07 August 2012

Fidelity to God's score (10th Sun. after Pentecost 2012)

Everyone that exalts himself shall be humbled, and he that humbles himself shall be exalted.
Dominica decima post Pentecosten
5 August 2012

In today’s parable, Our Lord evidently wishes to impress upon us the importance of humility.  Without humility, it is impossible to be just before God.  To underscore the importance of humility, Our Lord presents us with two individuals, a Pharisee and a Publican or tax collector.  In the eyes of contemporary Jewish society, the Pharisee would have been regarded as the quintessential just man, the man whose life and conduct is rightly ordered towards God.  After all, the Pharisee endeavored to follow all 613 laws contained in the Torah, and doubtless succeeded in doing so, at least to some degree.  The tax collector, on the other hand, was the most despised man in Palestine — and understandably so.  He had no problem collaborating with the hated Roman authorities to collect taxes.  And if he was a typical tax collector, he would have been in the habit of collecting far more than Rome expected him to collect.  That’s how he made his living.  Thus, as far as the Jews were concerned, the Publican was irretrievably wicked, the Pharisee almost automatically holy and “just”.

And yet, the divine calculus comes to the exact opposite conclusion because it takes into account the variable of humility.  Not realizing that following the Law does not give him the right to be contemptuous of others (as if he does not need God’s mercy just as much as anyone else), the proud Pharisee fails to achieve justification or righteousness in the sight of God.  On the other hand, the wicked Publican receives the mercy of God and comes away “justified” precisely because he recognizes that he has sinned and needs God’s mercy and forgiveness.

St. Bernard defines humility as “a virtue whereby a man, knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself.”  Self-knowledge and self-abasement: the one provides the rationale for humility; the other may be called the act of humility.  But it also seems true to say, as we shall see, that accepting the rationale for humility itself takes a certain humility, a kind of innate humility. 

Now, because both true self-knowledge and self-abasement make up the virtue of humility, the word humility itself, or humilitas, fittingly derives from humus, which means earth or dirt.  As dirt is beneath us, humility entails self-abasement, a lowering of ourselves, or an attitude of lowliness.  This lowliness does not derive from a lack of self-worth or poor self-esteem.  Nor is such lowliness an excuse to be vulgar, uncouth, or slovenly.  Rather, this lowliness arises from a recognition that next to God, the Creator of the world, we are all but lowly creatures; all the work of the divine Artist; no one is His equal in anything.  God freely wills to create the world to be in a certain way, such that no one should consider himself free to re-make the world according to his own will, or do whatever he wants independent of God’s will.  This is precisely what the devil claims for himself when he declares, “Non serviam!”

In Paradise Lost, the poet John Milton fleshes out the devil’s non serviam in these very terms of freedom and equality.  In his rousing speech to the “Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues [and] Powers,” Satan asks these angels: 

Will ye submit your necks, and chuse to bend
The supple knee? ye will not, if I trust
To know ye right, or if ye know your selves
Natives and Sons of Heav’n possest before
By none, and if not equal all, yet free,
Equally free…
Who can in reason then or right assume
Monarchy over such as live by right
His equals, if in power and splendor less,
In freedom equal? or can introduce
Law and Edict on us, who without law
Err not, much less for this to be our Lord,
And look for adoration to th’ abuse
Of those Imperial Titles which assert
Our being ordain’d to govern, not to serve?[1]

Having exalted themselves by claiming to be God’s equals in freedom, the devil and all the fallen angels want to be free to govern themselves apart from the law of God.  They refuse to humble themselves before the God who made them.  Instead, they want to be like God; equal to God.

Like the angels, we too are God’s creatures.  Before Him, we too ought to lower ourselves, since all that we have is from Him.  When a man possesses a sense of lowliness before God, he will exercise a certain restraint or modesty, no matter how talented he may be.  We have all heard of the Italian Renaissance genius Michelangelo.  In comparison to other artists, this sculptor, painter, architect, poet, and engineer, knew no rival.  But did Michelangelo himself bask in the accolades of his admirers?  No. Towards the end of his long life, instead of declaring, “I am the greatest artist who ever lived”, he simply said, with all sincerity and humility, “I am still learning.”  
 Or consider the singular case of St. Thomas Aquinas, arguably one of the greatest theologians who ever lived.  Towards the end of his life, after experiencing a moment of ecstatic union with the source of all goodness and perfection, the saint remarked, “All that I have written seems like straw to me.”  The humble man realizes that, however great he may be in comparison to other men, his greatness pales when compared to the divine Artist Himself, to say nothing of His own works.  As Michelangelo himself explained, “The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.”  The humble man, then, because he knows all too well that he is not God’s equal, and that his talents have their source in God, will neither bask in nor encourage the adulation of his admirers.

