The Church of Jesus Christ (speaking broadly) has had its share of challenges in its roughly two millennia existence. At various times and places it has confronted existential threats because some in the Church believed and stood for something permanent and wonderful – something (if I may put it this way) out of this world. That’s the way it has gone for centuries because cultures do not look kindly on those who will not conform. The Roman Empire took that view for about three centuries after the birth of the Church, and in periodic persecutions martyred perhaps as many as three million Christians. The consistent message has been play the game, or pay the price.
In contrast, it is a fundamental Christian belief that the teachings of Christ are true no matter what the surrounding culture believes. A frequent metaphor for this is the Church as light; and as darkness increases (in the culture) the light shines brighter. But, brighter light also angers those who don’t want its illumination. As Jesus himself noted, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.”
This sheds light (no pun intended) on a point of contention in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regulation debate over the government’s mandate that certain religious organizations pay for contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization procedures – even when their religious beliefs forbid them. Rather than having their religious and moral beliefs respected, these organizations are being told they need to get with the times and change centuries of beliefs the way the culture changes clothing styles. The problem is the Church does not work that way, and the demand misses the point of what the Church believes God intended it to be. The Church is the measuring rod for culture, and its role is to speak on eternal truths that transcend cultures; it is there to shape the culture, and not vice-versa. In fact, much of the Church believes this is its mandate, and the failure to do so means it has ceased acting as the Church.
Let’s add an obvious here as well; while there are central beliefs to Christian orthodoxy, parts of the Church disagree on various points of practice. This is expected – even anticipated in the Bible – where the Church is told to exercise Christian liberty in certain debatable points. We respect individual conscience within an established framework – so one sect’s view of contraception does not prevent it from fighting for the religious liberty of another that holds a different view. The issue is bigger than contraception or abortifacients; it is whether the state may order people to violate their deepest religious and moral convictions for pretty much any reason government bureaucrats wish.
Those following the issue have likely heard the most common justifications of government officials for imposing such a mandate. I’ve heard and read the arguments from pundits and talking heads on the evening news. In one approach, bureaucrats wag a finger in the face of a church and scold about how many people are doing something despite church teaching. The message is clear; you are out-of-touch and need to conform to what many people are doing. (The more odious form of this asserts a church needs to become relevant – whatever that means –- as if relevance is the ultimate moral good.)
The source behind many of these comments is a study by Guttmacher Institute, which is an affiliate of Planned Parenthood. (Their website says they are dedicated to “(a)dvancing sexual and reproductive health worldwide…”
Their website contains the following summary:
“Contraceptive use by Catholics and Evangelicals—including those who attend religious services most frequently—is the norm, according to a new Guttmacher report. This finding confirms that policies making contraceptives more affordable and easier to use reflect the needs and desires of the vast majority of U.S. women and their partners, regardless of their religious beliefs. ‘In real-life America, contraceptive use and strong religious beliefs are highly compatible,’ says Rachel K. Jones, the report’s lead author. ‘Most sexually active women who do not want to become pregnant practice contraception, and most use highly effective methods like sterilization, the pill, or the IUD. This is true for Evangelicals and Mainline Protestants, and it is true for Catholics, despite the Catholic hierarchy’s strenuous opposition to contraception.’”
Now, groups like Planned Parenthood citing the practices of Christians to justify coercing people of faith is laughable, with the ludicrous quality of the fox guarding the henhouse. But the troublesome point is not the obvious lack of credibility – rather it is the strategy. Churches are told they had better discard their antiquated views and go with the majority, or the majority view will be forced back on them. And if a lot of practicing Christians become vegetarians some day, I suppose the churches can be compelled to add veganism to their catechisms to remain relevant.
The entire notion is absurd and deeply offensive to how a society understands the role of its churches. When cultural pressures in Germany in the 1930s led most churches away from traditional Christian beliefs and into support for the Nazi party’s concept of what religion ought to be, it was hardly their finest hour. With few notable exceptions, the churches in Germany fell into the trap of conforming to the culture rather than acting as its conscience.
The scorecard for a culture in any particular generation is irrelevant; the Church has a role to play in society, and the facile assumption it should change its essential beliefs to conform to the times reveals an appalling lack of understanding of its role. The Church, for all its human failures and struggles, still bears the message of a greater transcendent truth. Light is never needed more than in the darkest of times.