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Hope against Hope

The three theological virtues – Faith, Hope, and Charity – are what distinguish Christianity from natural “virtues.” They are not easy to practice, or even to understand. But as the great Charles Péguy has God say in his long poem The Portal of the Mystery of Hope [1], “Faith doesn’t surprise me. . . .I am so resplendent in my creation. . . .Charity does not surprise me. . . .These poor creatures are so miserable that unless they had a heart of stone, how could they not have love for each other.”

Most people, however, even forget that Hope is a theological virtue, which is strange because, as Péguy’s God rightly says:

But Hope. . .that is something that surprises me.
Even me. . . .
That these poor children see how things are going and believe that tomorrow things will
go better. . .
That is surprising and it’s by far the greatest marvel of our grace.
And I’m surprised by it myself.
And my grace must indeed be an incredible force.

Péguy (b. 1873) was almost an exact contemporary of G.K. Chesterton’s (b. 1874), and in several respects was the French Chesterton. GKC would no doubt have enjoyed this God with a sense of humor about His special graces in Creation. Strictly speaking, of course, God cannot be “surprised.” Yet there’s a great truth here about the eternally “surprising” nature of Hope – real Hope – as we begin 2021, with all the hopes and fears, true and false, that arise before the virginal space of another year.

True Hope, the belief that “tomorrow things will go better,” can only be about our final human destiny, because in the short run things always look and are pretty awful. What most people regard as hope means a series of deceptive stopping places. They start a new year hoping to lose weight, find a new job or mate, and these are goods, just – even when we keep the resolutions – not lasting or ultimately satisfying.

*

There are, of course, evil hopes. Some of the young women who celebrated Argentina’s approval of abortion in the closing days of 2020 – with the barest of whispers about the value of all life from the Argentinian pope – talked of their “hope” that women would now be able to pursue their “life plans” and be “happy.” They should talk to their sisters in America who, as our colleague and friend Mary Eberstadt [2] has documented, are unhappier than ever about their lives and their relations with men [3].

Good policies can help us, but politics, in general, can only do so much. Take this week. We have been warned for over 2500 years “put not your trust in princes in mortal men who cannot save.” (Ps. 146) And the psalmist had not seen a modern democratic politician. Yet we’re all agitated, to a degree rightly, about the Senate runoffs in Georgia tomorrow and the Electoral College results the following day. A Biden presidency – especially combined with a Democrat-controlled Senate – would mean more slaughter of the innocents in the womb, more damage to the family and to sanity by the “woke,” more threats to religious liberty under our first anti-Catholic Catholic president.

Many people were hoping for a Trump re-election, which at least would have had the virtue of holding off such developments for a few more years. But that seems highly unlikely now despite last-minute efforts. And as Catholics we should be absolutely frank with ourselves: If the deluge did not come this year, it would have soon enough.

Let’s recognize, in its depths, a situation that Catholics, almost alone, are capable of appreciating: We are in a period of cultural decline, made all the more painful in that – unlike in the past – it has nothing to do with material or military failure. It has a great deal to do with the ways that unprecedented wealth has made us believe that we, in our superior wisdom, can simply dispense with God, nature, our great spiritual and intellectual traditions, and the wise and holy figures of the past, largely it sometimes seems because our gadgets are more numerous and work better than theirs.

This realization has a further corollary: there’s no quick fix in politics, religion, economics, etc. There are temporary victories, and we should fight for them. But if there is a fix, it’s going to be a slow one, mostly in education, a clawing back of the future in the same way that for the past century or so, a false progressivism and even outright Marxism has insinuated itself into our cultural bloodstream. It’s hard to have the patience for the “long march through institutions” that the radicals have had. But we see that it worked for them. And can for us.

And that has to begin within the Church itself, which means actually learning what the Church teaches as opposed to what some say the Church teaches. For instance, it’s not been enlightening, to say the least, to see how some Catholics have been tearing each other apart over differing approaches to things like the anti-COVID vaccines, which is neither charitable nor hopeful.

The Vatican and our bishops have damaged their credibility in recent years on several fronts. But they along with absolutely rock-solid pro-life thinkers such as Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk of the National Catholic Bioethics Center have made clear how longstanding Church teaching, including the relevant sections of the Catechism (1868ff.), distinguishes between vaccines that are morally acceptable (Pfizer and Moderna) and others that are not. Fr. Pacholczyk even provides (click here [4]) both a clear summary of the teaching and a comprehensive chart listing the various vaccines in development, their moral status, and the reasons for moral judgments. You may choose, personally, to take a more rigorous stand. But you may not say it’s the only Catholic judgment.

We’re entering a time when we’re all going to have to become both simpler and deeper in our commitment to the Truth, and more sophisticated in figuring out how to live out that Truth amid multiple and complex challenges. But no one ever said that our Hope, however “surprising,” lies in what’s easy or obvious.

 

*Image: Hope (from The Theological Virtues: Faith, Charity, Hope [5]) by an unknown Umbrian painter, c. 1500 [The MET, New York]

Dr. Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., and currently serves as the St. John Henry Newman Visiting Chair in Catholic Studies at Thomas More College. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.