A few days ago The Guardian ran an article titled “Drowning in commitments? It’s time to stop giving a damn.” An excerpt from an upcoming self-help book, it mixed good advice about setting boundaries with the promotion of narcissism and selfishness in defining those boundaries. It promised freedom from guilt in an attractively bright and breezy style.
It wasn’t satisfying. The writer had no clear idea what man is for and therefore what we should do for others and what we should do for ourselves. Her argument wasn’t founded on any coherent anthropology. It left unanswered the question of by what criterion we can decide how to treat others, and it left unsatisfied both the human instinct for self-sacrifice and the human desire for the friendship and community that depends upon mutual deference. Her answer was mostly “If you don’t want to do what other people want you to do, screw ’em.”
A Reason for Hope
It isn’t satisfying, and thereby gives one small example of the Church’s continuing appeal, and a reason for hope when anxious Catholics are wringing their hands and triumphant secularists are crowing. People find themselves overwhelmed by the demands other people make on them, yet also want the community mutual sacrifices enable and want to be the kind of people who sacrifice for others, because they believe the good life requires it. Look at most movie heroes. The best the world—weirdly enough the same world that produces and consumes the movies—can typically provide is spirited instruction to stop giving a damn.
In this case, the Church provides the criteria the world wants. It helps you see what you, as a human being and as a particular individual, are for, what you were made to be and do. It helps you discern and order the demands placed upon you. It helps you see what sacrifices are good and needed and which divert you from doing what you are called to do. It doesn’t directly answer every specific question, but it can come close to doing so. It does so with a depth and coherence the Guardian’s writer and her peers, even the more sophisticated and less selfish ones, can’t match.
Philosophy could provide this as well, but far fewer people will turn to philosophy than turn to religion. And the Church has the great advantage over philosophy of incorporating philosophy’s insights into a greater and deeper understanding of the world, and providing the sacraments, the practical aids to purification and holiness and therefore greater insight. Philosophy can offer its own version of “Take up your cross,” but not the life in Christ that can also say—and consistently with the cross-bearing—“for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Wherever you look, the typical worldly answers fall short, and even the best answers, like those we get from the great philosophers, can’t give man everything he wants and needs. The Church is always in the world saying to the first (the typical answers) “Not exactly, try this” and to the second (the philosophers’ answers) “Yes, but there’s more.”
The Antidote the World Needs
This is a broader application of a point Chesterton made about the saints. “The Saint is a medicine because he is an antidote. Indeed that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote,” he wrote in his book on St. Francis. “He will generally be found restoring the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age. Yet each generation seeks its saint by instinct; and he is not what the people want, but rather what the people need.”
This is the reason Jesus spoke of his people as salt, Chesterton writes, and continues: “Therefore it is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.” St. Francis, of all people,
had a curious and almost uncanny attraction for the Victorians; for the nineteenth century English who seemed superficially to be most complacent about their commerce and their common sense. ... St. Francis of Assisi was the only medieval Catholic who really became popular in England on his own merits. It was largely because of a subconscious feeling that the modern world had neglected those particular merits. The English middle classes found their only missionary in the figure, which of all types in the world they most despised; an Italian beggar.
The Church always has reason for hope because she always has—and she alone has—the complete and exact life and truth the world needs. Her answer to the pressing question “What should I do for others?” is just one example. The world will always know, at some level, that it needs what only Christianity can provide. The world may often turn away because it mistakes the antidote for a poison, but when it is sick enough some will always come to the Church to be healed.
See also the author’s The Catholic Church’s Painful, Joyful Hope.