Sense and Nonsense: On A New Kind of Courage

In C.S. Lewis’s Anthology of the remarks of George Macdonald, we read, “Until a man has love, it is well he should have fear. So long as there are wild beasts about, it is better to be afraid than secure.”

The virtue of courage is normally understood as the virtue by which we rule our actual fears and pains so that they do not interfere with our achieving our most noble purpose as human beings. Virtue means that we have some capacity to guide what happens to us toward the end for which we seek to live. We are praised or blamed to the degree we rule ourselves. This is why it is all-important that we choose rightly about our end. Thus, we can speak ironically of “brave” robbers, those who overcome their fears in order to do violence to others in taking what is not earned. But true bravery includes knowing what a worthy life consists in, what ultimately is worth dying for.

The final and highest act of bravery is thus that of dying for one’s friend, country, or faith, because some things are simply to be rejected, no matter the cost. It is better to suffer evil than to do it, as Socrates said at his trial. The Holy Father was quite lucid in Veritatis splendor in underscoring the abiding importance of martyrdom as a witness to truth and good. The death of the martyr is the affirmation of that for which his life was taken. To stay alive at any cost is not worthy of man.

Those who follow modern democratic theory are aware that part of its purpose was to reduce tensions caused by conflicting ideas of truth and good. If we could prevent ideas from being important, if we lowered our sights, we could live in peace. Whatever the merit of this approach, it had the effect of implying that the correct understanding and living of the truth was a relatively unimportant matter. But one of the curious aspects of doing evil—of not living the truth—is that the consequences of evil continue, whether or not we recognize or admit the fact of our disorder.

A related phenomenon is the apparent lack of courage on the part especially of bishops, priests, professors, and others whose vocation is to speak truth, especially the full truth as the Church teaches it.

Washington was recently roused by Mother Teresa, who explained quite clearly and quite bravely just why abortion is wrong. She did this unabashedly before the press, the President, the First Lady, and members of Congress. The major press was not brave enough to print the full text of her most profound and moving talk. Major TV did not let us simply listen to her. Mother Teresa violated the silent rule of the Republic. For we have all become democrats: our first principle is, “do not claim that truth matters.” Yet Mother Teresa said that something the government, the academy, and media praise is wrong. [For the full text, see Documention, March—Ed.]

We have come to insist on liberty over truth. We have not heard that it is the truth that will make us free. For example, a young friend of mine told me of a conversation with his local bishop, a fairly good bishop in fact, yet one who told my friend that it was not wise to point out what is wrong in the Church, that we should play down these disorders in order not to disturb the faithful. The bishop did not want to inform his flock about the wild beasts about. He wanted them to be secure and not to fear.

We seem to live in a time when we do not want to look clearly and objectively at what is going on in our parishes, schools, country, and media. We cannot officially tell the difference between one position and another. The philosopher and the fool are indistinguishable. All views are equally nice, each with its own quaintness. Cultural relativism is our faith. Even to express the idea that there are things that are absolutely wrong in every case, as the Holy Father bravely did, is called anti-democratic. Fanaticism comes to mean the hint that there is truth. Liberty is redefined to mean, “don’t speak the truth if you want to be free.”

The modern form of death or martyrdom—I do not forget that there are probably more real martyrs for the faith in this century than in the rest of history put together—consists in a kind of public execution that comes from the rejection of presuppositions found in the laws or public opinion of the polity. We have no natural law, only civil laws, which we make ourselves with no other guidance but our unrestricted liberty. Even, or especially, Supreme Court justices talk this way, as do most of the professors in our law schools.

The cruelest form of death, I have no doubt, is not physical death. Rather it is that public death which comes from the killing of ideas about God, about natural law, about the real dimensions of what loving means. It comes from not talking about good and evil, from being too modest even to bring them forth.

Recently, the Holy Father spoke to the bishops of California, Nevada, and Hawaii. He told them to be sure the texts of Church liturgy and teaching are translated accurately. “One of your responsibilities . . . is to make available exact and appropriate translations of the official liturgical books so that following the required review and confirmation of the Holy See, they may be an instrument and guarantee of a genuine sharing in the mystery of Christ and the Church.” Doesn’t it seem extraordinarily odd that the Holy See has to worry not just about right doctrine but about right translation of this doctrine?

I can hardly imagine the Pope having to bring this topic up to a presumably literate and learned episcopacy. What else can we conclude from this passage of the Holy Father except that there is serious concern at the highest levels about the integrity of our worship?

But behind the Pope’s anxiety about accurate language was his more serious worry about whether the orthodox Catholic teaching about God is being presented. If we get this understanding about God wrong, not much else makes any difference. The Holy Father again mentioned the meaning of Denver, the importance of which seems to have escaped us, but not him.

The young especially are a lively and promising sign of God’s live-giving presence in the heart of the world. The Holy Spirit is awakening in the Church’s members a longing for transcendence, stirring up in their hearts a desire for an intimate, personal relationship with the Triune God. . . . Individually and as a group, the bishops of the United States are being challenged to respond to that spiritual thirst by making available to everyone the fullness, relevance, and unifying force of the mystery of Christ.

One gets the distinct impression that it is the youth at Denver who are causing the bishops to wake up, and not vice versa.

A recent survey of Catholics revealed that a significant number did not understand or hold the teaching about the Real Presence. No doubt this teaching has been rarely preached. Our conduct in the Church, our moving the tabernacle here and there, would seem to indicate that the Eucharist’s real meaning is often ignored in our churches and chapels. And yet, if we do not hold the Real Presence, our liturgy is a form of blasphemy. If we distribute communion to just anyone no matter what he believes, we imply no real relation between belief and action is necessary, that we need not be whole in our worship. This is a form of Averröism or even Gnosticism.

The heart of what the Holy Father told the West Coast bishops lies in this passage, I think:

In our prayer we must be careful to safeguard divine transcendence and to purify our hearts of false images. Our prayer must always reflect the Church’s true faith. The core of Christian prayer is the revalation of the Father to the little ones, his adopeted children. In union with the Son through the Holy Spirit we are able to approach the Father and say, “Abba, Father.” Not to teach this sublime truth or to teach anything less would be to fail in our responsibility to be true spiritual guides. . . .

Let me conclude with a second passage from George MacDonald: “It is because we are not near enough to Thee to partake of thy liberty that we want a liberty of our own different from thine.” We are not concerned about the “revelation of the Father” but with a “liberty of our own.” Ultimately, the only true courage is, like Mother Teresa, humbly and persistently to state clearly the difference between these liberties and to “purify our hearts of false images.”


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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