Goodness to Greatness

Frank - communion of saints

Frank - communion of saints

We seek greatness by our very nature; God created us for great things. Great things because we are, essentially, good. Good because we are created in the Imago Dei. Throughout Salvation history we observe that the greatest men were the good men. Those whose lives we venerate and actions we emulate are those who committed their lives to the Lord and tried to do His Will. With the rise of modernity, however, we find that the pursuit of virtue is oft abandoned in favor of secular fame and fortune. Wealth, power, and celebrity are the new “great.” Slouching toward Gomorrah, Western civilization’s abiding pursuit of virtue is being replaced by an eager pursuit of vice. Like the sophist Meno, our students learn to confuse material success, luxury, and fame with goodness, and that such achievements define greatness. With this ubiquitous cultural influence, any one of us may be tempted to forget our ultimate end.

Recently, I received a postcard in the mail from a highly acclaimed Catholic college that is known for its devotion to the pursuit of truth and beauty, and it was a stark reminder of this ever-present worldly seduction. The postcard was an appeal to prospective students, asking that they consider the liberal arts education as an effective way to pursue intellectual excellence and success. This didn’t surprise me because I agree completely with that assessment and have long placed this college at the top of my list of schools. What did surprise me were the images they chose to feature on the front of the card – these ostensible examples of greatness.

“Dare to be Great!” announced the front of the postcard. Tiger Woods was the first to catch my eye, and I recoiled. While a skilled golfer, this serial adulterer is surely not a poster child for a Catholic college. With few exceptions, the rest of the images on the card equally failed to inspire. Featuring the likes of Martha Stewart, Katie Couric, Steven Spielberg, and Bill Belichick, the postcard argues that greatness is not in conflict with insider trading, abortion and homosexual advocacy, or lying on the job. Clearly, these individuals are highly accomplished within their respective fields. However, they would not hold up to scrutiny under the magnifying glass of classical Aristotelean excellence, much less to the even deeper Thomistic understanding of virtue. To be fair, the back of the card stated that the celebrities were not endorsed as examples of morality, but that they were chosen because of the fact that they studied the liberal arts and became “great” because of this study. But I was still left wondering why this Catholic college felt compelled, by featuring these examples, to divorce goodness from greatness.

Should I be blessed with the opportunity to attend a Catholic institution of higher learning, I expect to continue to be formed as a Catholic leader. I anticipate learning from my professors about the sources of morality, the subtleties of Sacred Scripture, and the venerable traditions of the Church. However, if I accept that my Catholicism can be arbitrarily separated or temporarily suspended from my career and personal development (in theory or in practice), I am no longer seeking a formation that leads to true greatness, but am content to be led by the spirit of the world. This mentality is deadly.

Never one to beat around the bush, Saint Paul gave it to us straight in his letter to the Galatians: “Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” (5:19-21)

At issue, then, is how we define greatness. The Catholic college in question would certainly agree that the saints of old were great men and women, and they were great because they provided examples of heroic virtue and have attained the Beatific Vision. But, despite their commitment to the value of studying the humanities in college, placing worldly figures upon a pedestal of greatness because they studied the liberal arts is just plain wrong.

I am still attracted to the college that sent the postcard. But I am also disappointed that they felt the need to send it. Is this truly the best way to draw people to a Catholic institution of higher learning? Will this method bring them the students they really wish to attract? If they present liars, cheaters, adulterers, abortion supporters, and homosexuals as examples of greatness, it will be only a matter of time before the students they recruit begin to reflect those qualities. They can, and should, do better.

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” I don’t know if time will prove Tiger Woods the best golfer in history. It doesn’t matter in the slightest. No matter how skillful he is, his educational choices, his unbelievable income. Like every one of us, he can never be great until he begins to pursue a life of virtue and life in Christ.

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6 thoughts on “Goodness to Greatness”

  1. This is a tremendous reflection. I have often wondered why Catholic schools of higher learning wish so badly to follow the world’s path. I can only speak of one I know first-hand about, and that particular school forced the valedictorian of his graduating class, a seminary student, to “apologize” for speaking against contraception during his speech. I listened carefully to his speech and he did so with no rancor, also speaking in the same sentences of his own failings. However this school was waiting during that same time period for funds to open or expand, I forget which, a medical school training department, something which certainly would put them on the world map as a university with greatness in their own eyes.
    Follow the money trail–even some in the Church sadly do the same. Wonderful article.

  2. In addition to your excellent reflections, Peter, is the over-arching question of Catholic Identity: are we actually fostering and preserving an authentic Catholic Identity, which is inherently a contradiction to the society at large, or are we not? I’m sure the college didn’t intend to convey anything adverse to virtue, but this just goes to highlight the incredible importance of how and what we communicate. There’s too much more to say on this – good insight, thanks for writing.

  3. Pingback: SUNDAY EDITION - Big Pulpit

  4. I can tell you have genuine greatness in you that’s waiting to unfold. The most telling clue to your character is where you said you are still considering the college that sent you the schlock celebrity postcard. Mr. Lyons, I attended Catholic educational institutions all my life. I came out fully orthodox, fiercely protective of our faith. Was there heterodoxy in those schools? Was their cultural decay? Yes sir, but for some reason I understood what was happening. I reveled with the wonderful bohemian artsy crowd, and I valued those faculty (Catholic priests) who went out on the intellectual edges. I loved them all and learned from them.

    I came out of those schools confident because the very teachers who taught the fringe modern ideas were the very same ones who taught me the greatest intellectual virtue of all: to firmly trust my inner sense of truth.

    A culture can only deform us if we let it. But if we are like granite stones, unafraid of the modern world, it is actually WE who transform the deformed culture, not vice versa.

    My goodness, your opening salvo leaves us begging for more. Bring it on.

  5. I think it very strange that the college picked a group about which you could say perhaps that they strayed and repented and made it in life but instead that they all took liberal arts as a major. There is something Freudian about that particular selection. Perhaps the message is “God doesn’t condemn you nor do we.” Or “we are not a bunch of goody goodies and you don’t have to be one to come here”.

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