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.
One of the interesting phenomena one constantly runs into on the Internet is the fact that conversations tend to roll in eternally like waves on a beach.
What I mean is this: You have some argument about something; say, the morality of lying in a good cause (as we’ve had here recently).
What fascinates me is how you can hash out some point in great detail, building a great sand castle of argument on the beach whereby you show, with geometric logic, that there is a real difference between the speech act we call “lying” and the speech act we call “writing fiction.” You labor with great care to make clear (to the scrupulous) that writing fiction is morally acceptable even though what is being written is not “true” in the sense of flat-footed literalism. You labor (for the licentious) to show that the moral acceptability of writing fiction does not mean that “lying through your teeth” is therefore “the same” as writing fiction. You parse out the distinction between different sorts of speech acts which we all, by common consent, recognize as morally acceptable vs. those which are not (the actor playing a role vs. the con man lying about his identity). Finally, when all the t’s are crossed and the i’s dotted on this little artifice of reason, some new person crashes into the discussion and says, “Yeah? Well what about writing fiction? Is that lying? Huh? Huh? Answer me that!”
It’s a problem you run into over and over. So, for instance, earlier this week, I wrote, as clearly as I could:
Third, though I generally share John Zmirak’s tendency to regard mental reservation as the Catholic term of art for Bovine Excretions, I also note that Jesus nonetheless appears to have practiced it (“I am not [yet] going up to the feast” John 7:8). Indeed, if that’s not a classic picture of a mental reservation, then I don’t know what is. Though, perniciously, this and other passages tend to suddenly turn up in conversations about the morality of lying, not to suggest that mental reservation is legitimate, but to suggest that even Jesus told white lies, so it’s no big deal if we do too. To wit:
Do you think Jesus lied when he said, “However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows.” Because obviously, the Eternally Begotten Son of God knows when things are going to happen.
Such questions are, I think, deeply sinister when jammed sideways into a discussion of the morality of lying because they bid fair to metastasize the rationalizing from “It’s okay for Christians to lie sometimes” (which is already dubious and contrary to Church teaching) to “Jesus told lies too” (which is, you know, blasphemy). To massively understate things, I have a feeling you’ll have a tough time getting the Church to acknowledge that Jesus was a liar. God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.
To which a reader almost immediately responded:
One thing you have all missed is that Jesus fibbed a little to save his life too. In John 7:1-12, Jesus tells his “brothers” that he is not going up to the feast of Tabernacles and they should go on. However, he does go after they leave. HMMMMMMMM!!!
He sure got me there. Never thought of that.
And the beat goes on. Every anti-Catholic fundamentalist is sure he is the first person in history to have caught Catholics in the shocking revelation that Borgia Popes were bad and Jesus said “Call no man Father.” Every atheist on planet earth seems to think that he is the first person to reveal to Christians that the Old Testament contains morally problematic scenes of violence or to ask “If God made everything, then who made God?” Every teenager on earth seems to be convinced that he is the first person to reveal to Christians that sex is pleasurable. Every “Jesus never existed” zealot thinks he is the first to notice that contemporary Roman records of Jesus are thin on the ground. Every six day creationist is certain he has discovered the ironclad proof that overturns the overwhelming consensus of the sciences about the age of the earth and evolution by common descent. Every atheist materialist is certain that some passage from Genesis, read with flat-footed literalism, shows the Bible to be worthless. Every Obama Birther is certain that nobody has ever before considered their theory. Every 9/11 Conspiracy theorist is certain that the shocking revelation that lighting a cup of gas in his hamster cage and failing to melt the bars will unveil the Hidden History of our Time.
What I glean from these endless waves washing up on our conversational shores is that this is why the teaching mission of the Church is an ongoing one throughout all time. There will never be a time, short of Heaven, when the Church will be able to rest on its laurels and say “Mission accomplished!” Every generation of Catholics must, as the saying goes, tame a wave of barbarians called “their children.” Because the truth of things (whether of relatively trivial things like the times table) or of immensely important things like the gospel of Jesus is news to each generation—along with such matters as elementary reasoning skills and basic facts about history, math, and science. Those inclined to conservatism cannot rest with the certitude that people have a clue about what needs to be conserved. Those inclined to progressivism cannot rest with the certitude that their neighbors have the slightest idea what we should be progressing to. Nor can Catholics assume that the Faith will just sail on of itself without our cooperation with grace and our active participation in making sure it is handed on. Not that everything is on us, of course. God is the author and finisher of the Faith. But if we do not cooperate with him, we can expect that the sand castles will be lost for us and those we love. As Paul says, using another metaphor:
Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:12-15)