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2016: An Already Interesting Year

St. Thomas More is reported once to have said: “The times are never so bad but that a good man can live in them.” A good saying for this year, because two things – not entirely unrelated – are likely to shake that conviction: 1) the presidential campaign, and 2) the Year of Mercy (what some are likely to make of it, anyway).

Elections are sobering things for anyone paying attention. We are all sinners, weak – and foolish. But few of us are called to stand and provide public confirmation of this age-old truth. In 2016, the disproportion between the magnitude of our problems and the smallness of the candidates who claim to be able to fix them is large, perhaps larger than ever before in our history.

The central difficulty is our core doubt about what America and Western civilization are – or might be – anymore. This is no mere policy question. The feeling is widespread and non-partisan. People across the political spectrum – and, I’ve found, in other developed nations as well – complain that they “don’t recognize” their own countries anymore. An extraordinary, almost unprecedented thing.

We’re like the Israelites in exile, except we haven’t gone anywhere: “For we are reduced, O Lord, beyond any other nation, brought low everywhere in the world this day because of our sins. We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader. . .”

An exaggeration, perhaps, but in terms of range finding, not far from how many of us feel.

Benedict XVI signs Caritas in Veritate
Benedict XVI signs Caritas in Veritate

In times like these, “debates” only add to the distress – and believing that political “outsiders” will somehow deliver us is illusory. Does anyone think that if we only get taxes right, or immigration, or foreign policy, or healthcare, we’ll be back on the right road? Important issues, to be sure, but singly or together don’t address the real problem: a failing national vision.

A country sure of its identity, for example, doesn’t much worry about immigrants. But thanks to various factors (including multiculturalism and its several offshoots) in our society, we’re given to understand by elites now that we should have a chastened sense of being American. The president has lectured us that other nations also regard themselves as exceptional – which he seems to think is right for them, wrong for us.

This is dangerous and false humility in a world where Islamic jihad, Putin’s Russia, China, and other unsavory forces – with no qualms about militant self-assertion – will be only too happy to fill any vacuum America leaves. You may wish it were otherwise, but there’s no other country, no “international community” to look to at present.

And we ourselves are deeply troubled. Many particulars need fixing in America, but the thing we lack, the thing no political candidate currently seems to be able to give us, is a renewed and realistic sense of ourselves – something that has to be rooted in a truth deeper than economics and politics, in the “Creator” our Founders invoked and the condition of the American people. Without that spirit of confidence about the foundation, reforms won’t mean much.

Something like the mirror image of this has emerged in the Church since the election of Pope Francis, and is likely to be much in evidence during this Year of Mercy. He’s presented a large and inspiring vision. But many people, even many Catholics, seem to think that the vision has all but invalidated traditional practices like repentance, confession, penance, etc. They think they’ve been affirmed. (I don’t entirely blame Francis for this confusion because the world is blind to much of what he does and is happy to distort or exploit his lapses.)

Mercy, for instance, lies very close to the Christian conception of God. But as Benedict XVI argued in Caritas in veritate, things like mercy and charity cannot be understood absent truth: “Through this close link with truth, charity can be recognized as an authentic expression of humanity and as an element of fundamental importance in human relations, including those of a public nature. Only in truth does charity shine forth, only in truth can charity be authentically lived. Truth is the light that gives meaning and value to charity.”

Francis opens the Holy Door
Francis opens the Holy Door

Without truth, mercy, forgiveness, and joy easily slip into a confused sentimentality.

I’ve heard a very good priest say – from the pulpit – that it’s wrong if we come to Mass only out of duty. We need the personal relationship with God that makes it a joy – Francis’ vision. Quite so, and almost all of us who get to that point do so by showing up, from a sense of duty and fidelity to God’s commandments, even when we don’t much feel anything.

Duty and love are not mutually exclusive. Real love does what’s right even absent feeling, often by sheer effort of will. The very same priest remarked more recently that each day he tries to spend an hour in prayer, an hour in reading, an hour in exercise – disciplining soul, mind, body.

That’s the old Catholic wisdom. Ultimately, our salvation depends on grace. Penultimately, the usual human path involves struggles, temptations, trials, disappointments for a time, often a very long time, before we feel at home in the Christian life.

There are good reasons why that’s so. As Cardinal Newman noted: “Nothing is done effectually through untrained human nature; and such is ever the condition of the multitude. Unstable as water, it cannot excel. One day it cried Hosanna; the next, Crucify Him. And, had our Lord appeared to them after they had crucified Him, of course they would have shouted Hosanna once more; and when He had ascended out of sight, then again they would have persecuted His followers.”

The Church holds out a vision to the world that the world is unable to give itself – conspicuously so, these days. But during this Year of Mercy, we’ll have to take care that the vision does not obscure the very things that make any vision a reality, whatever the times.

