Thursday, March 10, 2011

Of Difficult Answers

What on earth is the use of an anonymous (or semi-anonymous) blog if you can't occasionally sound off about something that has riled you to bursting point?

The world is full today of people who are wrong, terribly wrong, about all kinds of things—things as important as abortion and as trivial as the number of piercings a woman should tolerate in her young man. (Answer to the last, in case you were wondering: None.) People who are wrong don't usually trouble me; at least, they don't put me out of temper. You can pray for them, laugh at them, argue with them or about them. You may not change their minds, but you can try. People who are wrong are rarely occasions of sin, qua being wrong. The ones who are intolerable are the ones who are sure they're right.

There is, of course, more than one way of "being sure one's right." You can simply hold the truth tight, and not let it go no matter how many intellectual buffets you and your burden receive—that is one way. You can fight for it, tooth and nail, in whatever ways and at whatever times suggest themselves—that is another. If the truth in question is something basic—God exists—some article that is self-evident—the grass is green—you have no choice but to adopt one of these two attitudes towards it. But not every truth is so simple. Sometimes the truth is so complex that—wait for it!—even good people can disagree. St. Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus famously disagreed about Our Lady's Immaculate Conception. St. Thomas, who was almost always right, happened to be wrong and Duns Scotus, who was more than a little wacky, hit the nail on the head. Our Lady was immaculately conceived; and the reasoning the Church eventually adopted in declaring the dogma was Scotus' own. Now if St. Thomas Aquinas could be wrong on the Immaculate Conception—if Aristotle could be wrong on infanticide—if Socrates' syllogisms were on more than one occasion a little sophistical—if St. Augustine's anti-Pelagian emphasis strays (never in fact, but often in rhetoric) towards a Calvinist denial of free will—then we should not perhaps be surprised if Good Catholics can disagree about . . . the war in Iraq. The Tridentine Mass. Torture. Lying and equivocation. What means are legitimate for ending abortion. Capital punishment. Catholic economic theory.

These are not easy questions. Let me repeat, in case you missed the emphasis the first time: These are not easy questions! I have opinions on some of them, and no opinion on others. In the cases where I have no opinion, it's because I feel I haven't heard all the arguments and thought them through thoroughly. Even in the cases where I think I have understood and come to a true conclusion, I am open to hearing new arguments—open to correction, from the Church, if she should give it, or from anyone who's thought a little longer and more clearly than myself. I have changed my opinions before now.

The great mistake that many Catholics make is to attack their fellow Catholics over these disagreements. I do not say that we shouldn't discuss our disagreements, or put them aside until the barbarians and unbelievers leave off attacking our gates. There will always be barbarians and unbelievers attacking our gates; that's why we're called "the Church Militant." Unfortunately, because there are those dangers at the gates a certain impatience arises inside many of us. We feel, like the harried husband coming home from work to find his wife out of sorts, that here at least we might have expected a respite. Among our fellow theists, Christians, Catholics, we might have found unity. And when we find disunity instead, what awful things we think and feel and—God help us—sometimes say! If we finally manage choke the worst of our emotions down, a certain despair emerges. We rarely put it into words (feelings of despair are usually too clever to allow themselves to be pinned down in that way); but if we did, the words would run something like this: How can we ever win the great battles when we are, on so many things, interiorly "a house divided"? Feeling this, our anger emerges again; and we are apt to say things even worse and more angrily than before—telling ourselves all the while that we are calm, and the cause is a righteous one.

Two things must be remembered here. First, the pragmatic note. It does no good to accuse your opponent of insincerity. Even heretics are oftentimes sincere—perhaps especially heretics, and ones who acknowledge their heresy. To accuse anyone of "bad faith" in the moral sense merely because in your judgment he possesses "bad faith" in theological matters, is an excellent way to make enemies for yourself and the truth you are championing. It takes an almost infinite amount of patience to listen to someone call you (in effect, if not in words) a liar or a cheat, and to answer him calmly. We must be extremely careful not to tempt each other in this way. If we ourselves are tempted, we must at all costs not sink to the temptation.

The second note is more complex. There is nothing quite like the ache of the heart at feeling one's position has been rejected. There is some love of truth in this, I know; there is probably also a great deal of human pride—the truth, after all, was not just true, but in some mysterious sense it was also ours. Truth may not be a woman, but truth is more than a little like a woman: we love truth as a man loves the most beautiful woman in the world, objectively and subjectively at once. If you ask a man how much his love of a woman is based on her wonderfulness (thank you, Mr. Cosby) and how much is based on his need for and relationship with her—how can he know?

So it is with truth. God only can say, in each of us, how much our sorrow at these disagreements comes from our love of truth, and how much from our love of self. For our love of self, He probably can't care less. But the truth—surely when the truth is so beaten and battered and bruised, when there are so many divisions amongst it—yes, even in those "difficult matters" to which above I referred—surely, He must care, mustn't He?

Does God care about the truth? The question mark is almost absurd on the face of it. "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life." Not to know the truth is not to know Jesus. "No-one comes to the Father except through Me." Not to know the truth is not to know God. And we are mistaken if we think that our ignorance of His will, even in what we may take to be (from His grand perspective) small matters, does not wound Him. He loves us, and wants that perfect union with us that in some strange way is, demands, and produces perfect truth all at once. But this perfect union, perfect sight, perfect truth, we will have only in heaven. Part of the trial of earth (and may we not think it is as much of a trial for Him as for us?) is that we won't always know, exactly, what's right—right in theory, right in practice. We can't always judge in the universal cases—thank God! we may perhaps say; for if we could judge truth perfectly, we might be even more horribly quick than we are to judge others. God will always give us help in our own problems, and in cases that involve our own particular conscience. For the rest of the world, we must sometimes be content not to know for sure.

But we should never think for a moment that this blindness of ours is somehow a pleasure to God; never should think (in the half blasphemous, half scriptural words of Prince Hal) that "the spirits of the wise sit in the clouds and mock us." What did Jesus pray? "And now I am not in the world, and these are in the world, and I come to Thee. Holy Father, keep them in Thy name whom Thou has given Me; that they may be one, as We also are."

That they may be one, as We also are. Wasn't this a great part of His suffering, that He should have to watch us undergo such indecision—in the face of facts blindingly obvious to Himself, in His perfect unity? We see things in so many fragments; He understands it all "as one". We are like the poor characters in a play, blundering along in the most helpless confusions and states of cross-purposes, while all the time He like the audience can only watch and groan.

So I suggest, for this Lent, a little—not penance, but an act to unite ourselves to Christ. There are times when our arguments are needed, and there are times when they can do no good. In those latter times, let us not give way to either anger or despair. Let us instead remember that, as His knowledge was far more perfect than ours, so His occasions for impatience must have been greater. As His truth was more whole than ours, so His cross in bearing with others' ignorance must have been greater. If we would have the truth indeed, and be like Him, we must remember that sometimes the only service Truth can do in a fallen world is to be crucified, silently.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. And—please?—an extra dose of patience while you're at it!


  1. Amen.

    Now about immigration..... (just kidding)

  2. Oh, well, on immigration the answer's obvious, and anyone who disagrees with me . . . ! ;)


  3. I wonder if anything in particular inspired this?

    I am in pretty general agreement, especially about the many, many people who do not see how really important the truth is.

  4. Jacob, I'll tell you sometime.