It’s no mystery that the influence of the Catholic Church on public life in America has sunk to depressingly low levels. Some recent incidents make it clear just how low and how depressing.
There was a time — and not all that long ago — when New York State was considered a bastion of Catholic power. No governor, no legislator, no mayor or municipal official would have contemplated any action without first weighing how it would be received among the state’s massive Catholic voting bloc. And nowhere was that bloc more identifiable and motivated than in New York City.
Yet, the Empire State has just instituted what is arguably the most extreme abortion law in U.S. history. This legislation, signed by New York’s self-professed Catholic governor, Andrew Cuomo, permits abortion up to the moment of birth, as well as the direct murder, outside the womb, of an infant who might survive the abortion procedure and be born alive.
To celebrate this unique legislative achievement, the top of the Freedom Tower in New York City’s World Trade Center was illuminated in pink (though blood red would have been more appropriate). Thus, evil is proclaimed across this once-Catholic city.
Another revealing recent incident was the intentional maneuvering of those boys from Covington (Kentucky) Catholic School into a situation that made it appear they were harassing an American Indian representative in an aggressive display of public bigotry in Washington, DC.
This was a brilliant improvisation on the part of someone who saw in this group of MAGA hat-wearing teenagers an opportunity to discredit the March for Life in which they had just participated. The propaganda genius who thought it up must have fancied himself truly inspired when it came out that these kids were not only Trump supporters but Catholics.
A genuine twofer — slam the March, and slam the Catholic Church as well.
When video of the confrontation “went viral,” the first reaction of school and Church authorities back home was condemnation of the boys and blustering promises of investigations and righteous retaliation. Only after alternative footage emerged revealing that the teenagers had been the ones encroached upon, did the local bishop offer a less-than-robust apology to the students, who had actually behaved as young Catholic gentlemen.
The Church is empowered by the Holy Spirit, and its leaders are to tap into that power for the courage needed to stand up for what is right. They are to confront the world, and to resist the powers of evil.
However, both the spectacle of blood lust in New York and the sordid little drama in Washington underscore a sad truth: Today’s Church leaders are not going forth in the power of the Holy Spirit. They are frightened. Some completely lack the courage to speak the truth.
This is especially evident in New York, where calls for the excommunication of Governor Cuomo and other complicit politicians have been met with hedging from Church leaders. All the expected responses have been heard:
Might not be politically wise …
Might not meet the requirements of canon law …
Might damage critical relations between Church institutions and state agencies …
Might undercut the Church’s ability to help the poor …
… and numerous others.
These are the concerns of earthbound men — practical, endlessly realistic, even wise in a worldly sense, but weakened, compromised, sapped of spiritual energy, devoid of commitment to truth.
And so the public scandal of a “Catholic” Governor Cuomo persists as our leaders fail in their duties as shepherds of Christ’s flock, as this evil legislation may be replicated in state after state, as babies are being murdered at an increasingly alarming rate.
In Kentucky, Catholic young people are absorbing the lesson that their “responsible” elders can’t be counted on to stand behind them, even when the kids are innocent and conducting themselves in Christian virtue. They can’t be counted on for loyalty to the young people in their charge, to give the benefit of the doubt, to defend them when they’re slandered by the media or face actual threats.
And so, the future of the Church is made even more uncertain as the next generation experiences disillusionment in those to whom they should look for guidance and example.
A third incident — less dramatic, perhaps, but in its own way quite telling — occurred at the University of Notre Dame. A mural which has long graced the Admissions Building on campus is being covered over. The image is of Christopher Columbus holding a cross. Native American figures are shown kneeling.
Some students have insisted that the mural is offensive, celebrating the conquest over indigenous people by the European invaders.
Now, you could have an honest and informative discussion about the Spanish impact on native cultures, or about the Columbus expeditions’ involvement in the slave trade, or about any aspect of America’s discovery suggested by the Notre Dame mural. But university officials have decided not to defend intellectual integrity or to exploit the “teaching moment” this incident provides.
They aren’t even standing by the fact that it’s the cross before which those Indians are kneeling, not Christopher Columbus. And of course, the cross is the preeminent symbol of that Faith of which Notre Dame is often considered the foremost educational exponent.
Those leaders too are failing to go forth in the power of the Holy Spirit.
I realize that the great sex scandal has diluted the Church’s moral witness. I understand that Pope Francis has been sending mixed signals about certain key precepts of Catholic doctrine. The bishops have their hands full, no doubt.
But there are certain events so overtly wicked or so heavily laden with moral symbolism that Church leaders simply must not fail to address them, or the Christian message is lost. Our bishops need to trust in the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, we’ll never be able to trust in them.
A priest of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, Rev. Michael P. Orsi currently serves as parochial vicar at St. Agnes Parish in Naples, Florida. He is host of “Action for Life TV,” a weekly cable television series devoted to pro-life issues, and his writings appear in numerous publications and online journals.