Motives for Hope
Editorial FAITH MAGAZINE May-June 2013
“The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones”
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act III, Scene ii)
These past few weeks have been momentous in the life of the Church. First we were all taken by surprise at the resignation of a wise and holy pope whom we loved and respected. There followed a period of uncertainty, which in the UK – and especially in Scotland – descended into real spiritual turmoil when the indiscretions of Cardinal O’Brien came to public attention. To use Jesuitical terms this period of desolation has now given way to a period of consolation. We have a new Pope, and that is a source of deep spiritual joy. We hear Peter’s voice anew and he is among us again to “strengthen his brethren”. Coupled with this deep spiritual joy is a more superficial (and no doubt more transitory) source of consolation. For the time being at least Pope Francis seems to be playing quite well inthe secular media. People have warmed to him and they like the little anecdotes about him paying his own hotel bill and getting the bus with his brother cardinals. There is a mood of buoyancy and optimism abroad. However, while we may enjoy this period of optimism for as long as it lasts it should not blind us. The Cardinal O’Brien affair may for a time have passed from the front pages of the newspapers but it has done deep and lasting damage to the Church’s credibility and public standing. And it has tarnished the image of the priesthood. Moreover, this wound to the Church’s credibility has been self-inflicted within the context of a society that is in the grip of despair and desperately needs to hear anew the message of hope that the Church has to offer.
A Society Gripped by Despair
Surely the frenetic busyness and dynamism of our modern culture is diametrically opposed to the sullen inertia that usually characterises depression and despair. How then can we claim that our society is in the grip of despair? Paradoxically this frenzied activity is precisely its manifestation. So much of this activity is a fruit of an interior restlessness. Think how we are bombarded by music and noise and how often now we are distracted by the new social media, and seldom to any good purpose. It has a sort of narcotic effect that for a moment distracts us from or takes the edge off the interior restlessness of our hearts. Moreover, our society is marked by an excessive curiosity. One thinks of the cult of celebrity. It is no longer sufficient for an actor, entertainer or athlete to dotheir job well. The tabloids feed us with every juicy detail of their private lives and relationships. Are the drunken antics of some B-list pop star in a night club really newsworthy? But the very fact they are printed and read speaks of a distorted and twisted curiosity that is rampant in our culture.
The controversy generated around the Leveson Inquiry bears witness to a curiosity into the lives of others that is too invasive. Perhaps a more obvious example is the prevalence of pornography. With pornography, images of what we intuitively recognise to be a private and intimate act are exposed to the gaze of curious voyeurs. Yet our culture is saturated with pornography. Finally, our culture is characterised by an instability of purpose in its members. We are forever travelling here or there to find ourselves. We pass from one fleeting experience to the next, always chasing something yet more vivid. We see the tragic absence of any kind of stable purpose played out in the lives of so many families where spouses have either never made a commitment to each other or have not held firmto it. These three characteristics of our culture – interior restlessness, excessive curiosity and instability of purpose – are described in classical moral theology as the offspring of acedia.
Acedia is sometimes translated as sloth. But it doesn’t mean laziness so much as a sort of spiritual apathy. This spiritual apathy is the fruit of a sadness with oneself and with the world. It is an unwillingness to aspire to greatness. Once one has settled upon one’s own mediocrity and despaired of doing or being anything great, one sets one’s heart on nothing more than distraction.
Intellectual Roots of Acedia
The roots of this spiritual sadness that has now thoroughly invaded the soul of modern man are to be found in a misunderstanding of what science has revealed to us about the modern world. The spectacular advances of modern science have unfortunately been appropriated by many of our culture’s leading intellectuals to impose an ideology of materialism within our culture. Materialism is not the necessary conclusion derived from the scientific method. It has, however, been presented as such. The popular perception is that science has rendered the existence of God at best superfluous and has destroyed any illusion about mankind being in any way special. God is not in his heaven; the earth is no longer at the centre of the universe; and man is nothing more than an overdeveloped primate. Thisnow prevailing world view has of course crushed the better spiritual aspirations of many in our culture and thereby given rise to a real sadness of soul in many of our contemporaries. The frenetic activity and noise that characterise western culture are a distraction because if we were really to accept the philosophical presuppositions of our culture then we could not help but conclude with Betrand Russell’s description of our plight. “There is darkness without and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendour, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment then nothing.” It would not do to dwell on dark thoughts like these, so we distract ourselves.
Unfortunately, we Catholics are not entirely blameless in this regard. The presentation of theology, that is the way in which the Church’s teachings have been integrated with secular sciences, has not kept up with the discoveries of modern science. The bringing together of what God has told us in Revelation about Himself, and about who we human beings are, with the knowledge derived from the scientific investigation of the material world is what we would term a synthesis of knowledge. The Church has tended to and even now still does rely upon a synthesis that was worked out in the Middle Ages principally by the great saint and scholar St Thomas Aquinas. Hence we would talk of the Thomistic synthesis. More than half a millennium has passed since this synthesis was elaborated. During thisperiod our knowledge of the natural sciences has progressed and there are now significant tensions between the Thomistic synthesis and what the scientific method has revealed about our world. To cite just one example, it is difficult to see how this synthesis, relying as it does upon a basically Aristotelian concept of nature or form as a static unchanging reality, can accommodate the discoveries of modern science.
