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The Political Temptation to Destroy Politics Itself

Above: Stephens County Courthouse, Texas.

The Taproot of Evil:  Forgetfulness

Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teaching (Hebrews 13:9).

To “beg the question” is a logical fallacy in which a claim is assumed to be true without evidence other than the claim itself.  Let me, though, beg the question here by asserting that both our society and the Church are experiencing moral cataclysms. Chaos and evil thrive; anatomical and biological sophistry–to the point of madness – run rampant;[1] bizarre teaching[2] and corrupt communications are ubiquitous; formal schism appears increasingly probable. There is compelling reason to echo the divine question: “When Jesus comes, will He find any faith left on earth?” (Luke 18:8). Not for nothing, then, did St. James tell us that “whoever wants to be the world’s friend makes himself God’s enemy” (4:4; cf. John 15:18).

Is the alliance between the diabolical and the secular not particularly obvious in the hysterical reaction to the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe (on June 24th)? The common denominator of such protestors may be compressed into a single sign (which they do not carry, of course—but could): “We choose to murder our children whenever we want to!” As the fight for life devolves to the states, we remember St. Paul’s prayer: “[we pray that the pro-life movement may be] strengthened and invigorated with all power, according to His glorious might, to attain every kind of endurance and patience with joy” (Col. 1:11). St. Peter, too, warns and adjures us that to remind everyone—even our friends—about Truth and Virtue as long as we live (2 Pet. 1:12-13). That is because the forces of evil persist in moral confusion and logical lunacy, denying the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, with throats that are “wide-open graves” (Ps. 5:9).

What is the principal cause of all this carnality, this moral chaos, this “strange teaching”? What is its taproot?[3]

Some years ago, in receiving a prestigious award for his writing, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) explained in four words the cause of moral disorder swirling around us: “Men have forgotten God.” Every Eucharistic Prayer, though, has a remembrance, memorial sacrifice, or Anamnesis, during which we call to mind the Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Christ the King (see CCC, 1103, Luke 22:19, 1 Cor 11:24-25).

If such anamnesis permits us to enter into the Paschal Mystery, then such moral amnesia ensures personal and political catastrophe: “Once God is forgotten, the creature is lost sight of as well” (Gaudium et Spes, 36; CCC, 49, 308). Forget or deny absolute, eternal, objective standards of truth, beauty, and goodness, and a consuming, idolatrous social vanity will soon morph into political tyranny: the gulag is sure to follow (cf. CCC, 854, 1740, 1896, 1923, 2105, 2257).

As Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979) once put it:

Men do not want to believe their own times are wicked, partly because they have no standard outside of themselves by which to measure their times. If there is no fixed concept of justice, how shall men know when it is violated?

If we have no destination, then any road or path is acceptable. If there is no ultimate truth, or goodness, or beauty, then nothing is wicked, or wrong, or hideous.

About thirty years ago, Pope St. John Paul duly warned us about encroaching totalitarianism:

Nowadays there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life. Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it [for example, faithful Catholics] are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that truth is determined by the majority, or that it is subject to variation according to different political trends. It must be observed in this regard that if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power (Centesimus Annus, 46).

The Holy Father continued his admonition: “In a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation and man is exposed to the violence of passion and to manipulation, both open and hidden.” Forget God, ridicule truth, calumniate the sacred—and the monsters will come for us.  Because we forget God, we forget what men, women, and babies are; we lose our sense of purpose and direction (Jeremiah 6:16, Psalm 57:2, Hebrews 9:27); we rejoice in sin (Romans 1:18-32, Ephesians 4:18-21, Philippians 3:17-19); we call murder good, and we call the holy bad (cf. Isaiah 5:20-21); and we worship ourselves (cf. Genesis 11:4, Jeremiah 17:5, 9, 13).[4]

In eight words, the first of the Ten Commandments had instructed us never to dismiss from our minds, to disobey, or to defile God: “Thou shalt not have strange gods before me” (Ex 20:3). When we have strange gods, we have depraved, or bizarre, or wicked teaching (see also Col 2:8 and Eph 4:14).

