When Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World nearly a century ago, he imagined future human society as a place without anxiety or suffering; a kind of safe and opulent zoo for—to borrow a thought from the novel’s Mustapha Mond—“tame animals.” In effect, an appealing prison. One might argue that we’re currently heading in that general direction.
But human beings are better than that. God made us to be more than that. In much of modern American life there is a gulf between the nation and people we think we are, and the nation and people we really are. We call ourselves the “land of the free,” but we’ve forgotten what being “free” actually means. Instead, we’re carried along on a current of noise and distractions that prevents us from seeing too clearly and thinking too deeply. In a sense we’re the most thoroughly atheist culture in history. We’ve removed the vulgarity of physical coercion, and replaced it with something far more effective: persuasion, through the power of entertainment and advertising.
But that’s not a life worthy of the creatures we are. So what do we do about it?
Well, the first thing to do is simply wake ourselves up from the drugged state we're in thanks to our cell phones, computers, and TVs. We’re not here to coast down the river. We’re here to reroute it in a direction that waters the Tree of Life. We have a duty to be leaven in the world; to make it a better and holier place. That includes our nation. Patriotism, properly understood, is a virtue. We have obligations as citizens that derive from that virtue; obligations best expressed by G. K. Chesterton, who said that “my country right or wrong” makes as much sense as “my mother drunk or sober.” We always love our mother. We still love her even if she’s a drunk. But we don’t pretend she’s sober. We certainly don’t drink with her. And we do our best to get her help. The point is: We’re Catholics first, and Americans second. Our task is to change and renew our culture, not be digested by it. There are already far too many Catholics with their faith all but bleached out in the congressional halls of power.
The second thing we need to do is remember. History is important. Memory, both for individuals and communities, is vital. It’s a great source of humility because of the mistakes we make; but also of hope, because despite our sins and failures, the Church is still here, still young, and still continuing her mission. God never forgets or abandons her. The Church in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries had terrible problems of corruption, bad leadership, political interference, and doctrinal turmoil. But here we are today.
Augustine lived in an age when the entire Roman world was beginning to lose its center. But here we are today. Some 200 years after Augustine, Pope Saint Gregory the Great lived in an age when everything around him was in ruins, and marauders, pandemics, and natural disasters were the reality of the day. But again, here we are today. We’re here because of Christians who really believed. They witnessed their faith to a hostile world and were willing to pay whatever price was attached to it. The Church survives and grows not through brilliant leaders, though they’re always welcome, but through ordinary people who become ordinary saints.
The biggest falsehood of the modern era, and maybe every era, is that individuals don’t make a difference; that we’re alone and powerless. It’s a lie. Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning is a classic example of this perennial truth. Frankl was a Jew sent to Auschwitz to die. He was beaten, starved, and humiliated again and again, but he survived. He survived because he never lost hope, and he never lost hope because he remembered, every day, the love of his wife. He wrote that even when he was being tormented and interrogated by camp guards, he was a freer man than they would ever be, because he loved. He couldn’t stop the beatings, but he could choose not to hate; he could choose not to become an animal.
He could choose to love.
We sometimes like to think that we are living in the worst times in human history, that things just couldn’t get worse. That we must be at the end of civilization itself, or at least the disappearance of our nation as we once knew it. The torrent of hatred from self-described “progressive” people that has poured out, like a lanced boil, at the fall of Roe v. Wade reveals just how mendacious and toxic America’s public square has become.
St. John Henry Newman reminds us that people have thought these same things in every age. In a striking passage taken from the preface of the third Edition of his monumental Protestant work, The Via Media, the scholar wrote these words:
But in truth the whole course of Christianity from the first, when we come to examine it, is but one series of troubles and disorders. Every century is like every other, and to those who live in it seems worse than all times before it. . . . Well may prophets cry out, “How long will it be, O Lord, to the end of these wonders?” How long will this mystery proceed? How long will this perishing world be sustained by the feeble lights which struggle for existence in its unhealthy atmosphere? God alone knows the day and the hour when that will at length be, which He is ever threatening; meanwhile, thus much of comfort do we gain from what has been hitherto, not to despond, not to be dismayed, not to be anxious, at the troubles which encompass us. They have ever been; they ever shall be; they are our portion.
I suppose the lesson here is the same one we learn from the cross. Even as he suffered and died, Jesus said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” God so loved the world that he sent his only son. And that’s what we did to him. And still God loves us. Love is the engine of true liberty; and real freedom, freedom of heart and mind and will, is the greatest blessing bestowed on those who choose to love well.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Nor will the darkness ever overcome it. So have faith. There’s good news. God’s winning.
James Conley, S.T.L., is the bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska.
This essay is adapted from remarks given at the Portsmouth Institute’s “Blessings of Liberty” conference at Portsmouth Abbey.
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