Agere sequitur esse—What you do follows upon what you are.
Let us resolve to be who we should be, know what we should know, and do what we should do, so that “Posterity may know we have not loosely through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream”–Richard Hooker (1554-1600).
In a previous One Peter Five column I suggested that there is very much for us to learn from Ezekiel’s profound, if little-known, “Allegory of the Lebanon Cedar,” which teaches us about a mighty tree grown powerful but proud (31:1-18).* Because of its arrogance, God rejected it, and it was destroyed. The analogy to the Church and to our secularized country is clear. We have Christ’s promise about an indefeasible Church (Mt 16:18), but not about its size or its success (as mistakenly measured in buildings, real estate, or social acceptability).
Very many politicians, pundits, professors, and–horribile dictu–prelates aim at shifting society, and Church teaching along with it, increasingly to the point at which our Pledge of Allegiance will no longer proclaim that we are “one nation, under God,” but “many peoples, under Triumphant Humanity.” There will be no respect for the admonition we find in Jeremiah: “Cursed is the person who trusts in mankind, who makes flesh his strength, and whose heart turns away from the Lord” (17:5; cf. Ps 118:8-9). Despite all that has happened to us, marked by spiraling moral decadence, still “we have not tried to please [God] by turning from our sins or by following [His] truth” (Dn 9:13; cf. Is 9:8-21).
There, then, is the origin of our ubiquitous moral calamity: we worship ourselves (cf. Pss 10:4, 36:1-4; CCC #398). Even our modern liturgies emphasize a “turning inward,” a horizontal celebration of self and of those fortunate enough, we think, to be seated near us in church. Here, though, I do not want to examine political, religious, or liturgical apocalypse. There is another pressing question: why do we have so many wicked, perverted, and stupid “leaders” in so many fields and places, including in some chanceries?
The simplest answer to that was given to us by Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), who wrote that “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” By extension, civilizations ultimately have the kinds of leaders they deserve. You and I are not, please God, directly responsible for baby-killing politicians and spineless bishops. We are, though, at least indirectly responsible for them. To the question of “What’s wrong with the world?” the inimitable G.K. Chesterton wrote: “I am” (cf. Ro 7:19).
Too often, we fail to be, to know, and to do what we should (Jas 4:17). You and I have not prayed nearly enough. We have not read wisely, widely, and well enough. We have not learned deeply enough and practiced persistently enough the faith which comes to us from the Apostles (cf. Ho 4:6). We have not spoken up for truth plangently and persistently enough. We have not done our best, even in our limited circumstances, to call to account the morally corrupt “stewards” of our time. We have been dull and torpid (cf. Heb 5:11-14).
Many years ago, I saw outside a church a sign that read, “Apathy, a temporary ill, becomes in time atrophy, a permanent disease.” I regret that I do not know who said that, but it has remained with me for a very long time. I have only recently begun, however, to understand its truth. God’s gift to us is always providing us the soft shadow of right (Ba 4:4, Mic 6:8, Ro 2:14-15, CCC #1777, #1957, #1960), but our return gift to God of having the will, the substance, of prudently doing what is right is often lacking (Mt 26:41, 14:27; cf. Js 1:9, CCC #1806, #2733, #2846). We barely whisper the truth when, as confirmed Catholics, we should shout it from the rooftops (Mt 10:27; CCC #1303). But we have step by sinful step acquired the noxious habit of indifference and of silence. We don’t know because we don’t care, and we don’t care because we don’t know; nor do we trouble ourselves to find out what is true and just. “In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits” (CCC #1791).
A frisson of fear ought to run along our spines as we read Our Lord’s admonition: “If a person is ashamed of me and of my teaching, then the Son of Man will be ashamed of him” (Lk 9:26, Mk 8:38). Traditionally attributed to Pope St. Pius V (1504-1572) is this stunning remark: “All the evils in the world are due to lukewarm Catholics” (cf. Rv 3:16). Can we say anything but “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa”? The next time you hear a syrupy or saccharine sermon, utterly ignorant of or unconcerned about, the moral catastrophe around us, think about how Catholic apathy has warped into, and thus encouraged, rampant ethical atrophy in our benighted time and place. “Their preaching deceived you by never exposing your sin. They made you think you did not need to repent” (Lm 2:14; cf. Ml 2:8 and Ez 33:7-9).
From Plato’s Republic (especially in Book VIII) through Eric Voegelin’s Order and History, scholars have attempted to explain the rise and demise of political societies and to chart the centrifugal ideological forces that lead to Balkanization and the fracture of national core values. A prophecy in that regard is to be found, as well, in the Catechism, in which we read that, before the Parousia, there will be a pervasive evil “in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth” (#675). It’s on the horizon: we no longer believe, for example, in the values and virtues which made us “one nation, under God.” (See Robert Reilly’s fine new book, America on Trial [Ignatius Press]).
