Our Catholic Barbarians

In the Garden of Gethsemane on the night prior to the Lord’s passion, Peter fell asleep. “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” was how Jesus memorably chose to describe the lapse. Even so, Peter’s very presence in the garden testifies to his great instinct towards faith – one that would falter and even stumble into outright betrayal, but would endure.

The nature of our faith as it interacts with our minds, spirit, and flesh is worth pondering. Jesus implies a distinction; failures of “the flesh” are not always entirely volitional in quite the same way as other kinds of deliberate actions, which require assent of the mind and spirit, though of course they can persist and devolve into willful rejection of truth. Excessive indulgence of the flesh accounts for a great deal of human suffering today, both personal and social. Nonetheless, there is also something about our universal physical human weakness that elicits a certain measure of sympathy. The fact is that we are weak and don’t always behave as we’d like to.

Graham Greene, the great twentieth-century novelist and convert to the Catholic faith, was intimately familiar with the powerful inclinations of the flesh. He led a deeply conflicted life replete with extramarital romantic liaisons. The soul in turmoil, at once given over to passion and afflicted with remorse, is the theme that dominates his greatest works.

Greene recognized that his persistent involvement in a series of affairs severed him from the Church. He knew he could not have it both ways; that would be to arrogate to himself the content of the faith handed down from the beginning.

In the end, he opted for the affairs. In a 1990 letter to Newsweek’s Kenneth Woodward, Greene tells of his experience travelling to Padre Pio’s village in Italy with girlfriend Catherine Walston. He was moved by the Mass they attended early one morning, but also reveals: “I was invited to go see him that night in the monastery, but I made excuses not to go as neither of us wanted our lives changed!”

In spite of his failings, he displayed a certain integrity by choosing not to present himself for Holy Communion – an issue of striking contemporary relevance. “I’ve broken the rules”, he writes. “They are rules I respect, so I haven’t been to communion for nearly thirty years. . . .In my private life, my situation is not regular. If I went to communion, I would have to confess and make promises. I prefer to excommunicate myself.” If this is not exactly an act of faith, but it is an acknowledgment of the Catholic faith’s coherence.

Such a stance seems almost quaint today. The stark contrast with Nancy Pelosi and other Catholic politicians who do approach Communion – despite acting in flagrant, public defiance of Catholic teaching – springs immediately to mind. Here we glimpse what it is like when not even the spirit is willing; how dreadful indeed it is when the mind, unlike Peter in the garden, does not even intend to be present to the Truth.

Nancy Pelosi’s support of abortion policies hardly needs to be detailed here. Although Catholicism cannot be reduced to the issue of abortion – or indeed to a mere code of ethics – any Catholic who actively supports it acts as antithetically as (and more destructively than) the vegetarian who frequents steakhouses, or the Muslim who promotes pilgrimage to Panama. It simply makes no sense; and it is not that hard to grasp.

Some Catholics – aware of the Church’s unflinching opposition to abortion – might be surprised to learn that Pius XI called the concept of Christian socialism a contradiction in terms in the 1931 encyclical in Quadragesimo Anno: “no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.” Even “moderate” socialism, which better approximates present trends, does not escape reproach. We’re reminded again of Pelosi when he speaks of his “great sorrow” that not a few Catholics “have deserted the camp of the Church and gone over to the ranks of Socialism.”

Pelosi met Pope Benedict in Rome not long ago, but that was a mere courtesy and no photos were forthcoming. She gave every appearance of having no Greeneian angst that meeting him would actually change her life. That would mean taking what he has to say seriously.

Pelosi is not the everyman (everyperson?) “hypocrite” who recognizes goodness yet fails to conform perfectly to it, but the intellectually dishonest one who misrepresents truth and fails even to aspire to it – all while claiming to advance it. It’s far worse to champion falsity in the name of truth, than to recognize and respect truth – but crash land in its pursuit.

At the close of his acclaimed book After Virtue, Alasdair McIntyre writes of the importance of preserving the intellectual and moral life in the midst of “the new dark ages which are already upon us.” There is much talk of America in decline today. By her obstinacy – not of the flesh but of the mind – Pelosi has proven to be one of the “barbarians” that McIntyre says have “already been governing us for quite some time.”

But a barbarian on Botox, you ask? An odd combination, but that’s precisely what can happen when not even the spirit is willing to accompany the truth.

Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.