“With God and Jesus Christ excluded from political life, with authority derived not from God but from man, . . . human society is tottering to its fall, because it has no longer a secure and solid foundation.”
– Pope Pius XI, Quas Primas : #18
Precis: Secular values tell us to exalt ourselves and our opinions, and that “doing it my way” is our supreme goal. Sacred virtues, however, teach us to conform our wishes to God’s will (Romans 12:2) and that “doing it His way” is our supreme goal. Failure to learn this lesson in humility (James 1:21) leads to personal and political perdition.
Is Barack Obama right? Asked if he believed in sin and, if so, how he would define it, he responded that sin exists, and it is “being out of alignment with my values.” Clear. Concise. Cogent. Who could challenge such a worldly-wise definition of sin? Offered that definition, how many students, Mass attendees, or even seminarians would object?
Would William Shakespeare object? After all, Polonius in Hamlet offers this counsel: “This above all: to thine ownself be true” (Act I, Scene III). If ever there were an apothegm which strikes a chord with us, it is this line from Shakespeare, advising us to be faithful to our own lights, to remember who’s “Number One,” and to do whatever we think is right or profitable or convenient for us. As we read in Judges: “There was no king in Israel at that time; everyone did whatever he wanted” (17:6, 21:25). Today, we have no “king”; we acknowledge no transcendent moral authority, so—draw the conclusion.
Novelists and philosophers such as Ayn Rand (1905-1982) have made their livings contending pretty much the same thing, and libertarianism exalts the notion that we should worry, first and foremost, about ourselves. Consider additionally the remark of the well-known writer E. M. Forster (1879-1970): “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” My tight little circle of pals–and, naturally, I– will always come first. Doing the “Christian thing”? Well, that’s easy, too. Just ask, WWJD? What would Jesus do?–in my personal opinion? Jesus would do, um, exactly what I would do. Of course. So, in being true to yourself, you are being true to Jesus. Right?
William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) is the poet laureate of this kind of egotistical extravaganza. As his well-known poem Invictus declares in its final stanza:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
We can and should reply that, first, Polonius was an ethical boor, and Shakespeare did not intend wisdom to be found in and from Polonius’s failed and foolish character. (For more on that, see this.) The sense which too many people derive from “to thine ownself be true” is on a par with holding that the Bible tells us that “There is no God.” It does; but that quotation omits the introductory clause, “Fools say to themselves” (Psalm 14:1, 53:1).
Second, while one may find ethical egotist Ayn Rand’s rejection of huge political bureaucracy to be refreshing, one must keep in mind that her ideology can lead to indifference to the poor, exuberance in great wealth, denial of human dignity, and repudiation of eternal moral standards.
Third, one of my professors in graduate school, Eric Voegelin, taught that the greatest distinction of our day is not between various political and moral schools of thought but simply between those who believe in a transcendent Source of Right and those who do not. Because we Catholics believe in God, in His Son Jesus the Christ, and in the Holy Spirit, we want our thoughts, words, and deeds to be in harmony with the divine. It is to God, first and foremost, that we should be true. Sin, the Catechism teaches, is an “offense against God as well as a fault against reason, truth, and right conscience. Sin is a deliberate thought, word, deed, or omission contrary to the eternal law of God.”
Obama’s understanding of sin is based upon Narcissism. The Catholic understanding of sin is based upon natural law (see CCC #1950-1960, 1780).
Forster’s love of friends is to be commended (see, for instance, Sirach 6:1-17), but only up to a point. I know about this from painful experience, personally and professionally. When I was in college, a good friend (I thought) asked me to help him cheat during an examination. Afraid to go back to the dorm and face our friends’ wrath (if I had not helped him), I provided some answers to him. He cheated by accepting the help. I cheated no less by providing it. Many years later, having learned my moral lesson, I served as “Chair of Character Development” at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and one of my responsibilities was to support the Cadet Honor Code forbidding lying, stealing, and cheating. It is not always easy, I knew full well, to convince a twenty-year-old that he or she should not violate the honor code by unethically helping a friend.
