“It was by no means only yesterday that truth became embarrassing.” With those rather wry words, Jean Daniélou, S.J., opened his book, Scandaleuse Vérité, published in English as The Scandal of Truth in August 1962. Daniélou, whose father was a Communist, was not taken in by the starry-eyed optimism of the early Sixties; on the contrary, he saw clearly that a humanism divorced from faith in Jesus Christ ends in despair and ruin, for “while man may be destined for happiness, he has been injured by sin, and can be healed only by the Cross.”
And, in an introductory remark that is just as appropriate today as it was fifty years ago, he stated:
Above all I want to say to young Christians that they should not allow themselves to be over-awed by the false vestiges of modern-day doctrines, whose murkiness masks the uprightness of eternal truth. The shocking bankruptcy of Marxist optimism and of the philosophies of despair as well has nothing about it that should impress them.
This, of course, was written before “Marxist optimism”, in various forms, set the Western skies aflame and sent shockwaves through campuses and governments in the late Sixties, as the supposedly best and brightest of a generation jumped off the crumbling cliff of Western civilization into the murkiness of modern-day doctrines. Much has changed in the years since, but the murkiness remains. Truth is still embarrassing; worse, it is increasingly mocked and savaged as an affront to “progress”, “tolerance”, and a hundred other empty buzz words co-opted by the post-modern sophists who dominate popular culture, media, and politics.
The Challenge of the Council
Two months after the publication of Daniélou’s book—fifty years ago today—the Second Vatican Council opened. In his opening address, Blessed John XXIII stated:
The major interest of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred heritage of Christian truth be safeguarded and expounded with greater efficacy. That doctrine embraces the whole man, body and soul. It bids us live as pilgrims here on earth, as we journey onwards towards our heavenly homeland. …
John XXIII has sometimes been criticized for an apparently naive optimism. If the Pope’s optimism is perceived as merely earthly or pragmatic in nature, the critics are correct. But John XXIII was not merely optimistic, but authentically hopeful, and the difference is essential. The key here is in John XXIII’s emphasis on living as pilgrims, as people who, as he stated in the same address, “have a twofold obligation: as citizens of earth, and as citizens of heaven.” Christians who live as if this world is all that matters fail their divine vocation, while Christians who live as if this world matters not all also fail their divine vocation, which is to be a disciple amidst the dust and trials of this world. “The Christian optimism,” wrote G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy, “is based on the fact that we do not fit in to the world. … The optimist’s pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in the light of the supernatural.”
This light, John XXIII emphasized, is the light of divine revelation passed down through the Church, in continuity with herself, if such a qualification need be expressed (alas, it does):
What is needed at the present time is a new enthusiasm, a new joy and serenity of mind in the unreserved acceptance by all of the entire Christian faith, without forfeiting that accuracy and precision in its presentation which characterized the proceedings of the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council. What is needed, and what everyone imbued with a truly Christian, Catholic and apostolic spirit craves today, is that this doctrine shall be more widely known, more deeply understood, and more penetrating in its effects on men’s moral lives. What is needed is that this certain and immutable doctrine, to which the faithful owe obedience, be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms. For this deposit of faith, or truths which are contained in our time-honored teaching is one thing; the manner in which these truths are set forth (with their meaning preserved intact) is something else.
Nearly twenty years ago, I was a young Evangelical Protestant who had, by God’s grace, survived a couple of crises of faith (one of them while in Bible college), each of which forced me to confront, question, and wrestle with the assumptions of my childhood faith. (Eventually, in 1997, I entered the Catholic Church; for more on that, see my April 2012 editorial, “On Fifteen Years a Catholic”.) At the heart of these crises—and I don’t use the word “crises” dramatically or loosely, just frankly—were two basic questions: Why do I exist? And does Jesus Christ provide the answers to that question and every question that follows?
These questions have to do with truth and faith. The two, contrary to secular dogmatism, are not in conflict, but are eternal companions, precisely because man needs both to survive and be made whole, just as he needs air and water to breath and live physically. Truth (also and often called wisdom in Scripture) is of the very nature of the Creator, and faith is the gift he grants his creatures, and both come together in the Incarnation, which in its scandal of particularity provides, paradoxically, the means to real solace and salvation for all people—not just to those of a particular time, place, or culture. In the words of John XXIII:
Because the whole of history and of life hinges on the person of Jesus Christ. Either men anchor themselves on Him and His Church, and thus enjoy the blessings of light and joy, right order and peace; or they live their lives apart from Him; many positively oppose Him, and deliberately exclude themselves from the Church. The result can only be confusion in their lives, bitterness in their relations with one another, and the savage threat of war.
In modern, enlightended parlance, John XXIII was a fundamentalist, a zealot, and a narrow-minded absolutist. In truth, he was a hope-filled, gracious Vicar of Christ whose deepest desire was that the Gospel be proclaimed anew to a world that is so often and easily enamored with things rather than Truth. It is here, I think, that John XXIII was especially insightful, for it might be said (with a nod to Chesterton) that the great conflict of the modern age is between things and the Thing—that is, the truth of Jesus Christ, the Gospel, and the Catholic Church:
The Church has never been stinting in her admiration for the results of man’s inventive genius and scientific progress, which have so revolutionized modern living. But neither has she been backward in assessing these new developments at their true value. While keeping a watchful eye on these things, she has constantly exhorted men to look beyond such visible phenomena—to God, the source of all wisdom and beauty. Her constant fear has been that man, who was commanded to “subject the earth and rule it,” should in the process forget that other serious command: “The Lord thy God shalt thou worship, and Him only shalt thou serve.” Real progress must not be impeded by a passing infatuation for transient things.