Robert Royal

Robert Royal

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press. The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments relevant to columns that are civil, concise, and respectful of other contributors. We do not publish comments with links to other websites or other online material.
  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    “We need the personal relationship with God that makes it a joy – Francis’ vision.”

    There is a real truth in St Augustine’s insistence on “delight.”

    In his Commentary on Galatians, he insists that “in acting we necessarily follow what gives us most pleasure” [Quod enim amplius nos delectat, secundum id operemur necesse est] and in in On the Merits and Remission of Sins, he makes the same point, “Men are not willing to do what is right either because the fact that it is right is hidden from them, or because it does not please them… It is from the grace of God, which helps the wills of man, that that which was hidden becomes known, and that which did not please become sweet.”

    Most eloquently, in his Commentary On John’s Gospel, “If it be allowable to the poet [Vergil, Eclogues 2.65] to say “his own pleasure draws each man,” not need, but pleasure, not obligation but delight, how much more ought we to say that a man is drawn to Christ, who delights in the truth, who delights in happiness who delights in justice, who delights in eternal life and all this is Christ?”

    I do not think the Holy Father is saying anything different to the Doctor of Grace.

  • Michael Randolph

    So far, there’s not much talk of the cardinal virtue of justice during the Year of Mercy. 2016 could turn out to be a year of justice.

  • Alicia

    Thank you Dr.Royal. As always, an excellent and timely essay. God bless.

  • JGradGus

    It’s kind of hard not to go to mass out of “a sense of duty” these days. We used to participate in
    the Tridentine Sacrifice of the Mass that evoked a sense of contrition while we remembered the ordeal our Lord endured for us, but now we Celebrate the Mass. Instead of going to mass, we have ‘Church in the Round’ and the mass (in my parish and throughout the entire Vicariate)
    is ‘orchestrated’ by a musical director and a worship commission who have wholeheartedly embraced the Novus Order. There’s a lot of singing now – and I mean A LOT of singing – and zero quiet time for reflection and silent prayer. We greet our neighbors at the beginning
    of the mass and then we offer them a sign of peace during the mass. And people don’t have to memorize the Nicene Creed or the Apostle’s Creed because they can read them on big screen TVs hung so all can see. Our new associate pastor also likes to invite those in attendance to sing a song with him – not a hymn, but a popular a song that he finds meaningful in some way – after his homily. And of course we have a lot of lay people involved in the mass now – two different people reading each of the Epistles, people bringing up the gifts, a plethora of Eucharistic Ministers distributing Communion, and so on.

    I imagine some people find the new mass uplifting. I happened to find the Latin Mass both cleansing and uplifting. But the liberals won the battle of Vatican II and the Catholic Church in the U.S. has been losing members ever since.

    • samton909

      Just wait until they get out the hoverboards.

    • Michael DeLorme

      Tertullian (d. 240 AD) asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” meaning what has Greek philosophy to do with Christianity and its Biblical heritage, at least insofar as defending Christian truth?

      Alcuin (d. 804 AD) likewise asked “What has Ingeld to do with Christ?” questioning the Bishop of Lindisfarne’s interest in heroic legends, amongst whom Ingeld was the most famous of warriors in the 8th century.

      Next week, urge your pastor to sing “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” Then ask him “What has Red Molly’s keys to do with the Keys of Peter?”

    • Quo Vadis

      I feel for you and the way mass is conducted. I have found this very much depends on the pastor and his views on the church. I will call them liberal , moderate or conservative.

      Recently, my church had a change of pastors and I knew this priest was conservative. Now our parish was not liberally run but the new pastor began to change the mass. Doing aways with Eucharistic Ministers, ( unless a Deacon was not available), inserting some Latin, limiting music to traditional hymns , etc, . The church is quite before mass , prayerful and his homilies well done. His bulletin writings 2 pages of teachings.

      Opposite are liberals who I have found like you describe . You might as well attended a ballgame or a concert. There are a nest of them in some religious orders who I believe never read the Rubrics or have decided they can do what they want. I blame the Bishops who refuse to crack down on these priests.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Your vision of Pope Francis’ “Grand Vision” for the world is understandably fair. A proposal for the world if good is intended for good effect. So far there has been good effect in the acceptance of and openness to the new Francis visual and even practical face of the Church. There has also been evident detrimental effect insofar as the lacuna of meaning and fullness of Truth as defined by Christ. Perhaps you are accountable for dualism in seeking to be just in your assessment. Fortunately [I say this in admonition of some who seem bent in following false conscience] we must judge between good and evil. Pleasure joy happiness is good and natural and belongs to truth but clearly is not the measure of truth and neither the rule in the practice of truth. The Cross is the measure of our willingness to adhere to the Truth that Christ gave us. By requisite it includes repentance for sins, confession to a priest, and conversion of life. Our living acceptance of Truth then is the rule. If the “Grand Vision” fails to unmistakably incorporate both measure and rule of Truth it is instead a Grand Deception.

