity to the truth that the Church has to offer. The great British novelist Anthony Burgess sometimes described himself as an apostate Catholic. Shortly before he died, he wrote, "My apostasy had never been perfect. I am still capable of moaning and breast-beating at my defection from, as I recognize it, the only system that makes spiritual and intellectual sense." Like the apostasy of Mr. Burgess, the apostasy of our world from Christian truth is by no means perfect. The Holy Father speaks frequently of the Third Millennium as a springtime "-a springtime of evangelization, a springtime of ecumenism, a springtime of faith. He cannot know and we cannot know what is in store for us, but we can be prepared. We can be prepared to be surprised by a time in which thoughtful men and women will give a new hearing to the only truth that "makes spiritual and intellectual sense."

With respect to the family or anything else, one runs a risk by suggesting that the world needs to hear, whether it knows it or not, the truth that the Church has to offer. One runs the risk of, among other things, being accused of triumphalism. If the alternative to triumphalism is defeatism, we should not fear to be known as triumphalists. But the only triumph that we seek is the triumph already secured by the One who came "not to be served but to serve" (Matthew 20:28). Springtime may not produce immediate results, indeed the result may seem like failure. But we know that "unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24). And there were seeds sown long ago in cultures once called Christian, seeds that may again be breaking through the earth that has for so long been hard frozen under the ice of indifference and unbelief. I take it that this is what the Holy Father means when he so earnestly calls us to the tasks of "re-evangelization." To re-evangelize-to sow anew, and to nurture to new life what is already there but has for so long been stifled and stunted by neglect and faithless distraction.


If, in anticipating the springtime of the Third Millennium, we are to sow more confidently and effectively, if our sowing is to transform the world (and we are called to nothing less than that!), we ourselves must be transformed. Permit me to suggest five transformations of pressing urgency. First, we need to cultivate the courage to be counter-cultural. Second, we need to appropriate more fully the gift of Peter among us, a gift luminously exemplified by this pontificate. Third, we need to recognize that the Church's teaching about sexuality, marriage, and family has a coherent structure and is all of a piece. Fourth, we need more fully to honor marriage as a Christian vocation. Fifth, we need an intensified commitment to what calls the "politics of the family."

First, then, whether "in season or out of season," those who propose Christian truth must always cultivate the courage to be counter-cultural. Until Our Lord returns in glory, we will be wrestling with what it means to be in the world but not of the world. The truth that the Church proposes is for the world, but the Church will inevitably appear to be against the world when the world resists the truth about itself. The necessary posture of prophetic humanism, therefore, is one of being against the world for the world. Moreover, cultural resistance to the truth has more formidable sources. With Saint Paul, we never forget that "We are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12).

Especially in North America, some fear that the call to counter-cultural courage is an invitation to return to the "ghetto Catholicism" of an earlier era, but that is not the case. Sociologically speaking, immigrant Catholicism was not so much counter-cultural as subcultural. The true progression is from subcultural striving to cultural success to counter-cultural challenge and transformation. The remarkable cultural success of American Catholics in the last half century is a tragic failure if it means that now Catholics are just like everybody else. Real success is marked by the confidence and courage to challenge the culture of which we are securely part. Or we might put it this way: there is a crucial difference between being American Catholics and being Catholic Americans. We are constantly told that there is a distinctively American way of being Catholic. The course of counter-cultural courage is to demonstrate that there is a distinctively Catholic way of being American. The Catholic Moment happens when American Catholics dare to be Catholic Americans.

An earlier generation prided itself on being accepted by American culture, and we should honor what was honorable in that achievement. But surely our task if to prepare a generation that will dare to transform American culture. Catholicism is no longer a suppliant, standing hat in hand before our cultural betters. We are full participants who unhesitatingly accept our responsibility to remedy a culture that is descending into decadence and disarray. The remedy begins with each person who hears and responds to the radical call to holiness in accord with moral truth. This is the message of : "In a particular way the Church addresses the young, who are beginning their journey towards marriage and family life, for the purpose of presenting them with new horizons, helping them to discover the beauty and grandeur of the vocation to love and the service of life."

This is the message of , that we are called to nothing less than moral greatness-"to be perfect as your Father is perfect." This is the drama, this is the adventure, this is the audacious hope of Christian discipleship. We must settle for nothing less, and persuade the Catholic people to settle for nothing less. We are told that young people today, immersed as they are in hedonistic self- gratification and consumerism, are deaf to the call to moral greatness. Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of young people who gathered in Denver last August. Tell that to millions of television viewers who witnessed in Denver a spiritual explosion in response to the culture-transforming call to live in the splendor of truth.

