What happens to a society when the Catholic Church, and eventually all of orthodox Christianity, is slowly forced out of any active role in the social structure or culture?
We may be about to find out.
In one sense, we can look at past examples of militantly secular societies for a clue: we can take a peek behind the old Iron Curtain, or consider the suffering of the Church in present-day China, or look to dozens of other examples of places where Marxist ideology took over and forced the Church underground, at least temporarily. What we see from those examples is hardly encouraging: the deterioration of the human rights and freedoms of all the citizens, not just the Christian ones, the rise of totalitarianism, the poisoning of the public life and culture so that everything even associated with Christianity becomes not just taboo, but dangerous for its possessor, and so on.
But, it is often objected, that's hardly what we're talking about here. Christians, Catholic and other, will not be forced to stop practicing their religions, and priests or ministers won't be forced to marry gay couples. No one will be silenced or persecuted, and there won't be any "ripple effect" on the rest of society, either. Right?
The truth is that we don't really know. In one sense, the rise of Communist governments was like the swift strike of a deadly snake, that injected its fatal venom into the body politic, and initiated the death of the state which they overtook; the cultures of the states they infested became deathly ill, and even those which have today escaped Communism are struggling to overcome its dire effects: poverty, immorality, extremely low birthrates, the despair and apathy of citizens inured to hopelessness, and the vacuum left behind by the Church, which is struggling to re-establish itself and become once again a vital point of the life and culture of the people. I'm thinking mainly of Russia, here, but nearly any formerly Communist country is in a similar bind--the people are once again free, but free for what, and to do what? They have forgotten, though the sight of an icon or the faint sound of monks chanting may stir remembrance.
The cultural decline we're experiencing in America is different, as godless Communism differs from godless Materialism. But with each new strike at our former shared Judeo-Christian culture's values and mores, Materialism grows beyond mere consumerism to a deadly philosophy which admits to no reality save the empirical reality of the senses, and seeks to remove from all laws, ethics, and cultural values anything which can't be physically experienced, seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted, or in any way known or believed outside of this very limited physical reality. A snake may destroy with a venomous bite, or it may squeeze its victim slowly to death; and this second type of destruction is, I think, what we are experiencing now.
Contraception's widespread use and acceptance put asunder forever the automatic connection between sex and reproduction; if we are mere physical beings, why not see sex as a means of temporary pleasure, of no more meaning or purpose than the scratching of an itch? Reproduction itself became a mere collection of physical processes, such that an increasing number of people see nothing at all wrong with creating several embryos outside the mother's womb, sometimes with the sperm of a man she'll never even meet--all so a baby who is wanted in the same way a new pair of shoes are wanted can be implanted in her womb; she is more landlady than mother, and perhaps not even that, should a surrogate be deemed necessary. And if life can be created so cavalierly, why can it not be ended as well? So abortion on demand was imposed upon the people wholly, at the time, against their will; and the continued weakening of the bonds of love and trust necessary for the sustaining of the family were the result of this hellish practice. But if we can kill humans in the womb, why not kill other humans whom we don't want around? Euthanasia is the evil twin of abortion, for once life is seen as the sum total of its physical experiences then the ability to experience the world unimpeded by age or handicap becomes the default definition of human life. To this we must add ESCR, which will cure the handicapped or ill at the price of an innocent human being--but the one human may be able to leave behind an illness which impedes his experiential reality, and the other human is tiny and invisible and not yet capable of experiences he/she can ponder or savor or remember, so he/she is the more expendable of the two.
Against all of this madness has been raised the voice of the Church, though sadly the strong roar of truth coming from Rome has often weakened into an ineffectual bleat by the time some of our bishops get to it; and some of them seem to have perpetual laryngitis, too--but more on that another time. But now we approach a new frontier.
The madness that is "gay marriage" is so far limited to Massachusetts and California in this country, but that will undoubtedly change, barring a miracle. When it does change, the anti-discrimination policies already in existence will have the effect of defining anyone who believes that two men or two women ought not marry, or that such a couple is intrinsically and inherently different not only physically but morally as well from a heterosexual married couple, as a bigot.
The Catholic Church will be considered by the State to be a flawed and bigoted institution. Any ties between Church charities or organizations and state ones will have to be severed; many organizations will suffer the fate of Catholic Charities' adoption services, which did not receive state money but which had to be licensed by the state to continue operating. If Church charities, ministries, schools, hospitals etc. do not agree to abide by federal and state anti-discrimination policies which will in many cases include a push for overt acceptance by Catholic officials and Catholic employees of Catholic organizations of gay marriage, they will be shut down. In other words, Catholics will be forced to choose between their Church's teachings and their participation in public activities.
This will also be true for many, many Christians, too, as I outlined in yesterday's post. But what effect will the silencing and marginalizing of those of us whose disagreement with gay marriage is not mere opinion, but deeply held religious belief stemming from our understanding of morality and the dignity of the human person?
In the first place, a precedent will be set that religious beliefs, even those held by large and ancient Churches, are less important to preserve or allow in freedom than those things which can be physically experienced, such as abortion, euthanasia, or gay marriage.
In the second place, equating the longstanding religious beliefs of millions of Christians in America (and the world) with bigotry will have the effect of marginalizing those beliefs, and the people who hold them. While our Constitution forbids a religious test for public office, for instance, how comfortable will political parties be running "bigoted" candidates for public office?
In the third place, cultural references to or recognitions of Christianity will begin to contain an asterisk, to the effect that the religion behind these events does not live up to the standards of modernity, further weakening Christianity's effect on society.
The more Christianity is weakened as a social force, the more society as a whole is weakened--or, perhaps more accurately, replaced with a different social/cultural structure that does not acknowledge in any way the link between the Christian faith and a free and democratic society.
But that link is unmistakable. Societies and cultures prior to Christianity had no problem with such evils as infanticide and the mistreatment of women and the poor, with huge chasms between the powerful and the weak, with no middle class or middle ground, with no inherent respect for the dignity of the human person, with no limits to the raw power of the state, and with no real hope of change or improvement from the standpoint of any but the wealthy and well-connected. There were no discussions of the morality of preemptive warfare; taking out your potential enemy before he was strong enough to turn against you was an act of prudence, and the consequential suffering of the innocent would be met with a shrug; why should it matter? Similarly, other moral and ethic notions which the materialists among us believe are self-evident principles are not: they are Christian principles, or perhaps more accurately Judeo-Christian ones; they represent a certain type of culture and society, and when you have successfully eradicated that culture and that society you will find that notions like "Love your enemy" or "Do unto others as you would have them do to you," have been labeled fool's ideas and pipe dreams, and have vanished in a Randian/Darwinian synthesis that rewards only material success, and punishes those foolish enough to believe that any other good exists.
America was not founded on the principle "Every man/woman/LBGT for him/her/it/them selves!" But that will be the only principle left standing when the Christian roots of our nation's ethical ideas have been rotted away like the erstwhile flesh of a long-dead skeleton.