THE DEVIL’S GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT
. . . is to persuade people that he doesn’t exist. I can’t offhand remember who said it, but that doesn’t really matter; it’s still true.
I was pondering the Second Reading from today’s Office of Readings which – in the Calendar I use, having (shall we say) a slight Dominican affiliation – is S. Raymund of Penyafort.
He starts off by saying that ‘If the preacher of truth is really not deceiving us when he says that all who want to live godly lives in Christ will suffer persecution, then no one, I think, is exempted from this general rule. If he is, it is because he neglects or does not know how to live a sober, upright and religious life in this present age. I should hope that you would not be counted among their number.’
He considers, of course, the question of actual persecution – being ‘threatened by the sword’, but then goes on to say that ‘your struggles in the world and the fears in your heart are a sharp, two-edged sword’. He also observes that ‘The threat of the sword in the external world is doubled or trebled when persecution breaks out against the Church without reason, over spiritual things. Here the most serious wounds are those dealt by friends.’
Now there are, of course, plenty of places where Christians are subject to actual, corporal, persecution : so that no-one can be in any doubt that they come into the category of which S. Raymund speaks.
The question is, though, what of those of us who live in the safety of England – or indeed most of the other ‘First World’ countries ?
Well, there are obviously temptations to be dealt with; and those are clearly part of what S. Raymund is thinking about.
However, it was reading yesterday's post by Mulier Fortis that made me realize that there was another, perhaps more insidious, ‘persecution’ to which the Church is subject today; one which justifies the title of this post.
She is discussing the process involved in selecting a new Archbishop for Southwark; and she makes a number of points which seem to me to have quite a lot to do with S. Raymund’s observation.
For example, she says that ‘Those of us who recognise that Truth is not subject to a majority vote, and cafeteria Catholicism is not an option, should not have to watch our shepherds cave in to the latest Government policy, be it human-animal hybrids, cloning, abortion, compulsory sex education for five-year-olds or whatever. There are things which are WRONG, absolutely wrong, and we need a man who will say so.’
Mulier Fortis is absolutely right about this : and we should remember that S. Paul said to Timothy that ‘the time is sure to come when, far from being content with sound teaching, people will be avid for the latest novelty’ (2 Tim 4, 3): but he directed that he should ‘proclaim the message and, welcome or unwelcome, insist on it. Refute falsehood, correct error, call to obedience’ (2 Tim 4,2).
In a world where ‘political correctness’ is seen by so many – including, tragically, many within the Church – to be the ultimate good, and where the truth of God is seen as being far less important than the truth of man, and where allegedly ‘intelligent’ people can (apparently sincerely) believe that God does not exist, the Church needs bishops – all churches, in fact, need leaders by whatever name – who will stand up fearless for GOD’S teaching, not man’s – and accept the ‘whips and scorns of time, The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely’ in the knowledge that these are of no account in the context of God’s Kingdom.
Mulier Fortis refers to Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue, and his stand on the teaching of the Faith in Catholic schools; and the history of the Church is, of course, full of such examples of Episcopal integrity.
Sadly, though, in recent years there does seem – and not by any means only in the Catholic hierarchy – too much of a willingness on the part of Christian leaders to pander to popular opinion, at whatever cost to Christian integrity. The current angst in the Anglican communion about a variety of things which are perhaps relevant to political correctness, but have no warrant in Holy Scripture or the historic teaching of the Church, shows where that sort of position must inevitably lead.
‘Vox populi, vox Dei’ may be a tenable position in some ways : but the voice referred to is about the unanimous and historic voice of the people of God, not the currently fashionable opinion of some time-serving Parliamentary Committee !
S. Philip Neri said that ‘Our enemy the devil, who fights with us in order to vanquish us, seeks to disunite us in our houses, and to breed quarrels, dislikes, contests, and rivalries, because whilst we are fighting with each other he comes and conquers us, and makes us more securely his own’; and I think one need only look at the Church today to see the truth of this.
Authoritarianism is unpopular today, indeed is generally seen as evil : and I believe that this is one of the problems of the modern world. Today, everyone’s hopes, and beliefs, and feelings, are held to be of equal value to those of everyone else; and the concept of a single authoritative body which can properly give clear and binding instruction to all is held to be anathema.
The problem, though, I am coming to realize, is that this determination to exalt personal free-will over every other value is that it simply invites the devil to take control : S. Philip Neri, again ‘We must never trust ourselves, for it is the devil’s way first to get us to feel secure, and then to make us fall’.
Of course the other problem is what Elizabeth Barrett Browning said : ‘the Devil’s most devilish when respectable’; and it is precisely the disguising of things in the guise of ‘political correctness’ which makes us believe that they are actually right and proper, and not the nonsense that they really are.
For example, I recall during the House of Commons debate about the ordination of women (in the Church of England) that someone (I rather think it was Tony Benn, but I am open to correction on that) said, in effect, that the critical point was that, whatever the historic teaching of the churches on the point – or even the revealed will of God – might be, ‘the right of women to equal treatment with men was the ultimate consideration’.
Now, this might appear, in one sense, to be a valid argument; after all, you might say, God wants all His children to be equal, so it is unchristian to discriminate between them.
However, apart from the fact that ‘male and female He created them’ (Gen 1,27), there is the much more significant fact that God has made certain decisions, and expects us to abide by them. They aren’t necessarily rational in human terms; but then that, after all, was exactly what the Fall was about – mankind’s comulsion that its own ‘reasoning’ was more reliable than the will of God . . . and it seems to me that much of what passes for ‘reasoning’ today is doing exactly the same thing. Eve was tempted by the belief that eating the apple would give her knowledge; today, our passion for knowledge, without consideration of whether we need it, what we will do with it when we have it, or even whether we are meant to have it, leads us increasingly to ignore the will of God, and pursue our own aims.
S. Augustine, discussing his willingness to steal pears from a tree in his youth, asked himself why he had done this, when he had not even eaten most of the pears, but had given them to the pigs : and answered himself that ‘I wished to mimic a maimed liberty by doing things unpermitted me, in darkened likeness of God’s omnipotence.’
In other words, says the Saint, the underlying sin was one of pride; that he had done this, in essence, to show that he could make his own decisions; and surely that is exactly what the modern world is doing – proving that it can make its own decisions and mistakes, and has no need of God.
S. Paul was right when he said to Timothy that the time would come; and I think it is clear that it now has, so that S. Raymund’s warning is also applicable : the wounds which we have to fear now, the persecution which we have to expect, are not (at least for most of us) as a result of physical violence against us : they will come as a result of our determination to stand up for the truth of God, and to refuse to accept that mankind is the ultimate arbiter.
Quoting S. Philip Neri for the last time, ‘There is nothing more glorious that can happen to a Christian, than to suffer for Christ’; and clearly that must apply, nowadays, to all who will resist the compulsion to accept the wisdom of this world, and to maintain that ‘foolishness’ in the eyes of the world which is obedience to the will of God – remembering always that ‘God's folly is wiser than human wisdom’ (1 Cor 1.25).
That, surely, is what the Church today should be looking for in its Bishops; a willingness to stand up and witness as Paul directed Timothy. Of course they will be reviled, even from within the Church, and told they are ‘out of touch’, ‘unrealistic’, even ‘bigoted’; but they should be content with this, remembering two things.
First, that as Paul continued to the Corinthians, ‘God's weakness is stronger than human strength’, and secondly that, by suffering this opprobrium, they are suffering the persecution to which S. Raymund referred : which is, as he says, an inevitable adjunct of living a godly life; something which we should all, then, be glad to accept.