The Bishop of Providence, Rhode Island, the Most Rev. Thomas Tobin, used a very interesting term in the pastoral letter that he issued to the Catholics of his diocese on May 2nd which dealt with legislation in that State which has since been signed by the Governor there which made so-called “same sex marriage” a fact of the civil law. For the sake of this post, we won’t be wading into the national debate on this issue, and that is because as a weblog that is not only Catholic, but is an official diocesan organ, it ought to come as no surprise to anyone that we are going to uphold the Church’s teaching in that regard. Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco rightly called the movement to redefine marriage a “grave injustice” and reminded Catholics that the definition of marriage remains the same regardless of what the law says in a USCCB statement on the matter.
What grabbed my attention about Bishop Tobin’s pastoral letter was a phrase that has been used to describe the cultural situation in Europe, but Bishop Tobin is now using it to describe the situation in our own country:
In particular I wish to invite members of the Catholic Church in Rhode Island to a moment of prayer and reflection as we respond to this new challenge of the post-Christian era into which, clearly, we have now entered.
The ‘post-Christian era,” Bishop Tobin calls it. Let those words sink in for a few minutes before you read on. This member of the episcopate who oversees a heavily-Catholic diocese has just called the era we live in post-Christian. The meaning of that term is literally “after the Christian era.” It seems frightening, not to mention unreal.
To many East Tennessee ears, the idea contained in the word that Bishop Tobin used might seem foreign. After all, many of our neighbors share our faith in Jesus Christ at a very deep level. Many of our Protestant brothers and sisters share our views on some of the important moral questions of our day. In East Tennessee, one can often feel free to talk about God or Jesus Christ in public without being looked at like you have four heads.
That is slowly changing, however, as demographics change and as a new and far less-churched generation will begin to come of age. That “post-Christian era” that Bishop Tobin speaks of is coming to our area soon enough, and the best way to be ready for it is not to erect barriers of fear and to be afraid to engage the culture, as some will no doubt attempt to do, but to engage the culture head on. Befriend those who feel estranged or on the margins of society, especially those who feel estranged by the Church. Truth is unchanging, and it can and should be spoken loudly and clearly, but it must be spoken in charity and in love for our neighbor.
It is important to remember that the Church has been here before. It is hard for us to fathom, but we should remember that our forefathers in faith lived in a society that was openly hostile to them. The early Christians were hated and despised by the wider world. The Roman Emperor Nero once used Christians as the scapegoats to blame when he burned the city of Rome. It is believed that Peter and Paul were both martyred during Nero’s persecution. We take the ideas of Christian morality for granted today, but in the first century Roman world, Christian morals and values were very foreign to that culture. What attracted non-Christians to the faith? The Roman historian Tertullian said that Romans were attracted to Christianity because many of them said “look, see how they love one another.”
People become attracted to Christ when they meet people who are like him, and who reflect his love and mercy. We are living in a time when the morality that is inherent in a Christian worldview will be seen as outdated and even strange. The great advantage of that for us might be that if we begin to reflect the love of God clearly, we might begin to see people wondering what people in the Church have that they don’t, and that they may say “I want the peace that they seem to have.”
Ubi caritas et amor
Ubi caritas Deus ibi est
It roughly translates “Where charity and love is, there is the love of God.”