Lent in a time of a Catholic culture war

It seems like Ash Wednesday came early this year; I feel like I have been swallowing ash for weeks, anyway. … Continued

It seems like Ash Wednesday came early this year; I feel like I have been swallowing ash for weeks, anyway.

The ferocious controversy engendered by the Health and Human Service department’s new contraception mandate has launched a thousand vitriolic press releases and ignited uncountable Internet flame wars and blog skirmishes. Leaving aside the moral, practical and political variables that are supercharging the “debate,” the deportment of many of the good Christians “dialoguing” about the matter should be a source of distress in its own right.

Linda Davidson


”The broader secular culture already regards Catholics as somewhere between delusional and dangerous, we seem to be hurrying to confirm that diagnosis,” writes Kevin Clarke.

Outsiders are locking miters with the U.S. Catholic bishops, but inside the church itself a creeping factionalism accelerates the animus. On the left, Catholic “progressives” mock the bishops, seeing them as a crooked gang of celibate old men making rules for women; and on the right, conservative firebreathers continue their scorched church policy, offering new directions toward exit doors for Catholics caught in the middle. See these Christians: how they love to fight each other.

This is not what I signed on for. Where’s all the good stuff that used to energize me about being Catholic? Where’s all the feeding of the hungry, the clothing of the naked, the caring for the sick, the loving as we have been loved? Where is the community gathered to break bread not heads? The broader secular culture already regards us as somewhere between delusional and dangerous, we seem to be hurrying to confirm that diagnosis.

View Photo Gallery: From Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, global scenes of faith and tradition.

It is not inappropriate to feel adrift during Lent. Moses and the Israelites wandered the desert lost, no doubt anxious, wondering where all the suffering and struggle was taking them, wondering if this guy Moses really had any idea where he was going after 40 years. And Jesus’ own 40 days was no picnic either. Likewise adrift in the desert, taunted and tempted by Satan, wondering if he were up to the task that lay ahead, perhaps puzzled and marveling at his own swirling emotions and indecision.

Perhaps the Catholic Church in America resides in a desert of its own making as well. The faithful fall away, shell-shocked by scandal, disgusted by the disharmonies promoted by religion in civic and geopolitical life. Unfortunately during periods of conflict in recent years the church seems to do no better than embrace the snark and sarcasm at play in the wider culture. When we could be witnesses, we have been combatants. Change a few of the words around and many Catholic blogs could be mistaken for a redstate.com or a moveon.org.

What does it mean to be Catholic in America? How do we distinguish ourselves? We came to this promised land and found ourselves taunted and tempted, and we have succumbed sometimes to those temptations. Today, one mark of this church could be the way it disagrees with itself.

This Lent, Catholics are at the edge of the desert and the distance we have to travel seems impassable. As disheartening and confusing as these conflicts feel while we experience them, the church has survived much worse before. I have faith that there is a way out of the desert, even if I can’t quite see it just now. Maybe the church that leaves this wilderness will not be the same one that enters it. Maybe it will be closer to the church I thought I belonged to.

Kevin Clarke is an associate editor at America Magazine, a weekly Jesuit publication.

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  • lanthonyprice

    I’m confused by your essay, especially since you are the editor of a reportedly Catholic publication. I don’t see how the Church has been fighting itself. The legitimate Catholic authority in the US has been united. The bishops have been universal in their objections to the HHS mandate and in the leadership they have provided in denouncing this attack on our liberty. I’ve been thrilled by the articulate voice provided by the Church in the U.S. It is no surprise to find the fringe or non-practicing Catholics turning this into a debate about birth control rather than religious freedom because they are pursuing their own agendas. This has been and remains a marvelous opportunity for reeducation and revitalization of the Church in America. Lent is the perfect time for renewal and I am certain the U.S. Church will emerge stronger after this fight.

  • maryannkuhn

    The author is looking at the Catholic community, whereas you are looking at the hierarchy. Sure, the Catholic hierarchy may be united, but the community is a bit more complex than that. I was brought up in a Catholic family with 6 children. Of those 6 children, only 2 are now practicing Catholics. Although they are practiciing, they must have used birth control, since one has 2 kids and the other only 3. Go to church and you won’t see many huge families like those that once characterized Catholics. It’s obvious that most Catholics pick and choose which rules they want to follow, and very few seem to agree with the Church’s stance on birth control. The real experience of being Catholic seems to be more complex than the bishops think.

