Right after the Obergefell vs. Hodges decision was announced, the media quickly reported on the “conciliatory” and “moderate” language of Donald Cardinal Wuerl:
“The law of the land is the law of the land,” says Archbishop of Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl. “We certainly follow what the law says. That doesn’t mean we change the word of God. That doesn’t mean we change the scriptures, or the church’s millennia-long tradition of what marriage is.”
In one sense, this is hardly surprising; we have seen the same Cardinal take a soft line towards pro-abortion politicians who abuse the Most Blessed Sacrament by receiving It despite their notorious, persistent public dissent from immutable teaching on faith and morals. At the same time, however, it should shock us profoundly, as one more instance of a shepherd abandoning the crystal-clear teaching of the Church. The greatest witness to this teaching is, of course, the Angelic Doctor, who writes:
Human law is law inasmuch as it is in conformity with right reason and thus derives from the eternal law. But when a law is contrary to reason, it is called an unjust law; but in this case it ceases to be a law and becomes instead an act of violence.
Every law made by man can be called a law insofar as it derives from the natural law. But if it is somehow opposed to the natural law, then it is not really a law but rather a corruption of the law.
Both of these passages are quoted verbatim by Pope John Paul II in n. 72 of the encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae. The same doctrine is found equally clearly in St. Augustine and other Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Indeed, we find Martin Luther King, Jr., in his justly famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” citing both Augustine and Aquinas on precisely this point. How shameful it is when the shepherds of the Catholic Church cannot compare with the theological acumen of a Baptist pastor!
The doctrine that an unjust law (or judicial determination, or executive action, for that matter) is no law at all but rather a corruption of law, an act of violence, an insult to God, and a crime against all citizens, is taught most clearly by Pope Leo XIII, the greatest exponent of Catholic social teaching:
But, if the laws of the State are manifestly at variance with the divine law, containing enactments hurtful to the Church, or conveying injunctions adverse to the duties imposed by religion, or if they violate in the person of the supreme Pontiff the authority of Jesus Christ, then, truly, to resist becomes a positive duty, to obey, a crime; a crime, moreover, combined with misdemeanor against the State itself, inasmuch as every offense leveled against religion is also a sin against the State. Here anew it becomes evident how unjust is the reproach of sedition; for the obedience due to rulers and legislators is not refused, but there is a deviation from their will in those precepts only which they have no power to enjoin. Commands that are issued adversely to the honor due to God, and hence are beyond the scope of justice, must be looked upon as anything rather than laws.
The only reason which men have for not obeying is when anything is demanded of them which is openly repugnant to the natural or the divine law, for it is equally unlawful to command to do anything in which the law of nature or the will of God is violated. If, therefore, it should happen to anyone to be compelled to prefer one or the other, viz., to disregard either the commands of God or those of rulers, he must obey Jesus Christ, who commands us to “give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” and must reply courageously after the example of the Apostles: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” And yet there is no reason why those who so behave themselves should be accused of refusing obedience; for, if the will of rulers is opposed to the will and the laws of God, they themselves exceed the bounds of their own power and pervert justice; nor can their authority then be valid, which, when there is no justice, is null.
Fortunately, the sound reasoning and the Spirit of Truth that led St. Augustine, St. Thomas, and Leo XIII is by no means absent from the Church today. In a homily preached around the same time as the “conciliatory” language cited above, Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke spoke these absolutely clear words:
Yet almost two hundred years later [after the Declaration of Independence], in 1973, the highest tribunal of the nation took away the right to life from the innocent and defenseless unborn, and on this past June 26th, in defiance of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” the same Supreme Court redefined the nature of marriage and its fruit, the family, the first cell of the life of society. The deadly confusion and error which such decisions represent for the United States of America, and similar confusion and error in other nations, demand from the Church a clear, courageous and tireless witness to the word of Christ, to the truth written upon every human heart, the truth upon which the happiness of the individual and the common good absolutely depend. The Church cannot stand by silent or idle, while a people is destroying itself by lawlessness, even if the lawlessness be clothed in the garment of the highest judicial authority.
The contrast speaks for itself. In the wake of such firestorms—to which the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia successfully added more fuel—we can see an ever-increasing challenge for Catholics: how do we live with, how do we respond to, the consequences of a divided hierarchy, a diluted witness, a squandered opportunity, and a mounting persecution? The enemy of human nature will only laugh at compromises as he energetically pursues the corruption of the shepherds, the confusion of the flock, and the damnation of sinners.
