The Disease of Irreverence
ALICE VON HILDEBRAND
New Oxford Review
Many sicknesses are contagious; health is not. It is regrettable, but it is a fact. Since original sin, intellectual viruses have penetrated the human mind and have affected its reasoning power. This might explain why slogans have a powerful appeal to most men—in a couple of striking words they seem to offer a solution to problems that plague our society. One of the most overused slogan words in our day is “change.” Change, we are told, is inevitable. But is change for the sake of change necessarily a change for the better? Few seem to recall that Plato wrote that, "any change except to eliminate an evil, is an evil." To go from sickness to death is change, but rare are those who would welcome it.
Another overused slogan word is “progress.” This is a most anemic term; it literally means "forward or onward movement toward a destination." Progress, we are told, must not be prevented. But this raises the question: Where is it leading us? To walk toward an abyss is progress, but it is not advisable—the only intelligent solution in such a case is to regress. Yet, human stupidity has no limit. Many are those who proceed further and further until they meet their doom. Pascal remarked that we run toward an abyss after having carefully blinded ourselves so that we can no longer see the danger.
Slogans in the mouth of a charismatic speaker have a soporific effect on sluggish minds, and most men, while physically alert, live in a state of intellectual lethargy that prevents them from raising the right questions. We pay a lot of attention to small, insignificant things (such as saving money by clipping coupons), but fail to ask the crucial questions of human existence: Is there a God? Who is He? Who am l? What is good? What is evil? Is there an objective truth?
We are often urged to "get with the times." But we would do well to recall the words of G.K. Chesterton. The Catholic Church, he said, "is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his own age." This great man deserves to be quoted a second time. Commenting on Fr. Frederick Copleston's History of Philosophy, he remarked that it is, "precisely the spirit of the age that has made a shipwreck of mankind from the beginning."
Indeed, what characterizes the Zeitgeist (the spirit of the age) is constant change, volatility, and restlessness; and this inevitably brings us closer and closer to death. We are very concerned about the food we eat; we are terrified at the thought that there might be carbon monoxide in our building; we dread "global warming"; we swallow all sorts of pills that promise fast healing for all sorts of ailments (real or imagined); we take our temperature at the slightest discomfort or rush to a doctor for a check-up. In the midst of all this worry and commotion, we forget to take our spiritual pulse. Pascal deplored the fact that we poor human beings are so concerned about petty things yet are so careless about our eternal fate. Very few are those who have the courage to face the frailty of our metaphysical situation. We crave honors, yet we forget that the only one that matters is the one God grants: "Well done good and faithful servant... enter thou into the joy of thy Lord" (Matt. 25:23).
There are innumerable metaphysical viruses, but they vary from age to age. He who longs for wisdom is concerned about the ones that are presently active. One of today's most virulent sicknesses is our society's canonization of youth, vitality, and physical strength. Having a constant fear of "aging," we desperately look for ways to hide the fact that we are "no longer what we used to be." This is why cosmetics is a billion-dollar industry. In magazines, in drug stores, wherever we go, we are bombarded with promises: that this particular cream will make our skin look forever young, that this simple exercise will keep our figures shapely. When Dr. Phil informs us that in the United States alone some 300,000 girls between the ages of fifteen and eighteen have had cosmetic surgery (not always successful and not necessarily covered by insurance), we must acknowledge that appearing young and handsome is a top priority in our society. We look up to those who are strong and healthy—hence our idolatry of sports champions. To have strong muscles can even guarantee a successful political career—as in the cases of the former governors of California and Minnesota—as if political wisdom were commensurate with the size of one's biceps.
This glorification of youth and vitality explains why the overwhelming majority of women (though we should not exclude men) dye their hair, even as early as their thirties—to fool people into believing that they are in their late teens or early twenties. A friend told me that in Holland a woman whose hair is graying and does not do anything about it will be looked down upon as someone who neglects herself.
