If anyone ever had an excellent excuse to get out of a previously scheduled commitment, Bret Baier had one on September 10. He was booked at the Newseum — the news museum a few blocks from Capitol Hill — to interview Cardinal Donald Wuerl at an event hosted by the John Carroll Society. But back when he signed up for the event, organized by Catholic lawyers in the Beltway, he had no idea that the president of the United States would choose this particular Tuesday evening for a prime-time address about a possible military strike in Syria. It was a whirlwind of a news day, when what seemed a throwaway line from Secretary of State John Kerry morphed into something that was looking very much like the world putting its trust in Russia to police chemical weapons.
But Baier didn’t play the breaking-news card. He made the event, showing up just after the 6 p.m. Special Report he hosts each evening had ended, and leaving in time to anchor the Fox News Channel’s coverage of the presidential address. During the course of the hour he spent with the cardinal, he talked openly about the fact that he had fallen away from his Catholic faith, and that it took fatherhood, and facing his young son’s heart problems, to bring him back.
In our secularized society, we all too often consider religious faith something merely for the hard days: a safe harbor in a storm, as it has been described — a harmless tradition to help ease life’s pain and stress. Addressing how exactly Catholicism is relevant in 2013, and in a town where “when you say good morning to someone, you expect to get a commentary back,” Cardinal Wuerl said that the vocation of a Christian is not fundamentally “to criticize or critique but to walk with others on the road to Christ.”
The Church needs to be a witness to the great human values, to Christ’s message, Cardinal Wuerl said; it must be the “conscience of the nation.” And in fact just that was happening, although the world might not have truly noticed. The previous weekend, even as it looked as if the United States’ striking Syria was a foregone conclusion, the wildly popular pope was praying for peace. Sure, The Drudge Report noted the contrasting messages on Syria of Pope Francis and Barack Obama. But save for those praying and fasting that weekend — more than 100,000 assembled in St. Peter’s Square for four hours of dedicated prayer — Pope Francis’s message seemed to be lost on the world. As were his actual words: “This evening, in reflection, fasting and prayer, each of us deep down should ask ourselves: Is this really the world that I desire? Is this really the world that we all carry in our hearts? Is the world that we want really a world of harmony and peace, in ourselves, in our relations with others, in families, in cities, in and between nations? And does not true freedom mean choosing ways in this world that lead to the good of all and are guided by love?”
Perfectly appropriate pastoral words. But that’s the thing: We are too ready to see the events of the world — and the Church — through the lens of the media, which tend to focus on sex and politics. But how about the heart of Pope Francis’s message? It’s a radical, challenging proposal about the purpose of our lives.
As I listened to the president, during his Syria address last Tuesday evening, he lost me when he addressed his “friends on the left” and said: “I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain, and going still on a cold hospital floor.” I couldn’t help thinking of the stories of babies, survivors of abortion, who are left to die at clinics and hospitals right here in America. When he was still an Illinois state senator, Barack Obama argued against assuring them legal protection. Cries of protest this year have been all but ignored by the Left as clinics, including one a few blocks from the White House, have been exposed as being open to this in the name of a woman’s right to choose.
As the week progressed and the president of Russia seemed to be leading the world in a game of power politics that had him giving shout-outs to the pope and God in the New York Times, it became clear that a prayer for peace must include reconciling what the pope said about freedom with what we tend to say it is. It’s long past time for us to consider that, as Americans, we simply aren’t making sense any more. In our lives and in our politics, there is often a disconnect between things as they actually are and what we are saying and doing about them.
When you lose your language and a common anthropology, you stop making sense. What would the world be like if there were no one to say, “Thou shalt not kill,” Cardinal Wuerl asked, rhetorically, as Baier was interviewing him. What is the world like when people stop listening? That’s a question America in 2013 is flirting with living the answer to.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez, a director of Catholic Voices USA, is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.