My cover story in the Tablet about the excommunication of Sister Margaret McBride earned me two friendly rebukes from thoughtful commentators whose opinions I value, one from the right and one from the left. Interestingly, both took issue with the exact same sentence in a 1,400 word essay. I wrote: "Today, in America, the Catholic Left reduces the Church’s mission to a social-justice ethic and the Catholic Right reduces the Church’s mission to its ethics on sexual morality."
My critic from the left said that he knows many social justice activists who are deeply committed to the Church, they put the Eucharist at the center of their lives, worship and pray with fellow Catholics and are keenly attentive to the spiritual life. I do not doubt it. But, in some of their public pronouncements, you sometimes lose sight of the mysteries of faith. By way of example, every Good Friday, some groups sponsor a special "Way of the Cross for Economic Justice." I am sure that this is well intentioned. And, I am sure that those who suffer economic justice can feel a special affinity with the Crucified. But, I worry that if on this most solemn of days, we focus on our own crosses rather than on His Cross, we have missed something.
My critic from the right noted that, as my article concerned the issue of abortion, it left the impression that I considered abortion a matter of sexual ethics. I certainly do no such thing. First of all, as a simple matter of strategy, in American culture, any ethical issue that is framed in terms of "choice" has already been decided and choice wins. More importantly, the Church’s opposition to abortion is clearly and unambiguously an issue of anthropology, not ethics. We believe that abortion is wrong because of what we believe about the dignity of the human person and, therefore, that the act is morally wrong. That said, if you look through fund-raising letters from conservative groups, you will find that abortion is listed alongside gay rights, pornography, and drug abuse among the lists of moral wrongs that are crippling our society. The linkage of abortion to sexual morality is not mine: I was calling attention to a phenomenon in the culture.
I do wish I had said, "some on the Catholic Left" and "some on the Catholic Right" rather than the more sweeping claim that the actual text suggests. But, I stand by the statement. The point I was making was that there is a pathology in American religious experience, the reduction of religion to ethics, and that this reduction limits the Church’s ability to proclaim the Gospel. It is a point that has been made repeatedly by Pope Benedict XVI, that moralism can get in the way of preaching the Gospel if the Gospel is reduced to morals, although not attributing the pathology solely to American religious experience. The insight received its most clear and vivid statement in the remark of Father Luigi Giussani, who observed that "Christianity is an encounter, not an ethic."
None of this is to say that social justice and sexual morality are not important; they are! And, I would argue that they are integral to the Christian life. But, they flow from a prior commitment to the Crucified who Lives. When people say that they think Jesus was a great ethical teacher but they deny the dogmatic claims about his divinity, remind them that the people who knew Jesus best, the people of His day, put him to death as a criminal. Ask them if they can cite any other great first century ethicists or, more pointedly, any other first century criminals whose verdict they think should be overturned. The fact is that unless Jesus has been raised from the dead, there is no reason to quibble with the sentence imposed upon Him by Pilate and the Sanhedrin.
For us Catholic Christians, it is because the tomb was empty on Easter that we can now embrace Jesus’ call to social justice and chaste living. And if, at the end of my life, a priest or friend tells me I should be content that I achieved some measure of social justice or that I have lived a chaste life, I am going to tell them to leave me alone. As a Catholic Christian, I hope for a social justice that does not have to be continually fought for generation after generation. I hope for a chastity that is not a challenge and knows no temptations. And, I want to know, on my deathbed, that I will live forever with those I love. That is the promise of Christ. Again, I apologize for any confusion my article caused on this point and for my failure to say "some on the Left" and "some on the Right" resulting in what was perceived as a slur against good people whose lives are above reproach.