While reverence for old age has been discarded in our culture, let us recall the praise of white hair in the Bible: St. Luke writes that the prophetess Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, was "venerated because of her old age"—this apart from the fact that since her widowhood she had spent her life in the temple serving the Lord.
Reverence for old age is not unique to the Bible. Centuries ago, in Rome, one had to be a senex (a wise old man) in order to occupy important offices in the state. In Indian tribes, the chief was always an elderly man who was respected precisely because he was elderly. This was expressed by the way he was addressed. Today, one hears a child refer to his grandfather as "a nice guy." Years ago, this would have triggered shock and horror.
To give elderly people precedence in means of public transportation is "out of fashion." When I was a child, I never saw an elderly person standing: it was a matter of course that as soon as he entered a bus full of passengers, someone would immediately get up and give him his seat. Today, the reasoning is: "I am as good as he is or better because l am stronger or healthier."
Great historians know that irreverence is a disease that, like cancer, inevitably leads to the death of a society. Plato, referring to the decadence of Athens in the fourth century, reminded his contemporaries that during this noble city's heydays, "reverence was our queen and mistress." Plato also wrote these amazing words: "Let parents, then, bequeath to their children not a heap of riches, but the spirit of reverence." He knew that "no one ever saw or heard Socrates do or say anything irreverent or unholy." He is the same author who related how Socrates brought his oldest son, Lamprocles, to acknowledge his ingratitude toward his mother, because, irritated by her, he showed his lack of reverence by forgetting that she had nourished him with her own flesh, had given him birth in great pains, and had taken care of him for years. We wish that this passage would be read in every grammar school in the country, where irreverence and ingratitude are no longer registered as grave moral flaws.
The disease of irreverence has found expression in the coarseness of modern vocabulary. Recently a teacher overheard words uttered by one of his young female students that a hundred years ago would have only been found in the mouths of drunken sailors. Such vulgarity is now viewed as an expression of "sincerity": if one feels so, it is only honest and legitimate to use words that express one's feelings adequately, as opposed to suppressing them—supposedly a type of "disingenuousness" that was prevalent in the past. But it does not occur to many of us that some feelings call for disavowal as soon as we diagnose them as vicious, unkind, or vengeful. Dietrich von Hildebrand showed that as soon as we ascertain that certain feelings that have arisen spontaneously in us are evil they call for a radical rejection. "I happen to have unkind feelings, but I refuse to recognize them as 'valid."' This is one of the many valuable contributions found in his Ethics.
The words we use to describe various subjects reflect the attitude we have toward them. Compare, for example, the writings of St. Teresa of Avila, who addresses God as "His Majesty," with the words of a priest whom l heard referring to the Lord as "the nice guy upstairs." If angels could cry, they would certainly do so—they who have the privilege of seeing Him—and bow and sing, “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus” in trembling reverence.
In the sacrament of confession we receive a guarantee of forgiveness for our faults, weaknesses, and sins from a representative of Christ and hear the blessed words, “Thy sins are forgiven thee.” But when a parish priest preparing children for their first confession refers to this great sacrament as a "fun experience," how can we expect them to enter the confessional with a feeling of awe?
Today, virtually nothing is regarded as worthy of awe. Young people discuss publicly things, which by their very nature, call for veiling—they consider this "freedom" a sign of maturity, of having overcome the destructive Puritanism of yore. They no longer perceive that one covers certain things either because they are ugly, mean, unappetizing, and despicable or because they are mysterious, deep, intimate, and personal.
Particularly distressing is that today pornography no longer hidden "under the counter." Yes, pornography has always existed; it will always exist on this sinful earth. But, what used to be called the "doubtful privilege of Forty-Second Street" is now considered a legitimate feature of our mainstream culture. Therefore, we are told, pornography should neither shock nor surprise us. Many of us have forgotten that pornography is so great an evil that it is a strict moral duty to wage a relentless war against it and to carefully avoid justifying it as an inevitable reaction against "pharisaical Puritanism."
