Persistence of the Catholic Moment

From First Things:

The Persistence of the Catholic Moment

By Richard John Neuhaus

Friday, January 16, 2009, 12:29 AM

This essay by Richard John Neuhaus, who passed away January 8, 2009, was originally printed in the February 2003 issue of First Things.

In 1987, while I was still a Lutheran, I published a book titled The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World. There I argued that the Catholic Church is the leading and indispensable community in advancing the Christian movement in world history. In evangelization, in furthering the Christian intellectual tradition, in the quest for Christian unity, in advocating the culture of life, and in every other aspect of the Christian mission, this was, I contended, the Catholic Moment. I am frequently asked whether I still believe that, or whether the Moment has been missed, or derailed, or simply delayed. The short answer is: If the Catholic Church is what she claims to be—and about that I have no doubt—then every moment from Pentecost to Our Lord’s return in glory is the Catholic Moment. But the degree to which that Moment is realized in the little span of time that is ours depends on whether contemporary Catholicism has the nerve to be fully and distinctively Catholic.

To be Catholic is not a private preference but a matter of ordering one’s loves and loyalties to the very public communal reality that is the Catholic Church. For others, religion may be what a person does with his solitude, or what people do together with their solitudes, but Catholicism is a corporate reality. It is what Catholics used to call a “perfect society” within the imperfect societies of the world, or what Vatican II, with essentially the same intention, calls the People of God. It understands itself to be an apostolically constituted community, and its distinguishing mark is communion with the Bishop of Rome who, alone of religious leaders in the world—and this is a matter of the greatest symbolic and practical significance—is not a citizen or subject of any temporal sovereignty.

It is suggested by some that the public influence of Catholicism has been greatly weakened, not least by the scandals of the past year. The question of Catholicism in the public square, however, is not—at least not chiefly—the question of Catholic influence in social change or public policy, never mind electoral politics. Catholicism in the public square is a matter of being, fully and vibrantly, the public community that is the Catholic Church. More than by recent scandals, Catholicism in the public square is weakened by its gradual but certain sociological accommodation to a Protestant ethos—also in its secularized forms—that construes religion in terms of consumer preference and voluntary associations in support of those preferences. It is weakened also by what is aptly called the totalitarian impulse of the modern state—including democratic states—to monopolize public space and consign religion to the private sphere, thus producing what I have called the naked public square. . . .

[continue reading The Persistence of the Catholic Moment]

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