Politics & Policy

Being Truly Catholic Now

It’s a big Church that believes.

A bishops’ meeting in Atlanta and nuns on a bus tour may be in the news, but the Catholic Church is not reducible to press releases and competing headlines. It’s a body united to Christ, with laity in it as well as priests, religious sisters, and others in consecrated life. It’s a body of people praying, trying to live a call to something eternal in the temporal world. And it means something: a commitment to teaching and learning, evangelizing and serving.

Austen Ivereigh is co-founder of a group called Catholic Voices, established in the United Kingdom before Pope Benedict XVI’s visit there in 2010; I’ve played a role in helping to establish it in the United States. Ivereigh is the author of How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice: Civil Responses to Catholic Hot Button Issues, and he talks with me about how to do just that. – KJL

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Pope Benedict has appealed to the laity to “put the case for the promotion of faith’s wisdom and vision in the public forum.” The archbishop of Los Angeles has asked us to be “leaders for moral and civic renewal.” That means being clear and effective in communicating, with rational arguments, on issues of religious freedom, pluralism, the family, and marriage. John Henry Newman encouraged Catholics to “know their creed so well that they can give an account of it.” But don’t you need a degree, really, to do justice to any of this?

IVEREIGH: Catholic Voices tends to attract people who can think on their feet and have a certain intellectual confidence. An onlooker may detect a suspiciously large number of degrees among them, but no, you don’t need one. And intellectuals aren’t often the best people for this work. Some of our best Catholic Voices — in the U.K., Ireland, the U.S., and Mexico, where the project has so far taken root — are people who would not consider themselves academic. Being able to communicate in compelling, ordinary, human language — to translate — is much more important in this work. In his famous essay on Christian apologetics, C. S. Lewis says that “if you cannot translate your own thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts are confused. Power to translate is the test of really having understood your meaning.” It’s a skill that editors and journalists have, more than academics.

So while I think intelligence is necessary — an ability to look beyond the surface and see what’s behind the arguments and language being presented — it’s the other things that make for the kind of lay people Newman dreamed of and Pope Benedict has called for: a humility that leaves room for the Holy Spirit; a capacity for empathy; a willingness to speak from experience rather than theory. This is about removing misunderstandings, explaining ideas, making connections with other values, and demonstrating the timeliness and relevance of Christian concepts. It’s about opening doors, building bridges with contemporary culture, and engaging people; and much less about demonstrating the reasonableness or internal consistency of the Church’s teaching.

I think that kind of apologetics belongs to a previous, more rationalist era; it’s still necessary, but today’s culture calls for a different approach. There are many people out there who feel called as Catholic communicators; I’m sure of that. And I’m equally sure that they come in all shapes and sizes and backgrounds — again, our project has shown that.

Catholic Voices is all about giving them permission to step forward and equipping them with the oxygen tanks and the masks so they can dive out into the deep. The divers themselves are diverse.


LOPEZ: If you have to encourage people to “be compassionate,” as you do in How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice, doesn’t Catholicism have a pretty big problem? Like missing the Christian part?

IVEREIGH: This is one of our hardest tasks: to contribute vigorously and passionately to public debate while stepping out from the frame which sees the Church as condemning and deploring. It’s a deeply misleading, even offensive, frame: The reality is that the Church is a fount of compassion. It’s perhaps the quality that people who become Catholic detect most strongly in us. We’re a warm, forgiving, joyful people. So why do we seem to be communicating the opposite? I have some suggestions in the book: We are dealing with serious issues; we feel defensive; we have imbibed the idea that we are saying “no” to people, to modern society. And I have some suggestions for how to step outside that role. First, we should always point to a positive vision — we are affirming something — even when we are opposing something. I really think we have to work harder, as a church, about what we want, what we stand for, what we promote. Being “a church that says yes,” as Cardinal Dolan puts it, means thinking through what we’re saying “yes” to. Second, we need to be good listeners and naturally empathetic. That empathy comes from having taken the time — as I demonstrate in each chapter in the book — to understand the value behind the criticism of the Church, which is usually a Gospel value; and to relate to it. Once people see we have understood their core concern — their positive intention — they are more likely to listen to us (this is safe to try at home). And last, yes, be compassionate: Feel others’ pain, relate to their anger, recognize their experience. Compassion builds trust; and trust allows people to listen.

