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.
ADVENT OF THE ORWELLIAN STATE
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!
POST-ELECTION RED STATE BLUES
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.