    And it’s pure hyperbole to characterize the health care mandate as an issue of religious freedom. The mandate attempts to improve access to health care; I assume religions would support that. A Catholic is free to accept or refuse birth control. Taking the option away from them will not make them a better Catholic.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    Moderate catholics need to realize that they are the problem. Our obsession with political correctness has made it almost impossible to ridicule people of faith, particularly our candidates, without being labeled intolerant. Absolutist nutjobs like santorum would never get a sniff of the presidency if it wasn’t for moderates giving legitimacy to radicalism.

  • greenmansf

    You seem to be a nonpracticing Catholic yourself, calling other Catholics names to make you point is not Catholic in the true sense of the Church is it? Nope, it is both arrogance, one of the seven deadly sins, and bearing false witness, one of the big 10 rules. You don’t get to decide who is a practicing Catholic or not based upon this one sad issue, yet you do it here anyway. Work that out lanthony, treat others how you would like them to treat you rather than trying to be your brother’s keeper, then after removing that mote from your eye, you can look to see if you can assist others in removing the mote from their eyes.

  • jismquiff

    How do we match up the Catholics vs. Protestants with the Shiites and the Sunnis?

    I mean, is it

    Catholics = Shiites


    Protestants = Sunnis

    … or vice versa?

    After all, a “religion” wouldn’t be a religion if it didn’t create and maintain hatred for others both within and outside itself.


  • HoosierCatholic4Peace

    Of course, if the Church were not at odds with the world in its current state, then we would be missing a very large part of our Faith. Where in the Bible does it say we must capitulate to the demands of the secular world in order that we do not seem controversial? It doesn’t; it says the world hated me (Christ) and they will hate you because of me. If a person is more worried about fitting into the secular world than living according to one’s faith, then they cannot be living for God. It comes down to a personal question of priorities that each of us must face: are we Americans first, then Christians, or are we Christians above all things? Are our political ideals shaped by Scripture and Tradition, or do we only adhere to the scriptures and traditions that do not make us feel like outcasts or seem “old-fashioned” to the secular world? I hope I do not need to tell anyone the right answer. I would hope that any Christian can see that societies change and lives end, but that God does neither.

  • TopTurtle

    This sounds reasonable from a Christian perspective, but I’d be willing to bet that you would balk at the teachings of Thomas Aquinas regarding slavery. Has the Bible changed since then? No, but society has. Virtually all Catholics reject certain past theological teachings that are “old-fashioned”.

  • ccnl1

    Do I really want to be identified with a religion that is so flawed in both theology and history??

  • ThomasBaum

    And to think that the Divine Commission is to PROCLAIM THE GOOD NEWS.

    Jesus forced Himself on no one, did He ask us to force Himself on others in His place?

    Jesus’s invitation was to “Come follow Me”, wasn’t it?

    Seems to me it was not to follow His Church, it was not to follow tradition, it was not to follow dogma, it was not to follow a follower of Jesus but to follow Jesus.

    As the Angels announced at His birth, “This is GOOD NEWS that is for ALL the people”, doesn’t anyone even hope for this to be, much less believe that somehow God is going to “pull it off”, so to speak?

    Jesus said, “When I am lifted up, I will draw EVERYONE to Myself”, pretty much devoid of details but very much catholic in nature, is there anyone out there that even wants this to be, anyone that believes it to be?

    “My Kingdom is not of this world”, anyone remember this?

    Sometimes it seems that we have gotten so wrapped up in the world that we have lost sight of the fact that we are not called to make a theocracy down here but to PROCLAIM THE GOOD NEWS.

    If the GOOD NEWS is not Good News, ultimately, for ALL then not only is it not Good News but it is absolutely horrific news.


    God became One of us.

    Took the sins of ALL of us.

    Went to hell and death (spiritual and physical).

    Won the “keys” to both.

    Will use these “keys” in due time, God’s Time.

    Really a shame that so many seem to get so upset with God that God has the audacity to care about not only each and every one of us but also ALL of creation.

    “My Ways are not your ways, My Thoughts are not your thoughts”, I, for one, thank God for that.

    Check out the Entrance Antiphon for Ash Wednesday, it is from the Book of Wisdom.

  • ThomasBaum

    Jesus never said anything about His Church not being “flawed”, only that the “gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against It”.

