It is a familiar story. The particulars are more radical this time. But it is essentially the same story.
A Catholic politician commits some grave public violation of basic human rights. Outraged Catholics call for his head on an ecclesiastical platter. The bishop wrings his hands but does essentially nothing.
The most brazen example yet is that of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s celebratory enacting of a law maintaining the legality of abortion just prior to birth, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s refusal to excommunicate him for it.
The outrage among the faithful over the inaction of Cardinal Dolan, and countless other bishops, is understandable. I share it.
It is the role of the bishops to teach, govern and sanctify the Church. The less they do their job, the harder it is to form a laity with the proper catechesis and holy boldness to defend faith, family and the unborn in the public square.
But if your reaction to the barbarism of Gov. Cuomo consists mostly of just shaking your fist at Cardinal Dolan, you are doing something wrong. In fact, you are not doing your job as a layman.
This is something I have seen repeatedly in my fifteen years as a Catholic lay activist: The strange tendency of the lay faithful to focus almost entirely on the internal drama of the Church, to the exclusion of much else. The result is a clericalized laity that is not much more effective than the priests and bishops against whom they inveigh.
Fr. Roger Landry, in a 2013 column expressing the early hopes of the Francis pontificate, described it this way: “Clericalization means focusing fundamentally on the things of the clergy and, more specifically, the sanctuary, rather than on bringing the Gospel to the world.”
In the fight for faith and family in the public square, this clericalism of the laity fails in two ways.
First, and most obviously, we lose fights that we were never really in.
In the Fall of 2007 Connecticut’s Catholic faithful erupted in anger at our state’s bishops when they chose not to fight a law from going into effect that forced the Catholic hospitals to provide the Plan B abortifacient drug. But six months earlier, when we could have stopped the bill at the legislature, the lay faithful were largely silent.
This incident was overshadowed by another attack on the Church in Connecticut two years later in which the bishops and laity did rise up and win. But in my experience, 2007 has been the rule and 2009 the exception. In most cases, the lay faithful bring far more energy to excoriating the clergy than they do to defending the faith in the public square.
Yet the laity’s most important sphere of influence is the public square and that is where the bulk of our energy should be focused. When it is not, we lose. And then we blame the bishops.
The second way in which the clericalism of the laity fails is in how it skews our vision. It makes us parochial, in the bad sense. Instead of being focused on where we can do the most good, we chase after things that, even if achieved, would likely not bring about our desired goal.
I am talking about that most cherished item on the wish-list of every disappointed pro-life Catholic: the excommunication / denial of communion / disinvitation from public events of pro-abortion Catholic politicians.
Yes, I think it should happen too. And yes, it should be done for the good of their own souls and to redress the scandal they have caused.
But the vast majority of comments that I see, wishing for this to happen, seem to be borne out of a belief that this action would turn the tide in the fight for the unborn. That is, that politicians would change their ways or that the sleeping giant of 60 million Catholics would stop voting for them.
This is a bizarre belief that could only result from spending too much time in the exceedingly tiny subculture of the Catholic faithful and not enough time in the rest of society. It would be as if it were still 1960, when 80% of Catholics voted for Jack Kennedy, and the last six decades never happened.
I am a 49 year old man who, except for 7th grade, attended public school. My classmates were largely Irish or Italian Catholics. If, say, Cardinal Dolan had disinvited Barack Obama from the Al Smith dinner in 2012, it would not have changed a single vote among my old friends who re-elected him.
They might still check off “Catholic” on a census form but most of them don’t even know who Cardinal Dolan is (or who Al Smith was). They haven’t seen the inside of a church in years. And this is true not just of many of the hundreds of people with whom I grew up, but also of members of my family of origin and almost every cultural Catholic I know.
The tendency to think a good excommunication might have the desired political effect on this crowd is a result of being too much in the Catholic bubble. In a devastating 2014 look at “The Shame of the Catholic Subculture,” John Zmirak cited research showing that the “orthodox Catholic market” in the USA is “no higher than 1.2 million.” Those are the only ones who would take positive note of an excommunication.
“We need to encounter a broader range of humanity than can be found in that doctrine-conscious 5 percent,” Zmirak writes. That ought to be the goal of every faithful Catholic who is rightly disgusted over Andrew Cuomo’s celebration of the killing of unborn children in the final moments before birth.
Forget Cardinal Dolan for five minutes. Put aside the internal dramas of the church. Focus instead on Christianizing your rightful sphere of influence, the public square.
Join the town committee of your preferred political party and advocate for candidates who support Catholic values. Seek out your state’s family policy council. And, on the national level, get involved with groups like CatholicVote.org.
These are entities that are focused less on excommunication in the communion line and more on defeat and victory at the ballot box. And that is where we should be focused too.