Missionaries in hostile environments

A movie that I learned about only recently, and too late to see before it left local theatres, depicts a true story involving Cistercian monks in Algeria who were killed by Muslim extremists in 1996. According to reviews, ''Of Gods and Men,'' a French film, captures the essence of the decisional difficulties faced by those who are advised to abandon hazardous mission work in hostile environments. What does one do when one's message is resisted? When others declare the cause is lost? When even allies question the prudence of heroic forbearance? The monks decided to stay and met their demise. Was that the right decision?

This is a question that confronts any follower of Christ at all levels of challenge. Most of us will not have to choose between forging ahead in the face of mortal danger or giving up, but every one of us has a story or two about the cost of personal witness, whether it be in our homes with our children questioning why the Church believes this or that, within our circle of friends, or in other social, economic and political venues.

We all know what it is like to have to ask ourselves: When and how do I push against the rockslide and when and how do I strategically retreat?

Tim Muldoon, a professor at Boston College, touched on such matters recently when he posted two online columns, one of which is provocatively entitled "Fighting Gay Marriage Is a Lost Cause." In both pieces, he argues that Catholics should drop any effort to prevent the extension of legal marital status to same-sex couples by affirming legal marriage as the union of man and woman, and work instead to strengthen opposite-sex relationships.

Prof. Muldoon bases his argument partly on the claim that basic presuppositions in America about what the law is and what marriage is are irremediably hostile to Catholic teaching. He asserts that Americans view the law as a social contract, and not as a reflection of a fundamental natural order, and see legal marriage as only an economic arrangement, and not as a means to pattern relationships according to some overarching moral view of the human person.

Prof. Muldoon predicts defeat on the legal front because he thinks that the Church's position with respect to these issues (the nature of law and marriage) is simply too countercultural, and he therefore encourages a strategic withdrawal from the public policy debate over the legal definition of marriage. Let us model good, strong marriages among opposite-sex couples, he says, and forget about the law of marriage concerning same-sex couples.

One difficulty I see with Prof. Muldoon's analysis is its failure to account for the extraordinary success on the political front already enjoyed across the country by the Church and its allies. Voters in thirty one states have approved constitutional amendments reaffirming marriage as the union of man and woman, with no defeats.

Surely this unbroken popular streak evidences some resonance among Americans favoring at least the general points of the Church's political and moral philosophy. In any event, following Prof. Muldoon's advice at this stage would be like withdrawing all of the Allied Forces from Europe after winning the Battle of the Bulge and other key conflicts, ceding to the vanquished the spoils of victory.

Perhaps the charitable thing here would be to credit Prof. Muldoon with a realistic pessimism about the long term prospects even given past and current accomplishments. After all, one could shake with fear after hearing that younger voters favor same-sex marriage. One could quiver with doubt as the self-appointed enlightened ones from Hollywood and inside the Beltway show off their cultural prowess.

The echelons of government, academia and the media are certainly not always the friendliest environs for our viewpoint. But this is precisely where the courage of one's convictions is demanded.

Another problem I have with Prof. Muldoon's analysis is its seeming reliance on what I take to be a false "either-or" dichotomy. Instead of framing the strategic option as a choice between getting involved in the public policy arena or standing on the sidelines with our backs to the arena to talk only in private, as if these were mutually exclusive alternatives, there is another approach. Do both--not "either-or" but "both-and." That is, do all we can to strengthen individual marriages and do all we can to persuade policymakers and voters to uphold marriage as an opposite-sex union.

Prof. Muldoon writes many good things about the moral parameters of the Church's position on marriage and contraception. But his strategy of dividing the world into legal and private sectors and urging the Church to abandon the mission fields of the former in order to toil exclusively in the latter invites a "ghetto" mentality. Tend to the mind and heart, yes, but not at the price of shuttering religion behind a wall of shame.

He also overlooks the role of law as teacher. When laws are produced as the result of democratic persuasion, their impact on the unconvinced is justified by the role that persuasion itself plays in the law's creation. That is why it is essential, I believe, for people of faith not to give up their rightful space in the public policy arena, where the persuasion that really counts in our society actually takes place.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy and Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.