“The act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has today all the exhilaration of a vice”
-- “A Defense of Humilities, The Defendant’’ (1901), G.K. Chesterton
Small “o” orthodox Christians of a certain age will be familiar with the cardinal virtues. They are: prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice – all under attack by a secular culture that, judging by Hollywood or Washington, D.C., standards, appears to have won the battle. But, never fear, the four cardinal virtues form the breastplate of a church against which, its founder once proclaimed, the gates of Hell shall not prevail.
The cardinal virtues, St. Augustine tells us, better enable us to pursue the good life: “To live well is nothing other than to love God with all one's heart, with all one's soul and with all one's efforts; from this, it comes about that love is kept whole and uncorrupted (through temperance). No misfortune can disturb it (and this is fortitude). It obeys only [God] (and this is justice), and is careful in discerning things, so as not to be surprised by deceit or trickery (and this is prudence).”
Peter Wolfgang is the executive drector of the Family Institute of Connecticut (FIC). His helpmeet is his wife, Leslie, the mother of seven children. A born-again Catholic, Wolfgang is on speaking terms with the members of FIC’s Clergy Advisory Council, which include the Rev. LeRoy Bailey, Jr., senior pastor, The First Cathedral, Bloomfield; Rabbi Yehoshua S. Hecht, Beth Israel Synagogue, Norwalk; and Rev. Earl M. Inswiller, Jr., Living Waters Fellowship Church, Windsor Locks. A member of the Connecticut Bar, Wolfgang holds a juris doctorate from University of Connecticut School of Law and sports a bachelor's degree in International Studies from The American University in Washington, D.C., all of which helps when he finds himself locking horns with a variety of secularized Jews and Christians and practical atheists. As defined by Jacques Maritain, practical atheists are those who believe that “they believe in God and... perhaps believe in Him in their brains but... in reality deny His existence by each one of their deeds." Wolfgang is not a practical atheist.
Q: I don’t think you will dispute that we live in a secular age, a time in which religious proscriptions – and, perhaps more importantly, the Judeo-Christian view of things – has been bleached from the public square. Prayers, except those said very privately in a closet, are discouraged in public schools. I’m old enough to recall a time when contraception was frowned upon in Catholic circles; it still is, but in the religiously bleached wider society, contraception is an unquestioned given. Abortion too – even late-term abortion -- is defended by “Catholic” legislators and Jewish public officials.
Here in Connecticut, Planned Parenthood counts among its most fervent proponents U.S. Sen. Dick Blumenthal, who is Jewish, and Rosa DeLauro and John Larson, both of whom are Catholic. For a half century and more, we have witnessed a moral army in full retreat. Many Christians keep asking themselves “Where are the red lines?” Dostoyevsky used to say that for those who have shucked off religion, everything is possible. He was echoed by Nietzsche, who wondered what the future would look like in a world that had buried the Hebraic-Christian God.
That appears to be our world – of cringingly obliging Christians, practical atheists, moral libertines, and phony Christian politicians who have colluded, along with practical atheists, to imprison Christianity in what the French used to call “the little ease,” a cell so small that, while in it, the prisoner could neither stand nor sit nor lie prone. Let me ask you, where are the red lines in our culture, and are they still informed by the Judeo-Christian faith? Before answering, you might want to explain what a born-again Catholic is.
A: “I don’t know if ‘born-again Catholic’ quite captures it but I appreciate what you are trying to convey. I am someone who believes in and tries to live according to the Catholic faith. Not always successfully, as my pastor could tell you if he were not under the seal of confession. But the point of your question, I think, is that there are Catholics who are trying and there are Catholics who seem not to be trying. We should all try, and harder.
“The red lines of our culture have shifted at a dizzying speed. Judeo-Christian faith seems to be, at best, a bystander in that shift and at worst, road kill. Consider as one example the vulgar play The Vagina Monologues. Catholic watchdog groups had for years complained whenever it was shown on a Catholic college campus, to little effect. Only when transgender persons objected —because, it was claimed, the play was offensive to ‘women without vaginas’ —did it begin to be banned. That says something about who really sets the red lines in our society—and what is the real faith of those colleges.
