There’s a certain freedom in powerlessness, the loss of control. Recently, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput wrote that the “astonishing flaws” of both major candidates was “depressing and liberating at the same time. Depressing, because it’s proof of how polarized the nation has become. Liberating, because for the honest voter, it’s much easier this year to ignore the routine tribal loyalty chants of both the Democratic and Republican camps.”
Control of Our Lives
It’s liberating when you realize that, no matter what you do, the results will be the same. You don’t always have the luxury of knowing that your action will have only minimal effect on the outcome. It’s like a message from God: “Dude, I got this. You go do the right thing, and let Me handle the rest.”
Have you ever just sat and thought about all the ways in which your life is affected, impacted, changed for better or worse, by people whom you will most likely never meet and over whom you have no control or even influence? I’m sure commercials promising you security from identity theft and credit-card fraud have got you to thinking, now and again, how your financial security is tied up in a network of computers over which faceless strangers must keep perpetual watch against other faceless, more malicious strangers. Think of the people in the security agencies and defense services laboring 24/7 to prevent a terrorist attack from occurring or a war from breaking out.
Something so simple and quotidian as filling your gas tank doesn’t just involve you and the pump. It involves hundreds of people in a number of industries moving the original oil from the well to the refinery to the distributor, as well as making the pumps, the tanks, the trucks, the pipes, and the car you’re putting it in. And as you’re cruising down the six-lane expressway, do you think about all the people who labored for months to expand the original two-lane blacktop highway while you suffered delays and jams in frustration? Whatever made you think you were independent? Whatever made you think you had complete control of your life?
Usain Bolt hits the gym every day for 90-minute workouts to develop explosiveness and build stability while staying lean. He controls when he shows up at the gym, how rigorously he follows his workout routine, and what he eats. He can’t control the possible rise of another runner even faster than him, or the potential for career-ending injury, or the slow wear of entropy that will eventually subtract from his speed. Why worry about these things, when worrying about them won’t prevent them from happening?
“Which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to your span of life?” (Matthew 6:27)
“Teach the Monkey to Talk!”
A long time ago, a mad king in a Middle Eastern country had a pet monkey, which he wanted to talk. His advisors told him of a very wise rabbi, whom he sent for. When the rabbi appeared before him, the king demanded, “Jew! Teach my monkey to talk!”
The rabbi replied, “Your Highness, that is a very difficult task you ask of me. Please give me ten years to complete it.”
The king replied, “I’ll give you five years, and not a day more. If that monkey can’t talk by then, I’ll have you executed.”
The rabbi had a daughter, who found out about the strange demand and threat. So when the rabbi returned home, she was disturbed to see him so peaceful. “Father,” she asked, “why aren’t you frightened by the king’s order?”
The rabbi shrugged. “I have five years. In that time, I could die. Or the king could die. Or the monkey could die. Who knows? Maybe by then, I’ll have taught the monkey to talk!”
Today has enough troubles without borrowing tomorrow’s. It looks right now like Hillary Clinton will be our next President. What will she do then? Who knows? We’re not there yet. She might drop dead of some natural cause the day after the election. Some kind of catastrophe could strike between now and January 20th, destroying us all. Or maybe — and we could try praying for this — HRC will have an experience of grace that will remake her heart and mind. We don’t even know what kind of Congress she’ll be working with/against, so she’s not guaranteed to get her own way about everything.
But let’s say Donald Trump overcomes his current meltdown and wins in November. What will happen then? Again, who knows? We’re not there yet. He could turn out to be more sane, responsible, and restrained once in office than he has been on the campaign trail so far. His pro-life stance could turn out to be the insincere ploy many of us believe it to be, or he could be genuinely evolving. We could try praying for him, too, you know. Or, some kind of catastrophe could strike, yadda-yadda-yadda.
In that time, we could die. Or they could die. Who knows, maybe in that time God will have taught the monkey to talk. So many things we don’t control. Why worry about them?
Dude, I got this. Do the right thing, and let Me take care of the rest.
