Reinventing Religion

Author: Anthony J. Sheehan


by Anthony J. Sheehan

Appearing in "The Georgetown Academy", March 1995.

For those who have not read Fr. O'Donovan's essay, , (GEORGETOWN MAGAZINE, Winter, 1995), his main arguments can be summarized thusly: Georgetown should teach and practice ethics, not just for their own sake, but to engage in a moral discourse with the representatives of other civilizations, cultures, traditions, subcultures, i.e. a veritable Babel of ethical exponents. This crowd will work to discover their shared values: the purpose of this moral discourse is nothing less than the discovery of a natural moral law that everyone in our multicultural world can accept. This moral or ethical-the author incorrectly uses the terms interchangeably-set of principles is founded on a [yet undiscovered] truth that will be embraced by all, once they find it. All this is necessary because the welcome re- appearance of multiculturalism is, , a good thing. G.U. must accommodate herself to that fact, otherwise the conflict of cultures and "various moral visions" will continue to foment moral and civil anarchy, and possibly inaugurate World War III.

This farrago of errors, half-truths, Jesuitical reasoning [in the worst sense], and theological flabbiness is dangerous only insofar as it seems new and unexamined. It is neither; such pernicious nonsense has been propagated and then exposed as the tommyrot it is and always has been. Despite this, it re-appears in different guises.

One of the basic tenets of this essay is the putative necessity for "explicit ethical reflection", "a search for ethical truths which serve humanity's highest interests", the discovery of "a natural moral law", and the "updating of our religious tradition". These exhortations reveal not only Fr. O'Donovan's ignorance or repudiation of Catholic doctrine, but also what he and his ilk believe to be important. [It is possible that someone other than Fr. O'Donovan wrote this article. If so, I suggest that he appoint an to review any future submissions for his approval]. The fallacy here is what C.S. Lewis, [a more redoubtable Christian apologist than a bushel of modern theologians], dubbed "Christianity And", as opposed to "Mere Christianity". As the archfiend Screwtape instructed his protege Wormwood, "If they must be Christians, let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring. Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing". Thus, today we have Christianity and Feminism, Christianity and Human Sexuality, Christianity and Racism, Christianity, Violence, and Victimization, and of course, Christianity and Multiculturalism.

Father O'Donovan is quite apalled at the Same Old Thing. His essay strongly suggests that Catholicism is so incomplete, feeble, and archaic that it requires some modernizing and accessories to cope with the ethical challenges of these unique and progressive times. He praises the Pope's recent book as an expression of the recovery of the Catholic tradition reinterpreted for our age, and claims that updating our religious tradition is as important as understanding it. He coldly disregards Dr. Johnson's excellent advice that people need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed; as Lewis writes, it is the task of a moral teacher continually to return our attention to those moral truths that we are most reluctant to see. Fr. O'Donovan prefers to pursue will-o- the-wisp ethical standards [those "not exclusively dependent on faith or revelation but are, in principle, discoverable by reason"] rather than to instruct, exhort, encourage, and lead his students in the observance of moral and ethical truths long held by the Church as its patrimony from God. Truth is eternal; fashions ephemeral. What will Fr. O'Donovan's position be on Christianity and Nationalism, Christianity and Nature Worship, or whatever the next popular passion may be? Can he really believe that "Mere Christianity" lacks the strength and Divine wisdom to guide us without the assistance of every creed, cult, and cause that prides itself on its ethical purity, compassion, or innovations. As a Catholic, can he truly think that God somehow failed to foresee the "modern-day ethical complexities" which now make His words obsolete and compel us to look elsewhere for the truth? This is risible; it is akin to believing that certain inconvenient or hoary Christian doctrines have expiration dates, like milk or bread, e.g. This applies only until the invention of the computer or, Valid only if the American Medical Society approves of it.

His scrupulous avoidance of strictly defining words like ethics, moral, religion, and Catholic gives Fr. O'Donovan all the latitude he needs to assign any meaning he chooses to these terms, since all the factions of diversity now have their own definitons of these words. Which ones are Fr. O'Donovan using? Is Catholicism the teachings of the Bible and the Church as held by the Pope and the Magisterium or the postmodernist and self-serving creed of the liberal `Catholics'? To quote C.S. Lewis, "The point is not a theological or a moral one. It is only a question of using words so that we can all understand what is being said". Moral and ethical are not synonyms; morality depends on God and religion whereas ethics is a natural science of the morality of human acts, determined primarily through human reason rather than through Divinely revealed truth. [, N.Y., 1929, pp. 345, 651].

