“But my people would not listen to me . . . . So I let them go their stubborn ways and do whatever they wished” (Psalm 81:11-12; cf. Romans 1:24-25).
One version of a famous fable is this: A scorpion asked a frog for transportation across a river. The frog, thinking that the scorpion would not sting because that would result in their both dying, finally agreed. About halfway across the river, though, the scorpion did sting the frog. As they both began to sink below the surface, the frog plaintively asked the scorpion, “Why did you do that? Now we’ll both drown.” Replied the scorpion: “Because it is my nature to do so.”
Our Lord, of course, understood human nature (cf. Jn 2:24-25),* knowing our propensity for evil (Mt 15:19, Mk 7:21, James 4:1), which is also an important theme in the testimony of St. Paul (see Rom 7:14-24, Gal 5:19). These verses build upon an Old Testament teaching about our nature: “Who can understand the human heart? There is nothing else so deceitful; it is too sick to be healed” (Jeremiah 17:9; cf. Mk 7:21-22).
We know that the sacraments offer us the medicine which, in fact, can arrest or cure the spiritual disease afflicting us. This medicine takes the form of interior repentance, including “the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace’” (CCC #1431). A sacrament is thus a kind of Tolkien eucatastrophe, offering us–if we will but embrace it–the gracious path to salvation rather than the wretched road to perdition.
Pace the universalists, however, who hold that everyone will be saved, the Church has counseled the salvific need for daily conversion (Luke 13:22-30, Phil 2:12-13), knowing our weaknesses and the magnetic power of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Can we, for instance, imagine a Catholic bishop so profane and puffed up (cf. 1 Cor 5:1-2) that he would dismiss, distort, or deny Catholic truth in order to court or keep ill-gotten popularity with subscribers to the ways of the world? We can, in fact, “imagine” more than sixty of them. About that number, we know, oppose what they regard as inopportune work about “Eucharistic coherence.” We read in St. John’s Gospel that “They loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God” (12:43, 5:44, 3:19; and Gal 1:10; cf. 1 Thess 2:4). Of such “leaders,” we are warned: “[Their] hands will go weak, and their knees will shake” (Ez 7:17; cf. Is 35:3, Heb 12:12—basis for a productive, if melancholy, Bible study, by the way).
As the Catechism teaches: “Ignorance of the fact that man has a wounded nature inclined to evil gives rise to serious errors in the areas of education, politics, social action, and morals” (407; see also #387). Discard or forsake that critical insight into our human nature, and we destine ourselves to the kind of wild-eyed confusion which marks despotic ideology.
Here is the first lesson of wise politics: Do not concentrate power in the hands of anyone. It was, after all, the Catholic Lord Acton (1834-1902) who astutely observed that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In a certain sense, then, the writing of St. Paul is the progenitor of the doctrine of separation of powers, upon which the American Constitution is founded, and in which is grounded Madison’s famous observation that government is “the greatest of all reflections on human nature” (Federalist #51). In doggerel: Amalgamation of domination = a nation in subjugation
Would the scorpion of human nature sting the body politic, endangering the very safety and security of the Republic? Would leaders, of whatever party or persuasion, be so enamored of power, in its many forms, that they would consciously corrupt enduring public principle to suit fleeting private purpose? Or would they bankrupt the country, or contaminate democracy (by admitting to the franchise many thousands of illegal voters) in a pitiful and ultimately ill-fated attempt to preserve political dominance?
Are we sinners? Because the answer to that critical question is a long, loud, and lamentable “yes,” we grievously err when the trust we must give to God is chiefly invested, instead, in human laws and institutions.
In understanding the degradations of human nature, one begins to grasp the nature and purpose of good institutions and of good law. Edmund Burke (1729-1797) had it right, after all: we should change enduring institutions rarely and then only incrementally. Jefferson, too, knew that truth: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes” (Declaration of Independence).
Never quixotically expect too much, too soon, too easily. Never chimerically expect to redeem our fallen human nature by massive government programs or by credulous faith in self-anointed champions of the people (Mk 7:8-9, Col 2:8). That way lies chaos. That way lies the Gulag.
St. Thomas Aquinas taught that law is “an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated.”
Good civic law, therefore, aims always at advancing man’s reason and retarding his passion. Those who make that good law must be intellectually marinated in the learning which attends, and is derived from, the recognition that, as Chesterton once put it, when you take away the supernatural you are left with the unnatural. If the first man-made political structure was the Tower of Babel, then the first public opinion poll (as Bishop Sheen once said) was the crowd’s choice of Barabbas (Mt 27:17, 21).
Institutions and laws are metaphysical axioms, meaning that they emerge from conviction about human origin, purpose, and destiny. When we understand the limits of our wisdom and the perils of our pride, we create engines of government which resolutely and reasonably remain on the tracks laid by generations of prophets, priests, philosophers, and—yes—discerning politicians (to whom, long after their deaths, we refer as “statesmen”). They developed a certain political conscience which tells us that man is both beauty and beast, capable of both the angelic and of the diabolical, able to build both cathedrals and concentration camps.
When I first taught politics at Notre Dame, I adorned my syllabus with an insight from Professor Waldemar Gurian (1902-1954), who also had taught at Notre Dame: “In all temporal things something supratemporal appears. [Understanding that will save us] from the dangerous twin evils of our time—cynicism and perfectionism” (cf. Heb 4:13).
Forget Whose we are (1 Cor 6:19); forget that we are subject to Judgment; forget our eternal destiny—and we are left with unnatural institutions and laws founded upon the greatest lie: “You will be like God” (Gn 3:5). All we have to do to become omnipotent, the great liar tells us, is to sell our souls and to substitute the self or the state or sex for what is truly sacred (see CCC #398). That is the longstanding liberal lullaby, inducing pernicious moral and political coma.
In God we trust; in humans, or in scorpions, we do not.
*I provide Scripture references for interested readers. Such passages are invariably illustrative rather than exhaustive. I believe, though, that, in these dark times, we very much need to read the holy Bible more prayerfully (and
more frequently) than, perhaps, we are accustomed to, remembering to study the Bible “with its divine authorship in mind” (Dei Verbum, #12). Reliable translations (such as the RSV-CE and the Navarre Bible) and orthodox commentaries are invaluable. Scholars such as Scott Hahn and Brant Pitre can help us. No one should ever be “an empty preacher of the Word of God to others, [without] being a hearer of the Word in his own heart” (St. Augustine, quoted in Dei Verbum, #25; cf. Heb 4:12). The reference to “preacher” here includes parents, teachers, writers—as well as, of course, all deacons, priests, and bishops. Good Scripture study strengthens minds–and knees!
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.