During three years of outstanding service as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago has often drawn the bishops’ attention — and indeed the whole Church’s attention — to the challenges posed by a new secularism that is, in its way, as great a threat to the integrity of Christian faith as the lethal totalitarianisms of the mid-twentieth century.
The cardinal’s analysis is an important application of Pope Benedict XVI’s warning about the dangers posed by a “dictatorship of relativism”: the use of law and other forms of coercive state power to impose certain concepts of the plasticity of human nature on a range of issues including the protection due to human life and the nature of marriage. And the implication of that analysis seems clear. In the future, the Church may well have to take a more determinedly countercultural stance. The question is, how?
Let me suggest one specific, concrete way that Catholicism in America can begin to mount a campaign of resistance to the flattening-out of our common life by the ambient culture: Restore a distinctive sense of time to Catholic life, and do that by reforming the reform of the liturgical calendar.
As things now stand, the Church has bent its sense of liturgical time to the imperial demands of that modern cultural artifact, the weekend. The Holy See has permitted local churches to lower the bar of liturgical expectation by transferring solemnities like Epiphany and Corpus Christi to Sundays, and the bishops of the United States have gone a step farther by lifting the obligation to attend Mass on certain holy days if those days fall on a Saturday or a Monday: thus, just a few weeks ago, the Solemnity of All Saints dropped off a lot of Catholic radar screens because it fell on a Monday, and was thus not a holy day of obligation.
These are very bad ideas, it seems to me. If the time we spend worshipping God through Christ in the power of the Spirit is, in truth, an experience of enriched time (because it anticipates the time-beyond-time), then we should not look for ways to cut temporal corners by shifting to Sunday long-established feasts whose celebration during the week once gave a unique rhythm to Catholic life. So let’s put Epiphany back where it belongs, on January 6, and let’s get the Solemnity of the Body and Body of Christ, Corpus Christi, back where it belongs, which is during the week.
By the same token, we ought not reduce the opportunities Catholics have to live in a different time-zone by eliminating holy days of obligation. Is it really too much to ask Catholics to attend Mass two days in a row, on those rare occasions when a holy day falls just before or after Sunday? Indeed, I would go even farther and suggest that we need more holy days of obligation, not less. Restored to their proper dates, the Solemnities of the Epiphany and Corpus Christi could be made holy days of obligation. So might the Solemnity of the Annunciation, which could become an annual celebration of the inalienable right to life from conception until natural death. And if the late John Paul II was right in lifting up Our Lady of Guadalupe as a special Marian gift to the Church in the Americas, then perhaps we should consider making December 12 a holy day of obligation, focused on the New Evangelization. I would also be tempted to add to an expanded list of obligatory holy days the October 19 feast of the North American Martyrs, as a reminder of just how challenging the proclamation and defense of the faith can be.
As for the practical problems of distance involved in some rural areas, these can be easily addressed by the local bishop dispensing from holy days of obligation when he sees fit. Nonetheless, the Church as a whole ought to make a countercultural statement by the reforming the way it orders the rhythms of its life.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.