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.