TWENTIETH (20TH) SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Paul said his days were evil. He meant that the time was out of step with truth, that the spirit of the day was immoral, that the atmosphere of freedom was deadly, and that the spiritual climate was toxic. We suspect that St. Paul would say the same about our age and time: that it is evil.
Not that we are personally evil, but that our culture is opposed to the Good. That may seem to get us off the hook since we are not directly responsible for our cultural morality. But in truth, the evil of culture is much more deadly than any personal evil. Because it sets the conditions, the boundaries, for every personal choice. And when the choice is only between lesser evils, that time is evil.
Cultural climate or morality fluctuates between one extreme and the other. Virtue and goodness are in the middle. The liberal may take freedom to an extreme and become a libertine; a conservative may deify tradition and become a fundamentalist. The evil comes from turning a relative good into an absolute good: a truth into an ideology, an “ism.”
Such as the American heresy of twisting individuality into individualism. Individuality may be America’s greatest gift to the human experiment. It recognizes the primacy of the personal, the relational element over the institutional and structural dimensions of life. It insists that each person is an end in himself and herself; no one person can be sacrificed to or even replaced for another; no generation can be destroyed for the good of a present or future generation.
But individualism takes the legitimate personal value and makes all other values bend to it. Thus, individualism says that each person is a private moral universe unto himself and herself, unconnected and unanswerable to others except by consent. Each one decides what is best for oneself in the hope that this individual competition will somehow raise the level of all. (It doesn’t.)
Under the sway of individualism, the community plays only a negative role: it maintains a neutral playing field so that individual competition is fair. Religion is thus reduced to therapy for losers. The social product of individualistic competition is that individual isolation is the norm, trust is voided, commitment is thought counter-productive, the disintegration of community becomes inevitable, and spiritual morality is replaced by an impersonal legal system.
Because our times are evil, half of all marriages end in divorce and some awful, awful priests abuse children. Are we to conclude that a 2,000 + year-old priesthood and million + year old marriage are no longer useful? Hardly. Are we to judge that half of the people who commit to marriage and priesthood are bad people? Surely not.
But when the culture tells us that individualism is supreme; that our first priority is personal happiness; that we owe no debt to society; that each of us is an isolated atom with no real connection to each other (that we simply avoid and occasionally collide with each other); that we are free to do whatever we like at the moment; that each of makes our own meaning and gives meaning only to what we care to … that is an evil time for religious community and civil society.
That is why America suffers from cultural narcissism, which is characterized by a “vague, diffuse dissatisfaction with life, is characterized by a short attention span, is characterized by a need for instant gratification, and is characterized by no sense of time. Sound like someone you know? Everyone you know? Yourself even? Narcissists live only for themselves, not anyone else; narcissists are incapable of seeing through anyone else’s eyes and incapable of thinking anything their fault. They live for the present and have no appreciation for past or future values. Thus disconnected from everyone and everything, life becomes empty, boring, and dark.
Well, that’s the problem in essence. I can offer only negative cautions. It would be a grave mistake to absolve ourselves of guilt because of evil times. We are always somewhat responsible for the stance we take toward absolutely every situation. It would be a mistake to give in to evil times by lowering the bar.
No matter how many laypeople and priests default, those who persevere must have cultural support. It is futile to simply blame the cultural climate. Catholics are about 25% of the American population, so we might say ¼th of the cultural problems are our fault. We simply must become better individuals.