What is it about the anti-God brigade that makes them so hate-filled and, well, just downright unpleasant. They truly seem to be the children of wrath. The genuine children of light – as opposed to the faux variety – do at times let themselves down and indulge in rants which border on or cross the line of human decency. But by and large they are restrained by that essential ingredient of their cultural heritage – the charity of Christ.
Take a random comment thread from any faith story on the internet and what are you likely to find? You find yourself wading into a quagmire of irrational contempt, animosity and downright hatred towards anyone professing faith. You don’t even have to go anywhere near the more extreme end of this spectrum, the Dawkins Quarter, to get this. Scroll through any of these stories and you will find yourself not a little depressed by the experience. If you don’t encounter mockery then it will be sterile cynicism or worse. But you will hardly ever encounter an attempt at a real engagement of minds. It is seriously sad.
Over the past few years the secularist/religion debate was frequently pitched in terms of one motion: The Catholic Church is (is not) a force for good in the world. Sometimes it was broader and put in terms of “Religion is (is not) a force for good in the world”, a Christopher Hitchens-style generalisation. Hitchens’ book, God is not Great, underlined the problem of debating the question in those terms. Its subtitle, “How religion poisons everything”, said it all. Hitchens’ “religion”, by his definition, is really no religion. The opponent of any and every faith has the faithful at his mercy on this platform. Hitchens’ generalisation of faith allows him to bundle together, for the purposes of confusion, every kind of lunacy which men have for millennia described as religion.
The only meaningful debate on this topic will be one where religion is defended and professed on the basis of the specific doctrines it teaches and the way of life it proposes for its followers – regardless even of how faithfully its followers succeed in living up to those teachings and that way of life.
In many of those debates over the past few years the defenders of the mainstream Christian Churches – and for the most part it was the Catholic Church which was put in the dock – were on the losing side. This was primarily because they failed to demand that the teaching of their church, and not the motley collection of red herrings thrown at them, be made the focus of debate. If that were done, and if the cumulative effect of the effort of millions of Christians across the world to live according to the authentic Christian principles of their church, taking account of the development of its teaching down through the ages – and its influence on our civilization as it did so – then there would be no contest.
Leave aside the red herrings of issues generated by the inherent weakness, folly and sinfulness of mankind and you will find in the teaching of the Catholic Church, enshrined in its moral and social doctrines, a guide second to none for mankind’s flourishing. Examine all of these as closely as you like and you will not fail to find in them an understanding of our human condition which if acted on universally would be the greatest imaginable force for good in the world, bar none. Just do it, and see.
The argument against religion on the basis of the ignorance, weakness or malice of those who profess to follow Christ’s teaching while in fact following some aberrant concoction of their own, is no argument against the truth and value of this teaching. We might use an analogy. Great art is not diminished in its value to mankind, nor in its power to move our race, when confronted by the ignorant, even when they collect it and hoard it as a marketable commodity. The sense of loss felt after the recent burning of some priceless works of art by some crazed woman underlines our appreciation of the value and power to do good of the world’s great literature, music and art.
Ignorance is ever a threat to beauty. Ignorance, culpable or otherwise, has also always been a threat to goodness an truth. That the truth of the Christian religion has historically and contemporaneously been held hostage by the misguided, the ignorant, and even evil people (like vicious slavers in the New World), is inadmissible as evidence against it.
A gem of moral wisdom encountered recently in a book of moral questions and answers compiled in the last century – with resonances very pertinent for our own times – might illustrate how much of the misery we inflict on each other globally might be alleviated if we were more attentive to the teaching of Christ’s Church.
The question, from a person with an eye on Irish history, was asked:
Suppose a person is in possession of land by ancestral right – land confiscated in the time of Cromwell, and given to one of his ancestors. Legally, he owns the land. Is it the teaching of the Cathoiic Church that he morally owns it or does the land rightly belong to the descendants of the original owner?
The answer, from a renowned moral theologian of his day[i], was this:
The confiscation was unjust, and the newcomer held the land on a title that no moral law could sanction. But time heals many wounds. Some of his successors were better than himself; they became bona fide holders of the proceeds of his robbery. The best moral instructors of mankind – and among them the Catholic Church takes the prominent place – have come to the conclusion that to safeguard public order and the rights of the community as a whole, the claims of these successors must be maintained, even in conscience, when a long period of peaceful possession has elapsed.
The principle is termed “prescription,” and is universally acknowledged. The period varies in the different countries, but the time since CromweIl is long enough to satisfy the most exacting reading. The present holder may keep what he has without being troubled in conscience.
If a person questions that conclusion, he must meet certain difficulties. The real owner in the days of Cromwell held the land from an ancestor who disturbed the previous owners in the days of a previous invasion. So through the days of the Milesians, the Firbolgs, and the countless other regimes of which history knows nothing. If we reject the principle of “prescription” we must face the suggestion that no human being on the globe at the present moment owns a single particle of anything he holds.
Another question was asked. This was probably some time early in the last century. It’s clarity is uncompromising.
Should the right of conquest be always recognized?
The “right of conquest” , he answered, has been asserted by bellicose invaders and by their “scientific” supporters. It is no better than the right of the highway robber to seize all he can on a night-raid.
Can we see anything but wisdom and a force for good in a world view which enshrines principles of common sense and justice like these? This is just a glimpse of the patrimony of the authentic Christian Church, passed from generation to generation in the manner eluciadated in the first encyclical letter from the current incumbent of the See of Peter, “Lumen Fidei.”
The Church, like every family, passes on to her children the whole store of her memories. But how does this come about in a way that nothing is lost, but rather everything in the patrimony of faith comes to be more deeply understood? It is through the apostolic Tradition preserved in the Church with the assistance of the Holy Spirit that we enjoy a living contact with the foundational memory. What was handed down by the apostles — as the Second Vatican Council states — “comprises everything that serves to make the people of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith. In this way the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.
The often flawed striving and rough hewing of mankind to implement this patrimony should not be the measure of the value or goodness of the Foundation itself. What is frightening in the contemporary debate – and it is often hard to recognise it as a debate – is the flight from reasonableness in failing to recognize this distinction, a flight accompanied by what appears to be a visceral hatred of the very idea that underlying our existence there might just be that benign “divinity that shapes our end” and that this Divinity subsists in the Catholic Church.
[i] Dr. Michael J. O’Donnell, Professor of Moral Theology in st. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland, in the early decades of the twentieth century.