The Catholic faith is difficult to believe.
Oh sure, we can give assent to the parts that come naturally to us. We each have our natural gifts in that area — some of us glom onto theology, others to kindness and generosity, others to asceticism. Add to that a bit of struggle, a bit of overcoming, and we arrive at the riskiest moment: The moment when we think ourselves Catholic.
Think of it like climbing a mountain. If you go hard enough for long enough, you can reach a summit of sorts, a place that looks like the top. It might be. Or perhaps if only you’d turn around, or wait for the clouds to blow off, or wander through the trees to the other side of the ridge, you’d realize you weren’t at the top at all.
If you are tired enough, standing there on that lower ledge, the temptation is to declare the hike over. To announce the rest of the way is so impossibly steep we can’t possibly be meant to ascend it. In mountaineering that’s all well and good: Enjoy your lunch and go back home. In the spiritual life, though, we can’t settle for the picnic. We need to be honest with ourselves about how far we still have to go, or at least honest in admitting we aren’t sure what’s next — but that there might be something.
Christopher Tollefsen writes here about the connection between nuclear warfare and dishonesty, and if you don’t already read at Public Discourse, it’s a habit worth cultivating. He writes from a philosopher’s standpoint. Brad Warthen writes about his ambivalence about Hiroshima from Joe Pewsitter’s unsettled perspective:
But I can’t say “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” either. Not because I think the bombing of either Hiroshima or Nagasaki was particularly egregious. After all, the previous firebombing of Tokyo was worse. But that very context — the fact that the bombing of population centers was taken for granted by both sides as an acceptable strategy — is the thing that bothers me, a lot.
Whom are we willing to destroy in order to win?
The culture that won World War II was a culture of victory at any price. Not to win was unthinkable, and understandably. The stakes were extraordinary, the menace all-consuming. What it did to us, though, was make us a people who considered it acceptable to knowingly slaughter innocent civilians, if that was the price of winning.
The cloud of victory is a hard one to blow off our cultural ridge. We imagine the alternatives and shudder. It is impossible, we think, that we could have done anything other. We have counted the cost of just warfare and deemed it too high. Unpayable. We are determined that the rules of the game must be something else. Something more palatable. Something that is less of a crucifixion — and World War II did not lack for crucifixions.
Temporal Victory is a bloodthirsty god. Not content with bodies, she asks for souls as well. Because we so desperately hunger to win, we have become a people who resort to lying at every turn.
The culture of deception is so firmly fixed now that not deceiving is the unthinkable thing. How easily do we lie? Let us count the ways:
- To avoid giving offense or hurting feelings;
- To prevent an argument;
- To avoid passing on bad news;
- To escape punishment;
- To detect crime;
- To deflect injustice.
It is unthinkable. We have determined that lying is not in fact a sin. It is not evil. It’s a tool in the toolbox, perhaps not to be wielded indiscriminately, but certainly meant to be used when the occasion warrants.
Shaking off this attachment is as foreign to us as shaking off our own skin. Indeed, we cling to lying as a necessity because we value our skin, and we value the skin of others. Like all the other sins, we are on a quest for the good thing that the sin promises us.
The argument in favor of lying or nuclear warfare consists of this: So you want us to lose, then?
Ending World War II was a good thing. Exposing the atrocities at Planned Parenthood is a good thing.
We can be in favor of an end to war and an end to abortion, and even celebrate the good that results from dubious means, and still doubt those means. We can observe that lying is wrong without therefore saying that lying about your professional affiliations is just as wrong as killing innocent children.
But let us assume, for the sake of argument, that some of these sins are mere venial sins.
Venial sins are not lipstick and cotton candy. Venial sins, as the St. Joseph’s Baltimore Catechism reminds us, are worse than the measles. Do you want something worse than the measles clinging to your eternal soul?
No, you do not.
It is a terrifying thing, being a saint. We stand on the ridge, and we know how hard the climb has been thus far, and we look up and see the impossible wall looming over us, and we know defeat when we see it. It is no exaggeration to say the climb will kill us.
The temptation is to look for the the easier way around — not necessarily easy, but at least not impossible.
To be a saint is to look up at the impossible thing, and know it is the way we need to go, and to let God take us there.
The Annunciation, Domenico di Pace Beccafumi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons