The last pagan emperor of Rome, Julian the Apostate, had no misgivings about the power of the Christian faith. Despite fierce persecutions, Christians were increasing in number. The emperor understood that the Christians were eroding the imperial authority neither by force nor by political power. They were transforming society by their love. In 363 A.D. lying on his deathbed, Julian admitted the defeat of paganism. His dying words “
” (Thou has conquered, O Galilean!) contain the secret of the power of the gospel. A morally degenerate society is never a match for those who love others like Christ.
Living in the thoroughly pagan environment of ancient Rome, Christians kept their values, based on the love of Christ, in all areas of their lives. They did not conform. They stood out from the pagans by their manner of life. They cared for anyone in need. They opened their homes to the poor, distributed food and collected funds to assist others. So unusual were the charity and self-sacrifice of the Christians that the pagans began to call them “the third race.”
Those who bore the name Christian knew exactly the choices that they had to make. There was no ambiguity at all about the Christian way of life. The
, a first-century catechetical manual, forbade both murder and adultery. A pagan entering the Church might have easily accepted these prohibitions without realizing their full meaning. After all, the Romans did not reckon abortion as murder. Neither did they count sexual relations between a married man and a slave or prostitute as adultery. With refreshing clarity, the
explicitly lists as immoral what pagans considered permissible. It forbids pedophilia, fornication and same-sex relations, abortion, infanticide and contraception.
In those early years of the Church, Christian decency and morality did not go unnoticed nor without effect. The poor found relief. Abandoned babies were taken from the streets, brought into Christian homes and cherished. Children were protected. Married couples lived together and raised their families.
Marriage was no longer merely a convenient arrangement. Human sexuality was seen, according to the Creator’s design, as a gift to be enjoyed by a man and woman united in marriage and open to life. All sexual relations outside of marriage were wrong. Chastity and purity were virtues which the Christians strove to attain.
The Christian prohibition against polygamy, divorce, artificial birth control, abortion and infanticide actually contributed to the well-being of women. Women’s inferior status began to change. They were accorded greater and greater respect and dignity. Both men and women were expected to be faithful. In a word, the Christian faith started one of the most significant cultural revolutions in the history of Western civilization.
According to recent statistics, our increasingly secular society, with alarming rapidity, is beginning to resemble ancient Rome. Sixteen percent of Americans live at or below the poverty line. That is close to 50 million people! Our federal government spends more than $100 billion a year on programs for the poor.
About 1.2 million babies are aborted each year. Widespread use of contraception has not proven to be the answer to unwanted children. The majority of women who have abortions are using contraception.
Some are even calling for infanticide. In 2002, fifteen members of the U.S. House opposed the
Born Alive Infant Protection Act
that would save children born after a botched abortion. In that same year, a well-known senator from Illinois voted against a bill that would protect babies who survived a late term abortion.
Fifty percent of first marriages, sixty-seven of second and seventy-four of third marriages end in divorce. Marriage is no longer accepted as a life-long commitment. In 2004,
became the first state to
make same-sex unions legally marriage
. Since then, eight other states have followed suit. The Obama administration has not only abandoned the Defense of Marriage Act but also is actively promoting the redefinition of marriage. Already the Supreme Court is poised to give its opinion on the legal status of same-sex unions.
Sadly today, some Christians support and even advocate for laws in accord neither with the gospel nor with the natural law. They abandon the uplifting and ennobling morality of the Christian faith that did so much to civilize Western Europe. In such a climate, some Catholics no longer voice their beliefs or their morality for fear of offending others. They do not want to appear intolerant and bigoted. But when we remain silent, we allow the truth of the Christian faith and its moral principles to be marginalized. We make the choice, whether we admit it or not, to return our society to the days of ancient Rome.
Pope Benedict’s gift to us of the
Year of Faith
challenges us to know our faith and to live it despite what others may choose to do. Respect for others who disagree with us should never lead us to abandon our moral principles and Christian beliefs. At the beginnings of Christianity, believers made a difference. Will we make a difference today?