Yesterday, Ross Douthat quoted Patrick Deneen on the centrality of the prolife movement in American Catholicism. I followed the link to read Deneen’s post, which I found to be insightful: “Abortion and the Catholic Culture.” Deneen writes:
In my view, the singular focus upon abortion as THE issue over which conservative Catholics will brook no divergence and around which we are called to rally reveals, to my mind, not evidence of robust Catholic culture as much as its absence. It seems to me that - along with the opposition to gay marriage - this issue represents the last stand, the inner-most wall barely keeping the hordes from overrunning the sanctum. The ferocity over this issue - and this issue almost to the exclusion of nearly every other issue that might be part of a rich fabric of Catholic culture - suggests to me that Catholic culture, where it existed, has been largely routed. And, in fact, it suggests further that it is precisely for this reason that this issue has become largely defined politically - and not culturally - with an emphasis on the way that the battle over abortion must be won or lost at the ballot box (and, by extension, Supreme Court appointments).
Most Catholics have long ago ceased to live in a Catholic culture, per se. I would go so far as to surmise that many of the most vociferous opponents of abortion - ones lined up in this particular battle - do not by and large live in particularly Catholic cultures, so much as occasionally gather with like-minded Catholics at various locations (Church, a conference, a retreat) and otherwise live suffused in a decidedly non-Catholic culture. Most of us - Catholic or non-Catholic - live by default in THIS culture, whatever we would call it - liberal, modern, American, global, polyglot, anti-culture. THIS culture is decisively a “culture of choice.” Even those who would seek to inhabit a Catholic culture do so as a matter of individual choice - a lifestyle option. But this is not a Catholic culture as we might historically and traditionally understand such a culture - where that culture (as with any culture) shapes and forms your worldview, largely unbeknownst to you and without prior consent or choice on your part.
Several years ago, I had a conversation with a German convert to Orthodoxy wherein she discussed her annoyance at the political activism of Roman Catholics. I objected by saying that we are supposed to be the leaven in society and to work for just laws. She did not deny that, but she found the political focus of Roman Catholicism disturbing as a sort of horizontal idolatry. She argued that when we are focused on Christ, everything else finds its proper priority. In hindsight, I think that she was right. Papists, Left and Right, tend to substitute their political ideology for their religion. Leftist papists interpret the gospel as “social justice,” and conservative papists invest an inordinate amount of energy into “building a culture of life.” I think that both camps might suffer starvation of transcendence. True Christian culture emanates from the Christian life, where we strive to follow God rather than lower goods and where we are gradually transformed through life in the Church into vessels of divine grace. Saint Seraphim famously said, “Acquire the spirit of peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” Similarly, the presence of Christian families living the life of Christ will transform their community and bring about positive social benefits. As good works flow from a grace filled life, so also true justice originates in the soul’s transformation by God.