LOPEZ: You are all about the “neuralgic issues,” the issues that make people “squeal”? Why is engaging so important? Why can’t we just live and let live already?

IVEREIGH: What makes an issue “neuralgic” is the apparent or real clash between what the Church says (or is heard as saying) and the values of wider society, which often turn on the “pelvic issues” — questions of sexuality. It’s what makes for news stories and dinner conversations. It’s what interests people. It’s where we find people turning towards us — often with an expression of horror — and asking us to explain ourselves. It’s where contemporary society and Church clash; it’s where Catholicism scandalizes. And that’s where, simply, the opportunity to communicate exists. Either we’re comfortable inhabiting that zone and learn to speak there, or we don’t communicate at all — or, if we do, we can’t expect to find anybody listening.

Pope Benedict is passionate about what’s being called the “new” evangelization, whose concern is to re-propose, in fresh and positive ways, the Church’s faith and teaching to post-Christian societies that think they know Christianity and have rejected it. Think of a person waving a hand over his face, saying, “Yeah, yeah, we know what the Church has to say on that one” — that’s what modern society is like. You engage people with that attitude by being surprising, by showing how they don’t, in fact, know what the Church says. Then, when you’ve got their attention, you can then tell the real story — the story they thought they knew but in fact didn’t. It’s what in Catholic Voices and in the book we call “reframing.” And it works. We have plenty of examples of radio and TV interviews in which the presenter says to the Catholic Voice: “Now that’s surprising. Tell me more.” The Church’s critic turns out to be dull and dogmatic — performing a role that is almost scripted in its predictability — while the Catholic Voice is fresh, dynamic, and compelling.

Why engage? Because we care — about others, about society, about the common good. And because we think the public conversation is poorer without us.


LOPEZ: Why don’t we just give up on opposing same-sex marriage? You make some great arguments about the nature of marriage and false equality, but it’s hard to break through the narrative that this is the next great civil-rights struggle. And who wants to be uncomfortable around friends and family with homosexual attractions?

IVEREIGH: The same-sex-marriage debate, just like abortion or assisted suicide or almost any other neuralgic issue, involves a very narrow moral matrix, one centered on equality and autonomy. I don’t think the arguments in favor are completely false; they are just impossibly narrow, and make assumptions about marriage that reflect a very superficial view of it: as an emotional bond between two people who choose to make a commitment. So our task here is quite considerable. We have to point to a much broader matrix. We have to say, “Equality is an important value, but it is not the appropriate one in this case,” and then point to the things that have been left out of the picture: the difference between marriage and other relationships of love, which is that marriage provides for the rearing and raising of children by their biological parents, and the fact that the benefits of that institution are the reason for the state’s promotion of it. And then to point out that same-sex marriage does not expand the meaning of marriage to accommodate a minority but radically redefines marriage for everyone, dismantling one of the core features — gender complementarity — that makes it different from all other kinds of relationship. By doing this, we are not arguing with the equality premise, but showing that it is inappropriate in this case.

But speaking as someone with almost a year’s experience arguing this one in the U.K., I don’t claim that it’s easy, because when we talk about the meaning of marriage we sound like people from a distant culture. People say, “That may be your understanding, but we think it’s just about people saying ‘yes’ to each other’s love. We don’t see why the state should discriminate against that kind of love; I mean, how does it harm anyone else for them to recognize it?” There’s no conception that marriage might have an intrinsic meaning, or that it is a civil institution that has grown out of human experience, and that this character should be respected. The call for SSM presupposes a very, very ‘thin’ view of culture — we’re just individuals, and the state exists to protect us and promote our freedom and happiness. Going up against that is hard, especially when the frame is, “If you’re against SSM you’re against equality / gay rights / civil rights.” Stay inside that frame, and of course no one wants to oppose it. But most people are not. Most people understand, intuitively and from experience, that marriage is a heterosexual institution whose public good is linked to children. But they find it almost impossible to articulate that. Like most of the most important things in our lives, we don’t really have a language to speak about their value.

