I recently read an article in a national newspaper about young Poles leaving the Catholic Church. The subtext of the article was Catholicism narrows human freedom. And, surprise, there are sinners in the Church, including in high places. So, naturally, the young want out.
As with many of today’s news stories and influencer voices, claim about Catholicism is the exact opposite of reality. But does anyone care about reality?
Today’s mantra is “choice”. We must make a choice. It is this or that. Make a choice, no matter how young you are, no matter how much information you lack or how little you’ve experienced, no matter the credibility of those informing your choices.
Those freedom-narrowing Catholics persist in using the word and. Freedom and responsibility, faith and reason, justice and mercy, sinner and child of God, master and servant, the fetus as part of a woman’s body and a distinct human being, a boy with feminine traits and the complicated male the Master of the universe created him to be.
While the world increasingly splinters into innumerable ways of viewing life and the universe, only Catholicism proclaims that art and science and faith are different ways of seeking the same Truth. When Catholics use the word Or they reserve it for the things that matter most—heaven or hell.
What about the scandal of clergy sexual abuse? What about corruption within the Church? What about clergy and laity giving their allegiance to states or grand secular projects ahead of their allegiance to Christ’s Church? Catholics know that any and every sin is possible when one is unmoored from Jesus and the Gospel. And the world, including the demonic world, is constantly trying to unmoor humanity from the Gospel. We wish it weren’t so, but it is so. “Blessed be God in all his designs,” proclaimed Blessed Solanus Casey of Detroit, who saw plenty of human misery and recklessness.
As to what could go wrong, the world isn’t the least bit interested in that. After thirty years of studying and exploring crises, I’ve learned that world leaders and so-called experts do next to nothing to try to anticipate what could go wrong. And that the bigger the risk, the less they are inclined to do anything. In the case of Covid-19, a number of actions could have been taken years ago to mitigate or prevent a worldwide pandemic, but financial considerations, turf protection, misbegotten priorities, concerns about legal liability or reputation, forestalled any meaningful action.
The Flint drinking water crisis was also a failure to explore what could go wrong—it could have easily been prevented—before it became a legal bonanza. In a recent article about cyberwarfare in Ukraine (or any modern war), a world expert unbelievably stated, “It is not something we have war-planned and mapped out and said: ‘Hey, this is what we think is going to happen.’” Really?!
Catholicism often asks what could go wrong because the Church understands that human beings cannot save themselves nor redeem human societies. When we make an examination of conscience, when we promise to “avoid the near occasion of sin” in the act of contrition, when we ponder Scripture where any and every human enterprise went wrong, when we ask the Father to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” when we reflect on Jesus’s demanding beatitudes and commands to forgive, when we hearken to the saints who considered themselves great sinners—and before the Master of the universe, so they were. If we Catholics don’t know what could go wrong, it’s our own fault.
In the 20th century, man was bent on recreating the world without God, or coopting God in the pursuit of their recreations. Science would produce this “better” world, or a perfect economic system, or the elimination of “lesser humans”, or establishing the rule of people who knew better than the rest of humanity. Choices were made by leaders and societies, often with little or no consideration given to the human toll. Many Catholics embraced or were duped by these grand and glorious projects to re-make the world. How many Nazis and Bolsheviks were raised in Christian households and taught in Christian schools, then chose to turn their backs on the truth? But never did the Church change her teachings to accommodate these cruel utopias, nor did her 20th-century saints fall for these lies.
Blaise Pascal, who embraced faith, science, and art, offered keen insights into the consequences of the human preoccupation with diversions. Pascal asserted that excessive diversions keep people from seeking truth in matters of ultimate importance and hinder them from understanding humanity’s true condition. Human preoccupation with creating a “better” world without God’s Truth is an uber-diversion in the sense that such projects ignore man’s true condition and so have no possibility of good outcomes for humanity. One of the greatest delusions in the world that proceeds from frivolous and uber diversions is that Jesus can be put into a philosophical, psychological, cultural, historical, or mythological box. Such people have never immersed themselves in the Gospels with open minds, open hearts, and an ear to what the Church has taught over 2,000 years, or else they have come to the Gospels determined to see Jesus as an agent of their worldview.
The law of the choice seems to be a moral law akin to the physical law of gravity, in which choices aren’t predetermined but consequences, harsh or ameliorated, are inevitable. In a word, we may choose but we can’t choose the consequences. As the law of gravity is necessary for stable solar systems and human life, so the law of the choice seems to be necessary for the authentic human freedom that’s rooted in God’s love. Therefore, what could go wrong means choices must be carefully considered, and repented of when necessary.
The law of the choice is starkly depicted in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. The elves who renounce the blessed realm to return to Middle-earth and battle the arch-demon make evil choices along the way, and then stubbornly refuse to repent those choices (today, we’d say they doubled-down). Dire consequences cascade from those choices, impacting not just those rebellious elves but other elves and men who associate with them. Mysteriously, others in Middle-earth who aren’t allied with the rebellious elves are also affected—as happened to ordinary people who were caught up in our 20th-century world wars. Nor did the end of World War I or World War II or the fall of the Berlin Wall unleash eras of peace, because man continued to choose to recreate the world apart from God’s Truth. Likewise, in Tolkien’s myth, the fallen angels rampaged and ravaged in Middle-earth, while the faithful angelic powers refused to intervene for an age, as if constrained by the law of the choice.
Those displaced Polish Catholics, and so many other displaced or disgruntled Catholics, are making exactly the wrong choice. Like the world, they refuse to consider What Could Go Wrong.
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