The danger to Western Christians doesn't come from sword-and-sandals tyrants, but from a new code of etiquette
Christians in America and Europe are persecuted. This is not the wild claim of right-wing alarmists but the sober contention of the Bishop of Rome. Standing where St Peter was crucified, preaching on the feast of St Stephen in 2016, Pope Francis described how Christians in the West have come to face a form of “polite persecution” that “takes away from man and woman their freedom, as well as their right to conscientious objection”.
“Jesus has named the head of this ‘polite’ persecution: the prince of this world,” Francis said. “And when the powerful want to impose behaviours, laws against the dignity of the son of God, they persecute them and go against God the Creator. It is the great apostasy.”
Polite persecution has made headlines several times in recent months. We have seen Senator Kamala Harris suggest that Knights of Columbus should be barred from the judiciary. We have seen an online mob descend upon the students of Covington Catholic. We have seen Brian McCall, a dean at Oklahoma University School of Law, ousted for his “sexist” and “homophobic” views, which hardly went beyond traditional Christian ideas on modesty and the nature of marriage. British readers will be familiar with this phenomenon: a recent example is Fr Mark Morris, sacked as a university chaplain after holding a service of reparation for Glasgow’s Pride parade.
One of the most curious aspects of polite persecution is the refusal of many Christians to acknowledge its reality. If any Christian in the West says that the Church there faces persecution, one of his co-religionists is sure to accuse him of overstating the case. Herein lies the great insidiousness of polite persecution. Rather than being conducted by sword-and-sandals tyrants employing brutal means, it is very often enforced by Christians themselves, in order to flatter and serve their secular betters. Time and again they rush to denounce other Christians as “hateful”, “insensitive” and “bigoted” – in a word, impolite.
Anti-Catholicism now exists to a great degree as Catholic self-loathing. Like the Italians and Irish who have made their way into country clubs and now resent talk of gangsters such as Tony Soprano or Whitey Bulger, polite Catholics dislike the reminder that, despite all, they still profess an unfashionable faith. For these upwardly mobile souls, professing Christian sexual teaching is just shy of running an extortion racket or putting out a hit. They not only seek to dissociate themselves from such Catholics, they do what they can to silence and suppress them.
When Dianne Feinstein told Amy Coney Barrett “the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s a concern,” Cathleen Kaveny was ready to declare “No, Dianne Feinstein is not an anti-Catholic bigot” in the Washington Post. When Pope Francis met Kim Davis, an official who had refused to participate in issuing same-sex marriage licences, commentators such as Fr James Martin worried that people would “use this meeting to support their own agenda” – never mind the fact that Davis became famous for defending a point of doctrine that she shares with Catholics. When pro-lifers gather in their hundreds of thousands for the March for Life, there are always Catholics on hand to criticise the March for not emphasising a broader range of issues.
This dynamic was especially pronounced in the case of the Covington Catholic students. When the students were denounced as racist-misogynists because they had joined the March for Life and wore Trump hats, Bishop John Stowe of Lexington wrote an op-ed suggesting the students had chosen to “uncritically ally” with Trump. He apparently did not watch the full video, in which the Covington students can be seen mocking members of the Black Hebrew Israelites for their gay-baiting and racist remarks. The Covington boys are not exactly the alt-right avatars some fevered imaginations assume all Trump supporters must be.
When any body of opinion is ascendant, its crude and outrageous expressions are easily tolerated. This is why Sarah Jeong, who had written things like “Oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men,” could be hired by the New York Times. Anti-racism is an ascendant ideology, so people who advocate it in rude terms are seen as overzealous, perhaps, but basically in the right. When a body of opinion is disfavoured, only its thoughtful and refined expressions may be tolerated – one might almost say, only those expressions that have been stripped of all clarity, force and power. Take Christian opposition to same-sex marriage and sexual relations. One might be permitted to make a subtle argument, employing Thomistic terminology, about the proper ends of sex. But one certainly may not discuss the matter in the rough terms used by Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty.
In practice, this means that Christian claims may only be asserted by a select class that has mastered the manners of speech used by holders of liberal arts degrees. As the Christians who run afoul of elite manners are often poorly versed in the latest version of political correctness, it usually is possible to accuse them of some real offence.
Christians should think twice about engaging in this form of self-policing. While acknowledging that refinement is preferable to rudeness, and eloquence preferable to crudity, they must stand with their co-religionists who, in sincerely trying to defend the faith, are attacked for incidental violations of political correctness. To do anything less is to become complicit in a form of persecution that is also a kind of class war.
What Christians should urge each other to advance in is the properly Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity. These virtues will, when expressed in moments of perfect peace, also radiate respect, compassion and sensitivity. When the world hates the Church – as, alas, it always has – faith, hope, and love will sometimes seem rude, insolent or cruel. No one who loves peace could celebrate this fact, but neither could any realist deny it.
Western Christians have little reason for self-pity in the face in polite persecution. We have known that the Church will always be persecuted – that this is almost a mark of the Church – and that the real peril is not any penalty a Christian might suffer, but the temptation to join the persecutors in hounding those Catholics who choose to suffer for Christ.
As Pope Francis reminds us, polite persecution is real. But none of its threats remotely approach the torments suffered by our brothers dying as Christians have always died – at Rome, Tyburn and the Libyan seaside.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things