Guest Columnists

Catholic Progressives And the Culture War

Among those in the ultramundane pantheon of communist mega-monsters, Lev Davidovich Bronstein (better known by his Bolshevik nom de guerre, Leon Trotsky) is a more interesting human personality than Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili (Joseph Stalin or, in the Roosevelt-Churchill correspondence, “Uncle Joe”). Trotsky actually had ideas, however misshapen, and something vaguely resembling a conscience.

Stalin was pathologically power-mad and had no discernible conscience whatsoever. Trotsky was also clever with words, as in the quote about the class struggle often attributed to him: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Whether or not Trotsky put it that pithily — opinions differ — there is an analogous truth many self-identified progressive Catholics miss. So to my progressive Catholic friends, I say: You may not be interested in the culture war, but the culture war is interested in you — and everyone else.

The culture war defining much of contemporary public life throughout the western world comes in two forms. One group of cultural aggressors, well-entrenched in the Biden Administration, insists that human beings are infinitely plastic and malleable, that there are no “givens” in the human condition, and that acts of will, aided by technology, can, for example, correct “gender assignments” misapplied at birth.

Another group of cultural aggressors takes a sharply different tack, insisting that our race, sex, ethnicity, or some combination thereof indelibly marks us as either victims or oppressors. The LGBTQ+ movement is one expression of the former. Critical race theory and such exercises in historical fantasy as the New York Times “1619 Project” are good examples of the latter.

I won’t play Trotsky and engage in a dialectical argument to resolve the obvious question: How can we be both utterly undefined and forever defined at the same time? I’ll simply note that both these aggressors are at war with the biblical and Catholic view of the human person. That is the culture war, and you can’t escape it, except by willful acts of denial, culpable ignorance, or sheer mendacity.

The development of a refined Catholic theological anthropology — a distinctive and ennobling Catholic view of the human person — has been one of the Church’s signal accomplishments over the past century. That development made possible two striking affirmations in Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

First, the Council fathers taught that Jesus Christ reveals both the face of the merciful Father and the truth about us, such that we learn the full glory of human nature by contemplating the person of Christ. Then they taught that the fulfillment of human desire and human destiny comes through self-giving, not willful self-assertion. These teachings have profound implications for cultural renewal today.

According to the authoritative teaching of the Second Vatican Council, Catholics must not pigeonhole human beings by race, ethnicity, chromosomal identity, or object of sexual attraction. Catholics who take the texts of Vatican II seriously refuse to truckle to, and in fact resist, those cultural aggressors who think of human beings as mere twitching bundles of morally-equal desires, the fulfillment of which exhausts the meaning of “human rights.” Catholics who take the Council seriously work to give legal effect to Vatican II’s teaching that “abortion, euthanasia … [and] mutilation” (think of 13-year-old girls getting double mastectomies in the name of “trans” rights) “poison civilization,” “debase the perpetrators” as well as the victims, and “militate against the honor of the Creator.”

In a recent video address to a Spanish conference on Catholics in public life, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, courageously challenged self-styled “social justice” movements based on thoroughly un-Catholic concepts of the human person. He was instantly attacked by the usual progressive trolls of the Catholic Twitterverse and blogosphere, who found the archbishop’s truth-telling to be insensitive culture-warring.  That indictment, like so much other progressive Catholic hysteria, was risible.

It also smacked of the kind of bullying that failed to make Archbishop Gomez cower when he released a thoughtful public letter to President Biden in January. Archbishop Gomez is a quiet man, not especially fond of controversy. But he is also a pastor who believes there is no escaping the culture war when the aggressors deny essential truths of Catholic faith about our humanity. More power to him.

Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C.