That’s why, even though most people are strongly in favor of the idea of marriage as between a man and a woman, it’s been mostly the churches that have been offering the arguments. That’s great, but it can too easily reinforce the frame that Christians are trying to “impose” a Biblical or sacramental value on what is a civil, or secular, institution. That’s why I say in the book that we mustn’t ever start our arguments with, “The Church says . . . ” It’s not appropriate. We need to start with the question of why the state distinguishes marriage from other relationships, and whether that’s valid. If we believe it’s important for state and society to uphold marriage as distinct, then it follows that we need to resist redefinitions of marriage that would render marriage indistinguishable from other relationships. That’s where the argument needs to be.

LOPEZ: As you know, the Catholic bishops have been leading a charge in defense of the principle of religious liberty in the most fundamental and specifically practical ways. But should it be the bishops? Should lay Catholics be leading the way? And with an ecumenical coalition?

IVEREIGH: It was very exciting to be just outside Washington, D.C., training Catholic Voices USA, at the time when the 43 Catholic organizations were announcing their lawsuit against the U.S. government. “Historic” is not a cliché here. The unanimity of the bishops, the vitality and clarity of the statements from the different organizations, and the fact that at stake here is not so much a policy but the very framework in which politics takes place — this is a very important moment.

The First Amendment is one of the glories of America, and possibly its most valuable postwar export. It has profoundly influenced the states of the world, and even the Second Vatican Council. So when the U.S. government violates it, and seeks to coerce the Church to act against its core beliefs, Catholics must take a stand, not just for their own sake, but for the sake of America itself. How do you take that stand? On many levels, of course — episcopal declarations, attorneys’ briefs, parish action. But I think the most important thing that can be done is to communicate the meaning and the value — to the ordinary citizen, not just to Catholics — of religious liberty, and to demonstrate the connection between that freedom and the “good” that the Church offers society.

That means talking about the soup kitchens, crisis-counseling centers, and marriage-preparation courses; it means witnessing to the relationships that are founded on, and are themselves the fruit of, bonds of trust arising from the actions that are the expressions of religious freedom. The key liberty that has to be communicated is that of manifesting belief — the freedom to act on, and in ways consistent with, our religious beliefs; the freedom to organize and engage society, to witness and persuade, and to serve others. Without the principles and convictions of our faith, we have no organizations that witness to them. That’s why religious liberty is the first and most important principle animating civil society. The loss of religiously motivated organizations is above all a loss to society as a whole.

American Catholics have to be making that case above all. People aren’t going to (necessarily) relate to the Church’s positions on contraception; they might think them backward and anachronistic. But they can grasp the fact that Catholic understanding of sexuality is part of a wider ethic, the same ethic underlying the Church’s witness on the death penalty or poverty or euthanasia. These are the connections Catholics have to make; and yes, the argument needs to be as ecumenical and universal as possible; and yes, I think lay people have a particularly important role, as the people that run the institutions and associations that serve others, to explain the link between the service they offer and the ethic that energizes them.


LOPEZ: What’s different about Catholic Voices and why do you expect it to be a good fit in the U.S.?

IVEREIGH: I joke that in 2010, preparing for the pope’s visit to the U.K., we made a song, and now, two years later, we find ourselves touring the world explaining that we’ve only got this one song! I think Catholic Voices is everything to do with the moment — the call by Pope Benedict and our bishops for lay Catholics to raise our voices in the public square at a time when powerful forces would like to put faith in a box marked “private.” It’s also because of the call to the new evangelization; the Church is looking around for examples of successful public engagement. Catholic Voices has deliberately situated itself within what the Catholic journalist John Allen, in analyzing Pope Benedict’s approach, calls “affirmative orthodoxy.” In a 2009 column he defined it as: “No compromise on essential points of doctrine and discipline, but the most positive, upbeat presentation possible.” That captures where we want to be — not debating church teaching, but working out how to translate it and connect it with contemporary concerns, rubbing the priceless pearl so it can be seen better.

