Image: Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance, trapped in ice. (1915)
What is Catholicism’s “Why”?
On my morning walk today, I was listening to an audiobook called Start With Why, by Simon Sinek. The book’s fundamental premise is that what you do in any given project or organization do is far less important than why you do it. Your why is your fundamental belief, the idea and understanding that shapes and forms and inspires your action. In business, Sinek argues that the most successful companies have a strong why, and that this attracts like-minded believers. People don’t, to use one of his examples, buy Apple computers because they’re necessarily better in any way than their competitor’s products, but rather because Apple means something to them. Something about them. People who buy Apple products love showing them off. It says something about who they are. As Sinek puts it, the typical brand message for a computer company would be
We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly. Wanna buy one?
But Apple’s is
Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly. And we happen to make great computers. Wanna buy one?
An Apple product isn’t just a computer, or a phone, or an MP3 player, it’s an ethos.
So what does this have to do with Catholicism?
Well, Catholicism is certainly far more than just a company, or a brand, or an organization. But it shares attributes with all of those things. It has a unique identity. It has distinguishable characteristics. It has a mission. It has a very clearwhy. If I were to write it up briefly, like the example above, I might say:
We exist because Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, became incarnate of the Virgin Mary to die for our sins, to conquer death, and to establish a means of salvation in this world so that we can know God, love Him, and serve Him in this world and be happy with Him in the next.
We believe that God loves every person, and actively wills and desires that they become saints. We believe that He has entrusted us with the mission of bringing those souls to Him, which is why every cathedral we build, every artwork we commission, every piece of sacred music we compose for the Mass, every theological exposition we write, every liturgy we offer, and every sacrament we dispense all have no other purpose than this: to cause men to reflect upon the majesty of Our Creator and to inspire them to live the kinds of lives that will allow them to be with Him in Heaven. We will not rest until we have brought the Good News to every corner of the world, because we know that outside of this institution established by and united with Him, no man can be saved.
Want to join us?
We could probably tweak it a bit, but as a working draft, I think it covers the bases. And I would propose to you that all the problems we’re facing now with the Church — every. single. one. — can all be traced back to the abandonment of that why. Whether it’s due to fear, embarrassment, disagreement, a sense of futility, or outright contempt for the beliefs expressed above, the “executives” of our “company” no longer believe in what they’re selling, and they have consequently lost the ability to inspire others to join them.
On the other hand, if you’ll allow me to continue with the business metaphor, there are a core group of “employees” and even a couple folks in the “C-Suite” who have never lost their passion for the why of Catholicism. They live it. They breathe it. They love it. And they know that the only way to get back on top is for every member of the organization to embrace it again, and to share their passion for it with the world.
That, my friends, is us. You. Me. The four dubia cardinals. The loud but lonely voices in the Catholic media and blogs crying out against what is happening in the Church. The 45 theologians. The countless priests who are fighting every day in the trenches of the confessional and the pulpit to hold the line on what we believe and why we must honor it. The families having children and offering them to God to become priests and nuns. The spouses caught up in divorce against their will who nevertheless honor their vows and the 6th Commandment and offer up their struggles and their suffering to Our Lord, no matter who tells them they don’t have to.
We are vastly outnumbered, but we have something they don’t: we believe in what we’re doing with the kind of passion that is only possible when we know it has been ordained from on high. We already have the assurance of victory. We just have to keep duking it out until we get there.
Which brings me to my next point.
Nobody Plays to Lose
I’ll refer back to Sinek again:
In college I had a roommate named Howard Jeruchimowitz. Now an attorney in Chicago, Howard learned from an early age about a very simple human desire. Growing up in the suburbs of New York City, he played outfield on the worst team in the Little League. They lost nearly every game they played—and not by small margins either; they were regularly annihilated. Their coach was a good man and wanted to instill a positive attitude in the young athletes. After one of their more embarrassing losses, the coach pulled the team together and reminded them, “It doesn’t matter who wins or loses, what matters is how you play the game.” It was at this point that young Howard raised his hand and asked, “Then why do we keep score?”
Howard understood from a very young age the very human desire to win. No one likes to lose, and most healthy people live their life to win.
How often have you felt this way?
When you read that the dubia Cardinals are practically begging for scraps from the papal table, when you see them renew, in writing, their “absolute dedication and our unconditional love for the Chair of Peter and for Your august person, in whom we recognize the Successor of Peter and the Vicar of Jesus” when he won’t even give them the time of day, when people admonish you for being too critical about what’s going on without acknowledging that what’s going on is the problem and you are just pointing it out, doesn’t it sometimes feel like you’re being told that the only thing that matters is how we play the game?
