The thing about sin is that something about it generally appeals, something looks positively good--or we wouldn’t do it. The fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was pretty to look at and would taste good--but it brought death into the world. On their own, without God’s admonition (for that matter, even with it) our first parents would not have been able to distinguish the sad outcome that would follow on their own. They needed direction. They needed a way out of the pride that leads to making ourselves gods-of-our-own-truth.
So do we, and that’s one reason God gave us the Church.
Looking over some things that have crossed my desk in the last week, and reflecting on the great history of the Church, I am struck by how, over and over again, she steers the faithful away from the superficial good that leads to sin, and insists on conformance to the everlasting good that may be inconvenient, may be out of step for society, may be counter-intuitive and may even be painful, but which ultimately brings life itself.
For example, my groom sent me a slideshow on the demographics of the future. It’s made the Internet rounds a couple of times, and it’s very, very sobering. It points out that, for a culture to sustain itself, it must have a birthrate of 2.2 children per couple. Christian Europe is down at 0.8, the United States is barely holding its own and Muslims are at something like 6. By the simple process of life and death, Europe, which repelled a Muslim invasion at the great Battle of Lepanto, will become a Muslim continent, probably within my lifetime, with never a shot being fired. One only needs to look at how Christians fare under Muslim rule elsewhere to know that another real, and serious, persecution may well be on our doorstep.
One of the ways this has happened--perhaps THE way-- has been the falling away of the Christian faithful from the Church’s teaching about the role of God in human procreation. Most folks today don’t realize that until the early 1930’s, artificial birth control was roundly condemned as sinful almost without exclusion in the Christian community, even among Protestants. The Episcopal church was the first to break away, and one by one, other Protestant churches followed, until modern Protestants cannot even imagine why the Catholic church persists in her opposition to artificial birth control, so alien does the idea seem.
When the “pill” was released, it looked like such a good thing to so many people. Now people could plan their families. Now families wouldn’t be pushed into poverty by the demands of so many children. Now women could avoid dangerous pregnancies. Now women could fulfill their roles in life as liberated people whose first allegiance was not to home, hearth and a whole brood of children. And I admit, to my utter dismay today, that I swallowed it, hook line and sinker. It was attractive. It fit with my notions of what I wanted in and for my life.
Then came Roe vs Wade, and what had been shameful and unthinkable a generation before, to abort a living baby within a woman, became accepted and in some areas, even exalted. It looked like a good way out of difficult situations--the rape victim, the woman whose pregnancy threatened her own life, the woman who was destined to bear a malformed child who would bring (or so the saying went, and still goes) only heartache and expense to the parents and suffer only misery. I didn’t buy into that one, but someone did--there have been more than 50 million abortions since that decision. Contrary to all the advertising, it isn’t rare and it isn’t safe, for the mother or for the baby. Behind the superficial appeal was a terrible evil.
Now there is embryonic stem cell research. I read in the pages of a prominent Catholic magazine a letter that supported using embryonic stem cells from embryos that are going to be destroyed anyway because “the ends have already been determined.” Because the embryos are going to be destroyed anyway, went the argument, we should get good from them. The good of promised healing from terrible diseases, from paralysis, and from aging is so tantalizing, so immediate, how can it really be wrong?
Having been suckered into one promised good that turned out not to be so good, either for the world or for me personally, I am a lot less confident in my independent ability to determine what’s right and what’s wrong. My idea of good is too self centered and too short sighted to be a reliable measure of what should be. Moreover, I have this unsettling tendency to believe that Holy Spirit is telling me to do what I want to do anyway.
Thank you very much, I think I’ll stay comfortably in the middle seat of the middle bench in the very center of the Barque of Peter on this one, and on all the ones that follow. I might think the Holy Spirit is at work in my life and I hope He is, but I can see so clearly how He lives and breathes and works through the Catholic Church in the great sweep of church history that it leaves no doubt in my mind. I see so clearly, too, how often we as a people manage to go astray when we turn aside from what the Church teaches and what a terrible harvest we reap.
Birth control seemed like a great plan, an unalloyed positive, and it has brought us to the brink of cultural extinction and potential religious persecution. Abortion in limited cases seemed like a positive way out of real, human anguish, and it has furthered our cultural demise and blurred the line between good and evil. We now hear talk, with the same solicitous tones and good intentions, of ending the lives of those outside the womb who are too old, too sick, too damaged to “enjoy a quality life.” Using embryos slated for inevitable destruction seems like bringing good out of evil. Perhaps it will not be long before we are harvesting organs from condemned criminals because, after all, their end has been determined and “they’re going to be executed anyway---why waste those organs?” The talk has already begun.
Perhaps more than that, in a society that exalts the individual above all things, the Church teaches us that we are all in this together. She makes it clear that my gifts and calling are not for my good and my relationship with Jesus alone, but are given for the use of others. Society’s point of view seems to pleasant, so attractive compared to Holy Mother Church’s insistence that I share my toys with my brothers and sisters. Why should I not do everything I can to be happy as I see happy, to succeed as I want to succeed? Shouldn’t life be about one’s own personal fulfillment?
Well, as Mother would say, not exactly. Times are proving again and again, it is not all about me. I have only look closely at my own life to validate that. I’ve done a lot of good as a doctor-lawyer; might I have done a lot more if I had been the mother of more children? I’ll never know.
God had made at least a little hay out of the field I chose to plant, a testimony to His grace and something for which I am thankful. What bothers me is that when the time was right to make the choice that directed my life, for so many years the thought that my calling might have a larger context and greater effect than my own contentment didn’t really dawn on me.
I find it interesting that society calls on us to recycle cans for the good of the environment and the future but won’t even suggest that we might want to plan our lives and careers and exercise our faith with the ultimate good of coming generations in mind. It never enters the collective conscience that the good of limiting a family for one person might mean the end of Christian culture in Europe in just a few years. And it never, ever understands that there is no reliable, human way to figure these things out ahead of time by mere logic and desire and appearance alone. Ultimately, making the choice among those things that may all appear to be good to the already sinful, human eye requires Divine direction.
Through it all, the Catholic Church has stood, unwavering and solidly for life in all its forms and all its gifts, and all its community, while society and many of its Protestant brethren fell prey to one, or another, or all of these lies dressed up as truth and good. Through it all, The Church has taught that good can only be achieved by following the laws of God. She gently insists that no matter how difficult, or how peculiar and sometimes self-contradictory it may seem, honoring God by being obedient to His will is the only ultimate good, and it is wholly reliable. Left to our own inspired and convicted devices, even with a knowledge of Scripture, a commitment to Christ, and the best of will, we seem to do a pretty lousy job of things.
I might be a little slow on the uptake, but I get the idea at last. I need help that is real. I need The Church, whom I can consult, who can talk to me in clear and unequivocal ways to help me keep on the path God has laid out for me. I need something both eternal and external to help me hear and obey God’s voice. I need the Church as a real entity, visible and powerful here on earth. I cannot do it alone. And God does not expect me to. It is why Christ gave me the Church to protect and nurture me.
So I am happy to have the refuge of Holy Mother Church, whose like any good Mother points the way for her children to grow in grace and live in harmony. Her track record is a lot better than mine, and I have a lot of learning left to do. I don’t always understand where her teachings are taking me, but I have every confidence in the destination.