Washington, D.C. — The scene was appealing to an amateur photographer who had simply been going for a walk but instead settled in on the lawn for the long haul. We were gathering on a grassy patch on the U.S. Capitol’s grounds. As it happened, we were about equidistant from the Senate floor and from the Supreme Court. The first to arrive were Dominican friars and religious sisters in full habit. Monks and nuns out of another century had to be the double-take observation for anyone passing by.
In truth, they were young — the Dominicans’ Province of St. Joseph in the eastern U.S. has 18 men entering as novices this summer — and engaged. They were here to lead about 200 families and young people in evening prayer outside the Capitol.
The occasion for the gathering was the ongoing threats to religious liberty in the United States. The prayer vigil on Saturday evening was one of the opening acts of the Fortnight for Freedom, the second annual two-week period of prayer, fasting, and education on behalf of religious liberty, led by Catholic bishops but with ecumenical participation and implications.
The next morning, at Sunday Mass, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore called the current moment “a perfect storm.” He observed that “fewer people are practicing their faith, while attacks on religion and on people of faith are accelerating, whether in the media or on college campuses or in social gatherings” and so on.
This is happening here at home, where what was once a precious, fundamental liberty from which others flow has become a pawn of sexual-revolutionary ideology and politics, even if these are sometimes motivated by the best of intentions. And it is happening in Syria, where a monk was killed during an attack on a Franciscan monastery just the other day. We must be vigilant about these threats wherever they creep in; it’s a matter of stewardship, human dignity, and gratitude.
“Segments of our government,” Archbishop Lori said, “more and more are saying to us: You can worship however you wish but when you serve the needs of the poor or educate young people, you need to check certain parts of your faith at the door.”
The issue is complicated, as he said, by the fact that even many of the people who profess to be religious — Catholics most certainly among them — don’t see what he sees, in part because of a privatized view of religious faith we’ve internalized since somewhere around the time Senator John F. Kennedy was assuring Protestant clergymen that his Catholicism wouldn’t influence his presidency.
“The fracturing of the family combined with the sexual revolution has put a great many people in the West on a collision course with certain fundamental teachings of the Christian faith,” Mary Eberstadt writes in her important book How the West Really Lost God, so we critically need an understanding of the current nexus of history involving marriage, “women’s health” claims, and the finalization on Friday of the Department of Health and Human Services’ abortion-drug, contraception, and sterilization mandate. “The unprecedented proliferation of weakened natural families and nontraditional quasi-families has left a great many individuals resistant as they never were before to fundamental features of the Christian code,” Eberstadt observes.
The art of Christendom buttresses a tradition we’ve treasured about the centrality of family — that is, mother, father, child — even though our individual experiences may not have included all of these; people heroically make the best of what sickness and death and restricted choices have made their challenges. Eberstadt asks: “How does the preternatural horror at the heart of the Christian story — the predeceasing of mother by devoted son, brought to almost supernatural life by Michelangelo — even make sense in a world where more and more people have no children, and some have no close family members at all?”
Sometimes, when I am in St. Peter’s in Rome, I stop and people-watch a bit, reflectively, absorbing a bit of our times, even while in retreat mode. The Pietà is an endless source of meditation, for people of the Old Testament as much as of the New — for anyone who loves with a self-sacrificial love greater than oneself. And yet, tourists often barely pause, hold up their iPhones, and seem to check it off the bucket list. Can we today see what Michelangelo did? Will we?
Outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday, even in the confusion, it was hard not to be moved by the desire on display for something more, akin to the longings of a psalmist. You don’t have to be a proponent of same-sex marriage to see the yearning for something good and beautiful. Still, the redefinition of marriage, like surrogacy markets and other political efforts involving the most intimate of issues — including the nature of women’s freedom as it pertains to fertility itself — isn’t ours to do. And yet here we are. We’re in a time where people are trying to make sense of things by making less sense, denuding ourselves of the kind of dignity and purpose that has built not just civilizations but union with something eternal.
We all want “to love and be loved, to know and be known,” as Fr. Paul Check, executive director of an apostolate called Courage, recently put it. If we can rededicate ourselves to helping one another in service and sacrifice, in union with the beautiful and the uplifting, in ways that make sense in a natural and supernatural order, we might just have some compelling, peacemaking, ever-ancient, ever-new proposals to consider together. But that’s a journey we cannot make if we’re yelling past one another on social media and in boycotts, dismissing our opponents or assuming the worst about their motivations. It can be done only in a culture of prayer and actual engagement in debate, and in the sharing of beautiful and painful struggles and triumphs of the human spirit, rooted in the uniqueness of femininity and masculinity, and in the fullness of true self-giving love and graces of self-sacrifice.
That Saturday evening, before the news cameras arrived for the big political rulings from the judiciary, passersby were fascinated and receptive. Is it possible that the monks and nuns weren’t a blast from the past, but a flash of our future together? If we’re not mere observers, we’ve got a prayer.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.