Unlike in business or in sports, of course, Catholicism admonishes us in ways that can seem at cross-purposes with our competitive nature. “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” Or how about, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The Litany of Humility, which I’ve written about before, strikes at our pride like a series of hammer blows. Line after line as we pray this prayer, we become aware of a creeping sense of doubt: “Do I really mean this? Do I really want to lose the desire to be esteemed and loved? Do I really want others to be preferred over me? Do I really want others to become holier than me??” It can be tempting, as we contemplate these challenges to our egos, to think far more fondly of a famous quote from former NBA star Charles Barkley: “The meek may inherit the earth, but they won’t get the ball from me.”
It is in our nature to fight. To strive. To win. What the spiritual life does, as we seek to embrace humility, is to strip away the impediments that keep us from victory. Unlike earning a promotion, winning a chess tournament, or bringing home a Super Bowl ring, salvation isn’t something we can simply work toward until we achieve it. We can’t train for it like a marathon. We can’t get a degree that unlocks the gate of heaven. There is no process of self-actualization, no amount of blood, sweat, or tears that will get us there. The only way to heaven is via the cross, and by God’s grace. We have to do our part, but we literally cannot do it without Him. The winning attitude of a spiritual champion, therefore, is, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
This doesn’t mean we need to stomp out the flames of competition in our hearts. We just need to re-think how ambition works. Ephesians 6:12 tells us of a visceral combat, not some languid surrender as we’re carried along on a divine current. “For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.” And what are the rules of engagement for this wrestling? A more comprehensive reading of Ephesians 6 (10-20) paints a clearer picture:
Finally, brethren, be strengthened in the Lord, and in the might of his power. Put you on the armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the deceits of the devil. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places. Therefore take unto you the armour of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and to stand in all things perfect. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of justice, And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace: In all things taking the shield of faith, wherewith you may be able to extinguish all the fiery darts of the most wicked one. And take unto you the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit (which is the word of God). By all prayer and supplication praying at all times in the spirit; and in the same watching with all instance and supplication for all the saints: And for me, that speech may be given me, that I may open my mouth with confidence, to make known the mystery of the gospel. For which I am an ambassador in a chain, so that therein I may be bold to speak according as I ought.
This is a real battle. And battles are fought to be won.
Men Wanted for Hazardous Journey
In the 6th chapter of his book, Sinek tells the story of Ernest Shackleton, the early twentieth century English explorer who set out to traverse Antarctica. Shackleton knew that it would be a treacherous adventure, covering 1,700 miles across the southernmost tip of the world. His journey, however, went further awry than he anticipated:
On December 5, 1914, Shackleton and a crew of twenty-seven men set out for the Weddell Sea on the Endurance, a 350-ton ship that had been constructed with funds from private donors, the British government and the Royal Geographical Society. By then, World War I was raging in Europe, and money was growing more scarce. Donations from English schoolchildren paid for the dog teams.
But the crew of the Endurance would never reach the continent of Antarctica.
Just a few days out of South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic, the ship encountered mile after mile of pack ice, and was soon trapped as winter moved in early and with fury. Ice closed in around the ship “like an almond in a piece of toffee,” a crew member wrote. Shackleton and his crew were stranded in the Antarctic for ten months as the Endurance drifted slowly north, until the pressure of the ice floes finally crushed the ship. On November 21, 1915, the crew watched as she sank in the frigid waters of the Weddell Sea.
Stranded on the ice, the crew of the Endurance boarded their three lifeboats and landed on tiny Elephant Island. There Shackleton left behind all but five of his men and embarked on a hazardous journey across 800 miles of rough seas to find help. Which, eventually, they did.
What makes the story of the Endurance so remarkable, however, is not the expedition, it’s that throughout the whole ordeal no one died. There were no stories of people eating others and no mutiny. This was not luck. This was because Shackleton hired good fits. He found the right men for the job.
And how did Shackleton find those men? With an advertisement in the London Times. Unlike typical jobs ads that outline required skills and experience, Shackleton knew what kind of men he needed to find, and spoke to their inner fire.
“Men wanted for Hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.”
“The only people who applied for the job,” Sinek writes, “were those who read the ad and thought it sounded great. They loved insurmountable odds. The only people who applied for the job were survivors. Shackleton hired only people who believed what he believed.”
Surviving Insurmountable Odds
If you’re here, and you’re reading this, it’s because like Shackleton’s men, you’re a survivor. You are not on this journey, as the Barque of Peter drifts dangerously close to the shoals, weathers tempests, or finds itself moored in ice, because you are blind to the dangers. You do not sit in your cabin enjoying delusions that you are experiencing smooth sailing under sunny skies. You are not running to the deck rail, ready to throw yourself overboard because you cannot bear the thought that your captain, whom you trusted, has led you into dangerous waters.
You know that the odds are insurmountable, but you believe in the voyage. And because you believe, you’ll find a way through.
