Manifesto in a Messy World


TV and news of the world got into the house like a pigeon from hell.* So, I present the (hopefully somewhat readable) prose version of ‘Conservative Enough to be Liberal.’

Worship the Lord your God.

Is there a God? What does the question mean? A power, an intelligence, infinitely greater than we can imagine, from Whom everything comes. That anything is, that anything is good, or beautiful, or true (i.e., intelligible to us), is because God is nothing other than infinite existence, goodness, and truth. Whereas all that we perceive involves multiple distinct things, all of them made by the putting-together of constituent elements, God’s existence is unimaginably simple, eternal, stable, and blessed.

Must there be such a God? Well, if there isn’t, something else would have to explain why there is something rather than nothing. And no one has ever come up with a really plausible explanation other than God (or some other highfalutin, incomprehensible abstraction, equivalent in mysteriousness to God). No sane person claims to know all—or even much—about God. But no reasonable person can long sustain an argument that God doesn’t exist, that He doesn’t reign supreme and govern everything.

Hence, the fundamental law of human life: to acknowledge God, upon Whom we so utterly and totally depend. That is, worship Him. As Thomas Merton put it, describing his memory of walking home after attending church for the first time, with his grandparents, when he was seven or eight: “We all had the feeling that something had been done which needed to be done.”**

Contrast this with what I will call the “technocratic ideology.” According to technocratism: 1) God may or may not exist. 2) That He would reveal mysteries about Himself is not to be accepted as reasonable. 3) Mankind must direct history. 4) Therefore, mankind must have comprehensive knowledge, to be gained by ‘science,’ especially sociology.

thomas mertonProblem is: Man does not have the capacity for comprehensive knowledge. We consistently butt up against the vast expanses of stuff we don’t know and certainly don’t understand–like ourselves.

Now, I am not excusing jihad, by any means. But I think we can sympathize with God-fearing people in non-Western cultures who see our Western, godless technocratism as a threat to their way of life.

We are conservative enough to insist that no reasonable individual can deny the existence of God. Which means that religion is not an optional, private pursuit. In fact, religion is mankind’s first duty of justice. Not to go to church and worship the Lord on His day—that pretty much sucks. Smacks of obtuse and ungrateful lameness. We are also conservative enough to point out that Almighty God has the freedom to reveal Himself precisely as He chooses.

Now, to believe in the Incarnation, to believe in Christ, is a gift. No one says Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. No Christian can force a non-Christian to become a Christian. Faith comes by way of a supernatural gift.

That said, what we know about Jesus and the history of the Church supports the Christian faith. The historical records must be strained beyond the breaking point to cast doubt on the miracles of Christ or the fact that He rose from the dead. And the survival of the Church, against every merely human probability, for two millennia—that’s an evident fact, and a strong support for the truth of the faith.

So what happened is: God came to reveal Himself to a creature naturally disposed to know Him and worship Him. God came to us, homo religiosus, as a homo religiosus Himself. To greet Him with faith does not require a ‘blind leap.’ The idea that the Word of God is addressed to an inadequate creature, namely us, who blindly obey the Word—this is a Protestant concept with which we cannot relate.

The “magic” in which we believe, the point where we reach out by faith into utter darkness, is the very beginning: that there is something rather than nothing is the greatest miracle, and Christ has taught us what it means: God loves.

Pope Leo XIII
Pope Leo XIII

So we can be liberal. God really is in charge. Christ really does hold every human soul in His Heart. The technocracy strains to build a new and perfect world (which just keeps getting harder and more inhumane). But the Lord does not ask us to do this. The Lord Jesus beckons us to co-operate with His mysterious Messianic work.

Silence and contemplation of God’s Word are more important than anything else. Prayer comes first. Mary really did choose the better part. According to what has come to be called the ‘heresy’ of Americanism, the virtues required for building, industry, activity take precedence. But Pope Leo XIII insisted in Testem Benevolentiae, that faith, hope, and charity rank highest, and the contemplative life roots all the actions of Christ’s Church.

Thou shalt not commit adultery.

Squirrels zig and zag, running after the nut. Fish zig and zag, too, in the murky waters, following the latest stimuli. But man must act according to reason.

Christians have particular motivations for acting with due reflection: We know that Christ will judge us; heaven awaits those who die in His friendship; the wicked go to hell. But not everyone knows this; not everyone has these motivations, at least not right now.

That said, the imperative, Do good; avoid evil, binds everyone. Some moral crimes must be punishable by civil law. Killing the innocent, harming children, stealing, rape, lying under oath, breaking contracts, enslaving people.

ice cream coneHuman actions and omissions, in other words, must be reasonable. We must be able to withstand questioning. In order to act arbitrarily–for instance, to choose fishing over playing soccer, or French fries over ice-cream–we must first establish the basis for such arbitrary action by a reason: “It’s just a matter of personal taste!” (True enough, in these matters.)