What’s different about Catholic Voices is that it has worked out a method of doing this in a way that fits the fast-moving world of 24-hour news and the culture of contemporary journalism, nurturing people who have a desire to serve the Church and the media in this particular way. We describe ourselves, a little jokingly, as “media-friendly, studio-ready, and ego-free”; that captures something of our spirit and approach. Reframing neuralgic issues by entering into the positive intention of the Church’s critic to enable us to communicate the Church’s truth and reality — that’s what we do. It works, and it has a broader application that we’re been working on ever since the 2010 papal visit. In addition to the intensive speakers’ trainings we’ve done this year in Ireland, Mexico, and the U.S., we have given many workshops on how to explain the Church’s positions on hot-button issues over a beer at the bar. The book is the fruit of that. We’ve found that the two situations — the studio and the bar — are not so different. People either switch on or switch off to you in the first 40 seconds. And if you can’t say it in three or four minutes, you’ve probably failed the C. S. Lewis test I mentioned above.

How does this fit the U.S.? Who invented 24-hour news?

LOPEZ: “Empathy is the beginning of dialogue.” Can it also make you soft? Often our political opponents, using the tools of the state, consider us at war with them; don’t we have to engage similarly?

IVEREIGH: In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt has a helpful metaphor to describe the relationship between our deeply held, intuitively grasped core convictions on the one hand, and our reason on the other. He calls the first the elephant, and the latter its puny rider; the elephant leans one way, the rider paddles furiously in the same direction, to justify the stance. The book dismantles the rationalist myth that we reach our most deeply held convictions through ratiocination. Opening peoples’ minds means speaking to their “elephants,” in a friendly, trusting environment; almost all other exchanges — debates, arguments, discussions — involve no changing of minds at all. “Dialogue” for me means being able to speak to peoples’ elephants; to shed light, not heat. It’s not the soft option. It’s much easier to rehearse familiar arguments. But communication happens when the elephants lean in one another’s direction, and the riders try to understand where the other is coming from.


LOPEZ: How do you find “common ground” without diluting your moral values? What is the “art” to “dialogue” we’ve missed in a lot of our post–Vatican Council II discussions?

IVEREIGH: A lot of post-conciliar dialogue has been attempting to find common denominators, and that’s great in so far as it builds the trust without which there is no communication. But too often it’s been seen as a kind of market trade, settling on a halfway price, and then saying, “Well, at least we can agree on that.” The kind of communication we’ve developed in Catholic Voices doesn’t set out to reach agreement with anyone; it’s about clearing the lenses — wiping off the myths and the misunderstandings — so that people can see the Church and its thinking more clearly. We want to show the plausibility and desirability of the Catholic faith. What people do with that enlarged understanding is a different matter.

LOPEZ: Reframing debates is important to you. But can you really turn the tables, in a quick TV interview or Friday-night bar discussion, to where we’re having a discussion about palliative care?

IVEREIGH: Yes you can. In our media-interview training we encourage people to “set out their stall” with their first answer. It’s a key moment; you will win or lose people at that point. That first answer is the fruit of a lot of thinking and working-through of the question, so that by the time you’re in front of the microphone you’ve learned how to connect with the positive intention of the critic, reframed the question so that you’re no longer performing the role cast for you in the existing frame, and communicated the essential points.

The thinking-through of the issue with the help of our method — which is what’s bottled in How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice — is what enables you quickly to get to the heart of the other person’s concerns or criticism. In the case of assisted suicide, the concern is for people suffering in pain and alone, for whom that suffering is meaningless. Our reframe on that question is basically: “No one should have to die in great pain and alone; that’s why we need to extend the culture of palliative care pioneered by hospices.” And then you go on from there to show how assisted suicide would undermine that culture. It’s moving the discussion away from the very narrow autonomy matrix — “If I want to do this, what right do you have to stop me?” — to a much broader one: the effect on others, on the community, of legalizing suicide; the importance of palliative care; the recognition that dying is an important part of life and the need for more resources to help people on that final journey, and so on. On the way, of course, you find yourself scotching a few myths: No, the Church does not believe in keeping people alive at all costs; no, we don’t believe that God wants us to suffer, although we accept that suffering is necessary for change; and so on.


LOPEZ: “Behind every criticism of the Church, however apparently hostile or prejudiced, is an ethical value,” you write. “The critic,” you continue, “is consciously or unconsciously appealing to that value. Issues become neuralgic, in fact, precisely because of the feeling that those core values are threatened.” Later you contend that people may be motivated by “compassion” when they argue in favor of legal abortion. But sometimes they are just being selfish, aren’t they? Pitting the stronger’s rights over the weaker’s for the sake of convenience?

