Electile Dysfunction: Accommodations and the Advent of 1984

Calls for post-election accommodations in the social, moral, and religious liberty issues of today may become a sequel to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Lots of water has passed under the bridge since then, but in June of 2011 I wrote a TSW post entitled “Goodbye, Good Priest! Father John Corapi’s Kafkaesque Catch-22.” The principal subject of that post is obvious, but a secondary theme was an exploration of how some famous literary works have entered into common usage in the English lexicon.

“Kafkaesque,” for example, refers today to an oppressive, nightmarish situation like that faced by a character in Franz Kafka’s most famous novel, The Trial (1925). The character faced vague charges, but at every juncture was unable to defend himself or even learn the exact evidence, if any, to be used against him. It was because of that novel that the late First Things Publisher/Editor, Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote a 2008 editorial about my own situation which he entitled, “A Kafkaesque Tale.”

A “Catch-22,” I explained in that post, is a term that originated with a 1962 novel of the same name by Joseph Heller. Its central character was a World War II U.S. Air Force bomber pilot who wanted desperately to avoid combat duty. The only way to do so was to be judged insane, so he feigned insanity. In the end it was determined that wanting to avoid combat duty was the clearest evidence of his sanity, so pretending to be insane deemed him fit for combat duty.

Today, “Catch-22” refers to any situation with an outcome driven by two mutually exclusive and incompatible conditions. The best example I know of is one I wrote about in “Trophy Justice: The Philadelphia Monsignor William Lynn Case.” In the practice of American justice known as plea bargaining, a guilty person who admits guilt goes to prison while an innocent person who cannot admit guilt may go to prison for a lot longer than the guilty person. It’s a bizarre quirk of American justice.


There’s another literary term that has entered the English lexicon, and it came to mind in the weeks following our recent elections. That term is “Orwellian,” and it refers to the facets of a totalitarian state as envisioned by British writer, George Orwell in a famous 1949 novel entitled Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was a chilling account of a future in which every facet of life is controlled by the State.

You have all heard of government referred to as “Big Brother.” It was the title given by Orwell to his tale’s all-powerful dictator who went to great lengths in the novel to appear benevolent. George Orwell’s “Big Brother” represents Big Government, a dystopian state (dystopia = the opposite of utopia) in a society characterized by nightmarish constrictions of civil rights and civil liberties. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, it was all packaged and sold under the mantra that Big Brother knows far better than you what is in your best interest, and will take care of you if you simply accommodate him. In the dystopian society of Nineteen Eighty-Four, too many people found comfort in that, and surrendered their rights and freedoms en masse.

I once had a Nineteen Eighty-Four moment of my own. Ironically, it really was in 1984, and it was a small but dark omen of the Orwellian state to come. I was but a 31-year-old idealistic young priest serving Saint Bernard Parish in Keene, New Hampshire. In the second week of Advent that year, the daily newspaper, The Keene Sentinel, carried a front-page story of the scandal of Mr. Steele, a local high school science teacher. Mr. Steele had a long practice of decorating his classroom with various displays of “the holiday season” including a few secular holiday symbols, a Menorah, and a small Christmas tree with a Nativity scene cradled beneath it. I think you already know where this is going.

As Advent commenced in 1984, one parent complained to the local Superintendent of Schools – who happened to be Catholic – that a Nativity scene in a public school classroom was offensive, and infringed upon his daughter’s Constitutional right – if indeed such a right ever existed – to freedom from exposure to religious symbols. The angry parent’s letter contained what could have been construed as a threat that a lawyer might be retained and legal action taken.

So in response, the Superintendent of Schools ordered Mr. Steele to remove the Nativity scene – and only the Nativity scene – from his classroom’s Christmas display. By the middle of that second week of Advent, another local headline revealed that the teacher declined to obey the directive. Two days later, at the end of that week, Mr. Steele was suspended from teaching and escorted by police from school grounds upon the Superintendent’s orders.

