COVID-19 has taken its toll on all of us and there are things about it, as there are about many things in our lives, that we may never understand. But I keep reminding myself, and others, that God does things – even just allows things we find puzzling – for a purpose. He intends some good, probably many goods, to come out even from something as mysterious as a global pandemic.
So, the question arises: Why all that for us just now? Lots of people these days think that diseases are just part of the way things are. Or, even worse, that they are somehow our fault for alleged “sins against nature.”
But pandemics and plagues have also, at different times in history, been related to the divine. If you have been to Rome, you have doubtless seen the statue of the Archangel Michael on top of Castel Sant’Angelo. In 590, Pope Gregory the Great, according to later legends, saw him sheathing his sword on top of the castle, a sign that – after many prayers and processions through the streets of Rome – the plague, which had been devastating the city and all of Europe, was coming to an end.
Whatever the truth of the legend, we know plainly from Scripture that such phenomena can, oddly, be a means of healing. God’s chastisements are not capricious or vindictive, but medicinal. The Tower of Babel was destroyed, and the people became divided in their speech, as a remedy for hubris, their arrogant belief that they could reach heaven, all on their own – the usual human temptation to think that we can become God, an illusion, that never goes away.
I am no prophet. Whether our pandemic is a chastisement, I cannot say. But this post-pandemic world is the one into which you must now make your way. Which is what we mean when we celebrate Commencement.
I think the first time I heard the word “commencement” used in an academic sense was at my own graduation. Earlier, in my world, “commence” only came up in World War II movies when the commander would bark out, “Commence firing.” It puzzled me, back then, that “commence” in ordinary circumstances meant to start something, and in education to end something.
Because today, in an obvious sense, you’re coming to an end of your undergraduate education. But as all TMC students I’m sure know, the end of that formal instruction cannot, should not, ever be, the end of our journey towards knowledge, virtue, wisdom, and God Himself.
People may tell you that now you’ll be entering the “real world.” And indeed, you and your families and friends, may take pride in that you will now be pursuing higher studies or a vocation or career. But you’ve already been in “the real world” these past four years – the real world of young adults asking the fundamental questions that confront every human being born into the world.
That world desperately needs people with minds, hearts, souls formed, as yours have been, by engagement with figures over millennia of human history who themselves had great minds, hearts, and souls. That engagement gives you a highly valuable perspective on whatever other parts of the “real world” that you will now enter.
I’ve spoken of the challenge that the pandemic has put before us all – especially how to think about it properly. One important way, of course, is to look at it as both a scientific and a cultural challenge, an opportunity for us to use the intellects with which we are endowed to meet and solve a problem. The development of vaccines to counter COVID and other diseases – controversies about the moral status of the different vaccines aside for the moment – are real human achievements.
But like the builders at Babel, if we think we’re building our own way to Paradise, even in our efforts at healing, we’re deluding ourselves. Perhaps one of the most conspicuous benefits of the pandemic is that it’s made us all more critical of the scientific-technological paradigm of the “experts.” There are true experts, in every field, of course, and I don’t want to add to the general distrust of authorities – in the Church and the world – that in our time has become another sort of plague.
But we’ve seen that experts can be all too impressed with their own expertise, which many think gives them the right to dictate to the rest of us. Yet witness the chaos, the contradictory data, claims and counterclaims, by various experts and public authorities, over how to deal with the virus. And the arrogant mockery towards people who question “the science,” who are often portrayed as ignorant Christians.
A certain Enlightenment haughtiness towards religious traditions and other human ways of understanding have been all too common in recent years. I think of William Blake’s response to that attitude:
Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau:
Mock on, mock on: ‘tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.
And every sand becomes a Gem,
Reflected in the beam divine;
Blown back they blind the mocking Eye,
But still in Israel’s paths they shine.
The Atoms of Democritus
And the Newton’s Particles of Light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.
Though Blake’s grasp of the science is a little shaky towards the end, he knows that for all the good the scientific/technological worldview does, it’s a barren desert absent the larger perspective we get through our scriptural and philosophical and properly human inheritance.