IVEREIGH: It’s interesting you raise abortion as an example of where people are looking to justify selfishness. I suppose you could say the entire ethic of autonomy is an attempt to rationalize self-indulgence. But equally, you could charge the ethic of community with being an attempt to rationalize hierarchy because hierarchy benefits you. Look, anyone’s morality can be dismissed as mere scaffolding of the will, but I don’t think that’s how it works. I think people’s deep-seated convictions are reached over time, in the little choices they make — “this, good; that, bad” — and what they end up with, sometimes, is a lopsided, or narrow, matrix, especially if they’ve reached that without the benefit of a faith or a strong community.

But the moral conviction on which that narrow matrix is built is sincere. A few days ago in London, I heard Linda Couri, who was a leading light in Planned Parenthood in Chicago until she experienced a profound conversion to Catholicism and the pro-life cause. She wanted us to know that, even when she was very wrong, her intentions were good, and her dedication to Planned Parenthood was noble: She genuinely believed she was helping others, and so, too, were the other women who worked there; they weren’t “killing babies” but “serving humanity.” The life of the unborn child was considered a necessary, reasonable sacrifice — the collateral damage of safeguarding a woman’s autonomy. She certainly wouldn’t have seen herself as selfish; she took a pay cut to work for Planned Parenthood, in the way that people do when they go to work for charities.

In this case, the value of the life of the unborn had been played down, in order to maintain another value — that of autonomy. A human life was sacrificed — is being sacrificed, on a massive scale, every day — in order to uphold a “good.” The point is, if we do not recognize that “good” — the positive intention, or Haidt’s elephant — then we will simply be talking past people. Linda Couri’s story — and it’s a really compelling account — is of moving to this broader vision, one that allowed her to admit realities (yes, these are human lives I am helping to kill) in a forgiving community.

She stresses how important it is to be in relationship with those with whom we disagree, and offer them hospitality — a space in which to grow into a greater view. I think that’s our task as Catholic Voices on the abortion question: to name the realities that the pro-choice lobby skirts over, to witness to the humanity of the unborn and to point to a broader matrix, but never to demonize or denigrate those who don’t share that awareness. Never judge the intentions of others — only their conclusions and their actions.



LOPEZ: You appear cautiously optimistic — four decades into legal abortion in the U.S. — about the prospects of a societal awakening on abortion and its brutality. Is that more than pure faith? Is it based, perhaps, also on the existence of improved ultrasound technology?

IVEREIGH: Western society is indelibly marked by the Gospel’s concern for the victim. That means that we are always being awakened to a greater awareness of the fragility and beauty of life. You’ve seen this dynamic in the great social-emancipation movements, in the growth of ecology, in the worldwide movement against capital punishment. We’ve seen it in greater concern for animal welfare. What happens in each of these cases is that, as the value of a life begins to rise in our consciousness, we start to see that the cost we had previously accepted as reasonable is in fact intolerable; and people say, “Dammit, I don’t know how we’re going to work this out, but we know we have to end this or that practice — it’s just not right.” To get to that point, as we did with slavery, racial segregation, and eugenics, may take time, but eventually it comes; it’s part of the dynamic of the Gospel working itself out in our culture.

With abortion, we’re still at the stage where the interests of a major industry — think here of the plantation owners and their vast output of sugar and cotton — are stronger than the moral repudiation. Just as slavery was the necessary sacrifice that had to be paid for an efficient and productive sugar industry, so abortion is still considered the necessary sacrifice for female autonomy. But just as the slave-owners couldn’t hide the brutal realities of conditions on the plantations at a time of rising awareness of the humanity of the slave, so the abortion industry is having to go to ever more elaborate lengths to conceal and justify abortion, while at the same time technology is revealing the beauty and fragility of what is being destroyed.

I talk in the book about the 4D ultrasonic “walking in the womb” pictures that turned at least one abortionist against the trade, and has served to awaken a generation of people to what is really going on. As with any obnoxious industry, you have massive, unexpressed grief and guilt built up over time; the pro-choice movement is fueled, says Linda Couri, by women who have aborted and are in denial. So it’s not easy to change — especially given the ideological investment in abortion as the flagship of female autonomy. But a tipping point will eventually be reached, and when it does, it will all collapse very fast — like the Berlin Wall in 1989. A generation of women — and it will have to be women — will say: Nunca más. The abortion industry will be exposed and discredited. And subsequent generations will shake their heads and ask — as we ask of Germans of a certain generation: How on earth could you people have lived with that under your noses and done nothing?

