Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

Who’s that bishop above the door of City Hall?

Sunday, February 9, 2014

If you’re in Copenhagen, Denmark, it’s St. Ansgar, a French monk and bishop who preached the Gospel in the ninth century in what is now Denmark. Eventually, the Danes and the Swedes and the Norwegians converted to the Catholic faith. Centuries later, during the Protestant Reformation, the kings took over the church and transformed it into a department of state, using its organization and wealth to create the absolute nation states that destroyed medieval civilization. Separated from Rome, the State Churches of Scandinavia adopted the Lutheran confession of faith as the expression of their belief. So thorough was this reform that, even today, it is difficult to be considered truly Danish or Swedish or Norwegian unless one is part of the Lutheran Folk Church, the religious expression of what it means to be part of a Scandinavian people.

St. Ansgar shares his feast day of Feb. 3 with St. Blase, protector against diseases of the throat. Given the severe winter weather, devotion to St. Blase usually trumps remembrance of St. Ansgar, at least outside of Scandinavia. Even in Scandinavia, devotion to saints is pretty rare. After using the church to create separate nations, each of which took the place of the universal Church and regulated the religious and every other dimension of peoples’ lives, the Scandinavian countries, like the Kingdom of Great Britain, seem to have outgrown their need for religion. The State suffices as the ultimate arbiter of meaning, and their societies are secularized.

In the 19th century, limited freedom of religion was introduced into the countries of northern Europe, and churches other than the official church were permitted some liberties. Today, small numbers of native-born citizens are Catholic, along with immigrants from Catholic countries who have arrived in the last several decades. I used to visit these countries with some regularity, moving from small parish to small parish, praying with folks who knew clearly why they were Catholic, because nothing in their society supported their Catholicism.

Some in our country would regard the Scandinavian pattern of cultural secularization as an ideal. For them, religion gets in the way of some reforms considered progressive; and since it acts as a source of division and even violence, it must be contained. We tend to believe that liberal democratic societies, such as ours, are always tolerant; but a hegemonic secularism can be as dangerous to believers as any other form of total State control. The dangers to religion in general and Catholicism in particular are at least three-fold: legal, financial and cultural.

Our laws now define abortion as essential to the freedom of women. If you are anti-abortion, you are against the liberation of women enshrined in law. Our own state law now defines “gay marriage” as necessary to establish legal equality for gays and lesbians. If you think “gay marriage” is a contradiction in terms, your opinion puts you outside the laws protecting equality for all. The Catholic Church is, in the eyes of these laws, a discriminatory organization, and the laws will be used to punish the church. These developments in our civil legal system place the church’s teachings in opposition to the legal system that defines right and wrong for most people.

Financially, the growing number of dioceses that are declaring bankruptcy in order to both meet the need to help victims of sexual abuse by clergy and also preserve some assets for the church’s mission has created a situation entirely new to the life of the church here. Our tort system, which makes an entire organization responsible for the wrongdoing of its leaders, is being used to diminish the church in an unprecedented way. This despoiling of the church is a threat to her life and mission.

Culturally, the public life of our society is moving toward the elimination of religious values and symbols. Our culture privatizes religion, reducing the church to a voluntary association like a club. But the church has been a visible society for 2,000 years, often in conflict with overweening states, often resisting every attempt to allow others to take over her apostolic government. Anti-Catholicism has deep cultural roots in our history, and it is gaining strength again. It places the freedom of the church in jeopardy.

But danger is never the last word when we live in faith and love. Pope Francis speaks and writes persuasively of the joy of the Gospel, and his life and pastoral ministry give witness to that joy. Pope John Paul II, soon to be canonized, admonished constantly, “Do not be afraid!” A shared life in Christ, as members of his body, the church, is always marked by a deep happiness and security, for Christ has vanquished sin no matter where it is found, whether in the church or in the world outside the church.

If he returned to Scandinavia today, St. Ansgar might be hard pressed to point to the results of his missionary endeavors. He would recognize the faith still nurtured in the Folk Churches, although he would see it as not adequate to his own. He would see the civic virtues that mark Scandinavian societies as unacknowledged consequences of the many centuries of the practice of the Christian faith, and he would be happy that some values of the Gospel, even in secular costume, are still at work among the people he loved. He would pray, however, for the fullness of the apostolic faith to permeate all societies, even our own. In the midst of a cold winter, surrounded by anxieties for the future of our church, we can join St. Ansgar in that prayer. God bless you.


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