By Charlie Johnston
Throughout the world, we are not what we once were. Whatever we will be after the existential agonies of these times have past, it will be something new. Whether sublimely good or horribly bad, it will not be what we have ever been before.
There are a host of perils that face us in the New Year. It is likely to be as deeply consequential a year as most of us have lived, perhaps as deeply consequential as 1861 was for Americans. It is not here that I wish to discuss the crises that surround us, either in civil society or in the Churches. Rather, I wish to discuss some habits of mind that will stand us in good stead as we grapple with the challenges of the year.
A friend of mine complained to me today of the “lies” about Pope Francis denying the Immaculate Conception. Even if his take is almost as tendentious as the original charge, he has a solid point. I have lost confidence in this Pope. That is not a secret. Even so, it is an offense to constantly seek the most malicious construction of a statement in order to promote an ideological narrative against one you do not like or with whom you frequently disagree.
The charge rose when the Pope spoke of Our Lady and St. Joseph in a Christmas message to Vatican employees. Commenting on a school of thought that joy was easy for Mary and Joseph, the Pope said, “…let us not think it was easy for them: saints are not born, they become thus, and this is true for them too.”
The Immaculate Conception says that Mary was conceived without sin to become a suitable vessel to carry the body of our Lord – the New Ark of the Covenant. That being the case, she WAS born a saint. But the Pope clearly was not commenting on the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception here. He was speaking of the struggles of every life in the living of it. The point he was making, even if theologically clumsy, was that we have to choose holiness and choose well at each moment. It takes on heightened poignancy when we consider that there are three people all of us know of who were created free from original sin: Our Lady – and Adam and Eve. God never revokes our free will, even if He spares us the burden of original sin. Adam and Eve brought original sin into the world by their defiance of God’s command, even though they were created sinless.
To extrapolate this clumsy but innocent statement into a formal rejection of the Immaculate Conception is ideological and rhetorical warfare, not thoughtful commentary. It does not advance the cause of truth to intentionally and maliciously make such a statement into something it clearly was not intended to be.
On the other hand, to just call it a lie is to disregard the genuine dismay and perplexity with which many faithful Catholics have viewed the ambiguous, sloppy and off-hand theological pronouncements that this Pope often makes. We cannot possibly dial down the rhetoric if we consistently make the worst possible construction of any statement coming from the mouths of those we do not trust. There are enough serious issues to be dealt with without intentionally making malice out of molehills.
Try to make the most innocent construction you can of any statement made, either by your allies or your opponents, for as long as you can. (I do not, by this, suggest that you ignore what they do: if the witness of their actions contradicts the witness of their lips, follow the evidence there, too, in making your assessments). Human nature often seeks to impute ill intent on everything an opponent says or does. Do not do that. If there is a case to be made, the actions and words of your opponent will make it soon enough for you – and you will not incur the wrath of God for calumny in the process. If it turns out you have misjudged your opponent, he may well become your ally. Many will be ensnared by the devil because of the heat of their rhetoric as things continue to degenerate. Don’t become one of them.
The Twelfth Book of the Confessions of St. Augustine includes an extended contemplation on the layers of meaning contained in Scripture and of our infirmity in comprehending them all. It warns against denying alternate interpretations that do not do violence to fundamental truth. This is how we gain insight and deepen our understanding of Scripture and truth. Augustine is very harsh in his condemnation of people who think their own explanation is not just a facet of the greater truth involved, but the entirety of the matter. “They speak as they do, not because they are men of God or because they have seen in the heart of Moses…that their explanation is the right one, but simply because they are proud…they are in love with their own opinions, not because they are true, but because they are their own…(this attitude) is the child of arrogance, not of true vision.”
St. Augustine, broad and deep as his vision was, never thought he had penetrated the fullness of Scripture or truth – and was contemptuous of the sarcastic little men who insist that they have the only possible interpretation. He was equally contemptuous of those intellectual nags who dismiss Scripture for its simplicity, thinking that their own complex schemes have transcended Scripture. He regarded their contempt as evidence of their stupidity (though I agree with it, ‘stupidity’ is his description of such an attitude), for they could not see how something sublime and profound could be expressed in such seemingly simple terms. Even then, he prayed for them, as for swallows who have stumbled out of the nest. “Have pity on such callow fledglings, O Lord…send your angel to put them back in the nest so that they may live and learn to fly.”
St. Augustine is adamant that just because the facet of truth another sees is not the same facet we see in the same passage, so long as it does not do violence to the truth central to Scripture, it is a small-minded and stupid arrogance to dismiss it. It would be fruitful for all, as we enter this year of judgment, to read closely the twelfth book of St. Augustine’s Confessions.
Long before I ever went public with these websites, I was praying intensely for those who think they have fully divined the mind of God and have the complete understanding of all His truths, His prophecies, and His intentions. I frankly think the fullness of the Storm is going to be rougher on them even than on non-believers. Events will move non-believers to consider truth; it will only embitter many of those who thought they had already captured the fullness of truth – and more than a few will be lost because of their invincible vanity.
When hiring young advocates for a political campaign, many would boast to me of what excellent researchers they were. Most were not even competent, much less excellent. What they really meant was that they were good at picking up citations to support what they already had chosen to believe. If what they already believed was erroneous, all they could accomplish by their talent was to add weight and mass to their errors. They were not actual intellectuals, just “Google intellectuals.”
Unless you thoroughly understand your opponent’s case and can express it at least as well as he can, you are a poor researcher and, perhaps, incapable of actual critical thought. To some extent, all of us are subject to error in our reasoning. To think otherwise is to think you can walk through a briar patch with Velcro pants and pick up no briars. That is why we must constantly refine our thoughts and reasoning by examining them and challenging them, by seeking out the best, most credible evidence that we have erred in some cherished opinion.
I do not just preach this; I live it. Shortly after he started high school my son, with no little trepidation, told me he was not sure he actually believed in God. I told him that was a question that everyone must come to grips with for themselves in their lives. I told him he could ask me anything, however challenging it might be, and I would do my best to answer him candidly. I encouraged him to study deeply and seriously on the matter. Above all, I told him, he must not just pretend to believe to please me, but neither should he pretend to disbelieve to please a disbelieving world. If you seek the wisdom of Christ, Christ will draw near – and you will know. He was relieved at my reaction. We had some wonderful conversations on the subject. Unlike most teenagers, by the time he graduated high school, he was well on his way to becoming and living as a profoundly serious Christian man – despite both his and my flaws.
You have to trust God. If you go to Him seeking the bread of life and of wisdom, He will NOT give you a stone. Too many people are charitably tolerant of their own flaws while rigorously unforgiving of those of others. There is a better way. Be rigorous with yourself and charitable with others. Examine yourself and your beliefs. If you fear to examine your beliefs with rigor, you do not trust God enough…and your belief is mere willfulness. God calls us to the better way – to acknowledge Him, take the next right step, and be a sign of hope; to always see our own feet of clay with clarity but to persist and endure anyway out of love – for God and neighbor.
I end with the closing stanza of Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address, as good advice as I have ever seen on how to live true virtue, humility and resolve in ugly times:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Our old friend, Joe Crozier, asked me to pass on a message to all here:
“I wish all my friends on ASOH the happiest Christmas time and a time of peaceful and powerful endurance and good service in the coming year.”