For St Thomas, and for Aristotle before him, that which makes an individual a particular type of thing is its form, which it shares with every other individual in the same class of thing. Thus, in St Thomas’ system we are able to recognise this and that individual as both being horses because they both share in the form of “horseness”. Hence there is a constant reality, the form of horseness that relates different individuals. This would seem to function well enough for individuals that are alive at the same time, but what about individuals that live in time periods far apart? The theory of evolution presupposes that those individuals that we now call horses are part of a continuum of development that changes over time. If the nature of horseness is a static constant, as it seems to befor St Thomas and Aristotle, the question arises: can this philosophy really give an adequate account of the continuum of development in life forms that lies at the heart of the theory of evolution? And if it cannot, how can this philosophy mediate the Catholic faith to a culture now thoroughly imbued with a scientific world view?
In the Faith movement we would argue that the philosophical framework that underpins the Thomistic synthesis must be renewed. The teachings of Christ that have been hung upon this framework and that have found in it a serviceable explanatory tool cannot in themselves change. But we are now at the stage where we need to elaborate a new framework, a new synthesis that will have the explanatory capacity to integrate the findings of modern science with the content of our Catholic faith.
By no means is this to dismiss the seminal contribution of St Thomas Aquinas to Catholic theology. The synthesis that he elaborated has served the Church admirably. Moreover, many of the basic presuppositions of his approach to reality have an enduring validity. But were St Thomas Aquinas alive today he would not be teaching by rote from a textbook first published in the 13th century. Just as then he sought to integrate the rediscovered philosophy of Aristotle into a new synthesis with the Catholic faith so too today he would be striving to integrate the findings of modern science with the perennial truths of the Catholic faith.
In the absence of a synthesis that is capable of reconciling the findings of modern science with the Catholic faith, our culture has lost sight of the dignity of human life and the greatness of our vocation. In one of the prayers of the Mass the priest says: “May we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” This is the great goal for which we human beings have been called into existence. It is the loss of this vision which is the occasion of the spiritual sadness that infects our culture. It is the loss of this vision that has made us become so shallow and dissipated.
Lack of Vision Within the Church
We should not imagine that the loss of this vision of the greatness of the human vocation is confined to those outside the Church. Many inside the Church have lost sight of it too, and it has had a catastrophic effect in our seminaries, our convents, our monasteries, our parishes and our families. It is not our purpose here to comment upon the faults and failings of any individual. That is a matter for their own (and our own!) consciences. However, in recent years the scandals in the Church have become so frequent and so widespread that they seem to point the discerning observer beyond the moral failings of isolated individuals. The culture of moral laxity that has invaded the Church and that has born its fruits in the lives of particular people is at heart not a moral crisis but anintellectual crisis. When the philosophical synthesis that was used as the vehicle to expound the teachings of the Church gave way it seemed to throw into question many of the certainties of our faith. It appeared as if we could no longer know our faith with certainty. And from this point the logic is clear. If you can’t know the faith with your head, then you can’t love the faith with your heart. And if you don’t love the faith with your heart you certainly won’t live the faith in your life.
Outside of the Church
When acedia reaches maturity its final fruit is despair. Josef Pieper distinguishes this creeping sensation of spiritual sadness from despair proper. Despair is finally an intellectual decision, a fixed purpose, that leads to an obstinate refusal of God and of the destiny he offers to us. Counter-intuitively this obstinacy in despair is actually a manifestation of pride. Individuals within the Church, often high-ranking, have been and are, and no doubt in the future will be again, at fault. Nonetheless it is this pride that explains something of the vehemence of the secular world’s reaction against the Church. It is one thing for Catholics to be dismayed at Church scandals, but why should the secular world that has never given any credence whatsoever to the Church take such fierce delightin the destruction of the Church’s credibility? The mere presence of the Church, which for all the faults of her members remains the abiding presence of Christ in the world, reminds the secular world of something it would rather forget. The presence of the Church reminds us of the greatness of our vocation as human beings.
The great tragedy is that the Church, which should be the bearer of hope to a fallen world, has been assailed by scandals at precisely that moment when our culture needs to be inspired by hope. What then must our response to these scandals be, both for the sake of the Church and for the sake of those outside the Church?
In this context our response must be a deepening and renewal of the virtue of hope in our lives. Hope is the virtue that is proper to the human condition in this life. Everything in this life is passing. We cannot hold on to anything definitively in this life. Hope is that virtue by which we strive after something great, recognising that we cannot yet lay our hands definitively upon the prize. In this life we are called to something great. We are called to overcome the limitations of our sinfulness and selfishness and to share the divine life of Christ. But we cannot yet grasp fully and with unfailing security the reality of the divine life to which we are called – in this life we must recognise that we are still marked by the effects of sins, that we still experience weakness andfrailty. Moreover we encounter Christ in a veiled way in this life. Christ comes to us hidden in sacraments and mediated to us at the hands of sometimes unworthy ministers. Only at the end of this earthly pilgrimage do we hope to grasp Christ fully and finally. Until then, hope requires us to be at once daring and humble.
