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tonerWhat we think is the right road

Abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia are rights. The poor are poor because the rich are rich. The earth is over-populated, and man himself is the chief threat to the well-being of our planet. Islam is a religion of peace. War is always immoral.

Democracy is always the best form of government, and governments exist to protect the rights they give us. There is no truth; sin does not exist; and there is no final judgment.

But it’s the wrong road

Jesuit Father James Schall contends these are the lies that are at the heart of our country and culture today. He defines “culture” as “a complex composition of the manners, rites, language, laws, ideas and customs of a people.” The Germans have a word for all this: “zeitgeist,” which means the mood or spirit of the times. Certain clusters of ideas emerge as powerful and paramount, and we challenge them only at our social peril.

“Everybody” knows that truth is relative to time and place. “Everybody” knows that authority derives from privilege. “Everybody” knows there is nothing given or defined about being human: we are infinitely malleable – by scalpel. “Everybody” knows I have a right to a child, that I have a right to define good and evil to suit my purposes (within what is legal), and that I have a right to die when and how I choose.

There is, in fact, no escape from the zeitgeist. The lies of the times are on our TVs, in the movies, radio programs, newspapers, internet and commercials. They are heard at ball games, bars, water coolers, and at the family dinner table. They are heard at high schools, colleges and churches. They are ubiquitous. They infect the thinking of us all. Of us all – even many of those who ought to be preaching and teaching in principled opposition to the lies of our times.

The zeitgeist is unapologetically aggressive, and it mocks anyone “backwards” enough to challenge it. It is sometimes called “political correctness,” sometimes “secular humanism,” sometimes “modernism,” sometimes “progressivism.” These terms, however, do not capture the core of the zeitgeist because its emphatic insistence that we humans, here and now, in our own way, and according to our own standards of good and evil, can build a civic paradise is, in a word, diabolical.

But we do want to be seen as progressive, don’t we? Frequently, then, we publicly agree with the zeitgeist (a tactic known as “virtue signaling”) or we even think along with it (a mental process known as “group think”) in part because we don’t want to be unpopular. Dare to challenge the false gospel of the day – libertinism, socialism, utopianism, pantheism, inclusivity, diversity, religious indifferentism or syncretism, pacifism – and you will be branded as xenophobic, Islamophobic, homophobic, transphobic, and probably misogynist and fascist to boot. As the noted Catholic writer Charles Peguy once trenchantly put it: “We shall never know how many acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of not appearing sufficiently progressive.”

Here again in our day is the resurgence of the first, the fundamental, the forever temptation. It is identified in Genesis 3, in which the devil calls God a liar and tells our first parents that we can be like God. This conceit, this temptation, this evil runs like a scarlet thread through the pages of Scripture and the pages of history.

It is so strong that it insinuates itself into all that we say and do – and even, at times, on the pens and tongues of those commissioned or ordained to resist it and to remind us, with St. Paul, that we must never conform ourselves to the lies of our times but, rather, seek and do the will of God (see Rom 12:1-3), which we know through Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and Sacred Teaching (the Magisterium of the Church).

As G.K. Chesterton once pointed out, “We do not want ... a Church that will move with the world. We want a Church that will move the world.”

But do we? Or do we prefer a Church where we hear secularism celebrated in bland homilies and in catchy, popular tunes; where we see the liturgy as an extension of social custom and practice; where we deride those who strive to preserve the full aura of the sacred as “restorationists.” (By the way, that is, in fact, a compliment, although usually not meant as one.)

“I am surprised at you,” wrote St. Paul. “In no time at all you are ... accepting another gospel” (Gal 1:6).

For decades, we have sought a Catholic message that tells us to fit in with society, to be lax about Catholic moral teaching; to be tolerant of anyone and anything whose message is intended to inveigle us into “getting with the times,” being a “progressive Catholic,” and thinking as the rest of the world thinks.

We Catholics have – or ought to have – a very different perspective: “For the message about Christ’s death on the cross is nonsense to those who are being lost. ... for what seems to be God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and what seems to be God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor 1:18, 25; see also Catechism of the Catholic Church 1327).

Deacon James H. Toner serves at Our Lady of Grace Church in Greensboro.