The second needed transformation is for Catholics in America to more fully appropriate the gift of Peter among us as exemplified by this pontificate. For more than fifteen years now, we have been graced with one of the most determined and vigorous teaching pontificates in the two-thousand-year history of the Church. We have witnessed before our eyes the vibrant, Spirit-guided development of doctrine that John Henry Cardinal Newman celebrated as a unique strength of the Catholic Church. And yet we must confess that this gift has not been truly received among us. The teaching of this pontificate has hardly begun to penetrate the institutions and practices of American Catholicism. In large sectors of the theological, administrative, educational, and catechetical establishments, this pontificate is viewed not as a gift but as an aberration-as a temporary interruption of the "progressive" march of intellectual and moral accommodation to the spirit of the times.

BUT THIS, too, may be changing. A younger generation is little interested in the tired ecclesiastical politics of the last quarter century, the endless wrangling of conservative versus liberal, progressive versus traditionalist, liberationist versus magisterial. They want to get on with the bracing adventure of being authentically and distinctively Catholic. We are told that seminarians today are timorous, dull, and conformist; and no doubt there are some who fit that description. There is reason to hope, however, that there are many more who are eager to be enlisted in a great cause, to serve the greatest of causes-the salvation of souls, the daring of discipleship, the anticipation of the coming of the Kingdom of God. Pray that we will be worthy of a new generation of priests who will settle for nothing less.

Moreover, we will soon have, at long last, the . While it is addressed specifically to bishops, I hope that every bishop will make this a motto of his ministry: A copy of the Catholic Catechism in every Catholic home. Catholic families cannot be faithful to the teaching of the Church if they do not know the teaching of the Church. Now at last, after a long season of uncertainty, the Catholic people will have in hand a reliable, lucid, and persuasive guide for living the life to which, at their best, they intuitively aspire.


To cultivate the courage to be counter-cultural, and to appropriate the gift of this pontificate, a third transformation is needed: To recognize that the Church's teaching on sexuality, marriage, and family is all of a piece. Here it is necessary to speak of Much of the theological energy of a generation has been dissipated in rancorous dispute over that encyclical. Surely it is past time to move on. That every conjugal act should be open to the gift of new life is the consistent and emphatic teaching of at least five pontificates. Surely it is past time to acknowledge-early, unambiguously, and yes, gratefully-that this is an essential part of the truth proposed by the Catholic Church. It is of a piece with all that the Church teaches about the human person in marriage and family life. That teaching is, if I may borrow a phrase, a seamless garment. A few academics may continue to fret about what is "infallible" and "irreformable," but the Catholic people cannot live well the lives to which they are called if they live with a sense of uncertainty, contingency, and conditionality about the moral truth that claims their allegiance.

Maybe people are led to think, the Church will change its position on this or that or the other thing. The "maybes" of conditionality produce conditional Catholics, and conditional Catholics are deprived of the joy of unqualified discipleship. We are not dealing here with inconvenient rules of the Church that can be changed at will. Again : "The Church is in no way the author or the arbiter of this norm. In obedience to the truth which is Christ, whose image is reflected in the nature and dignity of the human person, the Church interprets the moral norm and proposes it to all people of good will, without concealing its demands of radicality and perfection." The teaching of , especially as it is illuminated by the more comprehensive argument of , displays an ensemble of mutually dependent insights that constitute the structure of faith regarding sexuality, marriage, and the family.

Of course there are pastoral problems, very difficult problems, in connection with this truth. The Church is infinitely patient and understanding toward those who struggle with the demands of the truth; but the Church's love is never the love that deceives by disguising the truth. The readiness to forgive is ever greater than the capacity to sin; and no one has fallen away who, having fallen, seeks the grace to rise and walk again. The People of God look more often like a bedraggled band of stumblers than a spit-and-polish company on parade, but the way of discipleship is no less splendid for that. It is the splendor of truth that calls us, and truth will not let us go.

Here, too, the teaching of the recent encyclical applies: "Commandments must not be understood as a minimum limit not to be gone beyond, but rather as a path involving a moral and spiritual journey toward perfection, at the heart of which is love." It is pitifully inadequate simply to teach that artificial contraception is wrong. In the Church's teaching, every "no" is premised upon a prior and greater "yes." All too often that "yes" has not been heard, and it has not been heard because it has not been taught. The Church's teaching is to be presented not as a prohibition but as an invitation, an invitation to what Saint Paul proposed as the "more excellent way" (I Corinthians 12:31)-the way of love. Only in the light of that more excellent way does the prohibition make sense. Only those who know what they are called to be can understand the commandments about what they are to do, and not to do.