The core of this depraved teaching, which has wormed its way into our faith, our politics, and our education, is simply this:  the resurgence of the primordial heresy that we are our own god. That lie was the first diabolical deception (Gen 3:5); it was accepted by our first parents, and it is accepted, to one degree or another, by almost all of us today (see CCC, 407).  Pride or arrogance, after all, is the chief of the deadly, or capital, sins.

The arrogance of sin, in which we all share (Rom 5:12, 1 John 1:8), is also found in politics. We humans tend to reject authoritative teachings (CCC, 1783) in our personal life, and civil societies similarly tend to reject authoritative, or divine, teaching in their political life. As my former mentor, the late Dr. Peter V. Sampo of Magdalen College in Warner, New Hampshire, once put it:

The loss of spiritual knowledge with the accompanying emphasis on the material world characterizes the modern age. We confront, therefore, a world obviously subject to crushing power, whether economic, political, or military. Consequently, the modern world seeks a person of power who can meet adverse fortune and conquer it—a Savior Prince.

In Catholic moral theology, dating to St. Thomas Aquinas, there is a teaching which succinctly captures all this: aversio a Deo, conversio ad creaturam (aversion to God, conversion to the creature). When we abandon God, we seek, instead, a creature—a Savior Prince—to lead us. That “savior prince” might be Hitler or Stalin or Mao Tse-tung. Or it might be another person, in a very different country. And it will, in time, be the Antichrist (see CCC, 675, 385-387), who promises us heaven but delivers, instead, hell.

This spiritual disorder, which rejects the supernatural and embraces only the natural, is found in those who think of the Church’s mission in terms only of material or scientific or environmental progress. Nothing ultimately matters, however, except the salvation of souls, and we must, as St. Paul gravely told us, “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12), always aware that we are fighting against the “cosmic powers of this dark age” (Eph 6:12; cf. 1 Peter 5:8).

That is a compelling reason that we must not permit the Church to be infected with a secularism which tells us that all that matters is this world, this time, or this or that political agenda. The “savior prince” emphasizes only this world: there is, in such an ideology, after all, only this life, nothing beyond (cf. Hebrews 13:14). The past half-century has coincidentally witnessed the moral compromise of certain religions which have, in good measure, allied themselves with this secular view. Such compromised religions are fallacious, feckless, and fraudulent.[5]

When the Church is turned into an interest group principally promoting a social or secular agenda rather than the salvation of souls, something is desperately and dangerously deranged.  When priests see their mission as fighting military battles with rifles in hand;[6] when nuns are told to “get off their knees and do something”; when our preaching and teaching emphasize the things and thoughts of this world rather than our eternal destiny (cf. Sirach 7:36, Hebrews 3:12), we have become infected with the same “Edenic disease” which seized Adam and Eve and told them that they could safely forget God.

Pope St. Paul VI, in recognizing the danger of an increasingly secularized Church, wrote that

We must not ignore the fact that many, even generous Christians who are sensitive to the dramatic questions involved in the problem of liberation, in their wish to commit the Church to the liberation effort are frequently tempted to reduce her mission to the dimensions of a simply temporal project. They would reduce her aims to a man-centered goal; the salvation of which she is the messenger would be reduced to material well-being. Her activity, forgetful of all spiritual and religious preoccupation, would become initiatives of the political or social order. But if this were so, the Church would lose her fundamental meaning. Her message of liberation would no longer have any originality and would easily be open to monopolization and manipulation by ideological systems and political parties (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 32).

K. Chesterton once wrote that the problem with Christians of his day (he died in 1936) was that the world did not hate them enough (cf. Luke 21:17, John 15:19).[7] Isn’t that at least equally true of us Catholics in 2022? We try so often and so hard to be loved by the world that we tend to forget whose we are.[8] That is, St. Paul tells us that Christ bought us for a price and that we must never forget (that verb again!) and become slaves of men (1 Cor 6:19-20; 7:23). We must never invest contemporary political problems with a significance that belongs only to the eternal and to the sacred. This world is not heaven, and no political program can make it so.[9]

In 1959, Pope St. John XXIII wrote:

All the evils which poison men and nations and trouble so many hearts have a single cause and a single source: ignorance of the truth – and at times even more than ignorance, a contempt for truth and a reckless rejection of it. Thus arise all manner of errors, which enter the recesses of men’s hearts and the bloodstream of human society as would a plague. These errors turn everything upside down: they menace individuals and society itself.