On the Third Sunday of Advent, I waded into the deepening waters of that fray in a homily in which I stated simply that “I commend Mr. Steele for having the courage of his convictions.” I made no other statement on the matter, and went on to a nice safe homily on the Gospel of that day – which, by the way, was about having the courage of one’s convictions. It was from the Gospel according to Saint John in which John the Baptist was confronted by the Pharisees of his time:

“There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came for testimony to bear witness to the light . . . ‘What do you have to say for yourself?’ they demanded. He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord.'” (John 1:6; 22-23)

Unbeknownst to me on that Third Sunday of Advent, 1984 – and I wonder what I would have done had I known – the Superintendent of Schools was seated in the church during my homily. At my brief commendation of Mr. Steele, he abruptly stood and stormed out of Mass. Later that day, I took an angry phone call from the Superintendent informing me that I had been a priest in “his” parish for all of a year while he had been a faithful parishioner since before I was born, and where did I get off dragging politics into a Sunday homily? “We could have been SUED!” he insisted angrily, as though the avoidance of being sued was the universally recognized final arbiter of all principles and convictions, religious and otherwise.

Later that day, I was subjected to a lecture from the parish pastor and my boss about refraining from EVER allowing politics to enter into my homilies in “his” parish. (A lot of people claimed ownership of that parish). For the life of me, I explained in my own defense, I simply could not see how a display about the birth of Christ at Christmas could be construed as a strictly political issue with no religious overtones whatsoever. “We could lose our tax status,” the pastor insisted. “Didn’t they teach you anything in the seminary?”

Umm, I guess I was absent that day. A few days later, I got a phone call and lecture from our diocesan Vicar for Community Affairs who told me that I had upset a lot of people and cautioned me against the “great danger of preaching politics from the pulpit.” He invited me to feel free to consult him whenever I had a question about the complexities of tax exemptions and preaching about “political issues” – such as depictions of the birth of Christ at Christmas.

So lest any of you wonder how it is that we ever got to where we are in the arena of religious liberty in America, the paragraphs above describe some milestones and signposts we missed. I missed them too. I wish, today, that my homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 1984, had been a rip-roaring endorsement of Mr. Steele’s courage and public witness, his willingness to bear the consequences of that witness, and the personal shame I felt at our Catholic leadership’s wimpy and self-serving response. Of course, I today know only too painfully that I said none of that. I was just too young and naive to bear the consequences of my own witness then. Mea maxima culpa!


We face on the horizon some looming and Orwellian deprivations of religious liberty now, and not just because Big Brother has lulled so many of us into a stupor about handing over our religious and civil rights. It’s also – and this is the most painful truth – because Big Brother has become quite accustomed to decades of a Catholic response in America that is wanting. Perhaps we have had too many decades of backing down, of compromising and accommodating, of making it a priority that we offend no one, that everyone likes us, and that everyone should always leave Mass every week feeling good about themselves. Perhaps, as a Church in America, we have made too much peace with this culture, becoming too comfortable and too acceptable, taking gently gliding strides down this culture’s sloping path like those quoted from C.S. Lewis in my post, “Accommodations in the Garden of Good and Evil“:

“The safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” (The Screwtape Letters (1942, Letter 12)

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – and in the elections of 2012 – Big Brother sold well the notion that he knows what is in your best interest and will take care of you. In that light, I cannot say that I was surprised by the outcome of the elections in America last month, but what did surprise me was the swiftness of calls for compromise on some of the social, moral, and political agendas of what in 1984 was called “the radical left,” and today is simply called “the left.” The calls for these accommodations on life issues, on marriage and family issues, and on religious liberty issues are put forth now after this election to lull the right into “a message” that is more “electable” when the message itself is not formed by what will get candidates into office, but by conscience.

It is not all gloom and doom, however. There have been some compelling demonstrations of Catholic witness, fidelity, and leadership in the post-election public square. Not least among them was a brilliant article by Catholic writer, George Weigel entitled, “The crisis of a second Obama administration.” I applaud George Weigel’s insight as witnessed in this prophetic stance:

“As for the opportunity embedded in this crisis, it is nothing less than to be the Church of the New Evangelization . . . Only a robustly, unapologetically evangelical Catholicism, winsomely proposing and nobly living the truths about the human condition the Church teaches, will see us through the next four years.”

Amen! And by the way, I know Father George David Byers had a video clip of this at Holy Souls Hermitage, but did anyone else happen to notice our President’s brief ceremony for the customary pardon of the White House turkey on Thanksgiving Day? It’s an annual event that for about the last eighteen years or so I have personally found quite painful to watch.

As President Obama approached the turkey to pardon it that morning, he casually made the Sign of the Cross over it, an almost universally recognized Catholic symbol of both blessing and absolution. Was it a gesture of respect for Catholic traditions or a gesture of contempt? We may never know, and we can’t ask the turkey. It died the next day.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus cautioned us that we must go out in public as though sheep in the presence of wolves, but He never intended that we should follow the wolves.

