I live on the side of a mountain in Tennessee, one characteristic of which is that nearly every yard is littered with large, exposed rocks. Now that winter is here and I can see down the hill from my home to the expanse of my lot that stretches down a steep slope to the valley below, I am looking for a likely prospect for a mass rock.
Mass rocks were the rocks in the fields and woods where the persecuted Irish Catholics met to celebrate the Eucharist when to do so in church was impossible and to do so at all was to risk imprisonment or death. More than one priest met his end at a mass rock. But the Irish were stubbornly committed to their faith, and even the fear of death and ruin—real and present—did not deter them from practicing it.
These days, we civilized Americans are not so frightened of losing our lives for our faith—that is for another place or another time. The specter of red martyrdom isn’t very real in modern America. But the persecution of the Catholic Church is. And persecutions necessarily bear martyrs of one kind or another.
It is from the ranks of us comfortable, established, protected folk that some unlikely martyrs will come. And if we are serious about our faith, there ought to be a lot of us.
For the word martyr simply means witness. And the call to witness is both simple and blunt, with little room for dissembling: He who is not for Me is against Me. When the persecutions come, it’s time for the faithful to stand FOR something. It is not enough merely not to be against.
The early history of the Church is awash in blood; indeed the blood of the martyrs is in every generation the seed of the Church. We know this as historical fact; we’re about to know it as present reality.
Here the prospect of martyrdom is different. Here instead of shedding blood, it looks like Catholics will be called on to shed economic security, social position and the prospect of “remaining at the table” for wider influence in social and political processes. In short, we are being asked to compromise our beliefs in the interest of multicultural unity and the greater social good. The Obama Administration’s hard line on requiring Catholic institutions to provide health care coverage of abortion, abortifacient drugs (birth control pills), and sterilization is the most immediate—but not the only—frontal assault on the Church.
There are lots of arguments to be made and a lot of discussion to be hashed out, but they tend to cloud the issue, which is really pretty simple:
Do we really believe what the Church teaches: that to assist in the procuring of abortion or sterilization or artificial contraception is a grave and inherent evil in which we may not participate?
And are we willing to stand by that belief, no matter what it costs? Or will we try to shade the edges of that very clear truth and try to avoid for now what is inevitable: the clash of Catholic conscience and secular culture?
There is an almost irresistible temptation to try to find a way around the issue—to find a way to compromise, to make the problem go away and leave us in peace. But it won’t, because the issue isn’t health insurance. The issue is witness, and God help us if Catholic witness ever fades from the scene.
Demanding that Catholic institutions cover abortions and abortifacient drugs and sterilizations is just one facet of a dark, dark diamond that threatens to cut through the very bonds of the faith if we permit it. Already Christians (not just Catholics) of conscience who try to refuse to accept the abortion and homosexual agenda are pressed on every economic side.
Already, wedding photographers with a sense of sacrament and conscience have been sued for refusing to take the job of photographing a homosexual union.
Already pharmacists of conscience have faced fines and firing for refusing to fill prescriptions for the morning after pill.
Already in other countries whose protections for free speech are weaker than ours, Christians can face fines and lawsuits simply for presenting the traditional teaching go the Church on the subject of sexual morality.
This latest attempt to force Catholic institutions to violate their consciences is another assault in the same battle: conform to the world’s views or be destroyed.
The time is coming, I am afraid, when every economic force will be brought to bear to force Christians of conscience, especially Catholics, to succumb to the secular agenda. And in many cases, it will work because we love our comfort so very much.
If contributions to a Church that fails to recognize homosexual unions are no longer tax deductible, will we continue to make them—in fact increase them so that our churches can survive after they lose their tax-exempt status for the same reason? Will we sacrifice our level of economic comfort to preserve our parishes?
If it becomes—in some ways it already is-- a requirement for admission to law, medical or business school to accept abortion, contraceptives and homosexual behavior, will we go along to get along? Or will we sadly turn away and find some other means—far less remunerative—to serve the King and the Kingdom with our intellects and our hands?
If those choices of conscience mean that we will lose our comfortable homes and our jobs and our 401K, what will we do? Will we trust that the loss is worth it? Or will we compromise our faith to keep our money?
There’s a temptation to look at these possibilities as ginning up ghosts in a graveyard—to terrible to contemplate, too impossible to happen, but they are not. The history of the Church proves they are not. The history of mankind proves that generation after generation is faced with just the sort of challenge that strikes at the very root of its own weakness—for the Adversary is clever and well versed in flanking maneuvers.
We are faced with an all-out assault on the freedom of conscience in America. I hope and pray for a compromise that will forestall the battles and change the shape of the battlefield. And I am taking a cold, hard look inside myself and my ability to bear the white martyrdom—the enforced renouncing of material goods and status— that seems to be looming.
I’m not sure I have the perseverance, I know I will be tempted to offer the pinch of incense to Caesar.
I can only pray that I recognize that temptation for what it is and that, like the martyrs of so long ago, I can say to myself—and to others—I have served Christ these many years as my Lord. Should I deny Him now? And for today, the pinch of incense comes in the form of accepting this violation of conscience in the supposed service of the “greater good” and “women’s health.” St. Polycarp, pray for me, for us all.
In my mind and in my heart, I’m clearing a way to that mass rock, metaphorically speaking. I hope I will never need it—but if I do, I want to be clear in my own mind that I know the path through the woods to find it.