In fact, perhaps we could define a pagan as the person who, when asked, Why did you do that? replies:

(Moths circling…)

So, the question: Why have sex? The only fundamentally reasonable answer is: To make a baby. Making babies is evidently what sex is for. After all, everybody who is here got here that way.

Sex cannot fall into the area of arbitrary action, like choosing French fries or ice-cream for a snack on the boardwalk. After all, sexual acts can be crimes. And sexual acts can lead to legal liability—child support payments, etc. Ergo, to have sex demands reflection and a commensurate reason.

The law cannot make everyone perfectly chaste, with a heavenly, angelic, God-adoring chastity. But the law does reasonably bind people to have sex only with a lawfully wedded spouse. (Or should bind in this way, with appropriate punishments.)

People marry by professing lifetime vows. True love demands at least that much. Romantic lovers often feel moved to profess much more. The law actually tends to tone them down. Also, justice to the children to come demands a lifetime commitment. And vows once taken cannot be annulled without a compelling reason, supported by evidence.

Now, irrational sexual impulses… All the science in the world hasn’t allowed us to get a grip on them. They themselves have a certain mystery, and we feel ashamed of them—for good reason. If we succumb, we try to repair the damage and seek a better way.

But irrational sexual desires are one thing, and the birds and the bees are another. The birds and the bees may seem irrational to us. But we cannot change them. If we religiously accept that God knows what He is doing, and attune ourselves to the reality of human sexual reproduction as it is, by mortification and self-mastery, we can attain chastity. Then we can grasp that the way God made sex actually makes perfect sense.

This is not the ‘Catholic’ or ‘Christian’ point-of-view. This is the honest human point-of-view. Christian revelation allows us to see the supernatural beauty of marriage, and to understand and deal with how difficult it is. But the moral imperatives of sex and marriage apply to everyone. No one has a ‘right’ to have sex in an irrational manner.

Conservative enough, then, to laugh out loud at the contradiction in terms known as ‘gay marriage.’ And at the nonsensical proposal that artificial contraception counts as ‘health care’—as if having a baby were a disease! Conservative enough, too, to recognize that the first people we think of must always be children. Children have rights that start at the beginning, like knowing who their mother and father are.

To be liberal: These are not matters of technocratic ‘public policy;’ they are the fundamental imperatives for a sustainable civilization. The Church does not act as a political partisan; She embraces everyone as Mother and teacher, hoping that all sinners will repent and find a blessed and stable way of life.

Doesn’t mean Catholics can’t act politically. We’ve got to stand up for the truth, and vote, etc. But the judgment of other people’s consciences belongs to God. The conscience I have to worry about is my own.

Thou shalt not kill.

What does science teach about when human life begins? Not everything, to be sure. Experimental science can’t penetrate the spiritual mystery of the soul. But one thing that science most certainly does not teach us: That human life begins at any time other than the beginning: conception, zygote. Scientists have tried to prove that it begins later; philosophers have tried. But the intractable reality of prenatal development, as observed by the most sophisticated equipment, has foiled every attempt to draw a line somewhere else. Either the zygote is a human person, or identifying a human person is itself an altogether arbitrary exercise, to be decided at the whim of the powerful, and at the expense of the weak and defenseless.

Decent people, therefore, insist that the law must protect the child in the womb. After all, what else is the law for, if not protecting the innocent?

From the moment of fertilization (when each of us came into being as a very small pilgrim), God has a plan. We reverence the plan of God at work in the life of everyone we know, in everyone we encounter. Again, God never acts arbitrarily. But we have to recognize a ‘magical threshold,’ a dimension of the unfolding of a human destiny, that we cannot fathom. No human being, then, can go into a box in my mind. Every individual has a future that only God knows, and if I love God, I love the future He has in mind for me and everyone else, and I religiously kiss the ground before it, as it opens up to our eyes day by day.

Therefore: Judge not. Love neighbor. Be a patriot the old-fashioned way, not based on common ideas, but on our common love for the land God has given us as a home, and the love we have for our neighbors on this land.

No gossip. No busy-bodying. Let me quietly work out my own salvation with fear and trembling, conservative enough to know that God will judge the wicked to be liberal and give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

* The Pretenders, “Back on the Chain Gang.”
** Much more to come, dear faithful reader, on Seven Storey Mountain, over the upcoming weeks!


One thought on “Manifesto in a Messy World

  1. Father,
    Thank you so much for posting this. It is really good stuff. I have two teenagers and a preteen. They are caring and compassionate individuals, and the media plays on these qualities so well to make them feel guilty for following what the church teaches. While my kids are starting to question things, I believe that they are genuinely seeking the truth. The way that you explain it makes so much sense, much better than their old mom ever could. I think it will help them better understand why the church teaches what she teaches and help give them the courage to stand up for what they believe.
    You’re a blessing!

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