“Unless we recover the zeal and spirit of the first-century Christians – unless we are willing to do what they did, and pay the price they paid – the future of our country, the days of America are numbered.” Fr. John Hardon, S.J.

About Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus encouraged Father MacRae to write. Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005: “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.” READ MORE


  1. Rita Blaize-Watson says:

    A wise person once said “A good writer can express his feelings but a great writer can express yours.” Obvously, Fr. Gordon is a great writer.

  2. Juan says:

    Thank you father Gordon for this enlightening piece.

    My condolences and prayers go to all related to the dead in Newtown.

    Your article rang very true to me. So often I don’t have such a feeling listening to homilies or to many a politician.

    In Spain, where I live now, we are going through a similar state of affairs in public life, which applies to much of Europe too. When Gail Ramplen asks in her comment if the American Justice System is totally lame, I could easily place Spain as the subject in the phrase. According to the law here a marriage has ceased to be between a man and a woman, with all the implications of such a plot, not to mention abortion on demand. Another piece of news: if you are a pro – terrorist element you have it easier – in some parts of Spain – to reach public office than if you are the relative or friend of someone kidnapped or killed by the terrorists.
    Let us not forget that for evil to succeed a key element is that the good ones – often not so good – do nothing to counter it.

    The soul’s enemies are very active and seem to have the upper hand these days. However, as you Father Gordon remind us, there are lighthouses along the treacherous coast. Those quotes by C. S. Lewis, George Weigel and John Hardon were superb ( by the way, the late John Hardon, S.I., has a great text on how to examine one’s conscience, both as a general task and also referring in particular to faith, hope and charity.

    I want to end by bringing here a great model to all. In Sheikhpura, Pakistan, a Christian Catholic woman, Aasiya Noreen Bibi, married to Ashiq Masih and mother of five, has been incarcerated since 2009, and sentenced to death by hanging on the alleged account of blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad. It seems that she never intended any such blasphemy at all. Some are stating she had said something to the effect that she owed the most to Jesus Christ, others say she had “contaminated” the water of a public fountain, being a Christian as she is. About a month and a half ago a judge entered her windowless cell offering to revoke her sentence if she would convert to Islam to which she replied: “ I’d rather die as a Christian than leave the prison as a Muslim. I believe in God and his immense love. If I have been sentenced to die because of my love for God, I will be proud to sacrifice my life for Him” Two prominent public officials there, Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Batti, were murdered for having asked justice and freedom for her. Since international pressure is one of the reasons why she has not been executed so far, petitions of justice and freedom for Aasiya may be addressed to: His Excelency Mr. Asi Ali Zardari, President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, President’s Secretariat, Islamabad, Pakistan. Nothing to add except for the obvious: let us pray for her and so many others in similar situations, for her family, for her country ( which she loves ).

    May Advent’s blessings and those that Jesus’ birth obtained for us be with you, Father Gordon, and everybody in the house, as well as for those outside of it. In union of prayers, Juan.

  3. Anthony Wheeler says:

    After reading this post, and last weeks expose’ of The New York Times, I began to wonder about something. Among Catholic priests, have you no fear that the media may read these truths and say horrible things about you? But oh wait, that has already happened. Do you fear that the media may hype up your charges and have you thrown into prison? But oh wait, that has already happened. Do you fear that all that media hype and bullying may turn your other priests and bishop against you? But oh wait, that has already happened. It turns out in the end that you have nothing left to lose and nothing left to fear. That means that you alone among priests are free to write the whole truth. You do this with much courage, and it is Biblical.

  4. Father, I believe this article as well as the others you have written and I have read, since discovering you and learning about your unjust incarceration, are right on target. I have been telling everyone I know about your situation and I am so hoping that our prayers for you will speed your release. May God bless you.

  5. Helen says:

    After such a while, I am so happy to write You again. Please forgive my absence… I am going thru my own mini-troubles. However, Fr. Gordon…please rest assured that I pray for You EVERY single morning, in my personal prayers and have since I’ve first met You… and for Your falsely accused brothers. I always come away feeling that our Savior is hearing me.

    Fr. Gordon, I am so afraid for our kids in America, today. What will they have to endure in the future? I find solace in Your thoughts and am so very happy to read Your posts…recognizing that His Truth IS being expressed and I admire Your bravery. Most especially, from Your stand point, knowing full well, the suffering that can be appointed, even though INNOCENT. Your speaking the Truth is inspiring. You’re right, we NEED to speak it…as Jesus said: “…FROM THE ROOF TOPS”. NO MORE WHISPERS!!! Satan IS alive and well on planet Earth and he ‘seems’ to be gaining… My hope is in the promise of Jesus that “..the gates of Hell will NOT prevail.” and His wisdom… “If they persecute you, it is because they first persecuted Me”. Sounds like we’re on the right track.

