He who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander. —Aristotle
Archibald MacNeal Willard’s famous 1875 painting “The Spirit of ‘76” captured for many the spirit of the American Revolution as the nation prepared to celebrate the centenary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The phrase has remained common parlance, conjuring an image of a people waking up to their freedom, willing to risk all to live free of the shackles of tyranny.
This is surely a partial and maybe romantic view—in reality the motives of many in the revolutionary cause were mixed, and the revolution was a time of darkness, elation, confusion, terrible loss and surprising victories all marbled together. Depending on where one stood, a single moment could have looked bleak, hopeless, or promising. It was their perseverance amidst losses and hardships we can barely imagine today that led to the founding of a nation that has known greater power and prosperity than any other in history.
Two hundred and forty years ago the founders chose a man to lead an unformed rabble of farmers, tradesmen, and against the greatest military of the age. After losses followed by incredible, improbable victories, George Washington was made president of the young nation that was still struggling to create its institutions and decide how best to secure freedom and flourishing for those who would be called Americans.
How Far We Have Come
We’re starting to see a cascade of truly radical things: from forcing the nation’s public schools to let boys use girls’ bathrooms to now allowing sex-confused soldiers to “serve openly” in accord with their “gender identity.” Battle readiness and unit cohesiveness be damned. The military’s priorities now include soldiers being forced to celebrate a delusional activist’s current “identity” and pretend as if everything is normal.
Every institution is being torn down in between the government and the individual. The full legalization of contraception and abortifacients in the mid-60s was followed quickly and logically by “the Summer of Love,” which was followed quickly and logically by the legalization of “No Fault Divorce” in 1970 and Roe v. Wade in ’73. Further advances from the Culture of Death/Sexual Revolution have ripped apart the first and most natural institution—the family—and with it almost all of the moderating institutions between the family and the state. All this leads more and more people to look to the government for salvation even as its leaders flagrantly ignore the rule of law and get away with it; meanwhile, the Church retreats to find a new “safe space” in the public square from which to make defensive statements about what we should still be able to do, based on a Constitution that is little more than a memory to a government that now openly acts as if it never existed.
A leader sets a tone with what he says, with what he does, and with those he appoints to serve underneath him. Many responses and effects are beyond his control, but overall a tone is set and a direction is chosen.
George Washington set a tone as a leader, inspiring a host of responses from his fellow founders and the nation, some of which were beyond his control, but much of which followed from his example and statements. With his accomplishments and his bearing, he rose above rivals and became almost unchallengeable. He inspired many to envision a free nation and to prepare for every necessary sacrifice.
There has also been a tone set in the Church. It is widely acknowledged as true, but still somehow controversial to say, that confusion is rampant on several key issues within the Church. Those who wanted “change” celebrate the confusion, not because official teaching has changed, but because of what one might call “the spirit” of the Holy See these days.
A leader does not control every response to his leadership or every effect. It would be unjust to attribute every confusion in the Church today to the Holy Father. But it would also be intellectually dishonest to deny that a tone has been set, or that several of those elevated by the Holy Father to prominent positions are acting recklessly and have no fear of being corrected.
The Real Effects Are Felt on the Ground
Here “on the ground” the real effect of all the confusion, as always, depends on where you stand. But from the perspective of those of us who have given our lives to defend the Church’s most unpopular teaching – teaching which we believe leads to true flourishing – it is a very troubling time. For example, if a diocesan-level marriage director presents basic Church teaching on co-habitation, irregular marriage, or same-sex unions, she is likely to be confronted with statements like: “But Pope Francis is changing things now. Didn’t you hear?”
It doesn’t matter that the person doesn’t really know what he’s talking about since doctrine has not changed. The director is put on the defensive and, when she respectfully explains the joyful truth of the relevant doctrine, will be characterized as “ultra-conservative” and uncompassionate or non-pastoral – out of step with the Vatican.
Faithful Catholics have been buffeted by a host of troubling statements from cardinals, bishops, and priests. Most recently we even heard that the Church must apologize for its treatment of homosexuals, giving the impression that her teaching about homosexuality is uncharitable and untruthful. Even if we agree that we all sometimes fail to respond in Christian charity toward our neighbor, it does not follow that we owe a blanket apology to those who openly choose a lifestyle that is in direct opposition to Christ and His teaching.
Follow Your Conscience
The confusing language, tone, and statements by some Church officials, have led many to believe they can follow their conscience, regardless of whether it has been formed in the truth; that repentance and amendment of life are no longer necessary. Pope Saint John Paul II, in Veritatis Splendor, confronts modernists who depict conscience as an infallible tribunal that somehow dispenses us from the considerations of law and truth, putting in their place purely subjective criteria such as “authenticity” or being at peace with oneself. These same modern thinkers who have lost the sense of the transcendent deform the idea of conscience. Rejecting this trend, John Paul shows that conscience is an act of intelligence that adheres to objective norms. The freedom of conscience is secured by its conformity to truth.
“In the depths of his conscience man detects a law, which he does not impose on himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience can when necessary speak to his heart more specifically: ‘do this, shun that’. For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.” – (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, ¶ 16, quoted in Veritatis Splendor ¶ 54).
Authority is an amazing and terrible gift. It must be carried with wisdom and courage, generosity and humility. May Almighty God assist government and ecclesiastical leaders with counsel, prudence, and wisdom so they might rightly administer God’s will, guiding us all along the narrow path that leads to eternal life.