LOPEZ: How is it not patronizing to suggest, as you do, that we “should have compassion for people who are not ready or willing to embrace conjugal love”?

IVEREIGH: Compassion means feel for them and with them. Conjugal love — the love that underpins marriage — is difficult to imagine and scary for many people. For many, marriage embodies a huge, subconscious fear — that of being trapped in a relationship with another who does not love you. No wonder people delay it, run away from it, try to avoid it; it’s easier to reject marriage than confront your own subconscious fears about love. I am the child of divorce, so I know something about this. As a church, we need to teach people how to love and commit; it’s not something that can be handed down by society any more. The more people experience marriage breakdown, the harder it becomes even to imagine marriage, let alone enter it.


LOPEZ: “Society is losing the vocabulary to speak about intense friendships between people of the same sex,” you write. We’re also completely unable to find chaste friendships between men and women believable — friends with “benefits,” for sure. But chaste? Freaky! How does that turn around, short of radical conversions among culture-makers?

IVEREIGH: I find this is something everyone can agree is regrettable: the sexualization of friendship. It is the flip side of another new phenomenon: the desexualization of marriage. The Church finds itself having to say not just that sex is for marriage, but also that marriage is for sex, in the sense that it’s where sex has its home and works at its best, helping to forge two into one. Outside that context, it’s like a riderless chariot with blades sticking out of its wheels, pulled by a stallion; the collateral damage just piles up. Keeping sex to marriage not only means less destruction; it also opens up friendship with both sexes. I think a capacity for friendship is necessary for love; only when we know how to be chaste, loving friends with many can we choose one as our lover. Is this going to catch on? I’ll pass on that one. But as I say in the book, this in many ways is the easiest case of all to make: Just look at the ocean of unhappiness and low self-esteem that casual sex has launched us into.

LOPEZ: You, citing Catholic Social Teaching (CST), talk a lot in the book about the “common good.” But who is to say what that is? Why does the Church have any say in determining it?

IVEREIGH: The concept of the “common good” is a key weapon in our armory when we challenge the narrow ethic of autonomy. In CST, the common good is not what is good for most people (that’s utilitarianism) but the social conditions that enable people to reach human fulfillment. In other words, it’s about how we organize society to enable us to flourish. So it’s really the criterion for political action and judgment, and it opens up a big canvas for deciding whether a course of action or a policy is justified. It takes us away from this very narrow view of the state as a policeman and regulator, whose task is to prevent us from harming others — or worse, the state as a kind of nanny or teacher — and it enables us to concentrate the state on providing the framework for flourishing. Who defines flourishing? No one person or body. The best that can happen is that narratives about human flourishing are brought into the political arena, providing an ethical underpinning to our political debates. Those narratives may differ, but keeping an eye firmly on the common good prevents us from descending into the kind of politics in which different lobbies try to capture the state to impose ideologies. The common good is an inherently democratic and pluralist idea.

LOPEZ: You certainly appear to be a fan of Cardinal Dolan, judging from the number of times you quote him in the book. Is he a model Catholic Voice? Or is it something different?

IVEREIGH: Yes, a big fan — and that’s without us ever meeting. The cardinal embodies, and has helped us to identify ourselves with, the approach or movement I referred to earlier, known as “affirmative orthodoxy.” He constantly stresses the good, the true, and the beautiful in the Church’s approach, and manages to connect with peoples’ concerns. And I like his historian’s vision of our age; I’m an historian by training also. Maybe I can give him the last word? He tells John Allen in a recent book-long interview, A People of Hope: “Somehow we have to recapture the notion that the Church isn’t primarily about running institutions or winning political debates. It’s about reaching deep inside the human heart and stirring what’s best in it, and then boldly going out into the world and insisting that the better angels of our nature can prevail, that cynicism and ego don’t have to be the last word about the kind of culture we pass on to our children, and that the Church is an ally in every positive stirring and hopeful current in that culture. That’s a vision worth devoting one’s life to, and if that’s not affirmative orthodoxy, what is?”

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is an editor-at-large at National Review Online.


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