Clearly, something is seriously and dangerously wrong in our nation. Things are topsy-turvy. “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (Isaiah 5:20).
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
27 July 2011
While it is true to say that, in general, most people consider it important to live life according to some “moral compass” directive, we are nevertheless faced with a large portion of the population in our nation who insist on various “rights” which show a clear departure from the natural moral law and the inviolable dignity of the human person: the “right” to oral and mechanical contraceptives, used in an attempt to raise man to the fragile and illusory heights of sovereign ruler over both pleasure and life; the “right” to so-called trial marriage and same-sex marriage, both causes of untold injury to individuals and society; the “right” of science to engage in life-ending embryonic stem-cell experimentation under the banner of “aid for the living”; and even the heinous “right” to intentionally kill unborn children.
Further, drinking deeply from the elixir of egoism, many often view themselves as “good” provided that they are simply tolerant of others and that they avoid what is deemed as really “big” sins, such as murder or burglary and so forth. Consequently, the first three commands of the Decalogue are often largely ignored, while the latter seven are given only superficial treatment. Hence, to be “good” entails little more than performing daily tasks in a manner that is free from obvious malice toward our neighbor, generally abiding by the civil law and following the motto: “mind your own business.”
Clearly, something is seriously and dangerously wrong. Things are topsy-turvy. While the natural moral law is engraved in the soul of each man by God, present in the human heart and established by reason, universal in its precepts and its authority (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 1954 ff.), it is clear that large numbers of Christians and others of good will are displaying an impediment in their ability to discern what is good and what is evil. What has happened?
The situation is both simple and complex. The roots of our predicament can be easily traced to Original Sin and its effects upon Adam and Eve’s posterity. On that day, at the dawn of human history, man lost original innocence, holiness and justice: the intellect and the will were darkened by sin; harmony between man and creation was broken; the death of man became a reality. Thus man has fallen prey, by his own actions, to concupiscence and a proclivity to sin. That Original Sin explains much of the present darkness in which man resides is true. Nevertheless, we freely choose to sin; we are responsible for our actions.
If more Christians were familiar with the dogma of Original Sin (see CCC 385 ff.), which is transmitted in its fullness by the Catholic Church, a great deal of progress could be made. The importance of seeking the truth would become more apparent; the necessity of the Magisterium (teaching authority of the Catholic Church) would more easily be recognized; and the need for sound catechesis and study would be more fully embraced. Yet here we arrive at the complexity of the situation. A simple familiarization with the theology of man’s history is not enough, nor is the mere recognition of the importance of study in this area. Something more is required.
Father, I Have Sinned. I No Longer Deserve To Be Called Your Son
It is necessary to enter into a deeply repentant experience of self-knowledge. We begin by confronting ourselves. Blessed John Paul II explains:
To acknowledge one’s sin, —indeedpenetrating still more deeply into the consideration of one’s own personhood—to recognize oneself as being a sinner, capable of sin and inclined to commit sin, is the essential first step in returning to God. . . .
In effect, to become reconciled with God presupposes and includes detaching oneself consciously and with determination from the sin into which one has fallen. It presupposes and includes, therefore, doing penance in the fullest sense of the term: repenting, showing this repentance, adopting a real attitude of repentance — which is the attitude of the person who starts out on the road of return to the Father. (Reconciliation and Penance 13)
Fervent repentance and conversion are necessary in order to cut through the darkness and begin to walk the path of light and truth which is found in Jesus Christ. It is not a matter of believing only, nor is it even a matter of prayer only, but rather one must actively and concretely engage in a wholly new way of life — we must die to ourselves. In this new way, moved by the grace of God, we realize our baseness, inadequacy, fallibility, contingency and dependence on the Other who is our origin and source. It is a return to the Father in humility, submission and love. In this love is found our freedom: the fatted calf is slaughtered, the ring is put on our finger, the celebration begins.
However, the effects of Original Sin remain. Here we encounter another aspect of the complexity which was mentioned above: although the celebration has begun, the work is unfinished. We must become lovers of the Truth, which means we seek it, embrace it and live by it. But how is this accomplished in a world which, with an insouciant approach to what is right and good, trumpets a million versions of its own so-called truth? How do we winnow the wheat from the chaff? Clearly, an authoritative and infallible transmitter of the truth, ordained by God and guided by the Holy Spirit, is required to breathe the word of truth into the soul of all nations. This is precisely what we have in the Bride of Christ: the holy Catholic Church.
This Son of Mine Was Dead And Has Come To Life Again
Consider the natural moral law mentioned above, along with the fact that it is inscribed on every human heart. Every sane person agrees that it is evil to murder. Yet large numbers of people in our nation insist that abortion should remain a legal option for those who wish to dispose of an unborn child. The incompatibility of these two beliefs is plainly obvious — however, many will assert otherwise. What accounts for this discrepancy?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “The precepts of natural law are not perceived by everyone clearly and immediately. In the present situation, sinful man needs grace and revelation so moral and religious truths may be known by everyone with facility, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error” (1960). Grace and revelation come from God; but in order to listen to God’s revelation in its fullness, it is necessary to journey wholeheartedly to the Church, for it is her voice that is the voice of truth. It is there, from her lips, that Christians who have gathered into the sheepfold listen to the voice of Christ.
The human conscience provides us with yet another example: what one person’s conscience tells him is evil another’s deems neutral or even good. How can this be?
The fact is, is that the human conscience is not always infallible, and thus can remain in ignorance and make erroneous judgments about future or past acts. Again, it is through the Church that we find our answer to this apparent predicament:
This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when man takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin. In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.
Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgement in moral conduct. (CCC 1791-1792)
It is necessary to properly form the conscience, for if it is not properly formed by love of Christ and his Church it will be improperly formed by the world. In our present age of media-saturation, with its millions of often disordered and unfettered ideas and opinions, it is no wonder that people of good will find it difficult to recognize the difference between a true good, an apparent good, and an intrinsic evil. Again, we have circled back to the absolute necessity of the Catholic Church as a definite and specific, divine and human institution, willed to exist by God and guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit, in order that man can see clearly and with certainty beyond the stormy seas of life toward the horizon of eternity.
Many remain insistent on their own, personal moral outlook. Like the prodigal son, we often ungratefully take the good things our Father has given us, triumphantly raise our chins, and stiffly walk off into the deluded world of false autonomy. Consequently, those who shed light on the errors of that rugged individualism which is gained at the cost of absolute truth and living rightly are shouted down as “authoritarian rigorists” and “stiflers of freedom.”
What will it take for Americans to notice the barbed arrow of moral poverty which has been plunged into the soul of our nation? When will we return to the Father, cast ourselves upon the ground, and cry out: “I no longer deserve to be called your son!”
That is precisely what millions are doing. Praise God. In each person who converts to the Catholic Church, in every moment that the Catechism is opened up and devoured with love, in every teardrop which falls from the eyes of a lover of truth who kneels before the Father in the Liturgy of the Mass, we hear those profoundly transformative and regenerative words: “This son of mine was dead, and has come to life again!”
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Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.