But in Wednesday’s gospel, Jesus states flatly that “the world hates them because I gave them your word.” There have been odd times in the last 2000 years when the world has honored men who spoke the Word of God. But for most of our history, in fact, the Word has been met with enmity. “They do not belong to this world,” Jesus continues. But you, O Heavenly Father, “consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth.” At some point, we priests, and we Christians, have to give up the illusion that the “world” and the Word of God are reconcilable. In the end, either the Word submits to the World, or the World to the Word.
Pastor Russell Moore recently wrote Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel. Rusty Reno reviews that book in last month’s issue of First Things. “The Church fails to leaven society when it poses as culture’s friendly chaplain,” he writes. “The same is true when the Church poses as culture’s stern, disciplining chaplain….” What God asks of us is neither to save the world nor to condemn the world, but simply to witness to Himself. He does the heavy lifting, but we cannot pretend our witness will be gladly accepted by most.
Not three years ago we could respectfully engage in rational discourse with the prevailing culture on questions like marriage and the sale of human body parts. Now we are simply “bigots.” I submit we have not yet realized how radically the playing field has changed. My priestly persona is still greeted with respect in many parts of the country (in the poorer parts of San Francisco, and in those parts of the country where Christianity has not been driven underground). How touching to be greeted in Haiti, for example, with a joyful “bonjour, mon pere!” These poor of black men, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, testify how good it is that we have a Father in Heaven, and how good it is to respectfully greet another human being made in His image.
But as the pride of human wealth grows, the world is quickly losing this perception of the supernatural. And that means Christians cannot effectively contribute to a political order that denies an intelligent order above human reason. The sooner we stop expecting this changed political order to comprehend us on questions like marriage, sexuality, and human rights, the better. What we say is incomprehensible to those who do not believe in God. Better to return to what Christians have done over most of our history, which is simply to witness to God’s existence. Our battleground is no longer moral or political, but spiritual.
We are no longer welcome in polite society; if we enjoy social status today, it will only be because we have compromised, or have kept silent, on some fundamental Gospel truths. Those in power, for instance, cannot tolerate those who insist on the natural, God-given differences between men and women. It is for the Church now to simply stand as serene witness to a supernatural authority. The powerful have redefined marriage as anything they want it to be (and why only between two men and not between three men or two men and a dog? Certainly not for any rational argument, but simply because the powerful say so). Christians cannot argue against this power, but only quietly testify that the human will is not the supreme power of the universe.
As a Catholic priest, at times all I can do is stand quietly on Geary Boulevard in witness to the fact that God exists. My job is simply to testify that God is love, and that Divine Love rather than human “love” alone creates. Anything less finally destroys. I cannot expect many to listen to this Word I have been given to speak, at least not now. But when a society based on nothing greater than the human will to power finally collapses, as it has from the Romans to the Soviets, the Church will be here still, witnessing to the same truth, and helping to pick up the pieces.