“Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”
-The Evil Queen in Snow White
“Remember the Lord in everything you do, and He will show you the right way”
Precis: The right thing to do is to conform our wishes to God’s will. Here, though, we will use Right (capital R) to mean our supernatural responsibilities (to God) and right (small r) to refer to our societal and customary obligations (to Caesar). That something may be right by convention but not Right by the natural law is a lesson too rarely taught—and too rarely understood, especially at a time and in a place which disparages or denies transcendent Truth. Seven axioms help us to find our way–to find His way–through the thickets of the moral chaos around us. The worship of today’s ubiquitous idols “is the beginning and cause and end of every evil” (Wisdom 14:27). And the chief idol of the day is the arrogant self-exaltation which manifests itself in the Magisterium of the Mirror.
There is a story about a pilot whose last message was “Am lost, but am making record time.” We live at a time and in a place which are increasingly bereft of the intellectual and moral signposts which could give us direction and protection. More and more, we are lost but are making record time.
Confronted with moral challenge and seeking guidance, we humans rely upon, or resort to, certain concepts or ideas or reference points in order to make judgments. But whose advice should we accept? Where do we “get” our reference points? How do we know that they are accurate? (Has your GPS ever misled you?) What’s true and what’s false?
Our religious and moral education is, or used to be, founded upon several axioms. An axiom or postulate is generally understood as the beginning point of reasoning. For example, we know we exist. An axiom may also be understood as a statement which is beyond quarrel or controversy; it is traditionally, sensibly, and widely regarded as true.
So what are the axioms by which most people decide right from wrong, or good from bad, or just from unjust? The often-heard argument that “You should make up your own mind” begs the question (meaning that it assumes the correctness of something not yet proved). What is assumed is that someone can reasonably make up his mind without solid information and, even more important, excellent formation, very difficult in these days of moral relativism and indifferentism (see CCC #407-409). On this theme, see J. Budziszewski, The Revenge of Conscience. This University of Texas philosopher was a convert to the faith, traveling the road from atheist to evangelical Protestant to Catholic.
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), the great French philosopher and mathematician, once wrote that “[Our] whole duty lies in thinking as [we] ought.” Here, then, are seven two-word axioms foundational to Catholic thinking, followed by a brief explanation, and by one Catechism reference, one scripture citation, and one book recommendation (the idiosyncrasy of an old professor).
Each of these axioms fairly demands, first, intellectual acceptance and, subsequently, moral action, for we sin by both commission and omission. Remember that, at the beginning of Mass, we express sorrow both for the wrong we have done and for the Right we have not done (cf. James 4:17). If we do not, first, understand these axioms and, second, apply them wisely and well, then we are not thinking and acting as we ought to.
- God is. Because God exists, then we must know, love, and serve Him. Sin, at its core, means the effort to substitute something or someone else for God. If we think God exists but act as though He does not, we are practical atheists. See Peter Kreeft, Because God is Real or his superb, very brief, Jesus-Shock. The Lord is everything, the Book of Sirach tells us (43:27). Only in God do we find truth and happiness (CCC #27). This is (or should be) the central truth of all Catholic education, from grade school to graduate school.
- We sin. If we recognize that we need salvation and the “medicine” of the sacraments, then we are on the road to healing; but secular society insists that sin is an outdated idea. See Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Peace of Soul. The Catechism tells us that denial of sin is self-delusion (#1847). Paul tells us to hate (that’s the verb he uses) what is evil (and evil is what every sin is) and to hold fast to what is good (Romans 12:9, 1 Thess 5:21-22).
- Christ saves. There is no sin that Christ cannot forgive, if we turn to Him. Salvation does not come to us from the world; it comes in and through Christ the King. The divine name of Jesus, so often casually or blasphemously referred to, “alone brings salvation,” the Catechism explains (#432). And Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). The work of an excellent philosopher (and Baptist), Thomas V. Morris, comes to mind: Making Sense of It All.
- (The) Church teaches. The great English writer Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) was once asked by a skeptic how he could believe that the bread and wine at the Mass were transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus. Belloc replied that he would believe that they were changed into an elephant if the Church told him so. That hyperbole was Belloc’s expression of belief, together with St. Paul, that, as the Catechism instructs us, the Church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth (#2032). The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, guided to all truth by the Paraclete (John 16:13, 2 Tm 1:14). See Father Thomas J. White, O.P., The Light of Christ. We trust—and know—that the spiritual depredations and wispy innovations of self-satisfied “progressives” will not stand. As Pope Leo XIII admonished us about the peril of not guarding the Traditional Treasury of the Faith: “whatsoever has been added as new is, to tell the plain truth, of a vitiated kind, the fruit of the disorders of the age, and of an insatiate longing after novelties” (Libertas : #2).