We need to be daring because we must continue to aspire to the greatness to which Christ calls us. We cannot settle for safe mediocrity. St Augustine teaches us in his Confessions that we were made for God, not for mediocrity, and so it is incumbent upon us to be daring and to aspire unto God. The psalmist cries out: “Let us see your face, O Lord.” And it is this for which we must dare to hope.
At the same time we must remain humble. We must recognise who we are and we must take responsibility for that. We must remember that we are sinners in need of God’s mercy. This is not some sort of masochistic exercise in self-hatred. It is rather a sober estimation of our true predicament. Even when we seem to be making great strides in holiness if we slip into presumptuous pride it is possible for us to fall from grace. It is by no means a foregone conclusion that we will get to heaven. And we need to implore God’s mercy again, remembering the words of the psalmist: “A humbled contrite heart you will not spurn, O Lord.”
True hope avoids the extremes of despair and presumption, both of which actually are forms of pride. But for it to do so, the poles between which hope oscillates in this life are humility and daring. And we must cultivate both of them.
Motives for Hope
Ultimately, true Christian hope is not in the things of this world. True Christian hope is to hope in Christ. We do not hope that the circumstances of our lives will turn out favourably for our comfort; rather we hope that through the trials and tribulations of this life God’s salvific will for us will be worked out. Yet God knows all too well our frailty and is too generous to leave us entirely without consolation, to leave us entirely without motives for hope.
We have noted the intellectual roots of the crisis that at present afflicts the Church. In all humility we believe that this is the right diagnosis of the problem. That in itself provides grounds for hope because if we understand the root causes of the problem we can get to the heart of the matter rather than dissipating our energies in addressing only the symptoms. The past half century or more has been a period of both confusion and daring innovation in the world of academic theology, with various great thinkers trying to work out new theological systems. Some of these innovations have proved fruitful. Others in the long-term, though perhaps sincerely meant, have proved destructive of the faith. However, this state of affairs bears witness to an undeniable fact. Those in the Church whoare really thinking and trying to grapple with what it means to be a Catholic in the 21st century are increasingly beginning to see the need for a new synthesis.
“ In the Faith movement we are trying to contribute to this project. We humbly believe that we are just now beginning to see the tantalising beginnings of such a renewed vision of the Catholic faith. This vision is fully orthodox. It vindicates both the spiritual and material nature of man. It does not collapse the distinction between grace and nature. And it places Christ at the very centre of the universe: Christ is the master-key to the meaning of the universe. But it also integrates the Catholic faith with modern science. It shows how modern physics points us towards a creator. It provides a framework that enables us to give an account of both the Big Bang and evolution as integral parts of God’s one providential plan for his creation.
Those of us lucky enough to be involved with Faith youth conferences and Faith Forums have first-hand experience of how this vision can inspire and reach out even to young people immersed in our secular culture. It has the capacity to inspire us with great hope because it gives us a renewed vision of the greatness of our vocation. The whole of the universe is made for the Incarnation when God steps into his own creation. We human beings, as spiritual, find our fulfilment in God but, as material beings, we desire to encounter him aterially. We are patterned upon and made for the Incarnation. Hence we have good reason to be very daring.
This approach to the Catholic faith can provide the intellectual basis of a renewal of Catholic theology and catechesis. And the more people know their faith the more they will see the beauty of their faith and therefore love their faith. The more people know their faith the more they will realise that this Catholic faith is a firm foundation upon which they can build their lives. This renewed vision of Catholicism is unashamedly intellectual, but it is not an exercise in navel-gazing academia. It has the capacity to inspire a renewal in the life of the Church. And in so far as this vision renews the Church it will make the Church an ever more credible witness to Christ. This vision is then a motive for hope, not just for the Church but for the whole
of our society.
These are daring claims and they need to be balanced with humility. This project of a renewed vision of Catholicism that integrates the faith with modern science is only in its infancy. It is not yet a fully developed theological system. If we were to characterise it as it stands now it would be a useful catechetical tool. Much painstaking work remains to be done to elaborate this system. Doubtless this will take time, and errors may well be made along the way. And even once this system is fully elaborated it will need then to be communicated. This itself will be an intellectual endeavour requiring a new set of skills from those involved. We must be humble and recognise that much remains to be done. Nonetheless even now, in the infancy of this project, we should be inspired with greathope.
Hope must be our response. And we have good grounds for this hope. However, we must recognise that this project of elaborating a theological vision, if it is to be truly Catholic, must be nurtured and discerned in prayer. In this month of May we should look to Our Lady as the model of Christian hope. We see that Mary’s life is marked by her humility and her daring. In her Magnificat she says God has looked on “his servant in her lowliness”. And by these words we see Mary’s great humility. Yet in the very next line of this great outpouring of Mary’s soul we see that Mary is also daring and conscious of the greatness of her vocation: “Henceforth all ages will call me blessed.” In that most beautiful of marian prayers, the Salve Regina, we call Mary Spes nostra, Our Hope. We should entrustthe infancy of this project, a time of great hope, to the prayers of Mary our mother.