The question embarrasses believers who are anxious to be taken seriously in public and goes to the heart of why they feel that anxiety to begin with. In theory, they still enjoy freedom of religion in the public square, but the social reality is that what they enjoy is the freedom to worship in private. Under the law, they are free to speak as if those parts of their religion that clash with materialism were true, but they risk some loss of social stature and credibility among peers when they exercise that right. Their problem in this regard is not legal or political. It’s social, cultural, and intellectual. They would feel more comfortable discussing how Catholic social teaching should inform public policy, as if the highest destiny of a church was to be a kind of think tank or non-governmental organization.
Fear of drawing attention to our acceptance of what our neighbors are liable to mock as delusional is one thing. A related reason that many even among those who pray give the thumbs down to prayer for the cause of winning a ballgame is that they judge sports to be the “toy department,” which is what sportswriters sometimes call it or assume that their friends in the newsroom consider it. If you’re going to go out on a limb and admit that you think your prayer can affect observable events in the physical universe, you can mitigate your social risk by making your aim some unassailable outcome — world peace, anyone? — to problems over which analysts wring their hands in the pages of The National Interest or Foreign Affairs.
“If there is something that we want but cannot bring ourselves to pray for” — for some of us, a Super Bowl win for our favorite NFL team would be an example — “then it is at least possible that that particular desire stands under judgment and is found unworthy,” the Dominican priest Simon Tugwell explains in his book Prayer in Practice (1974). “After all, anything that we can legitimately want, we can legitimately pray for.” As our faith grows, we
come to realize how detailed and affectionate God’s care is for even the smallest things of life. When we are surrounded by hungry mosquitoes, we shall certainly all be capable of a prayer of mere velleity: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if they all went away or at least stopped biting?’ But would it necessarily occur to us as perfectly practical that God might do this for us? Does his lordship include, in our eyes, lordship over hungry mosquitoes? . . .
Sometimes the saints seem to pray for such ridiculously small things, and even to demand and get miracles, just to satisfy a passing whim. St Vincent Ferrer is said to have produced a whole crop of out-of-season figs once just to satisfy the fancy of a pregnant woman.
”We should not be too solemn about our relationship with God!” Tugwell concludes, exclamation point and all.