Well-formed minds like yours should, therefore, be wary when you hear a public phrase like “follow the science.” Properly speaking, science is value-neutral. By nature, it cannot lead us anywhere because it has no purpose other than to inform us about certain data. We have to lead it, in wisdom and humility. Because as we know only too well that “science” may be used by foolish, corrupt, or ambitious people for disastrous ends.
I’ve spent this academic year as the inaugural St. John Henry Newman Visiting Chair in Catholic Studies at this College. I had to discover Newman on my own as an undergraduate at an Ivy League university. I’d urge each of you to stay close to Newman all your lives because of his brilliance, wisdom, and holiness.
But I often find myself coming back to just a few of his words; Newman said quite simply that we need an “increment of soul,” properly to use the power that science and technology – and now medicine – have placed in our hands. We have the better ethical arguments on matters like abortion, the dignity of all human life, and how medical research should be conducted than does “the world.” But perhaps we have not been as successful as we might be in these matters because our hearts and spirits have not yet reached the level of our intellects.
Developing that “increment of soul” is a challenge for all of you, you who have been so very fortunate to have experienced the special formation at this college. We follow the science to be informed, but the science must follow wisdom if it’s to produce the good.
There’s another challenge in the so-called “real world” these days that I want to bring to your notice. As the old saying rightly puts it, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” There’s probably no better explanation for why, during the pandemic lockdowns, our country “got woke” and we find ourselves in the self-destructive mania of cancel culture. (Following the “science” is misleading, but getting woke is disastrous.)
This college has probably insulated you somewhat from this madness. But many of you have at least heard the obsessions about: systemic racism, white privilege, white fragility, anti-racist racism, transgenderism (“the human rights issue of our time” according to our president), non-binary sexual identities, novel pronouns, identifying as – something or other – despite your biology, and the ferocious moral cancellation that takes places whenever someone has been discovered to have transgressed, however mildly or long ago, a dogma of the woke religion.
Insofar as there is truth to “woke” concerns, it’s blown way out of proportion. But human beings are moral beings, and if we are not allowed moral passion about real moral issues – like marriage, family, nation, the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death – we find other causes, however implausible, in order to feel that we are good, caring people. The substitutes don’t work, because they can’t, in the nature of things. Paradoxically, the new holy trinity of race, class, and gender, which we’re told are “inclusive,” instead have clearly been dividing us into identity groups defined by our differences from others.
And taken as a whole, “wokeism” is basically a repudiation of our Christian and Western tradition. But in the paradoxical ways of Providence, it may be another benefit of the past year that it’s brought these festering cultural currents out of the shadows into the light, where they can be dealt with.
The ferocity of “woke” moralism also signifies the loss the old Christian notion that we are all made in the image and likeness of God, yet also fallen. That we all sin and make mistakes. And therefore mercy, forgiveness, mutual forbearance, are necessary if we’re going to be able to live together at all.
The remedy for wokeness, I believe, by the way, is not to engage in what is sometimes called the “culture war.” At least not in the way that others do. If you start replying to social-media slurs with the same lack of charity and sobriety as the “woke,” they will have already won a significant victory. You’re playing on their home field. Besides, culture “war” is not a good way to frame differences, even very sharp, fundamental differences that we may have with those with whom we have to share civil space. It will be one of the challenges you will face – I myself face it every day – to fight for our Christian culture, but not by practicing a reverse “cancel culture.”
One final challenge that I’ve taken to heart over many years: Francis of Assisi used to say to the early friars, “Let us begin again, for as yet we have done nothing.” Of course, the Franciscans had already done much, but Francis wasn’t lying. He knew that every day is a Day of Commencement. That under God, we can always know more, do more, be more. And that always beginning again is not something we should feel as frustration, but as the perpetual openness to greater understanding, compassion, mercy, love. Those of us who live every day as Commencement Day will never lack for meaning and purpose and exciting vistas spread out before us.
That’s a lifelong and more than a lifelong path, a wonderful and holy prospect.
So once again, I congratulate you on your achievements, commend you to this exciting commencement of another phase of your lives, and especially wish you Godspeed in all your future endeavors.
*Image: Dr. Royal receives an honorary doctorate from Thomas More College president William Fahey.