By DEACON JAMES H. TONER
“Do not be led astray by diverse and strange teachings” (Heb. 13:9, RSV).
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To “beg the question” is a logical fallacy in which a claim is assumed to be true without evidence other than the claim itself. Let me, though, beg the question here by asserting that both our society and the Church are in crisis. Chaos and evil thrive; moral confusion runs rampant; bizarre teaching and corrupt communications are ubiquitous. There is compelling reason to echo the divine question: When Jesus comes, will He find any faith left on earth? (Luke 18:8). Not for nothing, then, did St. James tell us that “whoever wants to be the world’s friend makes himself God’s enemy” (4:4; cf. John 15:18).
What is the principal cause of all this corruption, this moral chaos? What is its taproot?
Some years ago, in receiving a prestigious award for his writing, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) explained in four words the cause of moral disorder swirling around us: “Men have forgotten God.”
In eight words, the first of the Ten Commandments had instructed us never to forget God: “Thou shalt not have strange gods before me” (Exodus 20:3, DRB). As the epigraph to this column points out, when we have strange gods, we have strange, or bizarre, or wicked teaching (see also Col. 2:8 and Eph. 4:14).
And so the psalmist teaches: “Sin speaks to the wicked man deep in his heart; he rejects God and does not have reverence for him. Because he thinks so highly of himself, he thinks God will not discover his sin and condemn it. His speech is wicked and full of lies; he no longer does what is wise and good” (Psalm 36:1-3, GNB). As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 398) puts it, quoting St. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662), “Seduced by the devil,” the wicked man wanted “‘to be like God’,” but “‘without God, before God, and not in accordance with God’.”
The core of the strange or wicked teaching that has wormed its way into our faith, our politics, and our education is simply this: the resurgence of the primordial heresy that we are our own god. That lie was the first diabolical deception (Gen. 3:5); it was accepted by our first parents, and it is accepted, to one degree or another, by all of us today (see CCC, n. 407). Pride or arrogance, after all, is the chief of the deadly, or capital, sins.
The arrogance of sin, in which we all share (Romans 5:12, 1 John 1:8), is also found in politics. We humans tend to reject authoritative teaching (CCC, n. 1783) in our personal life, and civil societies similarly tend to reject authoritative, or divine, teaching in their political life.
As my former mentor, Dr. Peter V. Sampo, once put it: “The loss of spiritual knowledge with the accompanying emphasis on the material world characterizes the modern age. We confront, therefore, a world obviously subject to crushing power, whether economic, political, or military. Consequently the modern world seeks a person of power who can meet adverse fortune and conquer it — a Savior Prince.”
In Catholic moral theology, dating to St. Thomas Aquinas, there is a teaching which succinctly captures all this: aversio a Deo, conversio ad creaturam (aversion to God, conversion to the creature). When we abandon God, we seek, instead, a creature — a Savior Prince — to lead us. That “Savior Prince” might be Hitler or Stalin or Mao Tse-tung. Or it might be another person, in a very different country. And it will, in time, be the anti-Christ (see CCC, n. 675), who promises us Heaven but delivers, instead, Hell.
This spiritual disorder — which philosopher Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) famously called the attempt to “immanentize the eschaton” — rejects the supernatural and embraces only the natural. It is found in those who think of the Church’s mission in terms only of material or scientific or environmental progress. Nothing ultimately matters, however, except the salvation of souls, and we are, as St. Paul gravely told us, “to work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12), always aware that we are fighting against the “cosmic powers of this dark age” (Eph. 6:12; cf. 1 Peter 5:8).
That is a compelling reason that we must not permit the Church to be infected with a secularism which tells us that all that matters is this world, this time, this or that political agenda. The “Savior Prince” emphasizes only this world: There is, in such an ideology, after all, only this life, nothing beyond (cf. the biblical teaching of Heb. 13:14). The past half-century has witnessed the moral compromise of certain religions which have, in good measure, allied themselves with this secular view.
When the Church is turned into an interest group principally promoting a social or secular agenda rather than the salvation of souls, something is desperately and dangerously deranged. When priests see their mission as fighting military battles with rifles in hand; when nuns are told to “get off their knees and do something”; when our preaching and teaching emphasize the things and thoughts of this world rather than our eternal destiny (cf. Sirach 7:36), we have become infected with the same “Edenic disease” which seized Adam and Eve and told them that they could safely forget God.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote that the problem with Christians of his day (he died in 1936) was that the world did not hate them enough (cf. Luke 21:17).
Isn’t that at least equally true of us Catholics today? We try so often and so hard to be loved by the world that we tend to forget whose we are. That is, St. Paul tells us that Christ bought us for a price and that we must never forget (that verb again!) that and become slaves of men (1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23). We must never invest contemporary political problems with a significance that belongs only to the eternal and to the sacred. This world is not Heaven, and no political program can make it so.
It was Blessed John XXIII who wrote, in 1959: “All the evils which poison men and nations and trouble so many hearts have a single cause and a single source: ignorance of the truth — and at times even more than ignorance, a contempt for truth and a reckless rejection of it. Thus arise all manner of errors, which enter the recesses of men’s hearts and the bloodstream of human society as would a plague. These errors turn everything upside down: They menace individuals and society itself.”
The “contempt for truth” and the “reckless rejection of it” are the hallmarks of a modern creed which tells us to forget God; to abandon Christ and His holy bride, the Church, or at least to reinvent the Church to serve the political divinities of the day (see Jer. 2:9-13); to find knowledge and wisdom only in ourselves; to seek the political leader — Savior Prince — who can lead us to Paradise; to know that this world is all there is, so that emphasis on salvation is treated as mere “nonsense on stilts”; and that good and evil, right and wrong, and virtue and vice are established only by society and by those who govern (rather than by God) (cf. Psalm 19:7-14).
And it was Blessed John Paul II who wrote, in 1991: “When people think they possess the secret of a perfect social organization which makes evil impossible, they also think that they can use any means, including violence and deceit, in order to bring that organization into being. Politics then becomes a ‘secular religion’ which operates under the illusion of creating paradise in this world. But no political society — which possesses its own autonomy and laws — ever be confused with the Kingdom of God.”
We Catholics should be hated even more by the world!
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(Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., serves at a parish in North Carolina. He has taught at Auburn University, Holy Apostles College and Seminary, Norwich University, the University of Notre Dame, and the U.S. Air Force Academy. His most recent book is Worthy of the Promises.)