- Fear man. One of Belloc’s great friends was G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), who tells us, in one of his Father Brown mystery stories: “If you do not fear God, you have good reason to fear man.” Modern politics is rooted in the totalitarian temptation to substitute political power for God. The late Father James V. Schall, S.J., is always good, and his book The Modern Age is great reading. The psalms, filled with wisdom, admonish us against trusting rulers (118:9, 146:3), and the Catechism offers us somber warning about the Church’s, and our, ultimate trial (#675-677; and study #2244).
- Value Virtue. Virtue is actually ridiculed in many places. Virtue must be taught by wise teachers, practiced, and reviewed (Lam 3:40, 2 Cor 13:5). Joshua Mitchell’s American Awakening merits close reading and deep discussion. Consider the Catechism’s key point about the formation of conscience (#1783)—a good homily or sermon topic, isn’t it? Everyone knows “faith, hope, and love,” but the four cardinal virtues (see Wisdom 8:7) are also critical. “Life,” says that passage, “can offer is nothing more valuable than these.”
- Tell People. The old saying is that, until you’ve taught it, you haven’t learned it. We tell people best about the faith which comes to us from the Apostles by—you know this—“using words when necessary.” The Gospel message “must be authenticated by the witness of the life of Christians” (CCC #2044). Thus does the deacon dismiss people from the Ordinary Form Mass with the adjuration: “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.” St. Paul told us to take every thought captive to Christ (2 Cor 10:5). When we do that, we will want to be modern “Andrews,” bringing people to Christ, to holy Mass, to the sacraments. Consider the “novelty” of Pope Francis’s maladroit statement: “In front of an unbeliever, the last thing I have to do is try to convince him. Never [my emphasis].” We have, however, the urgent and enduring testimony of another Pope: “Always [my emphasis] be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you a reason concerning the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).
Peter Kwasniewski’s fine books about the Traditional Latin Mass are always helpful. Consider his comment that “if we are to be wholly ‘eucharisticized’ in our minds and hearts [see CCC #1327], this means that we are called to be faithful in every way to all that Christ has given to his Church . . .” (p. 174 of Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis). Such fidelity includes, of course, evangelization, mistakenly mocked by some by their use of the pejorative “proselytizing”–e.g., Pope Francis: “Never, never bring the gospel with proselytism.”
It is relatively easy to live right (that is, according to convention, according to the relative laws and customs of the day). It is more difficult to live Right (that is, according to the natural moral law, according to the Will of God, which we discern through Revelation, Tradition, and robust reason). Herein lie our genuine freedom and happiness (see Ps 119:35, 45).
“The whole purpose of education,” wrote columnist Sydney J. Harris (1917-1986) “is to turn mirrors into windows.” When the dim mirrors (1 Cor 13:12) of our insatiable desires become the clear windows through which the brightness of God’s law is perceived, we shall have the inspiration to say, with conviction, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”
Accepting and practicing these seven postulates will not do much good unless we develop the habit of converting daily. “We must,” the Catechism tells us, “examine our conscience before the Lord’s cross” (#1785). As Catholics, we do not believe that we save our souls just once, but that, throughout our lives, we work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12), remembering the power and glory of the sacrament of Confession, also known as the Sacrament of Conversion (CCC #1423). See Scott Hahn’s fine book Lord, Have Mercy. Every day we should think through what we have done and failed to do according to the standard of Christ and of His Church.
In short, a good education principally teaches us, not how to make a good living, but how to make a good life—and how to recognize what is Right, not just what is convenient or conventional (see 1 Cor 6:12, 10:23-24, 33). Too often today, authentic moral instruction is not provided by schools and colleges for fear of being labeled sectarian or religious (or “zealous”!). Some schools, for example, do not even have honor codes, which, with unswerving faculty and staff support, help to inculcate the virtue of justice and “uprightness of conduct” (CCC #1807). Proverbs, again, has it right: “Be careful how you think; your life is shaped by your thoughts” (4:23).
These seven classic Catholic axioms help us to think as we should think–and thus to act as we should act. Archbishop Fulton Sheen said it best: “If we don’t behave the way we believe, we’ll end up believing the way we behave.” And Bishop Sheen, of course, always fervently embraced the duty and the joy of evangelization, known as the propagation of the faith.
One thinks of the Collect Prayer from the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Traditional Latin Mass): “Graciously grant us, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the spirit of always thinking and doing what is [R]ight, so that we who cannot exist except through Thee, may live according to Thy will.”
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.