But what does the self-knowledge of humility have to do with the earth?  A man is humble when he grounds himself in the unchanging terra firma of truth, especially the truth about himself, such that all of his actions may be said to be built upon the foundation of humility.  And the ground, the terra firma of all self-knowledge, is the recognition that God created us for Himself, that we may serve Him, love Him, and glorify Him; and that even our very existence depends upon Him.  As the Psalmist writes, “Know ye that the Lord he is God: he made us, and not we ourselves.”[2]

Inasmuch as a person intuitively recognizes that everything depends upon God for its very being, we may say that he acts upon a certain intuitive or innate humility.  Indeed, all of us have being, but not because of what we are.  It’s not because I am a man that I exist.  My nature (that I am a man) does not require that I exist.  Only God necessarily exists because of what He is.  For that reason, it is more correct to say that God is Being itself.  He is necessarily his own existence.  His essence and existence are one and the same.  As He told Moses, “I am who am.” 
 And since God is the only necessary Being, it follows, that all created being begins to be and continues to be only because of Him who is uncreated, necessary Being Itself.  God is the source of our being.  As St. Paul, quoting one of the Greek poets, reminded the Athenians, in God “we live and move and have our being.”  Moreover, as Aristotle observed, God Himself brings into existence the soul of every human person.  That is why human reproduction is also called procreation.  For the parents of every child have the awesome privilege of participating in God’s own act of creation: they dispose the matter, he provides the soul.

But thanks to the inroads of rationalism and atheistic evolution, modern man no longer exercises this innate humility as he ought.  He no longer knows himself.  Atheistic evolution has made such inroads that, by the time a child graduates from a typical university, he is unlikely to see the universe or himself as being dependent upon God in any way.  He no longer recognizes in nature the work of a divine Artist; that things are the way they are for a purpose.  He does not acknowledge with Michelangelo, that “Every beauty which is seen here by persons of perception resembles more than anything else that celestial source from which we all are come.”  And so, like the devil, he refuses to “bend the supple knee” to His Creator, the King of all Creation.  He will not serve.  He thinks of himself and the entire universe as being completely autonomous.  Instead of seeing the universe as the creation of a Creator, he regards it as a self-creating, self-evolving entity, operating by automatic and blind physical forces.  The order he finds in nature is merely apparent, the result of random adaptation, and in no way reflective of the will or intention of a divine Artist.  Therefore, modern man more often than not does not consider himself to be morally obligated to respect the natural order and operation of things the way a conductor of an orchestra considers himself morally bound to follow the musical score of the composer.  

 On the contrary, man sees himself as free to impose his own will on nature without regard to the will of God.  He is like a conductor who thinks he can dismiss the intention of the composer and fiddle with the notes of the score.  He is not interested in merely perfecting nature, as when a man cultivates a vineyard to produce wine, or when he builds a city and establishes political authority.  Instead, in certain areas he wants to transmogrify it.  He is now in charge; no longer is he the conductor at the service of the composer.  Rather, he assumes the role of composer.  God’s will be damned!

Now, where man most especially ignores nature is in the area of marriage and procreation.  Blinded by pride, man claims for himself the right to change the notes of God’s score.  After all, as far as the secular worldview is concerned, marriage is but the effect of chance, the result of the blind evolution of natural forces.  It is not the wise and provident institution of God the Creator, whose purpose was to effect in man His loving design.  Thus, marriage need not even be between a man and a woman.  Hence, it need not involve a cooperation with God to bring about new life.  And so, man feels perfectly free to change the score as regards the notes concerning marriage, procreation, and family life.

