How Catholics Can Still Achieve Great Things

I gratefully rely on Arts & Letters Daily to winnow through the dross to find genuinely interesting pieces from journals, blogs, and zines for which I have neither time nor inclination to search. Yet, I must admit I would have been happier for the site to not inform me about the so-called “Bling Ring” and the movie, television show, and magazine pieces engaging the phenomenon.

As I understand it, the Bling Ring consisted of a group of celebrity-obsessed young people in the Los Angeles region who broke into the homes of stars to steal their “bling,” eventually becoming famous in their own right for doing so, with a reality show, movie, interviews with Vanity Fair and so on, all the while wondering, in that weird feedback loop of popular culture, whether the celebrities they had emulated now knew and thought about them.

This is incredible, almost perfectly capturing the ephemeral narcissism of our time. Whereas Aristotle could praise and examine the character of the “serious man,” we develop whole industries and persons consumed with the unserious—those serious about unserious matters.

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As Joseph Pieper articulates, such vice has magnanimity as its corrective:

Magnanimity, a much-forgotten virtue, is the aspiration of the spirit to great things, extensio ad magna. A person is magnanimous if he has the courage to seek what is great and becomes worthy of it. This virtue has its roots in a firm confidence in the highest possibilities of that human nature that God did “marvelously ennoble and has still more marvelously renewed” (Roman Missal). Thus magnanimity incorporates into itself the aspiration of natural hope and stamps it according to the truth of man’s own nature. Magnanimity, as both Thomas and Aristotle tell us, is “the jewel of all the virtues,” since it always—and particularly in ethical matters—decides in favor of what is, at any given moment, the greater possibility of the human potentiality for being.

Extensio ad magna—the proper ability to judge, and to love, that which is valuable, and to seek for “the greater possibility of the human potentiality for being.” The greater, not lesser.

If Aristotle is correct, we are by nature oriented towards magnanimity in that everything that exists seeks its own perfection or actuality, and, moreover, emulates God in doing so. The problem is not so much seeking more, even seeking more of what is great, but either of seeking what deceptively appears great but is not, or of seeking too little.

Ours is a time which seeks too little.

We settle for comfort rather than daring, progress rather than the kingdom, entertainment rather than leisure, safety rather than peace, and of being known (celebrity) rather than being remembered for our virtue (dignity).

One task of the Church, then, is to remember and reveal the greater possibility in an authentic way, a task noted by John Paul II in his first encyclical, Redemptor hominis: “the Church of today must be aware in an always new manner of man’s ‘situation’. That means that she must be aware of his possibilities, which keep returning to their proper bearings and thus revealing themselves. She must likewise be aware of the threats to man and of all that seems to oppose the endeavour ‘to make human life ever more human’ and make every element of this life correspond to man’s true dignity—in a word, she must be aware of all that is opposed to that process.”

The Church is to be aware of everything opposed to human dignity, to anything making human life less human, and thus the Church is the proponent and patron of magnanimity, perhaps the only proponent remaining, for ancient paganism aspired to grandeur in a manner new paganism does not, for the new paganism is not so much a humanism so much as the way of life of apes with really big brains, a clever way of attaining all the needs, comforts, and securities of the brutes, but no more. This is enervated paganism, one that does not try to deify man so much as it tries to satisfy his biology.

Given the “situation,” the Church cannot turn inward merely to tend her own institutions. Pope Francis senses this keenly, it seems, frequently warning that, “in this period of crisis, today, it is important not to turn in on ourselves,” that a “self-referential” Church loses its capacity to proclaim.

Yet, everything seems primed for the Church to turn inward, to lose itself in the labyrinths of institutional change and conflict. In North America, for instance, how easy is it for us to fixate on school closings, parish mergers, worship wars, lawsuits, differences between progressives and traditionalists, and so on, endlessly spiraling inward at just the time that the world needs a magnanimous Church, one capable of producing and sustaining great works of art, fiction, music, architecture, poetry, as well as research and grand faculties in the humanities, sciences, politics, let alone the ongoing work of human care and development for the disenfranchised and trod-upon.

At a time when the world uniquely needs the Church to be grand, we risk illiberality. Of course, it is not surprising, for the cultural upheavals of the previous sixty-years (or so) have been massive, even unprecedented, and cultural crisis leads to confusion, faction, and tentativeness. But we no longer have grounds for this; it would be indulgent to give in to this, and would be to capitulate to the tempter. C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape knew this, advising Wormwood that the present age is prone to “faction, and it is our business to inflame them,” particularly if those of the Church can be encouraged to develop “the defensive self-righteousness of a secret society or a clique.”

