John Zmirak received his B.A. from Yale University in 1986, then his M.F.A. in screenwriting and fiction and his Ph.D. in English in 1996 from Louisiana State University. He has taught at Catholic and secular colleges, including Tulane University. He has contributed to American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia and The Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought. He has served as Senior Editor of Faith & Family Magazine and a reporter at The National Catholic Register. His new book, The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism, is now available. Check his new blogs and archived columns at The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall.
This election was not a defeat but a catastrophe. We on the Christian Right had hoped to save the natural law for our fellow Americans. Increasingly, it seems that they’ve refused our offer, that the U.S. has leaped 20 years closer to becoming just another fractious, Western, post-free country in decline — a vast, self-bankrupting Belgium.
Worthy voices are speaking up to remind us that cultures are not saved by governments, that we must rebuild and purify the Church before she can change the world, that our first task remains attaining holiness at home. Bravo to that. I don’t know anyone personally who neglected his family or faith to campaign for Republicans, but if that’s you, then cut it out. Go spend more time on your knees.
We face much graver challenges than U.S. Catholics have in a hundred years. This time, all other orthodox Christians are under siege alongside us. We’ll have to teach our children — despite our country — what real marriage is, that life is truly sacred, that parenthood is more than a side-effect like herpes.
This will be harder than ever, once the HHS mandate is applied, and Catholic parochial schools have either shut down or sold out. The drive to homeschool will be stronger, even as rising taxes and stagnant wages goad more mothers into the workforce.
When Catholic hospitals close, we will have to hope that pagan nurses will call in priests when we are dying, that bloodless doctors don’t look to the bottom line and pull the plug.
As the state takes more of our money and restricts our religious activities, we will ever more start to resemble the dhimmi Christians of the Muslim world — not free in any meaningful sense, but “tolerated,” like Protestants in Franco’s Spain.
As we crawl back into an ever-narrowing ghetto, we must remember that the devil is sure to follow. The first thing we’ll have to remember is this: Being a Catholic, even an activist one in a fiercely resistant subculture, doesn’t exempt a man from original sin. Just because someone checks off the same doctrinal boxes as you does not mean you can trust him. (Nor he you.) Nor, regretfully, does the fact that he’s wearing a collar or even a miter — as one recent event reveals a bishop’s serious failure to act swiftly and decisively to root out wrongdoing.
Think you can winnow out every impure motive by imposing a stricter standard of doctrine or worship? So have thousands of earnest, prayerful, naïve Catholics in the recent past — from the traditionalist Catholics in Pennsylvania who tried to start a “Catholic city” to those who enrolled with or trusted their children to a burgeoning, perfectly orthodox religious order that flaunted its contacts in Rome. There are many more examples, but you get the point.
The Catholic subculture, just like the rest of fallen mankind, has its share of sociopaths, con men, parasites and bullies — the “wolves” whom Our Lord warned would come for the “lambs.” Like the rest of the non-profit sector, we attract more than our fair share of loafers, who gravitate to us because they sense that our standards are lower. Maybe they get that idea from the way we dress for Mass.
For too long and far too often, we have winked at mediocrity, malfeasance, even malice on the part of our fellow “faithful Catholics,” reasoning that each culprit was “one of us.” (I won’t name the major archdiocese that has a “blue book” of overpriced contractors it uses exclusively, because those owners are kin of clergy.) There’s a word for this kind of behavior, whether it’s practiced by Wall Street bankers, union leaders or orthodox Catholics: It’s called “corruption.”
If we will be the leaven in a disintegrating society, we must reject the tribalist habit of premature forgiveness and pre-emptive moral amnesia. Instead of holding Catholics to lower standards than we would pro-choice secular humanists, we must demand more of them — and of ourselves. We have the help of the sacraments. Our bar should be that much higher.
Whatever Catholic institutions the federal government tolerates must be managed more transparently than their secular counterparts, must respect the human dignity of their employees and customers, must honestly balance their books and tell donors the truth — not comforting stories wrapped in pious rhetoric. Those of us who are donors are simply negligent if we fail to see how our money is being spent—for instance, by checking the balance sheets of the groups we’re giving to. Thoughtlessly sending one’s widow’s mite to wastrels is like buying a forged indulgence. Our Lord is not impressed.
We must work harder than the pagans, and expect more of ourselves and of each other. We must “test the spirits” of those who claim a divine mission, as rigorously as the Church tests the claims of a private apparition. If someone has shown himself dishonest or incompetent, we cannot afford to leave him in place, no matter how sad his sob story.
We must flee his evil company, and send him off to work on something less urgent than saving souls. When you call the cops on a crook or fire a drone, you aren’t avenging yourself — you’re protecting his next potential victim. Mother Angelica wisely warned us against our age’s reigning sin — “misguided compassion.” And Christ never told us to turn someone else’s cheek.
Christians are more vulnerable than ever. The world is watching us keenly, seeking the chance to shrink our apostolates even further. Every time we give in to corruption — either by practicing or enabling it — we make the Enemy’s job just that much easier. We are told to be “wise as serpents” for a reason.