* * *
In his encyclical letter Libertas Praestantissimum, Pope Leo XIII explains that it is not man’s place to dictate to God what man owes Him, but rather humbly and obediently to receive from God the law that must be followed to please Him and attain the happiness for which He created us:
If the human mind be so presumptuous as to define the nature and extent of God’s rights and its own duties, reverence for the divine law will be apparent rather than real, and arbitrary judgment will prevail over the authority and providence of God. Man must, therefore, take his standard of a loyal and religious life from the eternal law; and from all and every one of those laws which God, in His infinite wisdom and power, has been pleased to enact, and to make known to us by such clear and unmistakable signs as to leave no room for doubt. And the more so because laws of this kind have the same origin, the same author, as the eternal law, are absolutely in accordance with right reason, and perfect the natural law. These laws it is that embody the government of God, who graciously guides and directs the intellect and the will of man lest these fall into error.
We see in these luminous words the confidence of a pope and of a church convinced of the reality and primacy of God, the existence of absolute truth, the ability of reason and faith to know that truth, and the ability of even fallen men to live according to that truth with the help of God’s grace. We find the same confidence and the same conclusions in Pope John Paul II’s masterful encyclical Veritatis Splendor.
Early in the twentieth century, Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson proclaimed with inimitable eloquence the same fundamental truth in regard to the condemnation of heresy, which, together with the reconciliation of the repentant heretic, is one of the greatest exercises of mercy of which the Church is capable:
The Catholic Church then is, and always will be, violent and intransigent when the rights of God are in question. She will be absolutely ruthless, for example, towards heresy, for heresy affects not personal matters on which Charity may yield, but a Divine right on which there must be no yielding. Yet, simultaneously, she will be infinitely kind towards the heretic, since a thousand human motives and circumstances may come in and modify his responsibility. At a word of repentance she will readmit his person into her treasury of souls, but not his heresy into her treasury of wisdom; she will strike his name eagerly and freely from her black list of the rebellious, but not his book from the pages of her Index. She exhibits meekness towards him and violence towards his error; since he is human, but her Truth is Divine.
How far we have lost this conception of the Church’s primary obligation to God, His truth, and His holiness, and how far we have settled for a worldly compromise with sin and error, can be seen if we consider an astonishing passage from Cardinal John Henry Newman, which, were it written today, would be considered offensive, outrageous, imbalanced, and possibly a form of hate speech:
The Church aims, not at making a show, but at doing a work. She regards this world, and all that is in it, as a mere shadow, as dust and ashes, compared with the value of one single soul. She holds that, unless she can, in her own way, do good to souls, it is no use her doing anything; she holds that it were better for sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions who are upon it to die of starvation in extremest agony, so far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, though it harmed no one, or steal one poor farthing without excuse. She considers the action of this world and the action of the soul simply incommensurate, viewed in their respective spheres; she would rather save the soul of one single wild bandit of Calabria, or whining beggar of Palermo, than draw a hundred lines of railroad through the length and breadth of Italy, or carry out a sanitary reform, in its fullest details, in every city of Sicily, except so far as these great national works tended to some spiritual good beyond them.
Such is the Church, O ye men of the world, and now you know her. Such she is, such she will be; and, though she aims at your good, it is in her own way,—and if you oppose her, she defies you. She has her mission, and do it she will, whether she be in rags, or in fine linen; whether with awkward or with refined carriage; whether by means of uncultivated intellects, or with the grace of accomplishments. Not that, in fact, she is not the source of numberless temporal and moral blessings to you also; the history of ages testifies it; but she makes no promises; she is sent to seek the lost; that is her first object, and she will fulfill it, whatever comes of it.
Note that for Newman, the seeking of the lost means nothing other than the mission to save sinners from sinning—to induce them, however she can, by God’s grace, to follow His law, and thus to cease from lying, stealing, or any other action that can harm the soul, including the slightest venial sins. What, then, would Newman have said about the legalization of divorce, serial polygamy and polyandry (i.e., “remarriage”), contraception, sterilization, abortion, sodomy? We are looking at the progressive dehumanization of man, the escalating asphyxiation of society, and the accelerating decomposition of the Church, with the concomitant loss of countless souls to eternal damnation—and there are still bishops who do not dare to speak up in defense of God’s truth and His immutable rights, or who absurdly claim that “the law of the land is the law of the land,” or who are just hoping that if they sit still and do nothing, no one will raise a hand against them? It is like the apostasy of the Church in England under Henry VIII. We will have our heroic St. John Fishers and our St. Thomas Mores, along with a greater number of cowards, opportunists, apostates, and traitors.
