When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going

Just as Mr. Darcy’s aunt, the overbearing Lady Catherine De Bourgh, held that if she’d ever been taught music she would have been a great proficient, I’ve sometimes had the chumpaciousness to think that if I’d ever learned to draw I’d have been a good cartoonist. These inflated thoughts generally occur when I’ve got a picture in my mind of a cartoon that would encapsulate a certain absurd idea prevalent in the world we live in…. As a matter of fact, I have a cartoon in my head right now, which would illustrate an idea that is pretty popular today among some Catholics.

The idea is that the game’s up. We’ve lost. Christian culture is a thing of the distant past, and we live in a world in which our private convictions about morality have no place in public. For better or worse Christian morality no longer informs our society’s taboos and conventions, as it did in Grandma and Grandpa’s time. It’s wonderful, they say, if you want to live your own life according to the teachings of the Catholic Church. But what you need to understand is that other folks come from different backgrounds. Some people really don’t feel like they’re doing anything wrong when they kill their babies or their parents. Some folks are really incapable of understanding your reservations about all sorts of oddly assorted couples tying the knot. So, with all the delicate courtesy of a hostess of the old school, we ought to put up a magnificent pretense of there being nothing amiss, lest embarrassment arise amidst the company. Oh, you can keep your Christian convictions—but keep them quietly, peacefully, and lovingly; in other words, keep them like a shameful secret, so nobody would ever know you had them. It is time for us Christians and Conservatives to accept that things have changed, and to stop trying to fight a losing battle.

The cartoon I envision to illustrate this kind of thinking is one that shows infantry riflemen on the front line. The picture is done in pen-and-ink, with quick cross-strokes to shade in the curve of their helmets and the shadow of their scruffy chins—imagine G.I.s somewhat in the style of Bill Mauldin.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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They’re hunkered down in a sheltered position. Ahead of them a few puffs of smoke and some “bang-bangs” indicate the position of the enemy. One of our guys is bringing up his rifle—but the Lieutenant is twisting his head to look at the kid with an incredulous, outraged expression. The caption for this picture reads: “Hold your fire, Private Doe! You’ll make ‘em mad!”

In the next they’ve set up the radio, and our Lieutenant is breathing into it, with bug eyes and two or three heavy dark lines across his forehead. “Hello, hello? Sir, we’ve encountered the enemy. They show no signs of surrendering.”

There’s a puff of smoke labeled “boom!”  way off to the left of them, and the guy hunches so much he almost disappears inside his helmet, like a turtle. “Sir,” he says into the radio, “the enemy continues to advance. Our position is untenable.”

He gets off the radio and issues his orders. “Alright, men, fall back—easy does it! I mean it, Doe; hold your fire or I’ll see you court-martialed.”

The last picture shows our side crawling cautiously away on their bellies with their heads well down, leaving the enemy in command of the field.

That’s not how our soldiers stormed the beaches of Okinawa and Iwo Jima. I know, because since my early childhood I’ve listened to Grandpa’s stories while he sits with a glass of fortissimo at the kitchen table. I know too what Grandpa would say if I asked his opinion about accepting the defeat of basic morality and common decency. First he’d look at me like I just fell out of a tree on my head. Then he’d say the same thing as John Wayne when he drawls in any given western, “That’ll be the day.”

It’s not that Grandpa has a problem with recognizing the reality of the situation, because if you want to know how bad things are he’ll give you an earful. Sure, the world has changed. A terrifyingly high percentage of the population are indeed in that sad case of which St. Thomas Aquinas speaks, in which the secondary precepts of the natural law are “blotted out from the human heart, either by evil persuasions…or by vicious customs and corrupt habits, as among some men, theft, and even unnatural vices, as the Apostle states, were not esteemed sinful.”  The situation is grim indeed, and there is no reason to think that it will not get worse. In a few short years we have gone from contraception, to abortion, to infanticide being considered as a possibility. Who knows where it will end? I would hazard a guess, given the HHS Mandate, (to say nothing of China’s one child policy) that it will not end with your average Catholic being allowed to go quietly about his business, with his wife as a fruitful vine in the recesses of the home and his children as olive plants around his table.

If Grandpa’s unwillingness to accept defeat so easily is not because he doesn’t know how bad things are, then maybe it’s because he comes from a generation that was made of sterner stuff—a generation who understood the sort of thing that Winston Churchill was talking about when he said:

 If you will not fight for the right when you can easily win without bloodshed; if you will not fight when your victory is sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves.

Another important point, of course, is that we would not be in the present state of crisis if Catholics had previously held the line on divorce, or contraception, or chastity, or abortion, or you name it. Indeed, when one considers all the cowardice and compromise that has led us to where we are it is laughable to say that Christian morality has been “defeated.” G. K. Chesterton summarized the point nicely in his well-known quip that, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”

Yes, the situation is dire. The difference is that to some people that means it’s time to get up and gird up one’s loins for battle like a Christian, while to others it means that it’s time to sit down and give up like a fatalist. The latter are those who come up with reasons for voting for pro-abortion candidates (“not because we agree with them on abortion… But social issues, you know…”), who rather wonder if it might not be alright to have homosexual unions legally recognized (“at least we know it’s not the same thing as marriage, but you can’t expect to hold non-Catholics to Church teaching”), who don’t see the big problem with the HHS mandating free contraceptives and abortifacients (“well, it’s not like we’re paying for them directly”) and so on, and so on.

I must admit that I’m amazed at the apparent complacency with which such people assert that their fellow men don’t know the difference between right and wrong. The situation is that we live in a society gone mad with lust, side by side with men wounded and degraded by the systematic destruction of innocence, men who no longer recognize themselves because of the damage done to their very souls—men of whom the French writer Georges Bernanos exclaimed in pity and horror, “Oh, if we could view with angelic sight these maimed human beings!” And in this society they propose to live quietly and peacefully, going along with everything that they can “in conscience” and keeping their religion to themselves in exchange for being allowed to practice it! I’m not sure exactly how they plan to keep holding on to their faith in a society that is so expressly in opposition to every basic tenet of that faith. Perhaps they’re prepared to be instant martyrs when they are finally faced with something they can’t possibly square with their convictions—or maybe they intend to maintain such flexibility of conscience as never to be caught by any such ultimatum.

“Fall back!” the cry goes up on every side. “The enemy continues to advance!” Yes, the enemy has a way of doing that when one steadily retreats before them while trailing one’s rifle uselessly on the ground. I’m not saying it’s time to start acting like heroes or martyrs, but I do think it’s about time somebody suggested that amidst all this talk about of defeat and acceptance the average Catholic might remark with considerably more truth than John Paul Jones, “Surrender? I have not yet begun to fight!”

Truly, we are still the freest people in the world. We are Americans. We have the legal right, as well as the moral duty, to speak the truth—so there is no reason in the world for us to stop talking. Why allow the liberals and post-modern pagans to define the terms? Why should we stop opposing the frightful mockery of marriage that’s being proposed all over the country? And while we’re at it, what about praying the Holy Rosary? And Eucharistic Adoration? And Eucharistic Processions—yes, in public? And maybe even some good old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness fasting?

Oh, there’s no doubt it will be a fierce battle….

“But the good news is—”

“What, Grandpa? Is there any?”

“I already read the end of The Book, and I know who wins when it’s all over.”

And then he’ll smile at you, a smile to warm the heart, and pass the fortissimo.


  • Bernadette O'Brien

    Bernadette O’Brien writes from Western Kentucky’s farm country. She graduated from Thomas Aquinas College in 2009.

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