  • lwh567

    From where in Jesus’s teachings do you get a religious denomination like Catholicism–the pomp and circumstance, hieracrchies, annulments, various other and rituals, not to mention the gilded cage of the vatican?

  • Wildthing1

    I suppose they couldn’t give up trying take away people’s right to legitimate medical treatments for lent?

  • ccnl1

    Again the problem is in the history. Did this simple preacher man, an illiterate rabbi at best, establish a church?

    No, based on the lack of historical proof e.g. “Thou art Peter” (Matt 16: 18-19) passage only appears in one gospel.” Matthew, whomever he was, was therefore a part founder/”necessary accessory” of the Catholic Church, as was Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James his brother, Mary Magdelene, Mary, Joseph and another father if you believe the mamzer stories, the Apostles and Pilate. It was a team effort with Pilate being the strangest “necessary accessory”.

  • cometogether

    For purposes of your exercise, Catholics would likely be Sunnis. For purposes of your deeper contention, religion does not breed hatred or conquest, at least in the case of Christianity. Human weakness leads to perversions like the Crusades and the Inquisition: corrupt institutions created by weak humans interested in guaranteeing a security in this life that is never guaranteed.

  • Catholic1207

    maryannkuhn, how sad your post made me. First of all it is not hyperbole to describe the HHS Mandate as an assault on our religious freedom. Secondly, have you ever thought about WHY Christ gave the Church Bishops? Maybe because we need sheperds?

    You’re characterization of smaller families as proof of the use of birth control is unsupportable at best. I myself have been married for 15 years, have never used birth control and have only two children. Sorry.

    Lastly, you prove my point by describing birth control, sterilization and abortafacients as “healthcare”. Sad.

  • Catholic1207

    What an utterly ignorant and uniformed comment “Wildthing1”.

  • Catholic1207

    Haven’t studied church history before the Reformation huh?

  • Catholic1207

    The lack of historical proof? Are you kidding? You should look again ccnl1…

  • Catholic1207

    You really don’t know a lot other than the pop-culture version of history on the Crusades and the Inquisition do you, cometogether?

  • williamhuxtan

    Matthew 19: 21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (NIV)

    That sounds nothing like the Catholic Church, either before, during, or after the Reformation. In the early middle ages the Catholic Church experienced a great increase in wealth as patrons donated their belongings in expectation for expedited prayer and privilege. Indeed, many parish churches and monasteries held land titles, complete with renters and serfs.

    Just when will we see the Church sell off its possessions and have the treasure in heaven? Jesus said it, not me.

  • williamhuxtan

    So, just how many Christians are willing to sell their possessions to follow him and have their treasure in heaven? Maybe Lent would be a great time to follow his example.

    If Christians are not willing to follow his teaching, then why not?

  • XVIIHailSkins

    “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

    Keep in mind people, that the author of the above post, if they have children, almost certainly repeats that same threat about ‘burning sulfur’ to them on a daily basis. Rational adults can laugh at this type of delirious fanaticism and walk away, but to a child it is very, very real. We need to reconsider whether or not such religionists are qualified to raise our young people. The legacy of the catholic church has simply been the transfer of a suffocating fear of death, sex, the unknown, and the human intellect from one generation to the next and it needs to be stopped. As long as there is one child left that believes this^ is how the should understand the world then there’s still work to be done.

  • cometogether

    I know that self-described Christians do things that don’t square with what Jesus taught. Whether every crusader or every inquisitor falls into that group is irrelevant. Understand that point?

    Or are all associated with those periods of church-related if not necessarily sanctioned activities blameless for their hypocrisy?

    Did not Christians, official or otherwise, engage in immoral activities? Where is your proof? I’ve read books on the history of Christianity. Your sources?

  • ashleywb

    Yes, it is hyperbole. As Judge Scalia ruled in Employment Division v Smith, a “neutral law of general applicability” does not constitute a First Amendment violation even if it conflicts with a specific religious belief, and the government need make no exception for such beliefs. This is the principle of religious neutrality that the courts have been expressing for decades.

    The alternative to this policy is utter chaos, because anyone could come up with any religious principle to avoid the application of any law. Your paranoia to the contrary, this is not an assault on any faith.

  • ceodata

    The Catholic Church supported learning and kept it alive during the medieval period. Even now, it still supports education and tries to help the poor. You are extremely bigoted, narrowminded and rigid in your view of the Catholic Church.

