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The Laughter of the Lord Print E-mail
By James Schall   
Tuesday, 17 February 2009

In Book XIII, chapter 6, of St. Augustine’s City of God, we read: “Now the philosophers against whose attacks we are defending the City of God, that is to say, God’s Church, think that they show their wisdom in laughing at our assertion that the separation of soul from body is to be reckoned among the soul’s punishments.” Demonstrating “wisdom” by laughing at basic Catholic positions is still rather common these days.

The Catholic position on why death is considered a “punishment” is clear enough. It is only laughed at when someone does not bother to study what the teaching means. We are mortal and finite beings. Still, in the beginning, God did not intend for us to die. The first sin was in fact chosen. Death was a consequence, as the first parents were warned.

The “laughing philosophers” thought that a “non-dying” body was preposterous, even though this is the most wonderful status that human beings could ask for. The same philosophers called the resurrection of the same body “foolish,” which, I suppose, gives us Christians the last laugh, when we think of it.

The Muslim storm over the Regensburg Lecture and controversy about the lifting of the Society of Saint Pius X excommunications are both occasions for ridicule of the papacy. Why? It did not “anticipate” the adverse reaction that comes when a Catholic legal action or doctrine is widely misunderstood to mean what it does not mean.

To imagine in advance the many ways that something, intelligible enough in itself, can be wrongly interpreted by those who choose to do so is a daunting task. Ironically, we do not blame those who do not trouble themselves to comprehend what is said. Rather, we blame ourselves for not foreseeing that this misunderstanding would arise. We are blamed both for what we hold and for what we do not hold.

Catholics in the modern world seem to be held to a double standard. As in gay and pedophilia cases, they are subject to civil law when they do not observe their own norms. Some of these same norms, however, are often legally considered human “rights.” So Catholics are accused in both cases, say, for not disciplining homosexual clergy and for opposing the “right” to be a homosexual.

In Psalm 2, we read the famous passage where the Lord’s ‘laughter” becomes rather frightening: “Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord…. He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision….”

What does “He who sits in the heavens” laugh at? Evidently, it is the “counsels of the nations against the Lord.”

A report from Vienna recently told of Carl Djerassi, one of the inventors of the birth control pill. In Der Standard, Djerassi now sees that the pill has been a disaster for Europe. The separation of “sexuality and reproduction” is complete. Djerassi thinks in retrospect that nations are in the process of committing national suicide.

So there is something to laugh about. The counsel of the nations has it all wrong. “Private” decisions supported by the state spell changes in rule, in the composition of populations. Nations do not decide about their own children, but from which of other lands to import labor to take care of themselves due to there being no children of their own.

I have been reading Robert Hugh Benson’s 1907 novel, The Lord of the World, about the eloquent American senator who becomes, in effect, the anti-Christ. In the course of the story, all of the familiar anti-life proposals have been put into effect. The only thing left is that the Church is still faithful to her teachings; all else conspires against her.

In Galatians, St. Paul writes: “I assure you, brethren, the gospel I proclaimed to you is no mere human invention. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I schooled in it. It came by revelation from Jesus Christ.”

Augustine, in his commentary on Galatians, writes: “But remember in the very opening of the letter Paul had said that he was an apostle ‘neither from men nor by any man,’ a statement that does not appear in any other letter.”

The Church exists that the truths given by Christ remain in the world, even when the world rejects them, laughs at them. Opposition to the Church, I think, is itself the best teacher of what the Church must hold to remain herself. It is no “mere human invention.”

Sooner or later, if the Church does not seem to teach what she herself must hold to be what she is, her enemies will remind her. Somehow, I like the image of the Lord laughing at this paradoxical way of teaching a stubborn lot.

James Schall, S.J., is a professor at Georgetown University, and one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America.

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Comments (2)Add Comment
written by Raymond Barry, February 18, 2009
Whenever the Church becomes too sure of itself some great crisis comes along, like Mohammed, like Martin Luther, like Karl Marx, like postmodernism. Is it too self-regarding to think these trials are sent specifically to make us rethink what we thought we knew?
written by David van Gend, February 19, 2009
I see that Prof Djerassi says he was misrepresented in his views - see his response in the Guardian at
Pity that - but no doubt TCT would like to avoid spreading a story that turns out to be incorrect. Wouldn't want to be held in derision!

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