Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
And like recovering people in general, she is hyper-sensitive and alert to the faults of the false religion she once embraced. Here she is, remarking on the secularized Left’s (seeming) congenital inability to take the supernatural and the concept of sin seriously.
I’m with her part of the way. There is something extraordinarily weird about a culture that can emerge from the 20th Century confident that the one lesson we can take away from that massive bloodbath is that the devil does not exist. I can buy her eye rolling about the shallow Berkeleyesque theorizing that there is no such thing as sin.
But she loses me when she speaks as though the Left is completely amoral and as though the Right has a firm grip on these matters. In fact, of course, the average Lefty has a firm and even rigid sense of morality about things that matter to it. The cries against racism, sexism, homophobia, etc are as intensely moralistic as Cotton Mather. Leftist atheism, likewise, is deeply and rigidly moralistic. As Benedict XVI points out:
In the modern era, the idea of the Last Judgement has faded into the background: Christian faith has been individualized and primarily oriented towards the salvation of the believer’s own soul, while reflection on world history is largely dominated by the idea of progress. The fundamental content of awaiting a final Judgement, however, has not disappeared: it has simply taken on a totally different form. The atheism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is—in its origins and aims—a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history. A world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering, and cynicism of power cannot be the work of a good God. A God with responsibility for such a world would not be a just God, much less a good God. It is for the sake of morality that this God has to be contested. Since there is no God to create justice, it seems man himself is now called to establish justice. If in the face of this world’s suffering, protest against God is understandable, the claim that humanity can and must do what no God actually does or is able to do is both presumptuous and intrinsically false. It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice; rather, it is grounded in the intrinsic falsity of the claim. A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope.
So the problem is not a lack of morality per se, but a lack of transcendent hope. For the Leftist secularist, we are alone and lost in the cosmos, making it up as we go along, till we die and rot. That *can* result in nihlism, but it can also result in an iron stoicism and a totalitarian certitude that murders millions in the name of a Hitchenesque moralism and its attendant pride. When not armed with the power to slaughter its enemies, it can create highly readable (and shaming) diatribes about the superior morality of the atheists vs. the disgusting crimes of pervert Christians etc. Nothing satisfies human pride like being able to point to the failures and hypocrisies of the believer. But give a Hitchensesque atheist the power to impose his moral vision on men and, as the 20th century shows, millions will be killed. Robin has ample reasons for her mistrust of the atheist promise that an atheist state will be harmless.
That said, I think Robin cuts too much slack to the Right when it comes to the human impulse to try to derive Big Lessons (and settle political scores) from tragedies. She is (rightly) disgusted by the Left’s recent foray into the Blame Game and the naked (and stupid) attempt to pin the actions of a depraved lunatic on Sarah Palin and other righties. But the notion that this is somehow uniquely Leftist is amnesiac. Witness Newt Gingrich (that Paladin of Family Values) making the cheapest political capital from the actions of other crazy evil people:
In 1994, just a few days before the midterm elections, a deranged woman named Susan Smith drowned her two young sons. Gingrich, at the time, made infanticide a campaign issue and publicly equated Smith’s murders with the values of the Democratic Party. Gingrich told the AP, “The mother killing her two children in South Carolina vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we have to have change. I think people want to change and the only way you get change is to vote Republican.”
Five years later, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people at Columbine High School. Gingrich insisted that American “elites” bore responsibility for the massacre. “I want to say to the elite of this country—the elite news media, the liberal academic elite, the liberal political elite: I accuse you in Littleton ... of being afraid to talk about the mess you have made,” Gingrich said, “and being afraid to take responsibility for things you have done, and instead foisting upon the rest of us pathetic banalities because you don’t have the courage to look at the world you have created.”
In short, not every odious reptilian exploiter of tragedy is a Lefty.
Nor is every person to sense that there is a social dimension to sin an odious exploiter of tragedy. After Columbine, Peg Noonan wrote:
The fish—your child—is bombarded and barely knows it. But the waves contain words like this, which I’ll limit to only one source, the news:
. . . was found strangled and is believed to have been sexually molested . . . had her breast implants removed . . . took the stand to say the killer was smiling the day the show aired . . . said the procedure is, in fact, legal infanticide . . . is thought to be connected to earlier sexual activity among teens . . . court battle over who owns the frozen sperm . . . contains songs that call for dominating and even imprisoning women . . . died of lethal injection . . . had threatened to kill her children . . . said that he turned and said, “You better put some ice on that” . . . had asked Kevorkian for help in killing himself . . . protested the game, which they said has gone beyond violence to sadism . . . showed no remorse . . . which is about a wager over whether he could sleep with another student . . . which is about her attempts to balance three lovers and a watchful fiancé . . .
This is the ocean in which our children swim. This is the sound of our culture. It comes from all parts of our culture and reaches all parts of our culture, and all the people in it, which is everybody…
Was she a Leftist refusing to acknowledge the truth of Sarah Palin’s Rugged Individualist analysis that “Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state.”
I don’t think she was. I think she was a normal human being recognizing the basic Catholic principle of solidarity and the fact that our sins have a social dimension and harm the whole human family. This too, is not a peculiarly Leftist trait, and is still less a Leftist fault (if properly understood within the Catholic tradition). The sane human impulse of looking at the human race and asking “What is the matter with us?” after some outrage is committed has been with us from the start. It finds it apotheosis, not its denial, in the gospels which insist, not that responsibility for the Crucifixion “begins and ends” with the people who condemned Jesus to death and drove the nails, but with every last human being who ever lived.
Where that impulse to recognize our solidarity in sin goes sour is when we say “us” but really mean “you”. That was the rank smell that pervaded the air when Newt Gingrich and the Daily Kos both turned to their political enemies and said, “You did this!” It was an act, not of humble soul-searching, but of naked pride and grappling for power. It trampled the dead for gain and was palpably ugly. It is the same sort of sin as when a Christian anti-semite blames the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus and forget the wisdom of the Church:
CCC 598 In her Magisterial teaching of the faith and in the witness of her saints, the Church has never forgotten that “sinners were the authors and the ministers of all the sufferings that the divine Redeemer endured.” Taking into account the fact that our sins affect Christ himself, the Church does not hesitate to impute to Christians the gravest responsibility for the torments inflicted upon Jesus, a responsibility with which they have all too often burdened the Jews alone:
We must regard as guilty all those who continue to relapse into their sins. Since our sins made the Lord Christ suffer the torment of the cross, those who plunge themselves into disorders and crimes crucify the Son of God anew in their hearts (for he is in them) and hold him up to contempt. And it can be seen that our crime in this case is greater in us than in the Jews. As for them, according to the witness of the Apostle, “None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” We, however, profess to know him. And when we deny him by our deeds, we in some way seem to lay violent hands on him.
Nor did demons crucify him; it is you who have crucified him and crucify him still, when you delight in your vices and sins.
Robin of Berkeley is right where she is right. Certainly her former tribe does the blame-shifting thing and the outrage in Tucon was a particularly egregious example of that. But like many political converts, she is loath to acknowledge that her new tribe can also do such things. It happens sometimes when you realize you have wronged somebody and you suddenly see that much they had to say had merit while much that your old tribe had to say was self-congratulatory brainwashing. But to fall off the horse on the right side after falling off on the left for so long is not progress. The trick is to stay on the horse. The only way to do that is to listen to the revelation of Christ which insists that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God—even those who admit it.