 The Catholic Church, of course, has never adopted this secular, atheistic worldview.  She wants to remain faithful to God’s score.  Indeed, in 1968, Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, rejected that worldview and then, basing himself upon “the first principles of a human and Christian doctrine of marriage”, found himself “obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children.  Equally to be condemned,” continues the Pope, “… is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary.”  At the time, men had not yet so challenged God’s score as to desire to change the definition of marriage of itself.  Yet the worldview that sees nothing wrong with contraception, sterilization, and abortion is the same that will see nothing wrong with changing the definition of marriage so as to accommodate any and all of the diverse appetites of individuals, no matter how perverse. 

In addition to upholding the teaching of the Church, the Pope also reflected on what would happen if this teaching, this defense of God’s score, were rejected.  He predicts “a general lowering of moral standards”.  He warns that when a man  “grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods” he “may forget the reverence due to a woman”; will disregard “her physical and emotional equilibrium”; will “reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.”

Sadly, these predictions have all come to pass, and it is not difficult to see that the contraceptive mentality is largely to blame for the disappearance of chastity and the honor and respect it fosters between men and women.  We all know, of course, how Paul VI’s authoritative teaching regarding contraception was received.  Millions of Catholics belligerently rejected it, and thousands of Catholic clergy and theologians justified this dissent in the name of freedom of conscience.  In America, Fr. Charles Curran, together with over 600 theologians and other academics, opined that “spouses may responsibly decide according to their conscience that artificial contra­ception in some circumstances is permissible and indeed necessary to preserve and foster the value and sacredness of marriage.”  Episcopal conferences the world over provided cover for dissenting theologians and faithful.  The USCCB, even while strongly defending the encyclical in its Pastoral Letter Human Life in Our Day, also provided “norms for licit dissent”.  An unintended consequence of these norms was that dissent from magisterial teaching became acceptable and institutionalized within the Church.  In 1987, Blessed John Paul II reminded the U.S. bishops that the “Church’s teaching on contraception does not belong to the category of matter open to free discussion among theologians.  Teaching the contrary amounts to leading the moral con­sciences of spouses into error.”[3]  Yet this blunt admonition did not lead to a conversion amongst theologians and clerics to abandon their errors.  Nor did it inspire bishops to rise up and speak, defending and explaining why the likes of a Charles Curran are in error, and why what the Church teaches is right.  Instead, everything proceeded as usual.  The general policy of silence obtained.  And so, the Church’s vital teaching about marriage and procreation, rooted in a Catholic worldview of reality, was upheld in theory, but not in practice.  In the practical, day-to-day living of out of the Catholic faith, the dissent that fostered the contraceptive mentality was given a pass.  As a result, Catholics became increasingly steeped in the proud atheistic worldview of modern society.  The Catholic worldview practically disappeared from sight.

But where every Pope since Paul VI has failed to galvanize the bishops of the world to speak publicly with one voice, defending this unpopular teaching, and to explain why the teaching of the Church is right while that of Charles Curran and his ilk is completely wrong, President Obama has succeeded, at least with respect to the American bishops.  He has inadvertently compelled the bishops of America to defend the right of Catholics to exercise the right to practice what the Church officially teaches in the realm of sexual ethics — even though most Catholics, thanks to poor catechesis and the tolerance of widespread institutionalized dissent within the Mystical Body, don’t care to exercise that right.   

For through his Catholic secretary of Health and Human Services, the President has introduced a mandate (the HHS mandate) that will require Catholic institutions to cover the costs associated with contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization.

With this mandate, the President has fulfilled in part the third of Pope Paul VI’s predictions about what would happen if the Church’s teaching on contraception were rejected.  The final consequence of rejecting the teaching of the Church that the Pope warned us about, was what happens when government involves itself: “careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law.  Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures married people themselves regard as lawful in the solution of a particular family difficulty?  Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective?  Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.  It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may put into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.”  Thus, the Pope concludes, “unless we are willing to leave the responsibility of procreating life to the arbitrary decision of men, we must accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions — limits, let it be said, which no one, whether as a private individual or as a public authority, can lawfully exceed.”

