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Is the Faith a Trench or a Bunker?

My blog post last week elicited more feedback than I’m used to, running roughly three to one against my assertion that Catholic parents ought not to abandon the Boy Scouts of America over its recent decision no longer to exclude self-identified homosexual boys. Most of the naysayers repeated—in some cases, in more thoughtful and developed ways—the two basic objections I noted in my original post: that this policy change a) puts our boys at an unacceptable risk of sexual predation and b) signals an inevitable slide down the slippery slope to more egregious policy changes that will wreck scouting.

There were some additional arguments for my position, too: notably, the idea that admitting “gay” boys (which, in the early tween to teen years, really means sexually confused boys) to the manly influences of scouting will do them good. The obvious objection, of course, is that the influence is more likely to run the other way; that a homosexual influence will neuter scouting instead. There’s a parallel here to the argument over the so-called “conservative case for same-sex marriage,” which alleges that admitting homosexuals to the institution will bring marriage’s goods—fidelity, permanency, fecundity—to bear on gay culture and thus improve it, even though logic and early returns tell us that when you mix marriage and homosexuality it is the former that changes, not the latter. Still, in the context of scouting this argument from compassion shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

And so it seems like many Catholic parents (and Evangelicals too) are not only ready to bail on the BSA but are fired-up to pursue alternatives. In this I see a second parallel to the marriage debate, and more evidence of a dismaying trend.

Prior to the conclave in which he was elected, Pope Francis is said to have addressed his brother cardinals and warned that the Church has become too “self-referential,” and that it must instead “come out of herself” and return to the “sweet, comforting joy of evangelizing.” Though he spoke these words before his election, their wide reporting just afterward has made them a kind of overture for his pontificate.

We can take these admonitions variously. They are a challenge to the sclerotic Roman bureaucracy. They are a rebuke to Catholic infighting over non-essentials. They are an command to take the gospel bravely and zealously to all corners of the culture. In my own heart they convict me of my tendency to think that our task is to fight the world rather than save it; to forget that the Holy Spirit not only works incrementally to sanctify the souls of believers but can radically convert even those who yesterday hated him.

And there’s another possibility. I think the pope’s words also caution against our impulse to shrink back from the world—to make the Faith a bunker (an isolated pocket of safety to which we retreat) rather than a trench (a sheltered base of operations from which we advance).

There’s the analogue to the marriage debate: the growing chorus among faithful Christians to “get the state out of the marriage business.” Government can call marriage anything it wants, goes the argument—or indeed nothing at all. We’ll take the ideal of Christian marriage down into the catacombs with us where no one can mess with it.

The appeal of such a mentality is obvious. Western Christians have been playing defense for two generations. We’ve had to build new institutions—apostolates, schools, publishers, media outlets—to replace ones that used to serve us but now fail, or worse, threaten us. It’s not a big step from there to a kind of sequestration that doesn’t just seek out alternatives to worldliness but disengages from the world entirely.

A recent Christianity Today piece highlighted a letter that J. R. R. Tolkien wrote to C. S. Lewis deploring Lewis’s assertion that the Christian prohibition of divorce was a prescription of religious positive law that could not be applied to society as a whole—tantamount to not eating meat on a Friday. Tolkien points out that marital permanence is a natural truth, the “correct way of running the human machine.” He then relates a wedding he attended that underscored the loss, if not the absurdity, that follows from divorcing civil marriage from Christian marriage:

The last Christian marriage I attended was held under your system: the bridal pair were “married” twice. They married one another before the Church’s witness (a priest), using one set of formulas, and making a vow of lifelong fidelity (and the woman of obedience); they then married again before the State’s witness… using another set of formulas and making no vow of fidelity or obedience. I felt it was an abominable proceeding—and also ridiculous, since the first set of formulas and vows included the latter as the lesser. In fact it was only not ridiculous on the assumption that the State was in fact saying by implication: I do not recognize the existence of your church; you may have taken certain vows in your meeting place but they are just foolishness, private taboos, a burden you take on yourself: a limited and impermanent contract is all that is really necessary for citizens.

Our impulse may be to protect marriage by snatching it away from the grubby hands of the state; our motive may be preserve the “pure” vision of scouting by defecting to upstart Catholic alternatives. But in both cases, I think, we’re merely marginalizing ourselves—admitting to the world that we’re most interested in our “foolish private taboos.” For neither marriage nor scouting is so far gone yet that we have no moral or practical choice but full retreat. (The BSA is not the Girl Scouts, which, whether or not it ever was the moral equivalent of the Boy Scouts, clearly hasn’t been for some time.)

In both cases, we’re faced with a choice between going to the world and penetrating it, informing its institutions with the gospel, with the witness of our lives and families, or retreating into a self-referential ghetto. I believe the former course better fulfills the universal call to evangelize, and, just as importantly, helps ward off the only possible future for a Church that hides in its bunker: cultural irrelevance.

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