The Great Awakenings (June 2012 Reflections)


The Catholic bishops of the United States have responded quickly, clearly, forcefully and in unison.  On January 20, 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services finalized a mandate that will require employer-provided health insurance to cover the full range of contraceptive services, including the provision of sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.  All 195 bishops heading a diocese in the United States have spoken against the directive.  This is the first time in memory that the bishops have taken a unanimous stand on a national issue.

For too long, Catholics have been apathetic toward their religion.  The majority do not attend Sunday Mass on a regular basis.  Catholic politicians act in opposition to Church teachings.  Catholic voters support candidates who favor abortion, gay marriage, and other dogmatically intrinsic evils.  Priests have been reluctant to speak about moral implications of political matters, while guidance from the hierarchy often has not distinguished between issues such as euthanasia on which there is a doctrinal prohibition and social justice on which there can be legitimate differences of opinion.

While the HHS mandate is a grievous action against religious freedom, the resulting response of the bishops may be the harbinger of a new spiritual awakening.  Several times in the history of this nation, there have been religious revivals that have led to significant social change.

In the 1740s, a time when religion was closely allied with governmental authority, Protestant ministers began to emphasize the importance of personal religious experience.  A sense of spiritual independence, known as the Great Awakening, resulted and emboldened entire congregations to dissolve the bonds which connected them to the established state-directed church.  This sense of spiritual freedom carried over to a drive for governmental independence, unifying the American colonies in the truth “that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” and empowering them to establish a new nation with “the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.”

From the 1820s to the 1870s, there was a Second Great Awakening, which emphasized personal piety over dogmatic theology.  Camp meetings became popular.  New Protestant denominations formed.  And religious adherents developed a greater sense of social responsibility, spawning movements to abolish slavery, promote temperance, advocate women’s suffrage, reform prisons, and care for the handicapped and mentally ill.

A Third Great Awakening or period of religious activism in American history ran from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. It was marked by a strong sense of applying Christian principles to societal issues, especially concerns for social justice such as excessive wealth for some and poverty for most people, exploitation of labor, inadequate schools, slums, poor sanitary conditions, alcoholism, crime, and the dangers of war.

Each revival movement followed a period in which religion had become less relevant in the lives of people and the church was passive or unconnected with societal concerns.  When religion seemed to be at its nadir, an eruption of spiritual ferver would occur, giving the nation a badly needed moral lift and, in spite of the opposition of strongly entrenched forces, lead to advances in civil rights and social conditions.

Now is a similar time, with vigorous attacks on religion and widespread apathy among self-proclaimed Catholics.  For the past fifty years, movements of repression and compulsion have been driving religion from the public square and making it solely a matter of private concern.  Catholic and mainline Protestant denominations have been weakened both in numbers and influence.  Countering these trends have been the rapid growth of evangelical Protestant denominations and their creation of grassroots organizations, such as the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition of America, to exert politically influence.

Martin Luther King, Jr., in a sermon in 1963, captured the appropriate and necessary role of the church in society, when he wrote:

“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.  It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.  If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spritual authority.”

Now is the time for Catholics to exert their strength and re-establish the church’s needed role in society.  The groundwork is being laid.  The arrival of the current generation of young priests who are willing to speak out on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, the growth of new religious orders devoted to addressing societal ills through traditional Catholic teachings, the energy exhibited by an expanding number of young people in defending life, and the prayerful witness of people of all faiths in front of abortion clinics, indicate a changing public attitude.

The HHS mandate may be the act that finally energizes Catholics to get involved.  The unanimous stand of the bishops for religious freedom was followed on May 21 with 43 Catholic organizations bringing suit in all 12 federal district courts to declare the mandate unconstitutional.  This could signal the beginning of a much-needed Fourth Great Awakening that can arouse the public.  And when the public attitude is changed, changes in public policy will follow.

At the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast on April 19, Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson provided a direct challenge to the Knights of Columbus, as well as to all Catholics.  Speaking about the Obama Administration’s attack on religous liberty, he asked:

What kind of Catholics do they think we are…Do they not know that people who believe in “one holy catholic and apostolic church” can never agree to compromise our Church by entangling it in intrinsically evil acts?  Do they not see that faithful Catholics will never accept cynical political strategies of “divide and conquer” to separate us from our bishops?

Are we, as Knights, men enough to be knights and take up that challenge, even in the face of stiff opposition, to defend religious liberty?

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