“All your ways may be straight in your own eyes, but it is the Lord who weighs hearts.” — Proverbs 21:2
I am not much of a scientist, but if I were to hold a glass of water in one hand, and with the other hand dunk a pencil halfway into it, anyone looking from the correct angle would see that at the water’s surface the pencil appeared to be broken.
Now, if I held the glass and the pencil in front of you, my readers, and asked how many of you thought the pencil was truly broken, I am very confident no one would be naïve enough to raise his hand. That may be because you remember some fifth grade science class in which you learned about the refraction of light, or you may simply recognize that water is not dense enough to break a pencil.
But let’s say that a space alien landed here on earth during my experiment. If this alien had no scientific training or understanding of the elements involved in the experiment, he might very well say that the pencil was broken.
Here is the million dollar question: Would the alien’s saying that the pencil was broken make it so? I presume all of us would answer “no” to this question as well. And for that you would deserve at least a Bachelor’s of Philosophy degree from most universities, since you would have grasped a piece of wisdom that seems to escape scores of professors, politicians, and other professional people, even many professional Church people!
In Romans 12:2, St. Paul commands his readers in words that ought to strike us to the heart: “Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”
Here St. Paul makes clear what he says elsewhere in different ways: that there is a wisdom of the world, and the wisdom of God. As Catholics, we are called to pursue wholeheartedly and to embrace the wisdom of God, to allow the Holy Spirit to renew our minds so that we know the Truth.
For those of us who want to take the challenge of St. Paul seriously, and help others to do so, there is a pretty big obstacle in our way. A core component of the “wisdom of the world,” which Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI has famously called the “dictatorship of relativism,” stands between many people and the wisdom of God.
For those who are unfamiliar, the expression “dictatorship of relativism” is a loaded one and somewhat difficult to understand. We know that a “dictatorship” is the rule of a dictator, of one person who is often harsh in his rule and uses physical force to impose his rule on others and to maintain it against any threats.
The word “relativism” may not be so familiar, but the idea is familiar. It is the idea contained in the example of the pencil in the glass of water. Relativism is the idea that there is no such thing as objective truth, something that is true simply because it is true, whether or not any given person recognizes that it is true.
A relativist might say that something is “true for me” or “true for you” but not that something is simply true for everybody, everywhere, such as we would say about the pencil’s being straight even though it appears to be broken.
To offer an example from the Bible: Pontius Pilate may have been listening with the ears of a relativist to the words of Jesus in John’s Gospel, where Jesus says: “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” All Pilate could come up with to say in reply to this dramatic declaration by Jesus was, “What is truth?”
The denial of truth is a problem not only of ancient times, but of our own day as well. In fact, we have very public examples of relativism in the Church and the world emerging on a regular basis these days.
One recent example is that of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who in the past has publicly described herself as an “ardent, practicing Catholic.” Pelosi is reported to have said she is “pleased” at a recent letter from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith guiding the bishops of the United States in their collective discernment about how to address the scandal of pro-abortion Catholic politicians.
Pelosi, an ardent and practicing promoter of abortion “rights,” apparently added that whether or not she should receive Holy Communion is best left to her own judgment. She also opined that the Vatican does not want the U.S. bishops to act in a way that is “divisive” on this issue. As an aside, what could be more divisive than dividing an unborn child from her own mother?
I was tempted to think that my pencil in the water glass example was too simplistic to use in a serious article. But when a Catholic politician of Pelosi’s rank and experience can say something as jaw-droppingly wrongheaded as her response to the CDF letter, it seems we all need to go back to the basics of human thought.
There is absolutely nothing for Pelosi to be pleased about in the CDF’s cautioning of the U.S. bishops, except the opportunity it presents for repentance and conversion. No Catholic authority—not the CDF, not the bishops, not the Code of Canon Law or the Catechism of the Catholic Church, not any element of the Church’s Tradition or any word of Scripture—affirms that a person who supports abortion may receive Holy Communion.
Every one of those authorities solemnly teaches the opposite, that those in a state of grave sin may not receive Holy Communion. Promoting abortion, a form of murder involving the intentional killing of an innocent human life, is a grave sin.
