G.K. Chesterton once described lunatics as people who have lost everything but their reason. What he meant was this: When human reason cuts itself off from conscience, experience, and common sense, it subverts itself. It becomes a logical-sounding form of lunacy. The results are usually bad.
This autumn is the ninetieth anniversary of the October Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power in Russia. I visited the Kremlin and Red Square last month, so I’ve been thinking a lot about Chesterton’s words. In a sense, the twentieth century was one big laboratory for human extremism and lunacy. If we count up the political murders carried out under communism, national socialism, fascism, Mao in China, and Pol Pot in Cambodia, the number is roughly fifty million victims. That’s double the current population of Peru. In one winter alone, 1932¯1933, the Soviets deliberately starved more than five million people to death in Ukraine for ideological reasons. The Communist party wanted to collectivize the farming. The peasants didn’t. So the party simply took their food and let them die.
These are terrible facts, but what makes it worse is that many of the most talented and best educated minds in the democratic West supported these political experiments. They also ignored the enormous cost in human lives. The poet Ezra Pound was ferociously pro-fascist. So was the novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet who won the Nobel Prize for literature, called Joseph Stalin "the maturity of man and the peoples." He praised Stalin’s "sincere intensity" and "concrete clarity."
Actually, Neruda was right in the sense that Stalin was very sincere and very concrete in murdering twenty million of his countrymen and putting another seven million in labor camps. The list of academics, journalists, social scientists, intellectuals, artists, actors, and writers who made excuses for horrific regimes is too long to name. The only thing that matters for us today is one simple question: Why did they do it?
I think we can find the answer to that question in another of my favorite thoughts from Chesterton. He said that when a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing; he believes in anything . Events have proved him right. The historian and poet Robert Conquest wrote that a central flaw of the twentieth century was the addiction of educated men and women to "big ideas" divorced from reality and results. In a healthy mind, big ideas get tested against reality. If they don’t work, they get dumped. But the lunatic mind breaks and reshapes reality to fit the big idea. The cost doesn’t matter¯even when it destroys a whole society; even when it’s paid in blood.
Here’s the point to remember: Education is an ambiguous word. It guarantees nobody’s humanity. It’s quite possible to be very well educated in a modern sense and at the same time to be shallow, smug, credulous, bigoted, and even murderous. Historian Niall Ferguson notes in his latest book, The War of the World, that when Poland fell to the Germans in 1939, the SS sent in five special units to murder Jews and political opponents. Of the twenty-five top leaders in those units, fifteen had doctorates.
It’s the content, the purpose, and the result of an education that count. And that’s why a truly Catholic education is so crucial. The doctrines and structures of our Catholic faith are there for very good reasons. They’re vitally important because they form us and sustain us as a believing community. We can never ignore them without undermining who we are as Catholics.
But the heart of being a Catholic is not a set of ideas. It’s a person¯the person of Jesus Christ. The goal of a Catholic life is meeting, loving, and following Jesus Christ. Christianity is not a social-reform plan. It’s a love story. And it’s a love story like any other real love story¯it has consequences.
Your mothers and fathers fell in love. You’re the consequences. Without that love, you wouldn’t be here. In fact, you wouldn’t be anywhere . Similarly, our faith should bear fruit in all sorts of personally and socially virtuous action. But our love for others should always nourish and be nourished by a love for God in Jesus Christ. Human reason is a tremendous and beautiful gift. But in the end, it is love¯not simply reason¯that makes us human. In fact, it is only love that makes human reason truly "human." The greatest gift Wyoming Catholic College will give to the world is graduates who are filled not just with knowledge, ambition, and skill, but also with a love for God and the sanctity of the human person.
The prophet Ezekiel’s description of God and his people is what a real revolution looks like. It’s revolutionary in the context of ancient culture. Unlike pagan gods, Yahweh is not the little godling of a tribe or city; he’s the creator of the whole universe. He’s not just the patron of a single ethnic group, but the Lord of all humanity. His people come "from [all] the nations" and "from all the countries." God chooses the Jewish people not to keep God for themselves but to be his light to the nations.
Ezekiel’s portrait of God’s people prefigures the Church, the New Israel; and God’s words¯"I will sprinkle clean water upon you"¯prefigures baptism. We should notice that the unity of God’s people is rooted not in blood, or land, or language, or culture, but in faith ; in walking in God’s ways and observing his ordinances. In other words, Yahweh’s people are a radically new kind of community.
We should also notice that God does not say "from all your idols I will free you." Instead, he says, "from all your idols I will cleanse you." There’s something not just ignorant but also unclean and subhuman in false worship. Idolatry of any kind¯including political or intellectual idolatry¯is beneath human dignity, because human dignity is a gift of God.
It follows then that we’re only fully alive when we live in God. This is what God means when he says he will give us a heart of flesh¯a real human heart and identity¯to replace our heart of stone. God’s words are not legal and contractual. They’re covenantal. The relationship he offers us is intimate, possessive, and mutual; it’s familial and therefore personal. You will be mine, and I will be yours. Every good marriage is an echo of this basic covenant between God and humanity.
St. Paul reminds us that our individual lives have meaning. We’re not just accidents of nature. God chose us in Christ¯and he did it deliberately, before the foundation of the world. He knows and loves us by name. And, in a very real sense, he asks our help in a struggle for the soul of the world. A "gospel of salvation" implies that human beings need to be saved and that real wickedness and a real Enemy exist which they need to be saved from. We’re part of a great drama, a great struggle between good and evil, and each of our decisions and actions matters.
The Catholic novelist Sigrid Undset once said, "As probably never before in history, the fate of mankind today rests on the efforts of living men¯on our conscious resolutions as to the kind of future we desire; on our readiness to plan for it, and our willingness to live and die for it." Her words are as true today as when she said them in the 1940s. Life is a struggle for the soul of the world, and God calls each of us to be part of that struggle. A key lesson from St. Paul is that God exists and we were made to draw life from him. This requires our willingness to believe in someone infinitely greater than ourselves. And if we submit ourselves to God’s truth, God will accomplish miracles through us. This is exactly what Paul means when he talks of "the immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power in us who believe." When we empty ourselves of our vanity in a spirit of faith, God fills us up with the power of his love.
The Gospel of St. John reminds us that relationships have consequences. If we love someone, we prove it by our actions. So too regarding our love for God. Words are important, but actions are more important. If we claim to be Catholic, we need to act like it. If we claim to love God, we need to keep his commandments, otherwise we lie to ourselves and to others.
St. John tells us that the world cannot receive the Spirit of truth "because it neither sees him nor knows him." That could be a pretty accurate epitaph for the twentieth century. But the future, the twenty-first century, can be different. It depends on us. It depends on you. The vocation of every Christian life is to change the world: to open the eyes of the world and to bring the world to Jesus Christ. And the role of Catholic education is to give students the zeal, the faith, and the intellectual depth to do that.
Autumn in Moscow ninety years ago changed the world through violence. The goal this autumn in Wyoming should be even more ambitious: to change the world through a witness of God’s love. Wyoming Catholic College exists to enrich the human mind but also to fill souls with truth and hearts with conviction and courage. This is why time here is holy. This is why its students need to use it well.
This essay was adapted from a homily given by Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., the archbishop of Denver, at the inauguration Mass for the newly founded Wyoming Catholic College .