Just last week, I had the privilege of spending four hours in the Sistine Chapel with my Word on Fire team. Toward the end of our filming, the director of the Vatican Museums, who had accompanied us throughout the process, asked whether I wanted to see the “Room of Tears.” This is the little antechamber, just off of the Sistine Chapel, where the newly-elected pope repairs in order to change into his white cassock. Understandably, tears begin to flow in that room once the poor man realizes the weight of his office.
Inside the small space there were documents and other memorabilia, but what got my attention was a row of impressive albs, chasubles and copes worn by various popes across the years. I noticed the specially decorated cope of Pope Pius VI, who was one of the longest-serving pontiffs in history, reigning from 1775 to 1799. Pius was an outspoken opponent of the French Revolution and its bloody aftermath—and his forthrightness cost him dearly. French troops invaded Italy and demanded that the pope renounce his claim to the Papal States. When he refused, he was arrested and imprisoned in a citadel in Valence, where he died six weeks later. In the room of tears, there was also a stole worn by Pius VI’s successor, Pius VII. This Pope Pius also ran afoul of the French, who, under Napoleon, invaded Italy in 1809 and took him prisoner. During his grim exile, he did manage to get off one of the greatest lines in papal history. Evidently, Napoleon himself announced to the pope that he was going to destroy the Church, to which Pius VII responded, “Oh my little man, you think you’re going to succeed in accomplishing what centuries of priests and bishops have tried and failed to do!”
Both popes find themselves, of course, in a long line of Church people persecuted by the avatars of the regnant culture. In the earliest centuries of the Church’s life, thousands—including Peter, Paul, Agnes, Cecelia, Clement, Felicity, Perpetua, Sebastian, Lawrence, and Cyprian—were brutally put to death by officials of the Roman Empire. In the fourth century, Saint Ambrose was opposed by the emperor Theodosius; in the 11th century, Pope Gregory VII locked horns with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV; in the 19th century, Bismarck waged a Kulturkampf against the Catholic Church in Germany, and in the 20th century, more martyrs gave their lives for the faith than in all the previous centuries combined.
Now why am I rehearsing this rather sad history? In the wake of the United States Supreme Court decision regarding gay marriage, a not inconsiderable number of Catholics feel beleaguered and more than a little afraid. Their fear comes from the manner in which the decision was framed and justified. Since same-sex marriage is now recognized as a fundamental human right guaranteed by the Constitution, those who oppose it can only be characterized as bigots animated by an irrational prejudice. To be sure, Justice Kennedy and his colleagues assure us that those who have religious objections to same-sex marriage will be respected, but one wonders how such respect is congruent with the logic of the decision. Would one respect the owners of a business who refuse to hire black people as a matter of principle? Would not the government, in point of fact, be compelled to act against those owners? The proponents of gay marriage have rather brilliantly adopted the rhetoric of the civil rights movement, precisely so as to force this conclusion. And this is why my mentor, the late Francis Cardinal George, so often warned against the incursions of an increasingly aggressive secular state, which, he argued, will first force us off the public stage into privacy and then seek to criminalize those practices of ours that it deems unacceptable.
One reason that this has been rather shocking to American Catholics is that we have had, at least for the last century or so, a fairly benign relationship with the environing culture. Until around 1970, there was, throughout the society and across religious boundaries, a broad moral consensus in our country, especially in regard to sexual and family matters. This is one reason why, in the 1950’s, Archbishop Fulton Sheen could find such a wide and appreciative audience among Protestants and Jews, even as he laid out fundamentally Catholic perspectives on morality. But now that consensus has largely been shattered, and the Church finds itself opposed, not so much by other religious denominations, as it was in the 19th century, but by the ideology of secularism and the self-defining individual—admirably expressed, by the way, in Justice Kennedy’s articulation of the majority position in the case under consideration.
So what do we do? We continue to put forth our point of view winsomely, invitingly and non-violently, loving our opponents and reaching out to those with whom we disagree. As Saint John Paul II said, the Church always proposes, never imposes. And we take a deep breath, preparing for what could be some aggression from the secular society, but we take courage from a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. The Church has faced this sort of thing before—and we’re still standing.
Father Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, “Catholicism” and “Catholicism: The New Evangelization.”