If Plato was right that, until kings are philosophers or philosophers are kings (Book V of the Republic), “there can be no rest for the cities, and I think for the whole human race.” The philosopher-king, of course, would practice the cardinal virtues (Wisdom 8:7) and would, in short, be a good human being.
Here, I think, is the key to the moral calamity of our day: we generally have no idea any more what a good human being is. We have so long now been exposed to pervasive filth that it is often “the new normal.” This was, by the way, long ago prophesied in chapter two of the edifying Book of Wisdom (q.v.).
In The Bridges at Toko-ri, which is a movie based on James Michener’s novel about carrier pilots during the Korean War, fictional Admiral George Tarrant, observing the pilots’ heroism, pensively asks, “Where do we get such men?”
We get them, of course, from colleges, in turn raising this question: Does today’s college experience reliably and routinely produce young men and women of noble character? If we answer, “No,” then why we do express surprise or shock at the debauchery of our customs and country? As the moral climate of our nation continues to degenerate–as the classical glass of virtue is shattered, arguably beyond repair, by the rock of modernist ideology–there will be persistent poisoning of the cisterns (cf. Jr 2:13) of those educational institutions upon which we rely for leaders of wisdom and virtue. We thus have the proverbial vicious cycle: a corrupt society produces reprobate colleges which, in turn, further corrode society.
Is it that we no longer know right from wrong, good from evil, or virtue from vice; or is it that we find such distinctions incompetent, irrelevant, immaterial, and inconvenient? There are today, in any case, novel and meretricious criteria by which to judge what is “virtuous.” Who has the most money or power or prestige or sexual conquests or homeruns or touchdowns? The traditional understanding of virtue, to cite the definition of Father John Hardon, S.J., is, to put it mildly, dissolved by contemporary fads, fancies, and fashions: Virtue is a “good habit that enables a person to act according to right reason enlightened by faith.”
Some years ago, Bishop Fulton Sheen admonished us that “Counsel involving right and wrong should never be sought from a man who does not say his prayers, [for]. . . the faith-illumined reason understands reality better than the naked reason.” Is it not prudent and, in fact, necessary to expect our ostensibly Catholic college presidents, professors, pundits, and politicians to say their prayers before counseling the rest of us? We are Biblically instructed, after all, to “seek advice from every wise man [Tb 4:18],” not from impostors, false prophets, and demagogues—or from prayerless pretenders to political perspicacity.
To be sure, there can and should be debates about D. Patrick Moynihan’s concept of “defining deviancy down,” the Overton Window, the Peter Principle, and allied concepts which seek to explain moral decline and ineptitude. But we cannot be fairly dismissed as alarmist if we study the last half-century or more, concluding that our country and civilization are, to put it most bluntly, dying.
The Republic collapses for two chief reasons: moral and monetary, having one source, rarely identified. There is at work in any organization a moral degeneracy, an ethical atrophy, by which I mean the pusillanimous proclivity of leaders to succumb to the siren-song of weaker (academic, economic, or religious and, thus, more popular, if vulgar) standards. The inexorable slide to such demagogic desires reminds us of the French political leader Ledru-Rollin (1807-1874). Seeing a mob rush by, he asked, “Where are they going? I am their leader. I must follow them!” So it is with the zeitgeist, which works its fascination upon the souls and minds of far too many whose ordained task it once was to teach the world, not be taught by it.
Walter Lippmann once put it this way in The Public Philosophy: “With exceptions so rare that they are regarded as miracles and freaks of nature, successful democratic politicians [and bishops?] are insecure and intimidated men. They advance politically only as they placate, appease, bribe, seduce, bamboozle, or otherwise manage to manipulate . . . their constituencies. . . . The decisive consideration is not whether the proposition is good but whether it is popular—not whether it will work well and prove itself but whether the active talking constituents like it immediately.” This is the stuff of ochlocracy or mobocracy. This is the “stuff,” too, of moribund morality and of anesthetized consciences (cf. Is 6:9-10, Ac 28:26-27). And we wonder how the monster McCarrick and his loathsome ilk took root and “flourished.”
Often attributed (perhaps apocryphally) to the Scottish lawyer Alexander Fraser Tytler (1747-1813) is the observation that “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.” Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have made a similar observation.
These moral and monetary failures have common parentage: the atrophy of vanishing virtue, which is the ineluctable tendency of leaders to surrender to popular caprice. Over time, the standards, norms, and customs associated with virtue “chafe”; that is, people grow weary of a virtuous regimen which requires the kind of fiduciary discipline and public order which are the hallmarks of a well-led and purposeful society. To attain and preserve power, leaders increasingly surrender to the popular appetites, which may be at odds with a morally (or economically) healthy society.
