Despite the bright, warm sunshine outside, a pessimistic fog spread over the Washington Hilton early this morning as the 10th annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast was underway in the ballroom.
“My message for you today is a somber one,” said Professor Robert George, who lectures on civil liberties at Princeton, to a packed ballroom of Catholics that included failed Virginia gubernatorial hopeful Ken Cuccinelli. “The days of acceptable Christianity are over. The days of comfortable Catholicism are past. …It’s not easy anymore. There are costs to discipleship, heavy costs that are burdensome to bear.”
Soon enough he’d get specific. George stressed that there are “powerful forces and currents in our society that press us to be ashamed of the Gospel. For example, if you believe that marriage is the consensual union between a man and a woman, you’re portrayed as bigoted, even hateful. …If you believe these things, some forces say you are a bigot [who is] against homosexuality [and] you ought to be ashamed.”
Celebrities didn’t fare much better than gays. The Jay-Z’s and Kim Kardashians of the world may want to cover their ears for this, but the keynote speaker, His Eminence Cardinal Sean O’Malley, didn’t hold back on his feelings about celebs. “We live in a world obsessed by celebrities,” he said. “All too often celebrities replace heroines, often they live lives that are superficial and chaotic.”
On a jollier note, O’Malley came with the “warmest of greetings” from Pope Francis. He quickly followed with orders: “If he were here, I’m sure he would [encourage] you to renew the missionary style of the church.” He said Catholics must move from “a maintenance mode to a missionary one. The mission of the church is making disciples.”
Like George, he’s worried about the unborn and the sacredness of marriage. “Unborn children and the sanctity of marriage make us seem quaint or nettlesome,” he said.
In contrast to George’s preachier style, O’Malley told stories. And what’s a national prayer breakfast without talk of a few sex scandals?
He said Washington was the place where he spent the longest period of his life. Among his greatest memories: Rep. Wilbur Mills, the congressman who was stopped by the police because his headlights were out. He was drunk and carousing with Fanny Fox — “the Argentinian firecracker.” As the famous story goes, together they jumped into the Tidal Basin.
The crowd roared as O’Malley reported that after that incident, Mills was handily reelected. They laughed even harder when he described what it was like to call Mills’ office: “If his staff said, ‘He can’t speak with you now because he’s on the floor,’ it wasn’t certain what that meant.”
O’Malley also raised the issue of scandal within the church, referring to sexual abuse of children at the hands of priests. He said there is a certain “cynicism of the call to holiness.” He reasoned, “We need to remind people that there have always been saints and sinners in the Church.”
Again and again, George said Catholics must be brave — pointedly protecting the unborn and marriage between a man and a woman. “One can still be a comfortable Catholic, a tame Catholic who is ashamed of the Gospel,” he said. On the other hand, “A Catholic who makes it clear that he or she is not ashamed of the Gospel is in for a rough go.”
Believing in the Gospel, he warned, makes you “a marked man or woman” and jeopardizes “one’s standing in a polite society.” He said it also may cost you friends and provoke the alienation of family members.
He encouraged listeners to get honest about their faith. “The question each of us must face is this: Am I ashamed of the Gospel? Am I prepared to pay the price if I refuse to be ashamed?” And later, taking a direct shot at pro-choice supporters, he asked, “Do you believe a child in the womb deserves respect and protection?” He also went after gay marriage, saying, “Do you believe as I believe that [the things] that shape marriage are grounded in its procreative nature?”
George lamented, “There was a time when we could be comfortable Catholics,” he said. “Those days are gone and they’re not coming back anytime soon. The love affair with Jesus and the Gospel and his Church are over.”
His speech didn’t conclude on an optimistic note. Instead, he had pointed questions: “Will we be like the other disciples and flee in fear? Will we silently acquiesce to the demolition of human lives and the destruction of marriage?”
And he pushed practicing Catholics to not be wimpy. “Courage and cowardice, that’s what makes history,” he said. “We are not pawns moving around a chess board. We have choices.
“History is not God. God is God.”