The Church does not exist for itself, but for the world, rather. And if its attention is on itself, Screwtape wins. The world now needs magnanimity, about which the Church, as proclaiming that which is more human and more dignified, is an expert. But this expertise must be taught, used, and just now what is needed is to show the glories of being human, always, of course, by revealing Christ who is the human made full, but also by the saints who have identified with Christ, and in the realm of human virtue and accomplishment and skill.

It’s to our tasks, I suggest, to our laboratories and workshops and studios, to the concert halls, lecture halls, surgeries—to our work, whatever it might be, in which we can give some indication of the greatness in whose image the human is and to which we are called and capable.

This is, admittedly, something of a tall order. The institutional Church lacks resources it once had, its reputation is diminished, dissent still hinders unity, and the significant contributions of individuals, whether lay or ecclesial, must attain a union of direction, purpose, and action. How is all this to be done, practically? Well, there is no formula, but neither are we without guidance.

First, work in Faith, grounding our hope in the foundation of Pentecost. On the first Good Friday, no one would have had good reason to think the small band of disciples—scattered, confused, splintering, some even unfaithful—would have amounted to much, and even after the Resurrection they lacked cohesion and public witness. But come Pentecost they are transformed, bold, clear, unafraid, and their work bears fruit. We can hope in the same, for the same Spirit lives and moves and breathes in us still—so, to our work, trusting that it is God who brings fruit, and will do so.

Second, distinguish fruit from leaves. Jesus draws near the fig tree, subsequently cursing it for its lack of fruit, because it was “in leaf” (Mk 11:13). Having all the trappings of fecundity, it lacked substance. We can expect, I think, many of our leaves to drop—grand buildings, parish schools, cultural acceptance and prestige, these may not be ours for long—but Christ promises none of those things, but instead His own presence, the Spirit as guide and comforter, the persistence of the Church, and a final victory. So, we seek fruit, holding leaves—which are, after all, delightful things—somewhat loosely.

Third, respect freedom. One reason I entered the Church was catholicity, namely, that it had not splintered but remained one, even though the various charisms, forms of spirituality, religious orders, and tastes were staggeringly diverse. A Church that includes Jesuits and Carthusians, Francis and Aquinas, Palestrina and Suzanne Toolan, knows, or should know, how to respect freedom in those things which are not defined or required so as to move in unity on the essentials. We cannot lose ourselves in little inner battles, when a watching world can’t tell the distinctions apart anyway, but looks to see if we profess the truth and live in love.

Fourth, appropriate what is there. The resources of the tradition are virtually overwhelming. Like so many converts from evangelical Protestantism, I took the first steps to Rome because of the sheer enormity and breadth of the received wisdom. We have the Fathers, the scholastics, the saints, the mystics, the martyrs, Scripture, art, music, poetry, cathedrals, monasteries, religious orders, doctors, theologians, encyclicals, we have the Catechism—there is no shortage of essential resources, if only we would turn to them. So, we need to learn these things, perhaps taking a lesson from Orthodox Jewish models of study in which many men and women of action and business nonetheless are students and scholars. Of course we work to make RCIA robust, school theology courses vigorous, the seminaries and pastors learned, the colleges more Catholic; but in the meantime, we can, all of us, read Augustine and learn to sing.

Fifth, celebrate. It’s very easy to become lost in our losses, and to forget that the Church is growing worldwide, that the Bishops are exercising moral leadership on matters of religious freedom, that men like George and Chaput and Scola (to name just a few of the many) exist, that new publishing houses and online journals spring up, that Francis leads and we still have Ratzinger writing, that many Protestants are discovering the fullness of Faith, and on and on it goes.

Sixth, rest in communion. The saints intercede for us, as does Our Lady, and we are surrounded by an enormous cloud of witnesses—those alive in body and those alive in soul only—praying and working, all. The sacrifice is performed and received now and in eternity, and God has taken residence with us. Be not afraid, we have all we need.

Seventh, learn shrewdness and innocence. Disposition alone solves nothing, we must also deliberate wisely and lengthily, guided by prayer, the tradition, authority, and reason, about what to do. We must be shrewd and watchful “in prayer and in love,” and we must cultivate those traits in the whole community of the faithful. The time of naivety is long past, the time of riding cultural heritage has departed, and we must be without guile, but also without stupidity.

These are not programs or techniques to be blindly followed, and there is no guarantee of easy or obvious success, but whatever the state of the world and the state of the Church, we have our tasks, with fidelity being first of our needed and serious work. But work we must, and not for ourselves alone, not trapped inside a self-referential prison, but working to proclaim to all the glory of the Lord and the dignity of man.

Anything less is to descend to the world of the Bling Ring.

Editor’s note: The painting above depicts Ignatius Loyola seeking approval for his new order from Pope Paul III in 1534.


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