God didn’t place an ad in a newspaper or on Craigslist to find you. He did, however, give you life at this incredible moment of history. He called you to the Catholic Faith. He instilled in you an instinct for truth, and an ability to discern it from more popular and comforting fictions. He reached out and chose men and women who had eyes to see, and He opened them. And you answered His call, no matter the risk, because you believe.
Though Sinek doesn’t mention it, Ernest Shackleton never completed his quest. After returning home from the failed 1914 expedition, he tried again in 1921, only to die of a heart attack en route.
Some of us, too, may not live to see the Church restored. In fact, it’s possible that none of us will. Does that mean that we should give up, go home, and find some nice, peaceful, and far less stress-inducing way to spend our days? Could any of us even do that if we wanted to? Could we live with ourselves? Would it be possible for you to return to an anodyne existence, blithely ignoring what may well be the most important battle in history? A battle for the very heart of the Church, and the souls she exists to save?
There is no human reason to believe that we will prevail. But this is no merely human institution we are fighting for.
We’re Building a Cathedral
I’ll borrow one last anecdote from Sinek’s book:
Consider the story of two stonemasons. You walk up to the first stonemason and ask, “Do you like your job?” He looks up at you and replies, “I’ve been building this wall for as long as I can remember. The work is monotonous. I work in the scorching hot sun all day. The stones are heavy and lifting them day after day can be backbreaking. I’m not even sure if this project will be completed in my lifetime. But it’s a job. It pays the bills.” You thank him for his time and walk on.
About thirty feet away, you walk up to a second stonemason. You ask him the same question, “Do you like your job?” He looks up and replies, “I love my job. I’m building a cathedral. Sure, I’ve been working on this wall for as long as I can remember, and yes, the work is sometimes monotonous. I work in the scorching hot sun all day. The stones are heavy and lifting them day after day can be backbreaking. I’m not even sure if this project will be completed in my lifetime. But I’m building a cathedral.”
WHAT these two stonemasons are doing is exactly the same; the difference is, one has a sense of purpose. He feels like he belongs. He comes to work to be a part of something bigger than the job he’s doing. Simply having a sense of WHY changes his entire view of his job. It makes him more productive and certainly more loyal. Whereas the first stonemason would probably take another job for more pay, the inspired stonemason works longer hours and would probably turn down an easier, higher-paying job to stay and be a part of the higher cause. The second stonemason does not see himself as any more or less important than the guy making the stained glass windows or even the architect. They are all working together to build the cathedral. It is this bond that creates camaraderie. And that camaraderie and trust is what brings success. People working together for a common cause. [emphasis added]
I will freely admit to you that many days, I am the first stonemason. My version goes something like this: “I’ve been fighting this fight for as long as I can remember. The work is monotonous and things never get better. I read awful stories all day and have to find the energy to write about what’s happening when I’d rather be doing almost anything else. People attack me all the time just for trying to do the right thing. Or they come to me and tell me that they’re thinking of leaving the Church, or want to know what they should do now that things have gotten really bad, and I don’t know what to tell them because I don’t even know what I should be doing. I keep thinking that something has to give, but maybe it doesn’t. Maybe God is going to just drag this out for the rest of my life and I’ll never see things get better. The darkness of it all is overwhelming at times. But I’ve thrown my entire life into this work. It’s how I pay the bills and feed my family. I’m not sure what else to do at this point.”
But it is critical to remember that what we are doing, all of us, is building a cathedral. And that means something. When the history of our age is written, people will look back and see that there were those who stood fast. Who did the work, day by day, of documenting and opposing the activities of the enemies who have invaded His Mystical Body like a cancer. Who continued to teach the true faith. Who retained their love of God and his Church and the countless souls being led astray, and who, despite the weight of their temptations to despair and their own innumerable sins, pressed on.
Your prayers, your sacrifices, your Masses, your rosaries, your efforts wherever you go to live the faith and to “be bold to speak according as you ought” — these are the stones of the cathedral that is being built. These are the work of restoration, and it will be realized some day, even if the project is not completed in your lifetime.
The Joy of Not Being in Charge
When it comes right down to it, there’s only so much you and I can do. We cannot fix what is broken in our beloved faith. We do not have the power or the means. In fact, I would venture to say that at this point, as I’ve said before, there is most likely no human solution.
But God is not constrained to human means. It is His faith, His Church, His bride. He has allowed her to endure great torment, to share in His passion, but He will not leave her to perish under the blows of her enemies. He has promised us that the gates of hell will not prevail, and though it may appear that she has died, He will raise her up again, just as He himself did on that first, glorious Easter.
If you’re anything like me, it’s easy for you to forget that you’re not in charge, and that it isn’t up to you. But you’re not, and it isn’t, so be at peace, for He has already told us how we should proceed:
Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many mansions. If not, I would have told you: because I go to prepare a place for you. And if I shall go, and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and will take you to myself; that where I am, you also may be. – John 14:1-3
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.