The “contempt for truth” and the “reckless rejection of it” are the hallmarks of a modern creed which tells us to forget God; to abandon Christ and His holy bride, the Church, or at least to reinvent the Church to serve the political divinities or social fads of the day (see Jeremiah 2:9-13); to find knowledge and wisdom only in ourselves; to seek the political leader—the Savior Prince—who can lead us to Paradise; to know that this world is all there is, so that emphasis on salvation is treated as mere “nonsense on stilts”; and that what may be regarded as good and evil, or noble and noisome, or pure and polluted, are established only by society, by the caprice of the crowd, and by those who govern (rather than by God) [cf. Psalm 19:7-14].

Moreover, as Pope St. John Paul II wrote (in 1991):

When people think they possess the secret of a perfect social organization which makes evil impossible, they also think that they can use any means, including violence and deceit, in order to bring that organization into being. Politics then becomes a ‘secular religion’ which operates under the illusion of creating paradise in this world. But no political society — which possesses its own autonomy and laws—can ever be confused with the Kingdom of God.[10]

Therefore, never trust those who celebrate having forgotten their origins, their limitations, and their inclinations, substituting attributes and actions “that the Lord hates” (Proverbs 6:16-19, Psalm 51:5). Such people court personal and political disaster, as was so well described by Ezekiel in his little-known “Allegory of the Cedar” (ch. 31), in which a beautiful Lebanon cedar tree, having grown arrogant, is cut down—as it will be for us who seek to replace the divine image of God with the Narcissistic reflection in our bathroom mirrors  (cf. Isaiah 5:8-30 and Luke 1:51-52).

In remembering God and putting Him first in our thoughts, words, and deeds, we are able to speak truth to power; we know the power of love. In forgetting God and dismissing His Commandments, we are reduced to speaking power to truth;[11] we know the love of power.  In remembering God, we have the dream of what ought to be, according to His Love and Mercy. In forgetting God, we have the nightmare of what will be, according to our appetites and urges.  We can see, then, the wisdom to be found in Revelation (3:3): “Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent.”

In the biblical admonition that we are God’s and not gods, and in the Chestertonian adjuration not to court worldly popularity at the price of moral probity, we are reminded how to distinguish between right and wrong, true and false, virtue and vice.  Such memory, when imbued by divine grace and wisely acted upon, empowers us then to live the lives to which we are called (Phil 1:27) and for which we give thanks (1 Thess 5:18).

 

[1] Consider this thought experiment: Suppose someone today were to walk around a university campus carrying a placard upon which appeared a quotation from Genesis (1:27): “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Would such a sign be regarded as “inciting to riot”?

[2] See J. H. Toner, “Totalitarian Democracy Revisited” (Crisis, October 6, 2021). Consider: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.” Hannah Arendt, frontispiece in D.C. Schindler, The Politics of the Real.

[3] We know that the love of money is idolatrous (1 Timothy 6:10, Hebrews 13:5) and that idolatry is “the beginning and the end, the cause and the result, of every evil” (Wisdom 14:27). By “taproot,” I mean an even deeper, and deadlier, disease:  forgetting—which is to say, deserting, disobeying, defiling—God, and then replacing Him with profane illusions, images, and inventions. Get the First Commandment wrong, and nothing else will be right.

[4] Another thought experiment: how many Catholics might we suppose are familiar with these  verses—referring, not to the numbered chapter and verse but, rather, to the general content thereof? One suspects that the answer is: very few. Why so few?

[5] This is a problem, of course, with ecumenism, which too easily can turn into syncretism. There are times for the wise not to walk with the shallow. See 2 Cor 6:14 and consider Psalm 1:1.

[6] I think here of some adherents of liberation theology. Catholics must understand that the greatest freedom is release from the slavery of sin. There is no freedom without the “Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor 3:17; cf. Galatians 5:1, 13; 1 Peter 2:16, Romans 6:15-23, John 8:32, CCC, 1733, and St. Pope John Paul, Veritatis Splendor, especially Chapter Two). This is the sense of Luke 1:68, which refers to the Savior who sets us free, not politically or militarily, but spiritually. See also Chapter 19 in Mortimer Adler’s Six Great Ideas, in which he explains the ideas of natural, circumstantial, and acquired (or moral) liberty.