Q: “Yeah, it’s difficult to parody that sort of behavior. Who is it – or perhaps what is it – that establishes the real ‘red lines’ in a community, if it is not valued tradition? Not to beat the Chesterton drum too often, but he was brought late in life to the Catholic faith. And the world against which he persuasive inveighed was very much like our own. He defined tradition as the democracy of the dead: ‘Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.’ Many moderns appear to be making up tradition – even history is fungible – as they go along their merry way. It seems to me that a tradition undefended from assault is a tradition abandoned. In law, as you know, and in politics as well, silence signifies assent. The opposite of silence may not be reasoned speech; it may be the chatter of cultural assassins. How should faithful Christians oppose such forces?
A: “Some demons can only be cast out through prayer and fasting. We must, first of all, attend to both. St. Joan of Arc made her soldiers go to confession before they went into battle. Christians should strive for holiness, to model in our own lives the better world we hope to bring about.
“Secondly, we must engage in the public sphere: education, lobbying and, yes, politics. Not to do so is to shirk our duty as citizens in a democratic republic. Very few Christians in the history of the world have lived in a society as free as ours. To not take advantage of that freedom is to be like the unprofitable servant who buried his one talent in the ground. No Christian should want to be that guy.
“And - I can’t emphasize this enough - our adversaries are using every means at their disposal to win the day. It pains me to say that Cultural Marxism has more fervent believers than does Jesus Christ. But that is what I often see.’’
Q: Well, yes, Marx announced rather volubly that religion is the opiate of the people. In our day, opioids have become the opium of the people – that and a politics from which the religion of the people appears to have fled from hearts and minds of nominally Catholic politicians. Some Catholics appear not to be disturbed by what we might call a return to the catacombs, Christianity in a closet. It is all very well to say that besieged Catholics should not retreat from the public square, but we are living in a time in which prominent politicians such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein feel free to say unblushingly that 7th Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Amy Coney Barrett may not be fit for service on the court because of her Catholic faith. Let me quote her exactly: “You are controversial,” Feinstein said to Barrett. “You have a long history of believing that your religious beliefs should prevail. When you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you. And that’s of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for years in this country.” Only yesterday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a cultural Catholic, joyously signed a bill that would allow late term abortion. Are we losing the battle? If so, where is the cavalry? In past times, the church had been reinvigorated by both the clergy and, more importantly, the laity.
A: “There are still more examples that could be cited. Senators Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Mazie Hirono (Hawaii) recently attacked a Trump judicial nominee’s membership in the Knights of Columbus because the Knights are pro-life and for traditional marriage—positions held by any faithful Catholic—and asked if he would resign in order to be confirmed. That is where we are at. Faithful Christians are being told that they are not full citizens under the law and that they have no place in the public square.
”In the short term, yes, we are losing the battle. The Family Institute of Connecticut regularly gets call from state residents in big corporations who tell us their performance review hinges on their acceptance of anti-Christian agendas that are contrary to their faith. This was almost unheard of before the judicial imposition of same-sex marriage.’
”If there is to be a cavalry to save the day, it will not be the institutional Church. Demographic decline, clergy sex abuse and increasing hostility from the centers of power in our society have put the Church in survival mode. At best, the Church is focused on protecting the liberty of its own institutions. At worst, as we saw in the initial reactions to the boys from Covington Catholic High School, some Church leaders throw their own most faithful followers under the bus.
”But it is wrong for the laity to expect the clergy to do what ought to be our job. The Church ought to equip us and support us but it is the role of the laity to defend faith and morals in the public square. My biggest concern is a clericalism of the laity, that the most devout Catholics become so obsessed with the various crises of the Church that they are not focused on fulfilling the responsibilities of their state of life: educating themselves on the attacks on faith and family, lobbying their elected representatives and volunteering to help elect candidates who share their values and to defeat candidates who attack those values.]
“The cultural Left, particularly in Connecticut, is heavily invested in these things. Politics is their faux-religion. Catholics—and adherents of other orthodox faiths--should not let it be said that our secular adversaries believe in their fake religion more than we believe in our real one. Catholics—and the faithful of the Protestant and Jewish communities—must get involved in the public defense of faith and family.’’
Don Pesci is an essayist who lives in Vernon