C.S. Lewis [again] exposes a major flaw in the author's theology. Lewis identifies the three parts of morality: "relations between man and man; the things inside each man; and the relations between each man and the power that made him. There is general agreement on the first part. Disagreements begin on the second and become serious with the third". Lewis explains: people notice the effects of social immorality, i.e. war, crime, corruption, oppression, because they are obvious and, for most people, unpleasant and the great majority agree on what is socially moral and what is not. This is not true of the two other types. Personal morality for most people has become subjective. One can do anything "as long as it doesn't hurt anyone". Such an attitude encourages every kind of depravity and vice within a man, while it ignores the reality that only good people can make society good. Man's relationship with God is even more crucial because all morality depends on it. We cannot learn to love our neighbors as ourselves until we first learn how to love God, and we cannot learn to love God unless we learn to obey Him. Today's society and Fr. O'Donovan are solely concerned with the first part of morality, viz., liberation theology, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the partial Biblical quotation he cites all refer to social morals. Society ignores the other two elements because it is easier to do so; so does the Fr. O'Donovan because it suits his purpose, which is to appease the delegates of multiculturalism and [despite his denials] the moral relativists. This is ironic because while Fr. O'Donovan is crying for the discovery of shared values in an area where the most agreement exists, even among the secularists and the multicultualists, he remains silent on those moral rules that are proper to religion. Lewis demonstrates that, although there are disagreements about both personal morality and about man's relationship with his Creator, the latter are far more serious and show the main difference between Christian and non-Christian morality.

This is a chasm that no amount of shared values or moral discourse can bridge. It cannot be done; despite Fr. O'Donovan's pleas and insistence, there can be no common ground and no agreement until one side surrenders or is defeated. Christ has told us, "He who is not with me is against me and he who does not gather with me scatters". This also disposes of the author's plea for toleration as the mechanism for balancing the demands of multiculturalism with the quest for ethical truth. He denies that he equates toleration with the uncritical acceptance of all ideas, but he is disengenuous. The Church teaches that toleration means renouncing anger and violence against those we see doing evil or persisting in error. Toleration does not extend to evil or error; they must be condemned because truth and falsehood cannot be equal and truth, whether rational or revealed, admits of no compromise. [, pp 966-67].

Fr. O'Donovan quotes Cardinal Newman approvingly as one who favored "true enlargement of mind". One wonders what the author thinks of Cardinal Newman on the subject of toleration and shared values. In his sermon, "The Religion of the Day", [about the Anglican Church], he said, "Religion is pleasant and easy, benevolence is the chief virtue, intolerance, bigotry, excessive zeal are the first of sins. It includes no true fear of God, no fervent zeal for His honour, no deep hatred of sin, no horror at the sight of sinners, no indignation and compassion at the blasphemies of heretics, no jealous adherence to doctrinal truth and is therefore neither hot nor cold, but in Scripture language, lukewarm..... [Emphasis mine]. The Cardinal elsewhere said what he thought about the value of "full, vigorous, moral discourse with other views and traditions". "I came to the conclusion that , and that a perfectly consistent mind ... must embrace either the one or the other". [Emphasis mine].

There certainly are truths in other religions and cultures. Most have long ago been recognized and are embraced or approved by Catholicism. But multiculturalism is hardly new. Can the author have forgotten that the Catholic Church arose in one of the greatest multicultural civilizations-the Roman Empire-yet Christ did not command his disciples to go and "discover those elements of commonality that make moral discourse possible". He said nothing about dialogue, nor being open to moral argument or promoting ethical reflection. He did say, "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them... [and] teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you..."

This essay's most dangerous error is found in Fr. O'Donovan's astonishing claim that, "...liberation theology [arose] " [How, then, can one acccount for the Church's conversion of Europe and other vast areas in the 19 centuries before it was blessed with this new doctrine?]. Lewis illustrates the ineluctably fatal consequences of this spiritual blindness best in Screwtape's advice on strategy. "On the other hand we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement but, failing that, as a means to anything-even to social justice. The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist's shop...You see the little rift? `. That's the game". [Emphasis mine]. Why is Fr. O'Donovan still playing the infernal version of three-card monte?

Fr. O`Donovan does not have the answers-he needs them. We all do. Here are some suggestions. Heed G.K.Chesterton's words. "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and never tried". Jesus said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life". When in doubt ask oneself [what is the value of this action or desire for eternity]. Viewed that way, the answer is clear, because we will, must live in eternity, where union with God is as inconceivably joyous as separation from Him is the most unbearable misfortune.


This was the motto of the Society of Jesus. Is it still?

ANTHONY J. SHEEHAN 1606 Woodbine St. Alexandria, VA., 22302 (703)-671-5090