Anthony Lilles, a founding faculty member of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Co., now serves in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles as Academic Dean for Saint John’s Seminary in Camarillo, CA and as academic advisor for Juan Diego House in Gardena, CA. He was instrumental in founding the Avila Institute of Spiritual Formation and provides podcasts for DiscerningHearts.com. His forthcoming publications include Fire from Above, a treatise on contemplative prayer by Sophia Institute Press and 30 Days with Saint Therese of Lisieux, by Emmaus Press, co-authored with Daniel Burke. Lilles is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville. He completed his graduate and post-graduate studies in Rome at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas, and his dissertation researched Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity. Read more from Anthony here.
Is faith in the Risen Lord a shield against a growing political and cultural absolutism in America today?
If yes, it may explain why a growing number of Catholics refuse to retreat from the public square even as they seem to lose struggles for the sacredness of marriage and life. Christians and other people of prayer engage the marketplace of ideas with even greater vigor. In the meantime, young people are responding to the call to service and lives of prayer with greater courage and enthusiasm than ever. Even as our churches in America and worldwide are burned down and unbridled hatred is unleashed brutally on our brothers and sisters in the Lord, we have good reason to fall to our knees and pick up this shield again in prayer.
The Catholic faith is about freedom because it is about the Truth, the deepest truth about God and about our existence. It appeals to the deepest sanctuary of the heart. If it promotes social institutions, it does so to make space for the voice of conscience in human affairs. Whether it concerns the sacredness of marriage, or of motherhood, or of family, or of life itself, the Church has a responsibility to speak the truth in love.
The Risen Lord died that this voice might be made pure through the forgiveness of sin. All the baptized are obliged to propose this hope with love, no matter how often it is rejected or how deeply it is despised. It is about people being set free to thrive, to live life to the full, to come home to God where they most belong.
As it abandons Christianity, America is diminished under the weight of bad religion. Religion vulnerable to the latest cultural and political fad denigrates the worship of God, making it into a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. It imposes myths that appeal to the imagination in order to raise false hopes about prosperity and security. It takes advantage of those who think that they can keep their faith pure without the authority of the Church. It wants piety locked behind the doors of a Church and kept within the confines of our private lives.
The altar of such political avarice can only bind us to all kinds of heartless programs of social reengineering.
Only the Truth provides the solid ground on which alone human dignity stands. This is the ground on which the authority of the Church rests too. This is why the Church must speak out whenever human dignity is on the line. Anything else is just a slippery slope. Because it offers only a slippery slope, bad religion is always dehumanizing.
All too often, our leaders refer to God with manipulative sentimentality, cloaking their hidden agendas with pious jargon. What is more, our branches of government usurp the very place of God, desecrating the most sacred institutions of human existence, declaring not as blessings but as burdens the dying, the unborn and the stranger. They have rendered marriage, motherhood and family life vulnerable to the latest whims of the politically powerful, while scoffing cultural thugs shame us into silence.
Everyone is afraid of being labeled intolerant even when the most tender truths about human existence and freedom are on the line. The greatest sin in America today, however, is not intolerance. Indeed, intolerance toward Christians is heralded as a great social virtue. Such bigotry toward people of faith is presumed so righteous and sophisticated that not to hold it is regarded with surprise and dismay. So blinding is this deadly prejudice that, even as Christians forgive their murderers and bury their martyrs, national figures cannot see this growing evil for what it is. They ignore, redirect and spin, but refuse to confront this grave social evil whether within our borders or beyond them.
Since bad religion has gained the upper ground in the United States, people of faith who dare to question the wrong cultural conventions are deemed anathema. To dare to defend the integrity of marriage or the sacredness of human life is an unforgivable social crime. It is considered a threat to all civil discourse to suggest that there is another standard in such matters beside the whims of the elite. Because Christians propose otherwise, they have become the special targets of social hatred.
True piety and humble prayer always take Christians into this beatitude. Real prayer leads us to question both ourselves and our conventions in the light of heaven. Such prayer is dangerous personally and socially for those who are attached to using others for their own projects and personal gain. Yet for those who need a word of hope and a shield against tyranny, this kind of prayer is vital.
Prayer rooted in our Catholic faith causes us to measure everything against the wonder of God's love at work in our misery. Manifest in the very least of our neighbors, the glory of this Living God implicates us in the plight of the less fortunate and most vulnerable, because this is where he dwells. Without this kind of piety, without this loyalty to God for his own sake, this standard of American greatness cannot be found. Raised by our forefathers, defended with their blood, we must rediscover this sanctuary of true human liberty — not only for ourselves, but for the rest of humanity.
Our faith lives in the wonder of Divine Providence raising up the poor and lowly, and bowing down the powerful and self-satisfied. A piety rooted in this hidden truth purifies politics. It reveals those wolves that merely use people to gratify their will to power. It raises the most essential questions about the meaning of society and the proper role of government. Here, our faith protects what is most tender and noble about our fragile human existence.
Christ crucified humbles us all. Before him we know that might does not make right, due process alone is not enough for justice, and even capital punishment does not provide the last word about life. The earthly supremacy claimed by any court will pass away — and he will remain. To him, we will all render an account.
The greatness of the Christian religion, the power of the cross, is how it raises us above ourselves and gives us the courage to seek and live by the truth. This is the freedom to question cultural convention and political powers, to renounce the absolute claims that they make on our lives, to choose to live in the freedom of God's love.
Under the shadow of the cross, believers know that the land of the free and the home of the brave can be rediscovered in our time. Under the shield of faith, we have every hope of finding the courage to defend those sacred institutions and values that make a nation great.