To justify departures from traditional virtue and practice—be it academic, artistic and musical, commercial, ethical, fiscal, legal, or military—“leaders” and the crowd produce debauched language, fallacious reasoning, and utopian promises to incite support. Denial of established traditions and standards follows. Of course, the natural law is dismissed as outdated or even as prejudiced, and God is banished from the public square. As one translation of Proverbs 29:18 has it: “A nation without God’s guidance is a nation without order.”
As virtue dissolves, “[o]ur courts oppose the righteous, and justice is nowhere to be found. Truth stumbles in the streets, and honesty has been outlawed. Justice is driven away, and right cannot come near” (Is 59:14; cf. Jr 7:28).
The result is moral and financial poverty; educational contamination; rampant moral confusion; lies and fraud; corruption on a mass scale; and, finally, the death of the society which has lost its vision of history and of destiny. The nation then has the leaders—and the colleges—it deserves. That is our path today. Yet all around us swirl the mellifluous and specious assurances that all will be well if we elect this person or support that platform or party. It is not so. Politics is merely the arrangement of a society’s material goods according to its moral convictions (or the want of them). Despicable morals lead to despicable politics.
“You are doomed, you sinful nation, you corrupt and evil people! Your sins drag you down! You have rejected the Lord, the holy God of Israel, and have turned your backs on him” (Is 1:4). And all of us, in one way or another, to one extent or another, have been touched by this evil (Ro 3:23, 1 Jn 1:8).
That is why a celebrity bishop can endorse as a “winsome guide” a priest known for his advocacy of normalizing homosexuality and transgenderism within both society and the Church. This used to be called “cooperation with evil”; now it’s lauded as “progressive thinking.”
So even those who should be preaching and prophesying hard truths too often appease the crowd (cf. Jn 12:43, Ga 1:10, 1 Th 2:4), saying that what was sinful is now acceptable in our brave new world of popular permissiveness (cf. CCC #2526); what was once liturgically sacred and beautiful is superseded by secularized and banal “worship services”; what was the mission of the Church—the salvation of souls—is now supplanted by, for example, worry about climate change or frenzied commitment to the ordination of, well, everybody.
“Nothing emboldens the wicked so greatly as the lack of courage on the part of the good” (Pope Leo XIII, Sapientiae Christianae, #14). Isn’t it time to ask, therefore, as “Admiral Tarrant” did (although in a different time, in a different way, and of very different leaders), “where do we get such men” as those morally enfeebled and cowardly people who today lead us to personal and political perdition? (See 2 Ti 4:3-4. He 12:12, Is 35:3).
Why should we repent if there is no sin (cf. CCC #387)? How can we reform our lives if there are no standards superior to our own appetites and urges? Whom should we turn to for guidance when those who should testify to the Truth are, as Lippmann said, “insecure and intimidated,” anxious only to “placate, appease, bribe, seduce, [and] bamboozle”? As Hebrews adjures us: “That is why we must hold on all the more firmly to the truths we have heard, so that we will not be carried away” (2:1). And today there is a ferocious moral and political tornado imperiling us by “every shifting wind of the teaching of deceitful men, who lead others into error by the tricks they invent” (Eph 4:14; cf. He 13:9a).
The disorder we confront–the chasm of moral and political dissolution–is the result of the hubris of apocryphal leaders, in all walks of life (politics, religion, education, business, the arts), who have vanquished virtue. Worst, certainly, are those claiming to have Catholic souls and minds but who, in fact, are little more than whited sepulchers (Mt 23:27), the cruelest frauds. These are modern Nero types (some even with miters) whom, so often, too many of us have mindlessly applauded or soullessly cheered. Rarely do we care and almost never do we ask, “Where do we get such vicious men?”
Do not expect justice and concord in the days ahead, either in sacred or in secular matters. We have sown the wind, and we will surely reap the whirlwind (cf. Ho 8:7) of the ethically dissolute despots we too frequently deserve. Our apathy–our acedia (CCC #2733)–has led to moral and political atrophy, and we will, indeed, pay the price and bear the burden of the treacherous leaders’ nefarious ways, which we have often enabled by our spiritual laxness and lethargy. The predatory Sabeans and Chaldeans are here (see Job 1:15-17) among us, and they look very distressingly familiar. As Pogo told us, ungrammatically but prophetically, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Those falsely claiming to be among “us” are the counterfeit Catholics who may say, “Lord, Lord” (Mt 7:21), but who do, not the divine, but the diabolical, will. We must re-learn the Pauline lesson: do not associate with, let alone condone, anyone “who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality” (1 Co 5:11), lest more vicious men come from “us.”
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 Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He has contributed numerous columns to The Catholic Thing, Crisis Magazine, One Peter Five, and the Wanderer. He and his wife Rebecca have three sons and eleven grandchildren.