"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Friday, April 17, 2009

Cutting to the bone

So much has been happening lately in the spheres which interest me that I have hardly known where to begin writing. I'll just start with three of the most egregious events as the set-up act for the big one.

I'm amused by Homeland Security's classification of pro-life activists as "right-wing extremists" and of returning combat veterans as potential "terrorists." Only dogmatic liberals could view that as more than ideological boilerplate. But I'm sickened by Notre Dame's bestowing an honorary J.D. on a president who thinks that outlawing even partial-birth abortion is incompatible with what the Supreme Court has said the Constitution means. This is the newest low since The Vagina Monologues was allowed to be performed on campus for what used to be called Valentine's Day, a holiday whose politically-correct designation is now 'V-Day'. With Ralph McInerny retiring from the philosophy department after 54 years, I have even less use for the place. By all means read his little jeremiad Is Obama Worth a Mass? Indeed we know what Jesus said about salt which has lost its savor.

I'm actually less sickened by the hue and cry over the Pope's remarks about the perennial AIDS-condom issue. Every few years or so, the media broadcast the charge that the Vatican is guilty of mass murder for opposing the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV infection in Africa. Now even if condom use were generally effective for that purpose, it takes only a moment's reflection to expose the recurring charge as ludicrous. Surely anybody can figure out that the number of AIDS-infected people who take Catholic teaching seriously enough to avoid using condoms, but not seriously enough to avoid sex with uninfected partners, has got to be pretty close to nil. In any case, all the Pope said was that passing out condoms en masse is more likely to be part of the problem than of the solution. Even the research from Harvard agrees—much to its author's chagrin, I'm told. What is the freakin' problem here? It's not that hard to understand. People who believe in what was called, during the 60s and 70s, "the sexual revolution" can't imagine that abstinence is a more humane and effective prophylactic than latex. That's because they can't imagine truly voluntary abstinence at all. Thus, if somebody capable of sexual activity and attractive enough to have a partner is abstinent, that must be because some malign force—such as mental illness, a controlling paterfamilias, or a religious hierarchy—is coercing them to avoid sex. That view is a prejudice which explains a lot of other attitudes as well. The latest hue and cry about the Pope, and the outrage against the Harvard report, only confirms the liveliness of the prejudice. But I'm more amused than sickened. And I thank God the salt's savor is likely to increase in quarters such as in the Archdiocese of New York under the newly installed Timothy Dolan.

Yet all the nasty things happening in society and the Church come down, I believe, to a culpably ignorant repetition of the sin committed at the very dawn of humanity. And I can't help feeling that the day of judgment is at hand.

The bone I want to cut to is described in the following few lines from an otherwise pedestrian article on pastoral strategy by an earnest Paulist priest:

We have to use tools that respond to the criterion that most people, de facto, use for religion today (whether we like it or not) -- experience. What people see, feel and get involved with constitutes the criterion of faith today. Faith (as modern Americans construe it) is not some objective reality into which they feel they should fit; rather, faith is the way people choose to assemble their ideals, in accord with the force or thrust of those ideals.

Again, we may wish this was not so, but it is. Just look at the proliferation of so-called ''non denominational'' churches -- they are a Rorschach for the multiple kinds of expressions of faith we Americans keep inventing for ourselves. The criterion for all of this? Experience. ''This is what I (want to) feel or think.''

That, my friends, presents the basic spiritual problem from which all of America's ecclesial and social ills flow. I wonder whether the author knew that when he wrote those words. I rather doubt he did, but I hope he comes to see it's so.

Think more deeply for a moment about the sentence I've bolded. Now think of Eve in the Garden as the serpent slithers and glitters before her. He tells Eve that she will not die if she eats the fruit of the "tree of knowledge of good and evil"; instead he asserts that God made such a false threat so as to keep her from becoming like God, "knowing good and evil." Eve sees that the fruit is a delight the eyes and fit for gaining wisdom. She concludes that eating it would be good for her; thus, she believes the serpent and disbelieves God. And so "faith is no longer an objective reality" into which she feels she must "fit," namely the objective reality of God and his will. She eats the fruit and induces her spineless husband, who should have prevented her from doing so, to eat it too. Faith has now become "the way people choose to assemble their ideals, in accord with the force or thrust of those ideals." And indeed the couple don't die: not physically, not right away. But they see they are naked and cover themselves in shame. Meant to be one body, in complete harmony with God and each other, they have lost their innocence. Now they are something of a threat to each other, and they experience God as a threat to them both. They fear and hide from him who made them and provided for them. For they know they have disobeyed him. They have died spiritually, and they will soon learn what that means.

Although the names 'Adam' and 'Eve' are obviously mythical, and the literal time and place of the Fall impossible to discover by research, such has always been the condition of fallen humanity. It is the condition from which God the Son came to redeem us. Christendom used to know that. But Christendom no longer exists. So, we are forgetting what the Fall was and, instead, are elevating the serpent's original falsehood to the status of principle.

That is why SCOTUS said in 1992, and was believed almost without question when it repeated in 2003: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." That's exactly the right our first parents claimed for themselves. Satan would have us think that makes them heroes, and many who call themselves Christians agree with him. But their Fall is the root of our problems. Given freedom for love—love of God, of each other, of the rest of creation—the first couple grasped freedom from the guideposts of love. The world has been full of lies and murder ever since.

For our day and hour, the above is why Barack Obama can blithely say that the question of the fetus' humanity is "above my pay grade" as he awaits the opportunity to sign FOCA into law. That is why marriage has become, under civil law, the only important contract that can be broken unilaterally with impunity, even reward. Now that marriage is such a legal monster, more and more people think it possible, even necessary, to make it an absolute farce: to redefine marriage so as to make the sex of the spouses irrelevant. That conceit has a common cause with what explains why the birth rate is falling below replacement level in almost all "developed" countries. Freedom from real love is also why we think we may produce human beings in vitro while discarding many of them as useless. And I'm omitting here a lot of other, apparently unrelated evils that bother more people than the ones I've cited. It's all about the imperial self in each of us. But we don't see that because, like Adam and Eve, we'd rather blame those other imperial selves over there.

So, I don't just see original sin anymore. Original sin is a state we inherit, not an act we commit. It is the state of deprivation of that divine grace we were given primordially. That state has the effect of physical death for us all and spiritual death for those who are not in some degree of communion with the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. But what I also see now is actual, collective repetition of the first sin. That is only to be expected of the world at large; but we see it even in the Church, in the form described by that good, "pastoral" Paulist priest. It's why "cafeteria Catholicism" is now the rule not the exception. It's why only a remnant will survive the next great chastisement spiritually intact. The Church's flesh will have been cut to the bone.
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