Restoring Catholic Wisdom, Part 2

Restoring Catholic Wisdom, Part 2

In Part 1 I argued that the Catholic Church desperately needs to renew its historic teachings, and the Bishops and Cardinals need to lead the effort with the help of informed laypeople. I explained that the way to do so is to restore Catholic wisdom and the values that flow from it. This essay will look more closely at how this can be accomplished. The first step is for the hierarchy to deepen their understanding of how our culture has undermined both Catholic teachings and the insights of virtually every civilization in history.

A major error in western culture over the past half century has been redefining truth as subjective rather than objective–in other words, believing that each person creates his/her own truth. This change is in direct opposition not only to traditional philosophy but also to Catholic theology. The Church has always taught that God alone is the author of truth and therefore human beings can neither create truth nor find it within themselves. They can only seek it outside of themselves. For millennia this belief has been the cornerstone of civilization and the guide to human progress.

The idea of creating one’s own truth has profoundly affected civilization. It has made facts unnecessary, scholarly research pointless, logic and evidence outmoded, feelings preferable to reason, and debate meaningless. As a result, law, science, medicine, engineering, history, philosophy, religion, education, journalism, politics, and all other areas of inquiry became matters of opinion, opinion became synonymous with truth, and all of reality became a matter of wishful emotion. From this viewpoint, the right to an opinion came to mean that every opinion is right. Whoever doubted this was considered a fool, a troublemaker, or a heretic who must be shunned and/or silenced for the good of society.

Morality has been especially undermined by the personalization of truth. Whatever a person decides is moral is now considered moral for that person. No act is considered wrong in its very nature, or wrong in all cases. Not rape or child molestation, not taking or destroying what belongs to others, not lying or committing adultery, not abandoning one’s children, not even the taking of human life. As a result of such thinking, guilt is no longer considered a signal that one has done wrong but instead as an obstacle to self-esteem to be avoided at all costs. Over time, those in charge of the legal system have become so influenced (or intimidated) by the new notion of morality that they have changed the laws accordingly. In city after city, politicians have restrained police officers from enforcing laws, reduced penalties for criminal behavior, and released convicted criminals from prison. In some cases, they have treated citizens who defend their families and their property from crime as if they were the criminals.

Predictably, telling people that morality is whatever they say it is has led many to first sooth their consciences, then quiet them, and finally silence them altogether. It has always been easy to minimize our moral offenses but is now considerably easier with the entire culture encouraging us to do so. And once we have forced our consciences into submission, it becomes both easy and satisfying to focus attention on others’ (often imagined) mistreatment of us than on our mistreatment of others.

The undermining of morality over the past half-century should have sounded an especially loud alarm for the Catholic hierarchy because it has steadily eroded a central concept of Catholic teaching–the concept of sin. Tragically, the hierarchy seem not to have heard the alarm or at least not responded to it with appropriate vigor. I say this in part because they have not attributed the laity’s disinterest in the sacrament of Penance (aka Confession) to the culture’s embrace of personal truth and morality.

What, after all, do the hierarchy expect from people who have been surrounded all their lives by the “whatever” view of morality, warned that feeling guilty destroys their self-esteem, told to trust their feelings implicitly and always do what feels good and avoid what doesn’t? Do they really expect such people to visit the confessional frequently, say “Bless me father for I have sinned,” tell their sins, and promise to do penance and to “amend their lives”? That expectation is embarrassingly naive.

Even if those people attended Mass regularly and been well trained in the Catholic faith, the contrary training of American culture that they are wise and wonderful surely has been deeper, more dominant, and more influential. If they were inclined to go to confession at all, it would be to say something that boosted their (already overflowing) self-esteem–something like “Bless me father for I am not a sinner but the victim of sinners.” In other words, they would feel no reason for confessing anything, let alone amending their lives.

The great tragedy that has befallen America is the elevation of self to God-like stature–that of creator of truth and arbiter of right and wrong. The Catholic bishops must give greater attention to this tragedy, and not only because it threatens our civilization but more importantly because it is a profound offense against God. Here are four basic messages that bishops should reinforce:

(1) We human beings bear the image and likeness of God and yet are imperfect creatures. We possess a capacity for goodness and wisdom but are susceptible to evil and ignorance. We also have free will and therefore can choose to pursue truth or settle for falsehood, to honor God or dishonor Him.

(2) God provided us with guidance for living in a way that pleases Him, creates harmony with other people, and produces happiness. This guidance is found in the Bible and in the interpretations and insights of wise and holy men and women.

(3) These guiding messages underscore the reality of sin and the importance of virtue. They specify seven deadly sins–Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride–and seven saving virtues that counter those sins–Kindness, Temperance, Charity (love), Chastity (self-control), Humility, Diligence, and Patience.

(4) Jesus specifies what behaviors not only avoid sin but bless us (Matt 5: 1-48). And He sums up the two ways to avoid sin and embrace virtue–by loving God, and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.

The context of the Bible, from the first pages to the last, is the evils of sin, the wonders of virtue, and the mercy of redemption. To deny the reality of sin is to deny the need for redemption and to reject, not just truth, but the greatest of truths–God’s love of mankind.

The reader may be thinking, “But these messages are offered every Sunday at Mass, as well as in Bible discussion groups in the parish.” That is true but, as current events are making clear, woefully insufficient. The Catholic hierarchy (as well as priests and informed laypeople) need to take these messages outside places of worship and express them forcefully in the marketplaces of ideas. And they need to do this not just on special occasions but as often as modern culture challenges them, in other words unceasingly. Equally important, they need to identify and denounce the specific sins being committed in law, science, medicine, engineering, history, philosophy, religion, education journalism, politics, and all other areas of society.

This is a great challenge, but well within Jesus’ command to the apostles to “feed my sheep,” who today are starving for genuine truth and wisdom.

Copyright © 2023 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero