Q. Given the terrible scandals in the Church, I feel my faith is in doubt. What can I do to strengthen it?
A. When the sixth-century philosopher Boethius was awaiting death on a trumped-up charge of treason, he comforted himself in prison by writing a treatise entitled, The Consolation of Philosophy. We might look to the classic at this difficult time in the Church’s life to find our own consolation and inspiration.
Beware of False Consolations
In the opening chapters, Lady Philosophy — call her Wisdom — appears to Boethius and admonishes him for the bitterness he harbors toward his present fate. She says his former reliance for happiness upon great wealth, physical strength and beauty, pleasure and political power was nothing but emptiness; and his desire to return to his earlier fortune is a corruption of mind. She warns him to beware of the deceptions of that “monstrous lady Fortune,” whom she calls a mistress of “manifold deceits.”
Wisdom then consoles Boethius by critiquing Fortune’s worldview with the tenets of Christian philosophy. This takes up the majority of the work.
Human Versus Divine Understanding
Toward the end, Wisdom turns to the notion of God’s providence. She says that nothing situated in time — as human life is situated — can grasp the entire duration of its own life. It has relinquished its yesterday and does not yet possess the morrow. God alone apprehends the fullness of life without end. By his divine understanding, he ponders all events — past, present and future — as if they were being enacted before his eyes. And his judgments are made in the light of it all.
Boethius then asks, if God knows all things that will come to pass, can we have any control over them? Does not God’s foreknowledge predestine what is to occur?
Wisdom replies by saying our freedom is not forfeited in the face of God’s divine foreknowledge. So even if God knows beforehand the choices I will make, those choices are still free from the bonds of necessity. This is only to say that it lies within my power to change my course of action. The fact that God had already foreseen such change, and factored it into his all-knowing providential plan, does not diminish my freedom.
Wisdom concludes with the comforting and fearful truth that, just as God sees all, so, too, will he recompense each according to what he sees. God will reward the good and punish the wicked. Therefore, the hopes we repose in God and the prayers we address to him, if righteous, are not in vain.
“So avoid vice,” Wisdom concludes; “cultivate the virtues, raise your minds to righteous hopes, pour out your humble prayers to heaven. As long as you refuse to play the hypocrite, a great necessity to behave honorably is imposed on you, for your deeds are observed by the Judge who sees all things.”
How About Us?
Might not Wisdom say something similar to us, who worry about evil deeds done in darkness; about shepherds who take what’s not theirs and withhold what rightly belongs to the sheep; about failed leadership, which perpetuates itself without accountability; and about the souls — O, the souls! Who can count them? — lost on account of the mountainous infidelity of our leaders, not just the predators who directly destroy souls, but, also, the innumerable cowardly ones who knew of the predators and said nothing; who saw the cancer of unchastity at work in their seminaries and left it to metastasize; who heard credible rumors of unchaste homosexual networks among their brothers, yet said to themselves, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”; and who saw and still see Catholic theologians in their own dioceses flatly and publicly denying Jesus’ moral teaching and did (and do) nothing to stop them; in short, the watchmen who decades ago saw the sword of unchastity descending on the necks of Christ’s people and who did not blow the trumpet to warn them. To those who worry about such things, Wisdom says:
God sees it all. Every deed done in darkness, every tear shed in silence, he notes it all. And his memory is long, and his judgments are true, and he always sides with the lowly.
From the foundations of the world, God knew of Peter’s betrayal and of the apostles’ cowardice. He knew, too, that their 20th- and 21st-century successors would forsake their commission in favor of respectability, of being liked and not ruffling feathers — except the feathers of the truly faithful, the living saints, whose feathers the leaders have been ruffling since the Church’s beginning. He knew that thick darkness would descend upon the Church at this time in history and that many souls would be lost.
Yet, despite all this, Wisdom says, have no fear. God is still in control. His plan for the restoration of all things in Christ is intact. He will use all this filthy infidelity — like he used his own Son’s wretched crucifixion — to bring about his divine purposes in the end.
Nor is he indifferent to the cries of his little ones. We know from the Magnificat who in the end gets raised up and who is cast down.
I expect Wisdom would also say: Beware. The next years will see a time of unparalleled judgment and purification. Remaining in the Church that Christ built on Peter’s profession will seem to some an impossibility. Many will leave, and fewer will join. And this loss of souls and ecclesial communion will be incalculable. But good will come out of it, too, for Providence shall not be thwarted. We will emerge a smaller and leaner Church.
So, Wisdom would say, avoid vice and cultivate virtue. Although, situated in time, you cannot grasp the duration of your life, you do not need to. Past, present and future lay bare before God’s gaze. He has already rendered judgment on the proud shepherds and already assigned to the bosom of Abraham those who’ve suffered abuse at their hands.
So use your freedom to shun hypocrisy and admonish hypocrites. Raise your mind to righteous hopes, and pour out your humble prayers to heaven. Endure your suffering in imitation of Jesus. Avoid all bitterness and enmity.
Although from the perspective of many of the leaders of the Catholic Church, the Barque of Peter is spinning round and round, as in a whirlpool about to be sucked under, console yourself with the thought that, in the end, the perspective of the leaders is not the one that matters.
E. Christian Brugger is the senior research fellow in ethics
at the Culture of Life Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Readers are invited to send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, with “Difficult Moral Questions” in the subject line.
Please identify your first name (or, if you prefer, a suitable pseudonym) and the state you live in (and country, if not the U.S.).