Leo XIII, Cardinal Newman, and Msgr. Benson, like so many of their age, knew that the Catholic Church was locked in mortal combat with the irreligious and libertine spirit of modernity. They did not parley with it, they did not create committees for joint endeavors, they did not stand on their heads and squint with one eye until they could see something vaguely positive in it. They condemned it as poison, warned against it ceaselessly, and fought its dreadful effects with all their powers. They lost the fight, but only because their cause was betrayed by their own clerical brethren in the twentieth century. The crisis in the church is a crisis of bishops; whenever the Church is in turmoil, this will always be at the source of it. St. Gregory Nazianzen bears witness to this sobering fact when he writes:
The light and eye of the Church is the Bishop. It is necessary then that as the body is rightly directed as long as the eye keeps itself pure, but goes wrong when it becomes corrupt, so also with respect to the Prelate: according to what his state may be, must the Church in like manner suffer shipwreck, or be saved.
Nevertheless, it was Cardinal Newman who, in his Arians of the Fourth Century, offered a well-documented and timely reminder that it was primarily the laity, under the guidance of a few stalwart bishops, who kept the true Faith in the horrible time of the Arian crisis. Today it is and will be no different. Let us glory in our baptismal privilege of having and keeping the true Faith, in union with Christ crucified and risen; let us glory in our Confirmation that enlisted us in the ranks of our blood-stained victorious King, to bear Him witness and fight His battles on earth. “Thus saith the Lord to you: Fear ye not, and be not dismayed at this multitude: for the battle is not yours, but God’s” (2 Chron 20:15).
* * *
The superb “Lake Garda Statement on the Ecclesial and Civilizational Crisis” started me thinking about the broad lines of the story in which we find ourselves, characters in a divine drama of light and darkness.
Even if they may have seen it coming, many Catholics were in a state of shock after Obergefell. How did this happen so quickly? How did we end up with a top-down legitimation of sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance, perversions that make a mockery of nature, disorders that unravel the fabric of human society? The world is clearly a mess—hardly Christian even in those lands once favored by widespread allegiance to the one true faith. It is no fairy tale: once upon a time, the Western world was permeated with Christianity through and through; governments, laws, economies, the arts and sciences, were Catholic. What happened?
The story of modernity is inherently bound up with the politics and economics of rebellion, revolution, the false messianism of secularization and secularism. “The kings of the earth stood up, and the princes met together, against the Lord and against his Christ. Let us break their bonds asunder: and let us cast away their yoke from us” (Ps 2:2-3). Thanks to the naïve “opening to the world” of the Second Vatican Council, a move that eviscerated the Church’s otherworldly interior, a vast number of Catholics today view history, culture, politics, and economics as foreign to,or outside of, theology and faith, as if the Church had nothing to say about human nature and life in this world.
Such a narrow mentality, an obvious exhibition of the vices of individualism and spiritualism, is explicitly rejected by a long line of modern Popes who saw clearly into our age. Just as no man is an island, Catholicism is not an atomistic thing but a social reality; it has always had and, where truly believed, will always have ramifications in the social order, the life and culture, the laws and structures, of peoples. Due to the fall of Adam, those very structures can become what Pope John Paul II called “structures of sin,” preventing people from hearing the Gospel or at least making it more difficult for them to live according to it.
One cannot understand the human world around us without grasping how its characteristic ways of thinking and acting have come about and have frequently hardened into structures of sin that hinder the penetration of the Gospel and even the perception of the natural law. The clash between Christian and anti-Christian worldviews needs to be engaged by theologians. It is not possible to understand modernity or the Catholic response to it without grapppling with the theological-political question—the question of whether the State itself, as a creation of God redeemed by Christ, is bound by an inescapable obligation to seek out the one true religion, adhere to it, and subordinate itself to it. Decisively rejecting this model of harmony between nature and grace, modernity is inherently an anti-Catholic set of choices, ideologies built from those choices, and structures emerging from those ideologies. Both the analytical critique and any realistic solution must be theological, not merely humanistic/philosophical.
Social, cultural, political, economic realities are messy and complicated, yes. But they do admit of principled analysis—and one that is properly Catholic and theological.
Are we content to stay in the darkness or do we wish to come into the light of true principles that can illuminate our thinking and acting? We have to descend from the lofty heights of unchanging mysteries such as the Blessed Trinity and the Incarnation of the Word into the concrete situation in which we actually live out our lives as political animals. According to the Church, there is supposed to be a real interpenetration between those radiant mysteries and this messy but redeemable social life we lead.
Do Catholics understand how we got to a situation where millions of unborn children are murdered in the womb each year, and people think that men can marry men, or women women? This did not happen overnight, the result of an avalanche of money and political pressure. It is the culmination of a long historical process, the accelerating application of a process of revolt against first principles of nature and grace, beginning with the Protestant Revolt against ecclesiastical authority and sacred tradition, achieving its paradigm in the French Revolution’s rejection of temporal authority and human tradition, and sliding downhill to the Sexual Revolution’s rejection of social co-responsibility and self-restraint. There is nothing really left except mutilation, madness, and suicide.