  • Mike Hurcum

    I think as usual we are not thinking outside the Pandora’s box the world lives in. It is not a sense of duty that compels us to attend mass, as so many of us do. It is two things, one it is a remembrance of the Beatific Vision we were created in and two the subsequent fear of the Lord and His punishments that our Catholic Conscience has been formed in.

  • Mike Hurcum

    Forgive me folks I forgot the admonition that St Faustina received on our behalf. Christ said, “Of course I am mercy and love but above Me is the Father and He is Justice”.

  • Diane

    Social Justice is socialism by another name. It is the approval of all that is evil. It has nothing to do with the poor it has everything to do with the liberals both inside and outside of the Church to bring all of the evil front and center amongst ignorant people who do not understand what it happening. It will destroy the Catholic Church. Why does everyone have their eyes closed when it comes to the evil. The Catholic Church must become strong and stop worrying about all of the PC madness and the evil that surrounds the Catholic Church.

    • StarshipEnterpriseE

      Especially when “social justice” liberals use Big Government to attack Catholic institutions.

  • Paul Vander Voort

    I have Lithuanian in laws so Putin’s Russia looks pretty unsavory to me.

    • grump

      Come to America, Paul. Our doors and fences are always open to anyone. Sneaking in is the easiest way, no red tape, laws to deal with. Then the cherry on top: get free government benefits! It’s better than being a real citizen.

  • Manfred

    Thank you for the quotes from Pope Benedict and Bl. John Henry Newman. They are spot on.

    I know of sixteen (five plus eleven) Cardinals who must feel very affirmed by the Synods of 2014 and 2015 on the Family. The Pope’s cardinals lost on both the “softening”? on homosexuality and the CDR (Civilly Divorced and Remarrieds) issues. But the Pope still has not given the final word.

    The climate change fiasco, complete with the Light Show on the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica, put a nice touch on any doubts anyone may have been harboring about contributing to the Peter’s Pence collection this year..

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    If I may add one more point mercy from our human perspective and Christian practice means forgiving others their sins, offenses, and making the effort perhaps at cost to those in need. It can also and should include kindness and love for sinners but not condoning sinful behavior. Mercy from God’s perspective requires repentance, for Catholics confession, and for all conversion of life. Outside of these two principles of mercy I do not discern something other. The difficulty is, which I know you do not propose, is applying mercy to the exercise of sacramental ministry. It is precisely here that many including myself have concern because our Pontiff and other hierarchy have suggested relaxing the requirement of the penitential sacraments in favor of Holy Communion. That means communion without repentance and conversion. Mercy in the latter context has an entirely different character unknown in Apostolic Tradition.

  • Tamsin

    “Duty and love are not mutually exclusive. Real love does what’s right even absent feeling, often by sheer effort of will.” By God’s grace. Well said, Mr. Royal, thank you.

  • Edith Wohldmann

    traditional practices like repentance, confession and penance? – are they not in itself the Mercy of God, so we can become new in Christ? Pope Francis the great Humanitarian, the Reformer, for fraternity, equality, freedom for all, to include active gay living, remarried divorced, to mercifully receive Communion, because “people are hurting”. “We have a lot of fundamentalists, many of them, they claim to have the truth”. At the end of the Synod he said, he wants to put things upside down, the church is like a pyramid, to turn it upside down, “the people on the top …because they have the Holy Spirit”. He said so many words that are outright frightening, and we have to stay alert.

  • Chris G

    I would argue that both Syrian and Iraqi Christians would consider the USA the “unsavory force”, and not “Putin’s Russia”.

    Putin has done more to protect Christians in Syria than Obama. Bush, Cheney and Obama have pretty much wiped out Christianity in that region of the world.

    Putin is devout Orthodox Christian.

    • Edith Wohldmann

      he must have had a conversion because he was with the KGB in Eastern Germany when the Soviets oppressed Eastern Europe for 40 years

      • Chris G

        Edith:

        Since we are now in the Year of Mercy, we can look upon Putin with mercy, and yes, assume that he has had the “conversion” that you assert.

        Furthermore, by your logic, all who served in the KGB could not have been Christian. Following your same logic as applied to our own troops, Christians serving in the U.S. Armed forces could not be guilty of any wrongful or oppressive acts.

        Of course, we can agree that only God knows a man’s heart, and can judge the true motives for his actions.

        Go to the website of American Thinker magazine and search for the
        article on Oct. 6, 2015 titled “Who Will Save Middle East Christians:
        Obama or Putin?”