    God bless You… Fr. Gordon. The Lord uses YOU to give us courage. Thank You, so very much, for Your consistency and constancy. We NEED You.

    Keep on keeping on… and I will, too, by keeping YOU in my daily prayers, hopes, and heart.


  6. Antoinette says:

    Father! I am so angry with weak Christian leaders and submission to politics, we may just ask Satan to take over.

    Where are the St John Vianney’s of today?

  7. fr Gordon , I constantly remember you and your fellow prisoners in prayer.and for protecting that old man who arrived in prison to which you refered inan earlier post.Especially during adoraion, IHS.

  8. Gail Ramplen says:

    Father, why is it taking sooooo long to regain the freedom that was unjustly taken from you! What is going on? Is the mighty, once respected, American Justice System totally lame? My respect for America is about at zero by now. How the mighty have fallen. Too true that God is the only one that can save it now; the American public have fallen into a deep sleep; it is like the sleep induced by thieves in South Africa on their intended victims while they strip their victims of all their possessions.

  9. Father, this article is excellent. The Pope knew what he was doing when he made this the Year of Faith. We should look for the signs of God’s grace pouring down on people – as long as we do our part to proclaim the truth.

    To do that, we must know our Faith and really love it. In addition, we must prepare ourselves for a vicious persecution, asking God to give us the grace to remain faithful to Him to the end. We must get rid of the idea that something is wrong with me because I stand with Peter when the ubiquitous “Everybody Else” is flying off in all sorts of destructive directions. Don’t be shaken for one minute. The world is wrong. God is right. And He is in charge.

  10. Gina Nakagawa says:

    Wonderful, insightful article, Father. The Sign of the Cross gesture was absolutely one of contempt. He made the sign with his left hand. God forgive him. He is a foolish and arrogant man. God forgive us. We are a lazy and foolish people. Praying for your vindication, Father. God bless and keep you.

  11. Kathleen Riney says:

    I’m 72, & have watched the American Catholic heretics take over MY RC Church……I watched as “Theologians ” ripped “Humanae Vitae” to shreds in Mainline Media & on “RC” College Campuses, before it was even translated to English! The Laity are as much to blame as any Priest or Bishop for the Crisis we are looking at now. They got what they DEMANDED! Now, as our Holy Pope has told us, our only hope is for a “Direct Intervention by God”!! He made that statement in the last 3-4 weeks……He’s right! I don’t think we’re going to like it. No Pope has spoken so frequently & so frankly, in remembered history. This is a Huge “SIGN” for those who will open their eyes. God have mercy on us!

  12. deaconjohn says:

    Excellent article, Farther MacRae!
    BTW, why did so many of those “devout” catholics vote for Obama? Was it party line or blindness? An example was this past Sunday as I parked my car on the church street, an elderly man pulled his car right in front of the steps of the church, got out and walked up the steps into the church. What caught my attention was the fact that he left his wife to fend for herself (also elderly), entering the church alone. Then I noticed on his rear bumper stickers with Obama’s picture and saying “Vote for Obama, Vote Democratic!” I wanted to yell at this man: Are you stupid? Obama is trying to destroy our Church and you voted for him?” But I didn’t. I know, who am I to judge this man’s vote. Well, I’m speaking for the millions of Unborn Babies who have been slaughtered and who cannot voice their opinion and can judge him!
    You’re in my daily prayers!

  13. I have been reading a new book entitled “Why Catholicism Matters” by Catholic League President Bill Donohue. In it he wrote, “History shows that there has never been a situation where a totalitarian regime has had anything but contempt for the Catholic Church, trying by every means possible… to shut it down.” What you have written here has certainly underscored Bill Donohue’s remark, and it should send a chill down the spine of every faithful Catholic.

  14. Joann Richmond says:

    Dear Father,
    Thank you for a well written article as always.
    My hope for the future is in young Catholics and the new evangelization as seen in the youtube segments of Father Barron. I, also, highly recommend his 2 talks at the 2012 Napa Instutute Day on reason and faith, and on catholic education which are both available on youtube. Perhaps we can turn the corner on the heresy of modernism that infects many in the Church both religious and laity.

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