AMAC Exclusive – By David P. Deavel
When first told that Jesus was “him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote,” the future Apostle Nathanael replied, “Can anything good from Nazareth?” Today we might ask, “Can anything good come from California?” Or, for jaundiced Catholics, “Can anything good come from the bishops?” José Gomez, like the Nazarene rabbi of old, has proven the skeptics wrong. The Archbishop of Los Angeles, Gomez turned a lot of heads with a video address delivered to the Congress of Catholics and Public Life in Madrid, Spain, on November 4. Decrying what he calls the modern “pseudo-religions” that go by various names—“wokeness,” “intersectionality,” “successor ideology,” and even “social justice”—Archbishop Gomez not only diagnosed what makes them so destructive but pointed the way forward for Catholics, other Christians, and, more broadly the United States and other countries beset with these pseudo-religions.
What makes Archbishop Gomez’s address so important is that he is the current president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. While a great many of the U. S. bishops have been fairly tame in challenging these currents of thought—Gomez’s own auxiliary (or assistant) bishop Robert Barron is a notable counterexample—Gomez’s critique of these ideologies signals to other bishops that they need not and indeed ought not verbally bow to these ideologies, which are in truth competitors to a Christian view even if they sometimes go under Catholic-sounding terms such as “social justice.”
In short, they tell a story that is counter to that of the Christian one. The Christian one involves the creation of humanity in the image of God with a “God-given ‘telos,” an intention and direction” that is summarized as “loving God and our neighbor, working to build his Kingdom on earth, all in confident hope that we will have eternal life with him in the world to come.” Because sin, the rejection of God’s plan for our lives, brings alienation “from God and one another” and a life lived “in the shadow of death,” human beings need the salvation that comes from “the dying and rising of Jesus Christ” and allows them to become transformed into God’s image through faith, hope, and love.
In contrast, Archbishop Gomez summarizes the various movements as telling a different story: “We cannot know where we came from, but we are aware that we have interests in common with those who share our skin color or our position in society. We are also painfully aware that our group is suffering and alienated, through no fault of our own. The cause of our unhappiness is that we are victims of oppression by other groups in society. We are liberated and find redemption through our constant struggle against our oppressors, by waging a battle for political and cultural power in the name of creating a society of equity.”
This narrative is attractive, he notes, because it does respond to “real human needs and suffering”—many who embrace it have “noble intentions,” he notes—but also because its explanation of the world is simple: “the world is divided into innocents and victims, allies and adversaries.”
Yet this simplicity is simplistic and dangerous. Rather than the complex view of human beings as maimed by sin and yet called by God to forgiveness and healing, these ideologies “have lost the truth about the human person” and thus are marked by “extremism” and a “harsh, uncompromising, and unforgiving approach to politics.” Their view about the human person is atheistic: “They deny the soul, the spiritual, transcendent dimension of human nature; or they think it irrelevant to human happiness. They reduce what it means to be human to essentially physical qualities—the color of our skin, our sex, our notions of gender, our ethnic background, or our position in society.” Their extremism comes from both their Marxist and Manichean roots, always dividing up the human race into simple good and evil, and their “Utopian” quality: they believe in “‘heaven on earth,’ a perfectly just society, through our own human efforts.” Since they are Pelagian, meaning that their redemption story simply involves human effort and no grace, forgiveness and mercy play no part in their judgments. The end result is that “these strictly secular movements are causing new forms of social division, discrimination, intolerance, and injustice.”
It’s cancel culture and the war of all against all without end, amen.
What is to be done about these movements? Archbishop Gomez says, “We should not be intimidated by these new religions of social justice and political identity.” The answer for Catholics and Christians is to preach the Gospel, which “remains the most powerful force for social change that the world has ever seen.” While the secular and false gospel of wokeness is breeding tribalism, those who see God as Father are able to see everybody else as brothers and sisters.
What the world does not need, the archbishop tells us, is a “new secular religion to replace Christianity.” Instead, it needs “individual conscience and tolerance” and “greater humility and realism about the human condition,” which includes an acknowledgment of our “common frailty” and the fact “that we are all sinners.” It needs most of all, he says, for “you and me to be better witnesses. Better Christians. Let us begin by forgiving, loving, sacrificing for others, putting away spiritual poisons like resentment and envy.”
We need Christian leaders to speak plainly like this, without fear of cancelation or hatred by prestige media or progressive politicians. It was this kind of blunt but grace-filled speech by a Polish archbishop who became pope that helped topple the Communists in Poland and ultimately the Soviet Union. It was this kind of blunt but sane talk that twentieth-century preachers such as Archbishop Fulton Sheen produced in explaining why communism was not just a mistake about foreign policy or economics, but, like today’s ideologies, ultimately a tragic mistake about God and the human person, a “liquidation of the human person.” We have tried, said Sheen, to “preserve the fruits without the roots of Christianity” and have been losing to the Communists, who “have zeal but no truth.” To win this spiritual battle, Sheen said, required “recovery of our own great traditions, of our belief in God” and for politicians to focus on what is “right and true.”
So, too, with Archbishop Gomez. He recommends looking at American Catholic figures who fought for justice and charity in America, including Father Augustus Tolton, a slave who escaped into freedom and became the first black man ordained as a Catholic priest in this country, and Dorothy Day, who left behind Communism for Catholicism and fed the poor in her Catholic Worker houses. He also recommends looking back to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the apparition of Mary as a young native girl to a peasant named Juan Diego nearly 490 years ago next month, what he calls the “true spiritual founding of America.”
While not all Christians will want to look back to that event, both Catholics and Protestants can look back to the founding of this country in 1776, the 250th anniversary of which is coming up in five years. It is profoundly sad that President Trump’s 1776 Commission, called to write a report elucidating the “core principles of the American founding and how these principles may be understood to further enjoyment of ‘the blessings of liberty,’” was immediately scrapped by the Biden Administration. For the founders, as the Nobel Prize-winning survivor of the Gulag Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it, had in their “original intent” for and succeeded in creating a constitution designed for a truly good society, in which its defense of the rights of the individual “under God” was accompanied by an understanding of the citizen’s duties and “the assumption of his constant religious responsibility.”
As writers such as Robert R. Reilly have shown, the American experiment in ordered liberty was the beneficiary of the wisdom of the ancients, medieval Catholics, and modern thinkers. It was an experiment that grounded freedom in natural law (the truth about mankind available to all people), limited government (because only God truly has authority over all aspects of human life), and included checks and balances because original sin means that anybody with power will be tempted to misuse it.
In short, while America is not utopia, its original vision of a good but not perfect society is a gift to be celebrated. It is also unthinkable without the Christian vision. Archbishop Gomez is right to challenge these new pseudo-religions. They don’t have God in them, don’t get the human right, and threaten to make our country a hell as they pursue a progressive heaven. If we want to recover what is good in this country, we absolutely need to “recover our traditions,” as Fulton Sheen put it, both the distinctively Christian ones and the distinctively American ones.
David P. Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas (MN). He is the co-host of the Deep Down Things podcast.
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