In the 1990s I had the privilege of meeting Jerome Lejeune a couple of times (he who had been awarded a Nobel Prize for his discovery of the cause of Down Syndrome), one of the most outspoken defenders of life. In the course of a conversation, he said, "If you only knew how I hate sickness and disease: I view them as my deadly enemies. My whole life long, I have combated them and l shall do so until my very last breath." He did not say, “Sickness is a fact of life, therefore we should not get upset by it.” A fortiori, this applies to deadly moral evils, and pornography is high on the list.
True, in our sinful world, it is likely that, until Christ comes in glory, sin will continue to wound people’s souls. But if we cannot totally eliminate moral evil, the least we can do is insist that it be called by its right name, and possibly, to quote Plato, to command that it remain “concealed." We must not proclaim it to be acceptable based on a mushy understanding of non-judgmentalism. We need the wisdom of St. Augustine, who wrote, interficere errorom; diligere errantem (We should kill the error and love the one who errs).
Alas, abortion too has always existed and will always exist; but there is a world of difference between declaring it—loudly and clearly—to be murder and legalizing it based on the mendacious reasoning that a woman has a right to control her own body. Four thousand innocent babies are slaughtered every day, day after day, in the United States, yet I fear this too is something we are getting used to. To live in "peaceful co-existence" with diabolical practices is to bear some share of responsibility for these horrors. There can be no such thing as "peaceful co-existence with evil." Was it not Chesterton who wrote that "a good war is better than an evil peace"? This sort of peace is in fact a tacit collaboration with the murderers of Christ.
The most disastrous manifestation of the disease of irreverence in our society is, alas, found in the behavior of worshipers at religious services. Those of the older generation witness, with tears in their eyes, the irreverent way people comport themselves at Mass: they come in beach attire; they talk in raised voices in the sanctuary; they laugh in front of the Tabernacle; they do not genuflect; they receive Holy Communion without bowing. Many of the liturgical changes that were arbitrarily introduced after Vatican II bear a heavy share of responsibility for our current malaise. It should be noted, however, that numerous changes since Vatican II were in no way dictated by the Council; they were introduced by those who used the Council as an excuse to advance their own agendas—agendas that undermined the sacred structure of religious services.
What indication would a Muslim who witnesses the way some Catholics behave at Mass have for thinking that we actually believe that Christ is present in the Holy Eucharist? When Muslims go to the mosque on Fridays they take off their shoes and they bow or prostrate themselves during the ceremony. Their attitude is one of adoration and awe. Whether they do so because it is their culture or because their inner attitude matches their posture is not something for me to judge. God alone knows it. But what a difference between their outward attitude and the one found in most Catholic churches today, where many exterior signs of awe and reverence in Catholic liturgy—such as beating one's breast, kneeling to receive Holy Communion, receiving Communion on the tongue—have been reduced to a minimum. Modern Catholics should recall how deeply St. Benedict insisted in his holy rule on the meaning and importance of our body language during religious services—nay, in our everyday activities. Body and soul in unity should glorify God.
Irreverence is spreading through modem society like a cancer. It is metastasizing and has infected virtually every facet of our everyday life. The authentic meaning of “culture” refers to a refinement, an elevation, a spiritualization of everyday life—that is, it aims to put the seal of the Spirit on our daily activities. Today, however, the word “culture” refers to whatever has been most recently produced. We have forgotten that true culture elevates; it does not drag down. I dare say that much of what we see today is an anti-culture. It certainly cannot be read as a sursum corda (Lift up your hearts)—a call to look upward, triggering gratitude in our souls. It was typical of Plato's genius that he would warn us that one of the main aims of education is to train a child to "love what is lovable, and hate what is mean and ugly." This is the antidote to the disease of irreverence that is ravaging our society and sickening our culture. When will we avail ourselves of it?