So, then, faced with the coercive power of a government that now reflects in the area of sexual ethics the same disregard for the precepts of the moral law as most Americans (Catholic and non-Catholic alike), the bishops of the United States have finally begun to take a public and united stand.  They have begun to speak.  No longer content to remain silent in the face of opposition from the State, they are now defending, in the name of religious freedom, the right of Catholics to follow the teaching of the Church.  A few weeks ago, the bishops launched a campaign called “Fortnight for Freedom.”  As part of that campaign, the bishops reminded us that, as Catholics, “we are constantly called to live out our faith in our daily lives.  In our charities, we comfort the sick, feed the hungry, care for the poor, and protect life.  In the marketplace, our values guide us.  We strive everywhere to practice what we preach.”  Indeed.  Except that, over the past 44 years, the general policy was to avoid preaching the very thing that Catholics needed to hear!  That is why many of today’s Catholics do not exercise the right to practice, or agree with, what their religion actually teaches as regards contraception, sterilization, abortion, homosexuality, and marriage.

It’s time, then, for bishops and their co-workers to exercise their primary duty and actually preach the teaching of the Church to the faithful regarding these marriage and family issues, so that the faithful can indeed begin to recover the Catholic worldview and exercise the tenets of their religion.  President Obama has gotten the episcopal ball rolling.  He has managed to bring all the bishops together to speak with one voice and remind Catholics that, notwithstanding freedom of conscience, contraception, sterilization, abortion, and homosexual unions contradict the practical, day-to-day living out of the Catholic faith.  But it is not President Obama’s responsibility to keep that ball rolling.  It is not his responsibility to teach the Catholic faith to Catholics.  Nor is it his responsibility to strip from Catholic theologians who obstinately persist in their errors the faculties to teach at Catholic schools.  Nor is it his responsibility to discipline the clergy that lead the faithful into moral error.  That responsibility ultimately lies with bishops.  It’s up to them to keep their own ball rolling.

Now, in their opposition to the HHS mandate, the bishops are arguing that it constitutes a violation of religious freedom.  But let us understand exactly why this is so.  The mandate constitutes a violation of religious freedom, inasmuch as the Catholic religion does not and cannot condone activities and procedures that violate the natural law, or that would have man change God’s score.  Put another way, the mandate indirectly violates religious freedom because it directly violates God’s score, which the Catholic Church officially strives to uphold and defend.

After all, it makes no sense for any religion, much less the true religion, to promote union with God and peace to men of good will while at the same time remain indifferent to whether a man honors and respects God’s work of creation and His plan for marriage and family.  For if “a man who loves iniquity hates his own soul”, no religion — especially the true religion — can countenance iniquity and claim to have the best interests of men at heart.  

Now, given Church’s refusal to bless the world’s desire to alter God’s score and permit abortion, sterilization, contraception, same-sex marriage, and God knows what else, she is very much like the Publican in today’s gospel: despised and hated by the world.  And given the poor state of catechesis in most dioceses around the world, and the relative silence over the last 44 years regarding these issues, it would be naive of me to suppose that no one here harbors a similar contempt towards the Church on account of her refusal to “get along”, or that no one here has refused to accept in his own daily life the Church’s teaching on marriage and procreation.  Yet, like the Publican, the Church’s worldview truly makes her humble before God.  It is the world, permeated as it is with its atheistic worldview, that is filled with demonic pride.  But unlike the devil, who can never repent and be converted, any Catholic, no matter how greatly he has sinned, can with the help of divine grace, repent of his sins.  He need only humble himself, be sorry for his sins and confess them to a priest.  If he does this, he will receive absolution from his sins and be reconciled to almighty God and, like the Publican, come away justified.  For as we can infer from today’s collect, God prefers to manifest His omnipotence by exercising mercy on the humble penitent, than by executing justice and punishing the proud, unrepentant sinner who refuses to serve Him.

May we all learn to follow God’s score and make beautiful music with our lives, acknowledging that God’s creation is the work of His hands.  May we always seek to abase ourselves before our Creator and Lord, that we may truly be able to say in the power of the Holy Spirit, “Jesus is Lord”.

[1] Milton, Paradise Lost, Bk. 5.
[2] Ps. 99:3.
[3] L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, July 6, 1987.