The prophet Ezekiel gives us the “allegory of the cedar,” which teaches us personal and political lessons. In that prophecy, Egypt is compared to a cedar tree grown tall and beautiful. As it grew, however, it became arrogant — “its heart was proud of its height” (31:10) — so the Lord rejected it and let a foreign ruler have it. Ruthless foreigners, we are taught, cut it down and left it (Ez. 31; cf. 28:2, 17; Is. 14:13–14; Dan 5:20; Luke 1:51–52; and 2 Thess 2:4). Such “arboreal pride” is emblematic of the capital vice of pride (CCC 1866), which may be personal, leading to actual sin, or political, leading to the kind of hubris that destroyed Egypt, Assyria, Samaria, Babylon, Judea, Persia, Greece, Rome — and many others in more modern times (cf. Lk. 19:41–44).
To abandon God leads to destruction — a truth pertaining both to people and nations (Prov. 16:18, 29:18; Ps. 81:11–12). Like the Lebanon cedar in Ezekiel, however, we so often worship, selfishly and societally, at the altar of our own pride.
In one of her novels, Ayn Rand (1905–1982) has one of her characters say that the only sacred word is ego. Catholics, by contrast, should point to a different word — a sacred name (see Philippians 2:10).
What is the principal cause of sin and of evil? There is room for discussion, but I would nominate the ideology to which Ayn Rand and so many others have been devoted throughout the centuries: selfishness, a noun having many synonyms — autonomy, pride, vanity, subjectivism, and worldliness.
Proverbs tells us to “trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight” (3:5). But the egotist in us may think that, despite the enduring teaching of the Church, certain favorite personal preferences, political projects, bioethical experiments, doctrinal renovations, or sacramental improvisations are desirable. We hear, especially from “progressive” theologians, that we must be modern and avant-garde, that we must be “with the times,” that we must be innovative. Everything changes, the progressives tell us, and, after all, we do not want to be thought of as old-fashioned.
But not everything changes. Jesus does not change (Heb. 13:8); truth does not change; human nature does not change. We are called upon to grow in our understanding of, and commitment to, what is eternally right, not just socially right (see CCC 1888) or personally convenient (2 Tim. 4:1–5).
It was a saint who wisely warned us, on 8 September 1907, about “blind and unchecked passion for novelty” (Pope Pius X). And the great French Catholic writer Charles Péguy (1873–1914) similarly told us, “It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of not looking sufficiently progressive.”
As Catholics, we owe — and here comes the noun we hear so little of today — obedience to the settled Magisterium of the Church, which exists “to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error” (CCC 890; cf. 1269, 2039, 2420). Suppose, though, that I find Church teaching insufficiently modern, progressive, and liberating. Well, then, I can invent my own theology, my own liturgy, my own social justice. I can be my own Magisterium. I can be an arrogant “Lebanon cedar.”
Having taught philosophy for many years, I think the word most misunderstood (next to obedience — which actually refers to “giving ear” and thus reminds us of our Lord’s admonition found in Mt. 11:15) is freedom. We are truly free when we do what we ought to do (cf. 1 Peter 2:16) — not merely what we want to do.
Freedom comes from following Christ and His Church, not from a parallel or personal Magisterium that permits us to call true what is false or good what is evil or virtuous what is vicious — such as self-styled Catholics who champion abortion or who vote for infanticide (as did ten Catholics in the flagitious February Senate tally about killing the just born — resulting, by the way, in not a single excommunication). This is the “Magisterium of the Mirror,” in which arrogance induces someone or some nation to do what is manifestly evil, describing it as good (cf. Is. 5:20). There is, after all, a reason why the First Commandment is first, for the temptation to which we are all heir is our tendency to do what pleases us and then to call it holy.
Even — or, better, especially — the Holy Father is the custodian of the deposit of faith given to us by Our Lord (2 Tim. 1:13–14; CCC 256). This is the reason why the neoteric notion that the death penalty is “inadmissible” is worrisome. Will priestly celibacy soon be found “inadmissible”? What has always been consonant with Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium is not subject to change. (For more discussion, please see this document, which correctly concludes: “Because God ordained its use, the possibility of its [the death penalty’s] use is not something that can be abolished by a Pope.”)
We become and remain Catholic for many reasons. G.K. Chesterton (1874–1936) said he became Catholic, principally, “to get rid of my sins” and, secondly, by following the Church’s teaching, to think more clearly. If and when someone says the Church is insufficiently au courant and contemporary, we must understand that something is true not because the Church teaches it; the Church, of whom Christ is the head (Col. 1:18, Eph. 1:23), teaches it because it is true. Similarly, something is evil not because the Church forbids it; the Church forbids it because it is evil.
One must be concerned — and prayerful — about the modern (consider that adjective carefully) education of seminarians, many of whom will become priests and some of whom will become bishops (see CCC 2526). How well are they formed and informed? The late columnist Sydney J. Harris (1917–1986) wisely said that “the whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.” Our bishops must reject the “Magisterium of the Mirror,” reflecting the fads and fashions of the day, and gaze through the window of time into eternity, then teaching what is permanently good, true, and beautiful (cf. Psalm 119:1–16).
In answer to Ayn Rand and to progressive theologians, consider John Henry Newman (1801–1890): “Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and pride of man.”
There is no genuine progress, and never any perfection, without divine grace. Ezekiel tried to teach that with his allegory of the Lebanon Cedar.
In our arrogance, and pride of our height, however, we have only hardened our hearts. We have not heard. We have not heeded. One must conclude that another cedar tree will soon fall.
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.