What are these transient things? They are nearly countless, from the obvious to not so obvious: cars and houses, gadgets and trinkets, money, entertainment and fame, sports and sex, science, the State, power and politics, ideologies and programs. They are often good things, which are turned into the Good; they are earthly things made sacred by men who want the sacred without the sacrifice. And underneath this drive for replacement—or, better, idolatry—is a false notion of freedom and a disorted infatuation with autonomy.
The Rich Young Ruler and the Blind Man, Bartimaeus
Scripture, as always, is instructive on this critical subject. The recent and forthcoming Sunday readings of the Gospels in the Western Church are from the section in the Gospel of Mark focused on discipleship (Mk 8:27-10:52), as Jesus makes his way up to Jerusalem to embrace the Passion and the Cross. Along the way, he is met with challenges and questions. In last Sunday’s readings, the test came from the scribes and Pharisees, who questioned Jesus about marriage and divorce. Jesus, in turn, directed them back “to the beginning”, and flatly stated, “Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” In this coming Sunday’s reading, the rich young ruler indicates his love for the good, but is challenged to recognize his lacking understanding of what the good involves: complete trust in Christ and the rejection of anything (in his case, riches) impeding that trust. And the following Sunday, James and John approach Jesus with the startling demand, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you”, only to learn how woefully they underestimate the demands and meaning of true discipleship. Need it be pointed out that similar challenges and questions face the Church today: Why does the Church claim marriage to have specific characteristics and a divine origin? Why does the Church reject socialism and criticize capitalism? Why does the Church point to future glory when an earthly utopia seems within arm’s reach (and has, for many centuries now!)?
In each of those accounts, the choice is made clear: follow Christ on his terms, or reject him. That, in short, is the choice put to each of us, and it is the choice we are commissioned to take into the world and to those who once knew the Gospel, but have fallen away. This is the work of the new evangelization, which Instrumentum Laboris states, “responds to a demand that the Church have the courage to rise to the occasion in order to take bold steps in revitalizing her spiritual and missionary vocation” (par 46).
In the final Gospel reading of October, the blind man, Bartimaeus, calls out in faith from the roadside; “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.” Many rebuked him; some sought to silence him. But he persisted and was called by Jesus, through the disciples, with this timeless exhortation: “Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.” He told Jesus that he wanted to see, even while his spiritual sight was far more keen and perceptive than that of most others. “Go your way”, Jesus told him, “your faith has saved you.” And what was Bartimaeus’s way? Was it back home? To the local mall? To the next sporting event? No, it was to Jerusalem and the Cross: “Immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way.” True faith cannot be separated from the Passion and death of Christ.
The Scandal of the Cross, Proclaimed
Yet this focus on the Cross is, as St. Paul told the Corinthians in the opening of his first epistle to them, a scandal: “But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block [scandalon] to Jews and folly to Gentiles…” (1 Cor 1:23). The Cross cannot be softened or spun or sentimentalized; any attempt to do so results in a scandal of the other sort, which hinders the reception of truth or destroys it altogether. Not evangelizing is not an option for the Church and her children, no matter how “intolerant” and “close-minded” and even “mean-spirited” it is deemed by world, as Lumen Gentium, Vatican II’s great dogmatic constitution on the Church, makes abundantly clear:
The Church has received this solemn mandate of Christ to proclaim the saving truth from the apostles and must carry it out to the very ends of the earth. Wherefore she makes the words of the Apostle her own: “Woe to me, if I do not preach the Gospel”, and continues unceasingly to send heralds of the Gospel until such time as the infant churches are fully established and can themselves continue the work of evangelizing. For the Church is compelled by the Holy Spirit to do her part that God’s plan may be fully realized, whereby He has constituted Christ as the source of salvation for the whole world. By the proclamation of the Gospel she prepares her hearers to receive and profess the faith. She gives them the dispositions necessary for baptism, snatches them from the slavery of error and of idols and incorporates them in Christ so that through charity they may grow up into full maturity in Christ. Through her work, whatever good is in the minds and hearts of men, whatever good lies latent in the religious practices and cultures of diverse peoples, is not only saved from destruction but is also cleansed, raised up and perfected unto the glory of God, the confusion of the devil and the happiness of man. The obligation of spreading the faith is imposed on every disciple of Christ, according to his state. (par 17)
Cardinal Daniélou, in The Scandal of Truth, writes that “before thinking of giving the faith to others, we have to examine ourselves to determine whether we have it ourselves.” He points out that “The faith is not something I adhere to because it is a world view that pleases me. We do no pick out our faith as we pick out a hat. … One is a Catholic because he thinks Catholicism is true. And whether that suits me or upsets me, pleases me or displeases me, puts me at ease or makes me ill at ease, I am obliged to profess it—as true for myself and for other people.” This sobering thought is echoed in Lumen Gentium, which warns of the grave dangers faced by those Catholics who fail to continue on the way of Christ, all the way to the end:
He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.” All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged. (par 14)
Much more could be said about the Year of Faith and the anniversary of Vaican II, and Catholic World Report will be publishing a series of articles about both, beginning tomorrow with a piece on the historical background to the Council. However, what is most vital is that the Year of Faith be marked, not by embarrasment or apathy but by both a deeper encounter with Jesus Christ and a renewed ardor for proclaming the saving Gospel, which is timeless and ever new, meant for all men and women, each of them created by God to know, love, and serve him:
… The Year of Faith is an occasion to ensure that the essential elements of the faith, professed by all believers over the centuries, are re-stated and examined, always in a new manner, so as to bear witness to the faith in a coherent way in an entirely different historical situation from the past. The danger exists that the faith, which establishes a life of communion with God and serves as a doorway into his Church, might not be properly understood in its deepest sense, or not actually taken up and lived by Christians as a means of transforming lives through the great gift of divine sonship and fellowship in the Church. (IL, 94)