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The New Crown Of Thorns

September 11, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


(Editor’s Note: Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He serves in the Diocese of Charlotte, N.C.)

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In his superb science fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, author Walter Miller Jr. has an abbot plaintively ask, “What is the fundamental irritant, the essence of the tension?” In other words, why do things almost always go wrong? What must be altered or repaired so that we might live in genuine peace?
As that same fictional abbot says, “Ask a dozen experts, get a dozen answers.” Throughout history, the “experts” have told us exactly what to repair so that harmony will come to all.
We must repair the international economic system and become socialists. We must have global government. We must jettison all rules, laws, and limitations upon pleasure. We must…well, the list is endless. Ask a thousand people, get a thousand answers.
Then there are those who, in despair, contend that there are no answers: The lot of mankind is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” There is no objective purpose to anything we do. We are, as Bertrand Russell so cheerfully put it, “destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system” and “the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.”
The key element of religion, of politics, of philosophy, then, is, in a word, fracture, by which I mean irreparably broken worldviews, so splintered that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot hope to repair the damage. There is, moreover, much dispute over which king might even attempt such repair.
The recent serpentine testimony, under oath, of now-fired FBI agent Peter Strzok is a case in point. Not for nothing did Zechariah prophesy: “Speak the truth to one another. In the courts give real justice” (8:16-17). Such, however, seems a forlorn hope in today’s toxic moral and political atmosphere.
Let us turn, then, to what commencement speakers invariably call the search for “common ground.” What common ground? We no longer know when life begins, or when it ends, or who has authority to decide such literally vital issues. We vilify as “binary thinking” the idea that there are “men” and “women.” We no longer know what a father or a mother is, preferring to use only the modern term parent. Education is about having the right electronic devices and about not trying to impose our values, letting everyone choose his own way (cf. Psalm 81:12; Judges 21:25).
Everything is a matter of taste; nothing is a matter of truth. And no political edifice, we think, can be grounded in truth, because all things are matters of power. Or of illusion. Or of confusion. Or of subjective judgment. Or of the mass hysteria of whatever fad or ideology which dominates the moment. Supposedly, we know nothing for sure. And the best teachers, therefore, teach…nothing.
In following the world’s evil way, St. Paul warns us, we obey “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2 RSV). We are those “sons of disobedience” in rebelling against the settled teaching of the Church and, coincidentally, in exalting our own urges and appetites. We accept, so very often, the ideologies of the world as superior to, and certainly more “modern” than, the teaching of Christ the King, to whom, once again, we are offering the vinegar (Matt. 27:34, Mark 15:23) of our way, not His; of our will, not His; of our wishes, not His.
Does not all of the moral and mental insanity we see daily around us give full meaning to our Lord’s crowning with thorns (John 19:2)? The pullulating atheism, antinomianism, relativism, nihilism, and hedonism that are so much in evidence today are thorns of a sinister diadem pressed down upon the sacred head by an increasingly dominant evil.
The new crown of thorns is weaved by ideologues consumed by a Nietzschean will-to-power which manifests itself in the thorns of lechery, lies, and moral lunacies.
At the heart of every earnest political enterprise is a compelling conception of order (much as Eric Voegelin once tried to teach us). Today’s “fundamental irritant,” we might tell Miller’s abbot, is a disordered soul which, in turn, has led to the cachexia — the wasting, the death agony — of so many of the institutions which used to give us meaning and morals.
We are, in fact, so profoundly lost — somewhere “east of Eden” — that we call evil good and call good evil and that we turn darkness into light, and light into darkness; so foul have we become that we drive justice away and “right cannot come near. Truth stumbles in the public square, and honesty finds no place there” (Isaiah 5:20, 59:14).
Where shall we go for remedy? As Catholics, we believe in the Anima Naturaliter Christiana (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1950), but we think it embarrassing and insufficiently modern to testify that Jesus Christ is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.
As Catholics we believe that Christ is the head of the Church (Col. 1:18, Eph. 1:23), but we think it “triumphalism” to proclaim the Catholic Church as the “one true Church,” and so we embrace religious indifferentism.
As Catholics, we believe in the Deposit of Faith (CCC nn. 84, 2032, 2033), but we think it intolerant to criticize other religions, even if they celebrate a philosophical anthropology or political goals which are manifestly at odds with the Catholic teaching of the centuries. Thus Lewis Carroll: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”
“Men have forgotten God,” said Solzhenitsyn. Not exactly. We have abandoned the God of the Bible, but we have not forgotten Him. We recognize, even in our befuddled way, that we need God. So we have replaced Him with monstrous idols of ourselves. We do what we choose when we choose it. We will alter or abolish anything that stands in the way of our pleasure, our “rights,” our modern way of thinking. And we will malign anyone who prophetically dares to admonish us about worshiping false idols.
And we eagerly seek out, and applaud, those preachers, priests, and prelates who indulge our impulses and appetites, but who deceive us by never exposing our sin and making us think we do not need to repent (cf. Lam. 2:14, Ezek. 33:7-9, Mal. 2:8, 2 Tim. 4:3).
Before we can recover a true sense of order, we must rediscover the wisdom which tells us that we are sinners who must repent (Mark 1:15), fear God (Prov. 9:10), and recognize that here is not our final home (Heb. 13:14). “Then you will know where to find a long and full life, light to guide you, and peace” (Baruch 3:14).

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