The way of love is openness to the other, and openness to life. It is the uncompromised gift of the self to the other and, ultimately, to God. Against a widespread dualism that views the body as instrumental to the self, the way of love knows that the body is integral to the self. Against a sexuality in which women become objects for the satisfaction of desire, the way of love joins two persons in mutual respect and mutual duty, in which sacred bond respect turns to reverence and duty to delight. Against a culture in which sex is trivialized and degraded, the way of love invites eros to participate in nothing less than the drama of salvation.

There are many, also in the Church, who dismiss this way of love as an impossible ideal. Married couples beyond numbering who live this way of love tell us otherwise. They testify that it is ideal and it is possible. We need more effectively to enlist their testimony in advancing the authentic sexual revolution, which is the liberation of sexuality from bondage to fear of life and bondage to the self. This, too, may be part of the springtime that we are called to anticipate: that a world exhausted and disillusioned by the frenzied demands of disordered desire may be ready, even eager, to hear the truth about love. But ready or not, it is the truth that we are commissioned to propose.

The fourth transformation: We need more convincingly to honor marriage and family as Christian vocation. In popular teaching and piety, we have yet to overcome the false pitting of celibacy against marriage. We speak of "vocations" to the priestly and religious life in a way that can obscure the truth that every Christian has a radical vocation to holiness. In agreement with a venerable tradition, we may want to say that celibacy is a "superior" calling, but we must never do so in a way that suggests that married Christians have settled for the second best. For all Christians, the greatest vocation is the vocation that is truly theirs. I expect that this truth would be more convincingly communicated were the Church to raise to the honor of the altar more Christians who exemplified outstanding holiness in their vocation as mothers, fathers, husbands, and wives. The Catholic Church has a gift for eliciting and celebrating the extraordinary in the ordinary. With respect to marriage and the family, we might do that more effectively if we had more married saints, formally acknowledged as such.

For compelling reasons-reasons freshly articulated in this pontificate-celibacy will, I believe, continue to be the norm for priests of the Latin Rite. A renewed accent on marriage as a vocation to holiness is not in tension with the vocation to priestly celibacy. On the contrary, as every Catholic is challenged to discern the radical call to live in the splendor of truth, I believe that we will experience a great increase both in vocations to the priesthood and in families that will settle for nothing less than the adventure that Saint Paul describes as "being changed into his likeness from glory to glory" (II Corinthians 3: 18 ).

Fifth and finally, we need a renewed commitment to what calls "the politics of the family." Years before "pro-family policy" became a popular phrase in our political culture, the Holy Father pleaded with Catholics to become "protagonists" in "family politics." He directed our attention to the Church's "Charter of Family Rights," and urged upon us the rich doctrine of "subsidiarity" which underscores the importance of mediating structures in society and, above all, the irreplaceable role of the family. No state, no party, no academic institution, no other community of faith has proposed such a comprehensive and compelling vision of the family in the modern world. The Church's teaching is a bold proposal for family justice that can inform public thought and action-on everything from welfare policy and employment practices to the right of parents to choose the education they want for their children. School choice is not a matter of preference but a matter of justice. For the poor among us, increasingly it is a matter of survival.

Family rights presuppose the most primordial of rights, the right to life. To strike at the transmission of life is to strike at the heart of the family. Here, however inadequately, the Catholic Church already has had a transformative influence on American culture. Although today, thank God, we have many allies, especially among Evangelical Protestants, for a long time Catholics stood almost alone in the witness for life. Without the Catholic Church there would be no pro-life movement. The proponents of abortion, euthanasia, population control, and genetic engineering are correct in viewing the Catholic Church as the chief obstacle to their ambitions. We earnestly pray that one day they may be persuaded to be our friends, but until then we wear their enmity as a badge of honor.

We will not rest, nor will we give others rest, until every unborn child is a child protected in law and welcomed in life. We do not deceive ourselves about the encircling gloom of the culture of death. Perhaps the darkness will grow still deeper, but we will not despair. We have not the right to despair, and, finally, we have not the reason to despair. For we know that the light of life shines in the darkness "and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5). The darkness shall never overcome it. Never. Never.

And now I have gone on too long. "Humanity's passage to the future is through the family." The prophetic humanism of this Pope and this Church proposes to the Catholic people and to the world how that future can be lived with moral dignity and grandeur. We do not know how this proposal will be received, but we will persist in proposing it "in season and out of season." At the edge of the Third Millennium maybe the springtime is at hand; maybe the long dark winter has just begun. We do not know. We do not need to know. God knows.

We do know this: Now is the time of our testing. And it is the time of our splendor in contending for the splendor of the truth. If we have the will and the wit for it. If we have the faith for it. ------------------ Richard John Neuhaus is president of the Institute on Religion and Family Life and editor-in-chief of This essay is adapted from his keynote address to the Pope John Center Workshop for Bishops, given in Dallas on January 31, 1994. Taken from the April 1994 issue of .

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