  • ceodata

    The Catholic Church supported learning and kept it alive during the medieval period. Even now, it still supports education and tries to help the poor. You are extremely bigoted, narrowminded and rigid in your view of the Catholic Church.

  • ceodata

    Sorry about the double-post. I got a message about a “network error”, so I re-submitted.

  • ceodata

    The Catholic Church supported learning and kept it alive during the medieval period. Even now, it still supports education and tries to help the poor. You are extremely bigoted, narrowminded and rigid in your view of the Catholic Church.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    OK well now that that’s on the table, I’ll just say it’s hard for me to relativize the inquisition, torture, genocide, the institutional protection of child rapists, and the suppression of reason, even when I consider the church’s history of charity towards certain communities of the poor (they are, after all, the lifeblood of the RCC).

    As for your argument about the Middle Ages, it always tickles me when Catholics point to that era as if it were a justification for the integrity of the church. You do realize that the Dark Ages were the zenith of european catholicism right? Catholic monks kept learning alive because they had a monopoly on all of the ancient Latin texts, and worked tirelessly to keep the art of their translation and interpretation within the clergy. At the same time, they gave all their respective medieval monarchs divine permission to rule, and instigated the christian Jihad, a continent-wide call for genocide that still overshadows modern political discourse with the muslim world.

  • kennedy6500

    Doesn’t sound like any Protestant church, either.

  • corvinius9

    You don’t see how the church is fighting itself and you use the words “legitimate Catholic authority”. There, plain as day, is your fight. The fight is between your definition of “Legitimate and non-Legitimate Catholics.” There are polls which say that 98% of Catholic women have used birth control. And behind every woman using birth control is a man. Are they all non-legitimate in your eyes? The attack being waged by those who believe themselves as Legitimate, against the non-Legitimate is dragging in everyone else that sides with the non-Legitimates and creates enemies when it is pushed by the church hierarchy in tandem with politicians.

    This argument is not a Non-Catholic argument, it is an internal Catholic argument. It is an argument between those that believe one view of what a “Good Catholic” is supposed to mean and and another view of what a “Good Catholic” is supposed to mean – Wthin The Church. When it is pushed onto the stage of external politics, it becomes everyones fight. If you don’t like the pill don’t take it. If Obama won’t make you purchase it and the Insurance companies will still cover it, it’s none of your business if others continue to take it. Stop blaming the pill for your inadequacy. If you can’t convince the “Non-Legitimate believing Catholics” to stop taking the pill, then it is a problem for the church and the church alone, and not those that have accepted using the pill.

  • FreeManinAmerica

    Men will always sin, and messengers will always fail, but God’s mercy and goodness are eternal. His holy church welcomes all who repent and strive to follow His will as shared with us through the sacrifice of His son. God’s grace works in our hearts, each one’s individually. While we all obtain learning and fellowship through our religions, it is God at work in our souls that matters. Let us all strive to know and to do His will, and to be in – but not of – this world.

  • Bluefish2012

    My, my. Come now, Mr. Clarke, it’s not all that black.

    I had my coffee and doughnut on Sunday after Mass with several good-natured parishioners. We talked about recent illnesses, we welcomed one lady back who had spent some days in the hospital but was back in good spirits. A few at our table had worked in the St. Vincent DePaul room the day before distributing the food on hand that the Boy Scouts had collected the week before. The Knights of Columbus invited all back to another generously-named gourmet fish Friday dinner. Many responded to the the annual Bishop’s Appeal–used for any number of good works.

    Nary a word about the Pauline-style dust-up going on in the press, although we are very much aware of the conflicts and pray they will be resolved to the good. Maybe you should get out of the media room and get out here and live a little.

    The doughnuts were fresh, and they served us second cups of coffee.

  • di89

    In a world where a diaconate candidate sitting in one of the required (in my diocese) classes for ordination, “Catholic Social Teaching,” says, “But Jesus came to save souls. He didn’t come as a social reformer,” and nobody so much as raises an eyebrow, it’s hard to get the social justice end of Catholicism taken seriously.

  • aerdmann

    This must be the new version of Catholic teaching because my cousin’s Tea Party blog says the exact same thing, verbatim. But it’s not what I learned as a Catholic. Is this what they are teaching these days?

  • mortified469

    If you believe this, I have a bridge to sell to you.