The Mystery of God’s Purposes
None of us are in complete control. It’s not even necessarily something we’d want, for ourselves or for any individual. The act of praying is not a demand but a surrender, the acknowledgement that we depend on God for everything, especially our existence. Scitote quoniam Dominus ipse est Deus: ipse fecit nos et non ipsi nos. (Psalms 100:3 Vulg.: “Know ye that the Lord is God: He made us and not we ourselves.”)
The story of Job teaches us that God is transcendent: no one can fully know His purposes and reasons, why He does and permits what we suffer. We have the revelation, but not everything has been revealed yet. Our perception is framed by our human limitations. We’re like children whom our Parent has told, “One day, when you’re grown up, you’ll understand.” Why can’t we understand now? “And under that rebuke there is always a sudden hope in the heart; and the sense of something that would be worth understanding.” (G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p. 98)
Credo ut intelligam, said St. Anselm of Canterbury — not “I believe so that I shall understand,” but rather “I believe in order that (in time) I may understand.” The subjunctive mood is contingent; it speaks not of what is or what will be, but only of what is possible. “For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. … For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” (ASL, “I Believe … But I Don’t Understand”; cit. 1 Corinthians 13:9-10,12)
Signs of Hope
This isn’t to deny that we’re on a social trajectory full of dangerous portents. The “culture wars” are almost over, and I’m sorry to say we Catholics are on the losing side. As Pope Benedict XVI predicted in 1969, the Church in the West “will become small, and will have to start pretty much all over again.” Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” may be the only alternative to marginalization and oppression by an increasingly secular, statist, and totalitarian society.
However, there are also signs of hope.
For one thing, as both Patrick J. Deneen and (more recently) Fr. Dwight Longenecker have pointed out, the leftist attempt to corrupt the Church in America is at a dead end. “Liberal Catholicism,” says Deneen, “has no future — like liberal Protestantism, it is fated to become liberalism simpliciter within a generation.” For a time, there will continue to be “token” or “house” liberal Catholics, like Vice President Joe Biden, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and Sen. Tim Kaine. However, the millennials that don’t leave the Church, particularly those with religious vocations, will be more solidly Catholic than their Generation X parents and Baby Boom grandparents.
On the other hand, this means that conservative “cafeteria Catholicism” is also coming to an end. The ideological polarization of America has led both liberal and conservative Catholics to ignore or minimize the parts of Catholic social teaching at variance with tribal dogma, and to criticize each pope in succession as he criticizes partisan shibboleths. Explains Fr. Longenecker, “The young people who have kept the faith are, for the most part, simple, by the book, faithful Catholics. They view the church differently and don’t see it in such stark ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ terms.” Without the Cold War-shaped ideological commitments and biases of the Boomers and Gen-Xers, it may be that the coming generation of American Catholics will form the nucleus of a new countercultural, populist movement, to which neither liberal nor conservative nor libertarian nor socialist, as we understand those terms now, will apply. (Perhaps distributist? Who knows?)
Finally, the Culture of Death is unsustainable by its very nature. Its victory is but temporary; its fall will be inevitable. Technology will not prevent it from falling; the fatal weaknesses are philosophical, social, economic, and political. Unfortunately, there are so many global economic and political connections that, when the cascade failure strikes, the US will likely take down the First and Second Worlds with it. While this may seem a strange thing to call a “sign of hope”, the truth is that the Catholic Church will survive the cataclysm, and will climb out of the wreckage to help the world rebuild and regain its sanity. There will be no second culture war; for Moloch eats his own children.
No More Need for Fear
In the meantime, we should not mourn our loss of political power, or dwell too much on Christianity’s future in the US. The center of the Christian message is not how we control the government, but how we love and serve one another. If the victors of the culture wars push us back into the catacombs, perhaps there we can re-learn to trust in God rather than in political parties or government figures: “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help” (Psalm 146:3). Our loss of political control may allow us to be zealous for the Lord once more.
When nothing you can do will change the outcome, there’s no more need for prudence, discretion, or fear. It’s in God’s hands, not yours. For the sake of Christ, be content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; there will you find strength (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:10). Do the right thing, and let God handle the rest.