If you ask still-practicing Christians about the vices of post-Christian America, many would say: abortion, divorce, promiscuity, pornography, gay marriage, and other burgeoning forms of cultural crudeness. These are serious sins and social problems, to be sure, and naturally grow wherever Christian virtues shrink. But anyone familiar with the traditional sorting of sins and vices might produce a very different kind of list.
It’s telling that even Christians today usually don’t. Lust, which lies behind several vices mentioned above, is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, a very common and subtle fault. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, it’s the first sin that leads into Hell and the last to be purged in Purgatory. It’s hard to guard against precisely because it partly imitates – but in truth counterfeits – one of the most divine realities: the love between two persons.
But there are worse sins, and the worst of all, the one way down there frozen in ice – and perpetually so because it seeks to flee the fire and warmth of the Spirit and the whole divine order – is Pride: The very non serviam (“I will not serve”) of Satan himself, the deepest and dumbest of sins because there is no place to flee from God, no other reality where we can have it better our way, whatever we think.
If you read about Pride casually in some Christian book, you may get the impression that it’s only a kind of self-absorption, neglecting your family or neighbor, or not seeking social justice. You often hear that in homilies, too. But Pride is far darker and deadlier than that. It’s what keeps us from understanding our place in the world, what is below and, more particularly, what above us.
St. Vincent De Paul warned: “Humility is nothing but truth, and pride is nothing but lying.” It’s no surprise that post-Christians don’t get this point because, in the general cultural breakdown, most Christians haven’t gotten it either. This is one of the deepest ways we’ve lost the living connection to our own tradition. And it’s not merely a question of liberal/conservative. Things would be a lot simpler if it were.
The liberals, to be sure, have long tried to redefine Christian faith and morals. In the mid-nineteenth century, Cardinal Newman had already made stopping liberalism in religion his central task. But even among Catholics, something even worse than liberalism has partly succeeded. To take a current example, as we linked to last week, a soppy song “Love Cannot Be Silenced,” is circulating among some communities of religious women stung by the Vatican’s criticism of their practices earlier this year. I’ll spare you this horror, but it’s simple self-satisfaction is telling: “We are faithful, loving and wise, dancing along side by side, with a Gospel vision to lead us and Holy Fire in our eyes.”
The Fall of Lucifer by David Collins (1933)
Now, in general, people learn a bit about that most Christian of virtues, humility, almost in the normal course of things. Anyone with moderate self-knowledge who has grappled with the challenges of living knows how weak, feeble, silly, and blind everyone is at times. This is simply a reality principle. Even the virtuous pagans did not – like the presumptuous sisters – dare to call themselves wise (sophoi), but mere lovers of wisdom (philo-sophoi), which they were pagan-humble enough to know they had not attained. You get the impression that the nuns have been dosing themselves for years with the poison of the divine female Sophia, and as a result almost unconsciously make several proud claims. Who of us, even the nuns, thinking seriously on it, would claim to be faithful, loving, wise?
I often find conservative Christians have drunk a different Kool-Aid, most noticeably we/they seem to believe that because we stand by the Creed (an otherwise excellent thing) that we also live it – and have a right to abuse others because they don’t. If only. I’ve known quite a few conservative Christians and I’m sorry to report, beginning with myself, that the Seven Deadlies are alive and well among us, Pride, as always, in the forefront. I’ve even run across a few accomplished theologians and highly placed churchmen who, in person, might be described as lacking a certain self-forgetfulness.
Many more of us have just absorbed the general arrogance of post-Christian culture. A few years ago, I participated in the search for a new director of a Catholic organization. One applicant, barely been past thirty, regaled us with accounts of personal achievements in terms better applied to Christ’s Second Coming. I pointed this out later to the rest of the board. An experienced professor at a prestigious university sighed, “That’s how they’re all taught to present themselves these days.” But this of a Catholic, seeking to run a Catholic organization?
Pride cannot be laid out on a liberal/conservative axis, or along lines of class difference, as many now think. I’ve lived in Washington for decades and often hear politicians denounce “elites” and praise the wisdom of the American people. I sometimes wonder whether they know any of the latter. I grew up among working-stiff Catholic ethnics and am grateful for it because there is real virtue and holiness among simple people. But I know – and am even related to – simple people in small towns who are as drop-dead foolish and as blowhard arrogant as any Beltway insider. And I also know many men and women of honor, humility, and Christian piety serving in prestigious positions in politics, the military, and journalism. Even – amazing grace! – a few lawyers.
Sin and virtue operate on a different register than the categories we usually use in our public life these days. We all have to stay committed to public struggles on many fronts – and in coming days especially to the defense of religious liberty. But it’s far more important never to lose sight of a crucial Christian perspective: even this fine and essential work can be done in godly, or ungodly, ways.