The cautions of the CDF to the U.S. bishops concern what the bishops ought to do about politicians who fail to recognize the truth of the Church’s teaching and sacramental discipline. How should bishops respond when politicians persist in the manifest grave sin of supporting abortion and present themselves for Holy Communion? This article does not propose to answer that question, but rather to make the point that such politicians may not present themselves for Holy Communion in the first place and should choose to refrain of their own accord. They should refrain from Holy Communion according to the dictates of consciences that are well-formed in accordance with God’s will, expressed in the teachings and laws of His Church.
There is a path for pro-abortion politicians back to the Communion line. It leads directly through the confessional.
Of course, Pelosi is only one of many Catholic politicians who support abortion and seek to receive Holy Communion. But Pelosi has long provided a clear example of the dictatorship of relativism at work, and so makes a good case-study for thinking about all such politicians.
About a decade ago, Pelosi gave a highly controversial answer to a question asked by Tom Brokaw on an episode of “Meet the Press.” The question was: When does human life begin? Pelosi began her answer by saying, “as an ardent, practicing Catholic, this is an issue that I have studied for a long time.”
Unfortunately, her long study of this issue seemed not to have borne much good fruit. Her answer was a highly selective and thoroughly distorted account of the Church’s historical teaching. To put it briefly, she expressed a confused sense that the Church does not firmly teach much of anything about when human life begins, and then offered other distorted and confusing opinions about human free will.
In response to her comments, a group of ten Catholic Congressmen and women told Pelosi in an immediate response to her “Meet the Press” interview: “As fellow Catholics and legislators, we wish you would have made a more honest effort to lay out the authentic position of the Church on this core moral issue before attempting to address it with authority. Your…remarks mangle Catholic Church doctrine regarding the inherent sanctity and dignity of human life; therefore, we are compelled to refute your error.”
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops also responded to Pelosi’s erroneous statements, and quoted this passage from the Catechism: “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law” (Par. 2271).
What was Speaker Pelosi’s response to all of this? In a statement given by her spokesperson, she did not submit to or even admit to the truth of the teaching of the Church, but instead moved straight into outright relativism. A line from the statement said, “While Catholic teaching is clear that life begins at conception, many Catholics do not ascribe to that view.”
Many Catholics do not ascribe to that view. Notice that in this sentence the emphasis is shifted entirely away from what is true and to what people perceive, to people’s opinions. Yet you can just imagine the heads of so many people nodding in agreement with Pelosi as they heard this on the news, as the death toll from abortion continued to rise under the cover of silence.
In other words, the message of relativism is that if the alien thinks the pencil is in the glass is broken, who’s to say he is wrong? Only, we can see that the truth—or our failure to recognize the truth—has consequences far more serious than the pencil example would seem to tell us. The truth is a matter of life and death, and the “wisdom of the world” is not going to deliver millions of unborn children from death to life.
Should we be tolerant of others? Yes. Does that mean that everyone’s opinion is true? No. Does tolerance require that we remain silent about what we know to be true? Absolutely not.
Do we need to be respectful of those whose opinions we do not share? Yes. Do we need to love others, no matter what they think or say? Absolutely and always. Does that mean we cannot act on what we know to be true? Again, absolutely not. We must speak the truth and act according to the truth, or we would not be the people God is calling us to be.
This Pentecost, Catholics would do well to pray fervently that the Holy Spirit will renew our minds and the minds of all people, so that we may be delivered from the “wisdom of the world” and its deadly illogic to the truth, meaning, to the One Who is and calls Himself, “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
It is time for the heart-wrenching eloquence of the silent screams of millions of unborn children to be heard. “I came that they might have life,” Jesus says in John 10:10. It is time for those who deny life to unborn children to stop thwarting the mission of Him Who is “the life” and who gives life to all.
It is also time for those who persist in the grave sin of promoting the murder of countless children to stop—of their own accord—receiving the Bread of Life. As long as pro-abortion people themselves have natural life, they have time to repent of this sin and recover supernatural life in Christ. We are all sinners, and we all need to “repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).
The Good News is for everyone, but not everyone is the author of the Good News. That authorship is God’s alone.
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