I tried to teach the right idea, however, by suggesting that Principle precedes Purpose, which, in turn, precedes People. If “people” or “my friends” come first, then I may do all kinds of things to help them, regardless of the circumstances, laws, or consequences involved. If I put People ahead of Purpose, then I may find myself more worried about, say, individual careers than about the integrity of the enterprise sponsoring those careers. There are times we must put fidelity to principle ahead of loyalty to friends, or concern for self. The movie “I Confess,” starring Montgomery Clift, was once used to make that point to seminarians; its lesson about putting the sacraments ahead of self-interest is as valid today as when Hitchcock made it.
WWJD is a well-known “shortcut” to Christian action—and a spiritually deficient one. The difficulty with WWJD is that it crowns us as the arbiters of what is right and what is wrong, permitting us to imagine that Jesus would have done exactly as we have chosen to do. As the Catechism teaches, “the Church is one with Christ” (#795; see also Luke 10:16). We must therefore listen to the Church even or–to put it better–especially when we are taught those enduring principles and precepts against which our frequently selfish nature inclines us.
G.K. Chesterton, too, was concerned with doing things in his own way. He is supposed to have responded to a newspaper question (“What’s wrong with the world?”) by answering, “I am.” This turns Obama, Henley, and Polonius upside down: In Chesterton’s mind, he is (and, of course, by extension, all of us are) the source of the world’s moral problems because we are sinners in great need of God’s grace, guidance, and governance. We understand this as original sin and as our fallen, or concupiscent, nature (see CCC #387, 396-412). It’s telling that, when Chesterton was asked why he had become a Catholic (almost exactly 100 years ago), he replied: “to get rid of my sins.” Knowing that his thoughts and actions were sometimes “out of alignment” with the natural law, he forthrightly acknowledged Christ’s bride–not his own itches and impulses–as the master of his fate and the captain of his soul.
We are constantly barraged by the message that we should think for ourselves, and many times those urging such “independent thought” are, in fact, hopeful only that we will think exactly as they do. As Catholics, however, we are called to think with Christ: to know Him, to love Him and obediently to serve Him (Rom 1:5, 16: 26). To deny Him is to sin. Thus, it matters, profoundly, “how charged with punishments the scroll,” especially, God forbid, if we die in mortal sin (see CCC #1035). With “fear and trembling,” we are working out our salvation with God’s gracious help (Phil 2:12-13; CCC #308, #1949).
We are called to think with the settled Magisterium of the Church (sentire cum ecclesia), for the Church has the Mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16, CCC #389). When the secular world counsels us, as did the fraudulent philosopher Polonius, to be true to ourselves, we must have the wit and wisdom to respond that, by the grace of God, our purpose and our joy lie in our responsibility to “take every thought captive and make it obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).
There was a time, as we alluded to earlier in citing Judges, when there was no king in Israel. Chaos reigned, for people’s moral “alignment” was with personal passions. Today the United States has a multiplicity of politicians who honor God “with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Mt 15:8; Is 29:13). Chaos reigns, for their moral “alignment” is with personal power, prestige, and profit.
Ninety-six years ago, Pope Pius XI told us the way to peace lay in “proper alignment”: “When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony” (Quas Primas, #19). As the “Great Reset” despotically proceeds, broad recognition of Christ’s eternal royalty is not on the horizon, for it is hard to see and hear through the metaphorical smoke and fire of the moral Gehenna around us.
Image: A cropped section of “Echo and Narcissus” by John William Waterhouse (1903)
Deacon James H. Toner (M.A., William & Mary; Ph.D., Notre Dame) is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of numerous books, articles, reviews, and monographs. He has taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He has contributed many columns to The Catholic Thing, Crisis Magazine, One Peter Five, and the Wanderer, as well as myriad academic and military periodicals. He and his wife Rebecca have three sons and eleven grandchildren.