Responding effectively to this process of revolt demands a certain knowledge of the causes of the disease, lest we continue, in open or subtle ways, to buy into the very errors that are causing the evils we decry. The sad truth is that the Catholic Church as an institution has, with an ever-lessening resistance, bought into the errors of the secularized and liberal West far more than it has successfully resisted them in the name of natural and revealed truths—the very truths that were preached from our pulpits only a few generations ago, attracting converts weary of modernity, its pomps and empty promises.
One could put the question this way: How did we get from Diocletian to Obama? Not by a direct line, but by a meandering path with heights and valleys that can be evoked by the mention of just a few names or phrases: Diocletian, Constantine, the Arian emperors, Theodosius, Charlemagne, St. Louis IX, Henry VIII, Cromwell, the American and French Revolutions, the modern imperial/nationalistic ideologies, Catholic resistance (García Moreno, Salazar), the dictatorship of relativism. Throughout this bewildering variety of regimes, with every new political-theological solution or dissolution, the Church, faithful bride of the Lord and servant of His sovereign truth, always held out one and only one ideal: the integral social reign of Christ the King. Something less than this may be tolerated for a time, as one might tolerate a prison, but nothing less can ever be embraced and held up for acceptance without risking the guilt of treason to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Most Catholic schools today ignore or distort Catholic Social Teaching, thus producing either useful idiots who keep sawing off the branch they are sitting on or ivory tower critics who cannot see how best to respond to the cultural crisis and do not seem particularly keen to labor for the integral social reign of Christ the King.
If the kingship of Christ is not understood to have profound, immediate, and uncompromisable political and economic ramifications for all mankind, including Americans, then it is not understood at all. Or rather, it has been domesticated, defanged and declawed by the self-worshiping modern State—a Catholicism rendered harmless as a vague spirituality to which none can object as long as it has no worldly consequences. This purely subjective feel-good “religion” is not the incarnational confession of the Son of God by the Church of God, stretching from the first Adam to the last man before the trumpet sounds, and we would do well to spew it forth as the poison it is, without pretending there can be harmony between Christ and Belial (cf. 2 Cor 6:14-17). The only antidote is the traditional, authentic, full-bodied, sacramental, incarnational Social Doctrine of the Church, given its fullest and most classic expression in the magisterium of Leo XIII.
“Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Rev 14:12).
This article integrates material published in several different posts at Rorate Caeli some time ago.
 See wtop.com/dc/2015/07/cardinal-wuerl-sex-marriage-ruling-law-land/, accessed April 16, 2016.
 Summa theologiae, I-II, q. 93, a. 3, ad 2.
 Summa theologiae, I-II, q. 95, a. 2.
 Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter Sapientiae Christianae, n. 10, emphasis added.
 Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter Diuturnum Illud, n. 15, emphasis added.
 See: www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2015/07/cardinal-burkes-sermon-at-fota.html, accessed April 16, 2016.
 Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter Libertas Praestantissimum, n. 17.
 Palm Sunday Homily, Paradoxes of Catholicism, cited at rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2014/10/benson-at-100-royal-catholic-church.html, accessed April 16, 2016.
 Difficulties of Anglicans, lecture 8, available at www.newmanreader.org/works/anglicans/volume1/
 Cited by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Catena aurea on Luke 11.
 See rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2015/07/the-lake-garda-statement.html.
 This thesis is argued with great persuasiveness by Thaddeus Kozinski in his book The Political Problem of Religious Pluralism—And Why Philosophers Can’t Solve It. In its pages, Kozinski summarizes the views of Maritain, Rawls, and MacIntyre on liberal pluralism, and shows how each of their solutions falls prey, in the end, to incoherence.
 As demonstrated by, inter alia, Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).
 See, among other papal documents that make just this point, Leo XIII’s Encyclical Letter Tametsi Futura Prospicientibus, On Jesus Christ Our Redeemer, November 1, 1900.
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America who taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria, the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. Today he is a full-time writer and speaker on traditional Catholicism whose work appears online at, among others, OnePeterFive, New Liturgical Movement, LifeSiteNews, The Remnant, and Catholic Family News. He has published eighteen books, including Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico, 2020), The Ecstasy of Love in the Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Emmaus, 2021), and Are Canonizations Infallible? Revisiting a Disputed Question (Arouca, 2021). His work has been translated into at least eighteen languages. Visit his website at www.peterkwasniewski.com.