Monday, September 27, 2010

"Expert in Humanity"

I'm reading Dayspring, a novel by Harry Sylvester. It's set in New Mexico (which is how it caught my attention--yes, I'm still on my New Mexico kick) and has as its central character an anthropologist who fakes (sort of) a conversion to Catholicism in order to gain access to the Penitentes, members of a secret brotherhood that imposes extreme forms of penance--chiefly flagellation--on its members and that has had a tense relationship with the Catholic hierarchy through most of its history.

After his pretended conversion, the anthropologist finds himself becoming more and more authentically Catholic in his outlook and sensibilities.  In one passage, he marvels at all the ways in which the Church's teaching represents a very wise and commonsensical approach to matters of human behavior.

"On the basic things the Church was always right. By what extraordinary sifting of experience she had become so, he could not understand: it had always amazed him that this basic accuracy and rightness, achieved through some realistic process and over a long time, should be attributed by the Church to anything as ridiculous as what she called revelation. It was not that he and some of the others were ignorant of the Church's being right so often, as that they could not bring themselves to subdue their incredible pride long enough to do what someone else said they should do. Of course, if they believed in God, he thought, it would have been something else again."

What a brilliant miniature portrait of the "scientific" mind contemplating religious truth. And what a devastating analysis of the role played by pride in the origins of sin. The secular world necessarily dismisses any notion that there is such a thing as God's will, but is constantly amazed--and annoyed--that Christianity so often proves to be right about the practical consequences of living in defiance of God's will.

Catholic moral theology is grounded in Catholic anthropology, which means that the Church's calling is twofold: to show God to man, and to show man to himself. When Pope Paul VI, addressing the United Nations General Assembly in October 1965, scandalized representatives of the affluent Western democracies by explicitly condemning artificial birth control, he did so after having referred to the Catholic Church as an "expert in humanity." His claim was greeted with smug condescension. (I still have a vivid memory of CBS's Eric Sevareid being eloquently smug and condescending on the subject.) Forty-five years later it's still possible, perhaps more than ever, to find Catholic claims of "expertise in humanity" being greeted with smug condescension. But it's also possible to find--in every corner of the world--dramatic and tragic evidence that Pope Paul's warnings about "reducing the number of guests at the banquet of life" were right.

Of course, we mustn't attribute that to "anything as ridiculous as what the Church calls revelation."

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