At the beginning of the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas deals with a rather elementary question, Whether Sacred Doctrine is a Science? Yes. No. Maybe? One objection to classifying theology as a science is that “no science deals with individual facts. But this sacred science treats of individual facts, such as the deeds of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and such like. Therefore sacred doctrine is not a science” (I-I, Q.1, A.2). His answer to this objection is rather interesting: “Individual facts are treated of in sacred doctrine, not because it is concerned with them principally; but they are introduced rather both as examples to be followed in our lives (in moral sciences), and in order to establish the authority of those men through whom the divine revelation on which this sacred scripture or doctrine is based, has come down to us.”
We live in an age in which the great actors on our human stage are scrutinized and examined both as “examples to be followed (or not!) in our lives” and also “to establish the authority” of these individuals. Our media, secular and Christian alike, seems overly obsessed with establishing the canonical authority of our public figures. Take the recent deaths of both Joan Rivers and Robin Williams. For several days the news cycle was consumed by the examples (and tragedies) of the lives of these individuals. It can’t only be because both were funny and popular. Our culture looks to these members of our cultural class as real models and authoritatively asserts that something about their lives should be instructive.
Of course, there is little if any basis for establishing the Riverses and Williamses of the world as moral characters worthy of exemplification. Yet, when someone beloved from our elite class dies we tend to do that. Both of these persons had flaws, but indeed it would be as undignified at their death to bemoan their flaws as it would to continue the charade of holding them up as exemplars. The truly more insidious point is this cultural tendency we’ve embraced to turn the actions of our elite class into something of a sacred science, worth examining in order to establish the moral examples to be followed in our lives and also to discern authoritatively something deeper to resolve long-standing problems in our society and in our lives.
The weight of that authority is unfair, both to these cultural elites and also to ourselves. No human being—without some sort of divinely ordained sanction—should really carry this determining weight of moral authority by his or her life. We are all actors. But the script is not ours to write. We live rather in a theater of virtue, where our choices determine our character and really no one else's. That pursuit of virtue is based not on the moral authority our contemporaries bring to bear through their own choices, but rather upon a moral order established outside of any personal choice.
We, however, want our cultural elites to live grander lives and to be the authority that we so badly need in our lives. Cardinal Dolan of New York is the subject of much of this attention today thanks to his decision to be Grand Marshal of the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, which now features pro-gay groups marching under their own colors. Personally, the St. Patrick’s parade does little for me. Although Catholic, I’m not Irish. Saint Patrick’s Day has long stopped being anything of a religious holiday and has become more an excuse to celebrate caricatured Irish-Americanness. Be loud! Be gregarious! Be drunk! Human celebrations are what they are: sometimes silly, sometimes excuses, but in this case, hardly a healthy fusion between Gospel and culture that substantively advances the noblest ends of either.
To be Grand Marshal of this event is really not worthy of a bishop’s time. It’s not that Princes of the Church should never interact with cultural events, but it seems, whether or not having the direct participation of the Church, the event seems to live on just fine. Of course, everyone is looking to Dolan to be an example of moral authority. On one side you have Elizabeth Scalia stating that Dolan is like the Loving Father, embracing his Prodigal Son, the most Christ-like of actions. And indeed, this is a fine moral example and authority to be followed when it comes to the Church and homosexual inclusion, were it not also implicit in Scalia’s reading that homosexuals are actually coming home to repent—a problematic proposition on a number of levels, but mainly towards the homosexuals involved. Do they need to repent of being homosexual? On the other side, you have Michael Voris, who is clear that Dolan is on a path to hell and must repent. Of course, why Michael Voris thought that homosexuality and not the syncretism and general debauchery and loudness involved with St. Patrick’s Day is the hill to die on is rather a mystery.
In either case both Scalia and Voris want us to consider Dolan as an exemplar and as an authority of what to do and what not to do. This, much like elevating Williams and Rivers, is the real problem. Dolan is no more than a man like us, and his choices are more mundane than we like to believe. He does act like all of us in a theater of virtue, where considerations are not merely equivalent to setting examples and grounding moral authority. The true consideration is how we live with the scarce time we have—to what and to where we devote our limited energies and resources. We do not live our everyday lives wondering, “How can I embrace life as an heroic teaching example for others?” No. We simply should make the choices that make the best sense.
Dolan, Williams, and Rivers are certainly not guilty of (or even intentionally) placing themselves in our culture as authoritative examples. It is our elite class, ruling and chattering, that for some reason needs to busy themselves with continually elevating people as models and sources of moral authority. It is a burden that no human being should carry—save a Savior—and it leads down divisive and aggravating paths.
But of course acting in an obscure play brings little recognition to the actor. He can find only satisfaction in his personal dedication to his craft and not in the adulation of the crowd. This theater of virtue is not a lonely life, but one certainly lived outside the bright lights of New York and L.A. It is where all of us find our daily actions and where the majority of our choices play out. To somehow elevate a few lives and choices above our own does little to cure the significant mundanity of our own lives. It instead serves really only to distract us, at least for a bit. But when we’re distracted we lose the most precious thing available to us, time. Time to live our life worthy of this grand stage of our own salvation.