Common Wisdom: Penance, 1993

Lent seems especially penitential this year. A somber pall has settled over the faithful, as they see clear evidence that the profound issue of the recent election was not the economy but something much more elemental: life itself. What is life? What does it mean and what is it worth?

With that realization comes the inescapable conclusion that at the end of 20 years of turmoil the Church and the country are deep into revolution. Innocent life, whether unborn, old, handicapped, diseased, or otherwise vulnerable, has been cast, explicitly or implicitly, outside the protection of the law, forcing the dismaying deduction that somehow, if no unborn child is legally safe, then perhaps none of us is safe. If an unborn child is allowed to live, not because he is protected under the law but merely because his mother has mercy on him, then it may be that we, too, live not under the rule of law, but only through the will of others. Perhaps if we, like an unborn child, were to become vulnerable, through illness, accident, or old age, then we, too, would survive only if those around us showed us mercy. Revolution is a mode that Catholics and Americans in general find alien and discomforting. And yet what is more revolutionary than for government to declare innocent people to be outlaws and to cast them beyond the pale? What devastation has befallen our Constitutional framework if the first order of government—to protect the innocent—has been eaten up by an implicit Karamazov edict that the individual will, not law, is the rule? What follows logically, though we pray it may never be carried out, but the Karamazov dictum that everything is lawful?

If the force of will takes precedence over the inviolability of the person—indeed, if there is no such thing as specifically human nature—then there can be no understanding of the sacredness of human life as primary, not just to all religious vision, but to all ethical vision. If a majority of wills tolerates violence to life, then there can be no specific uniqueness or sacredness about the human person that would prevent violence to the person. If will is supreme, then the majority will is absolute; there is no redress against it, and politics becomes the acquisition of power through flattery of the majority will. If there is no real human nature, then it is hard to see how there can be truth declared about anything, and so truth becomes whatever the populace can be flattered into believing. When truth is opinion, then lies come easily. The difference between truth and lie, reality and illusion is hardly noticeable. Evil can be made to seem good and good made to seem evil.

The mushiness of the revolutionary mind is exacerbated by the shrunken role that it gives to reason. Everything is judged by whether it can be measured, quantified, and proved mathematically. Since many things cannot be measured, any pretension of measurement is a sham and results in an absurd distortion of the facts. Shrinkage of reason to what we can measure forbids recognition of the moral dimension of reason, that is, reason applied to the moral and spiritual part of man, his deepest part. There can be, in other words, no recognition of man’s soul. As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger said in a recent interview in Catholic World Report,

This restriction of reason has the result that we are left in almost total darkness regarding some essential dimensions of life. The meaning of man, the bases of ethics, the question of God cannot be subjected to rational experience, verified by mathematical formulae. And so they are left to subjective sensibility alone. This is serious because if, in a society, the bases of ethical behavior are abandoned to subjectivity alone, released from common motives for being and living, handed over to pragmatism, then it is man himself who is threatened.

The intellectual and spiritual and moral revolution that for a century has assaulted the bases of ethical behavior has come to a head in the huge life issues of abortion and euthanasia, the ill resolution of which is threatening the commonwealth. When the human person was treated under law as inviolable and unrepeatable, abortion and euthanasia were unthinkable. Now, however, the person, first by judicial fiat and then by legislation, has been declared not inviolable but rather an object to be used. Thus the social order is disrupted by abortion, euthanasia, and a host of sexual evils. Bad law, especially when it affects life and death and procreation, demoralizes a people. Nothing so disorders their souls and warps their vision of the good. Their capacity to govern themselves becomes impaired. They fall prey ever more to the blandishments of clever but morally weak politicians, who survive by manipulating them.

In just such a crisis of the social order is the Church called to help restore to the people, not only a religious vision, which of course has been destroyed, but also the moral vision which is the precondition of the religious, and by which we simply recognize what is distinctively human. Of all present institutional moral and religious voices, only the Catholic Church may have both the universal scope and the moral authority to lead the way in providing a vision for a world so pluralistic that it is in chaos.

For too many years, numbers of the Catholic faithful never seemed to hear anyone calling their name. Some bishops, for instance, chose to talk about bringing the kingdom of God to fulfillment through the economy, or to listen to feminists who told them that women felt oppressed because they could not be ordained, or because God was not addressed in the liturgy as “divine Father-Mother.” The people in the pews, meanwhile, bereft of proper catechesis for two generations, suffer from a jejune understanding of their faith. The repair of their formation will take decades. America, once a thoroughly Christian country, has reverted to mission territory, and Catholics, equally as much as the rest of the population, need evangelization. After all, Catholic voters apparently did not consider abortion an issue in the Presidential election.

But despite this long faintheartedness of some clergy, and despite the poor formation in both catechism classes and seminaries, one senses that something new and hopeful is stirring in the Church. Perhaps, in order to wake from its paralysis, the Church in America has required President Clinton’s rapid move to carry out his campaign promises on abortion. Perhaps many in the Church—clerics and laymen, who once thought they should wait patiently for change—have now concluded that our country really is mired in a crisis, partly economic, but most profoundly moral and spiritual. At any rate, some new voices of courage are being heard in the land, voices especially of certain bishops that are a welcome addition to the cries of the faithful.

In Lent, while we do penance for neglecting for such a long time the growing signs of disorder in our country and in the Church in America, we also await the resurrection. If we look for big dramatic signs, we will see few. Yet if we look for small signs of resurrection, we will see many. The universal catechism, no doubt, will be a turning point, provided it sees light in a non-ideological, non-political, non-inclusive translation. Moreover, vibrant young families, the greatest sign of all, form a small but lively and faithful network.

In strong faithful families who defend life, faith invigorates what is reasonable, and reason informs faith. Ideas do explode in these little family networks. The more the faith is threatened, the more these networks of families tighten, the harder they study to learn the faith, and the harder they fight to defend it. Among these families bloom parochial schools and home schools. From among them will journey young people to join the Holy Father next August in the World Youth Pilgrimage in Denver. From among them will come future religious vocations. From among them will come what my wise spiritual advisor tells me is needed above all—some great new saints. The smallness of the little spring that is opening in the Church ought not to worry us. All ideas, like new life, come from smallness. If faithfulness can stir afresh in the Church, a new moral and spiritual and cultural synthesis will follow someday, in God’s own time—because from faith arises culture. Civilization depends upon a moral and religious vision.


  • Anne Husted Burleigh

    Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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