[7] The demagogic call by some pro-abortionists to demonstrate at, or even inside, Catholic churches on Mother’s Day after the leaking of the Supreme Court’s draft opinion is a kind of back-handed compliment, for it implicitly recognizes the Church as the pro-life leader it ought to be.

[8] The moral corrosive of desiring to be popular is a theme too rarely explored, yet it is often mentioned in Scripture (John 12:43, 3:19, 5:44; Gal 1:10, 1 Thess 2:4). It is not that we seek to displease people (1 Cor 10:33), but rather to testify to the truth, regardless of its popularity or social acceptance, unless utterly rejected (see Matthew 10:11-42). Too often, we may not speak or counsel or write as we should, courting worldly or political popularity instead of divine blessing. Having the approval of family and friends is commendable unless it means denying Christ the King: “A loyal friend is like a medicine that keeps you in good health. Only those who fear the Lord can find such a friend” (Sirach 6:16). The “medicine” of truly loyal friends will keep their family, friends – and parishioners – in good spiritual health above all, even if we lose our popularity. This applies, also, to teachers and professors whose first duty it is to teach the truth, not score well on student evaluations. But do today’s college administrators really want such faculty?

[9] Consider the beautiful Salve Regina prayer. Additionally, the Douay-Rheims Bible tells us that we now dwell in “the vale of tears” (Psalm 83:7, or Psalm 84:6 in recent translations [where it appears as the valley of Baca]). The point is that, in this existence, we will have tribulation and sorrow, but Christ, we know, has overcome the world (John 16:33). The key is that Christ has overcome the world—not some “savior prince” and not some political mechanism or ideology. “Caesar is not ‘the Lord’” (CCC, 450; cf. 2244; and Psalms 118-89 and 146:3-4).

[10] The study or practice of politics is noble if and when it is ordered to truth (cf. Proverbs 8:15; Romans 2:4-15), for, wisely understood, politics is a bridge between the natural and supernatural, counseling fear of concentrated power (Isaiah 33:22, implying three branches of government), a healthy distrust of rulers and of human nature  (Genesis 6:5 and 8:21 Isaiah 9:8-10, Jeremiah 17:5, Psalms 5:9 and 36, Baruch 4:13, Judith 8:14, Ecclesiastes 9:3, Daniel 4:17,  Mark 7:21-23, Romans 3:9, and Galatians 5:19-21), and the earnest endeavor to make positive law coincidental with the natural moral law (cf. Psalm 19:7-8). Knowing that morally ideal government is impracticable this side of the Parousia (because of rampant sin [Psalm 81:8-16, Romans 7:21]), man finds consolation in knowing that, while we are responsible for following the Will of God, we trust the outcome to His Grace and to His Providence (Romans 8:28). An academic political science, or an actual public administration, devoid of loyalty to first principles will be allied to darkness rather than to light (see CCC, 1954-1960; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, 21-22; 2 Timothy 2:19)—and “how great will the darkness be” (Matthew 6:23). Studying or practicing politics—and forgetting God in that study or practice—is implicitly tantamount to the Thrasymachean-Nietzschean-Stalinist belief that might makes right. Consider Reinhold Niebuhr: “Politics will, to the end of history, be an area where conscience and power meet, where ethical and coercive factors of human life will interpenetrate and work out their tentative and uneasy compromises” (Moral Man and Immoral Society). See also C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man. Remember Lewis’s trenchant admonition (in that book [p. 59 in my edition): “. . . the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means . . . the power of some men to make other men what they [italicized] please.” Our moral arrogance will lead by a short path to political perdition.”  See also Toner, “Currentism: the Perennial Lie” and “Now that the Foundations are Destroyed.”

[11] Truth to power: Nathan to David (2 Samuel 12:7). Power to Truth: Pilate to Our Lord (John 19:10). One is reminded of the ever-timely adjuration of Pope Pius XI: “As in all the stormy periods of the history of the Church, the fundamental remedy today lies in a sincere renewal of private and public life according to the principles of the Gospel by all those who belong to the Fold of Christ, that they may be in truth the salt of the earth to preserve human society from total corruption” (Divini Redemptoris [1937], #41). And so do we pray.

 

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