January 02, 2015

Moral Courage

By Alice von Hildebrand *
Which one of us would fail to respond enthusiastically to the courage of heroes, who in moments of grave danger, risk their lives to help their fellow men. When they survive, they are honored. When their generosity leads to their demise, their spouse or family get recognition.

There are boys who already as toddlers are attracted by danger, and often meaninglessly risk their lives to prove that they are “machos." My brother was one such: more than once, he flirted with death by canoeing in the raging North sea…and survived. But when he died in a car accident, I recall saying to myself: it would not have been appropriate for him to die in bed.

But there are also some boys - usual a minority - who conscious that life is a precious gift, never take unnecessary risks. They are usually ridiculed as being “sissies” or “girlish” and are looked down upon as cowards.

But history teaches us that some of the greatest heroes were not machos: at times they were timid young girls. Let us recall the heroism of a St. Agnes - a teen ager who defied tyrants and did not hesitate to accept torture and death rather than to betray the One she loved.

In our own time, Joan Andrews, an unusually shy girl who dreaded to be sent to the store to get some item for her mother, showed heroic moral courage in defying the promoters of abortion. She was jailed for months. She is a heroin of the prolife movement. All Saints shared this moral courage, - so very different from physical courage, even though they do not exclude one another.

My theme is moral courage but a few words about physical courage are appropriate. One striking thing about this virtue is that it often implies fighting the vagaries of nature: devastating fires, flood, hurricanes, storms, earthquakes. All of them are life threatening, and make us shake from fear. In some cases, the “enemy” can also be other human beings. This is the tragic case in wars: many of them were waged for the sake of power and domination and were, I fear, illegitimate. Some of them were justified, for example in case of self- defense: a country unjustly attacked has a right to defend itself, and those who risk their lives for a just cause deserve our admiration and are rightly called heroes. Charles Peguy has sung their praise: "happy are those who died provided it was in a just war."

In physical courage, there can, however, be a potential moral danger namely that the courageous person is partly motivated by brashness: a desire to prove oneself to be "above fear," a dangerous self- assurance, which makes one assume that one is a “superman” who achieves victory by his bravery.

Moral courage does not challenge the forces of nature: the enemy is much more dangerous for it does not threaten our body, but our soul. Christ has warned us that this is the one danger we should fear most.

I am referring to poisonous errors and moral evil, such as heresies and moral perversions. The first endangers our faith, and so do venomous philosophies that aim at corrupting a society. Chesterton, in his own inimitable fashion, has condemned them in the following words:

“We say that the dangerous criminal is the educated criminal .We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless philosopher. Compared to him burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men. My heart goes out to them”. (The Man who was Thursday. P. 43).

What a condemnation of many of our colleges and universities!

One of the many stupidities one hears in them is that ideas are harmless: action alone is dangerous. Freedom of thought and speech is a “dogma,” except however, for those who defend the objectivity of truth and moral values. But elementary common sense teaches us that some of the most disastrous events that have taken place in history, - either the French revolution, the Communist revolution  and Nazism -, all started with the dangerous sword called a pen. Whether we think of the writings of Voltaire and his disciples, or those of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, or Nietzsche, to mention but a few, we realize that millions and millions of deaths were the evil fruits of their vicious ideas, born of the pride of “geniuses” convinced that they are “potential” saviors of the world and if followed, will make of this earth an earthly paradise.

Another popular “intellectual” dogma is that certainty is attainable only in domains devoted to what I dub “neutral’ truths”, that is all truths related empirical sciences and mathematics which do not interfere with our “life style.” All “sensitive” truths are at  best “opinions” and it should be left to the individual to pick and choose.
      
Our enthusiasm for moral heroes is likely to make us assume that – like them-, we shall courageously risk our lives in order to fight error and vice. In fact, there is a coward lying dormant in all of us. At the last supper. Peter, speaking in the names of the Apostles, said solemnly that “he was willing to die for Christ”, but a few hours later, the same Peter said: “I know not that man.” Tragically when he said that he would gladly give his life for the one he had acknowledged to be “the Messiah, the son of the living God,” he was sincere. Subjectively he had convinced himself that his love guaranteed his courage, but had to make the humiliating discovery that, like all of us, he was a coward.

In his great dialogue, Phaedrus, Plato wrote the following sentence:

”…we should dare to speak the truth, when truth is our theme.” (247)

What  is amazing is the word “dare.” It definitely implies that some danger is involved. Why should it be dangerous to utter a truth? It is a crucial word in the human vocabulary and yet Plato is giving us a warning: we need courage to speak the truth. Obviously he is not referring to what I dubbed “neutral” truths. If I say that the distance between New York and Philadelphia is 94miles, I am not taking any risk. But they are truths of such nature that to proclaim them is “dangerous,” because they challenge us and by their very nature are implicit commands: when someone declares Christ to be God, these very words order us to recognize that He deserves our adoration and our obedience. When someone declares: “the murder of innocent babies in the womb is an abominable crime,” he antagonizes the powerful movement called family planning; if echoing Plato, (Laws, Book VIII, 836), he proclaims that homosexual acts are against nature and a threat to the welfare of any society, he will become an enemy of those who, first underground and then openly, have convinced the public at large that actions condemned in Genesis are now  - that we have liberated ourselves of old taboos, - perfectly legitimate. We are entitled by birth right, to choose the life style that gives us “self- fulfillment.”

This perverse view has been carefully prepared by a so called “education,” aiming at convincing us that there are no absolute moral truths: they are all relative and depend upon the time and the culture that one happens to live it. It was declared to be “high time” to liberate ourselves from paralyzing taboos which have kept us in bondage. This view also justifies “same sex marriage” - a moral abomination that threatens the very fabric of society and that a no- nonsense Italian peasant would condemn on the ground that “no door can be opened if lock and key are identical.” From time immemorial - starting with Genesis - marriage has been declared to be the union of a man and a woman – whose spiritual, intellectual, affective and biological structures are so admirably complementary. Today in our morally decadent world, it is neither prudent nor politically correct to proclaim clearly and loudly that the natural moral law is as valid today as it was when given to Moses on Mount Sinai. It is a risky affair to proclaim the objectivity of truth and of moral values in our society seeped in “dictatorial relativism.”

One needed moral courage in Germany to go on roof tops and denounce Nazism, proclaiming loudly and clearly the diabolical character of its philosophy: atheistic, totalitarian, immoral, racist, trampling on the dignity of the human person .We cherish to live in illusion and refuse to see “unpleasant truths” challenging us to abandon our comfortable cocoons, and giving up the pleasures that we are “entitled” to.

A comfortable and safe life has a powerful attraction to all of us. We do not like Cassandras who disturb our slumbers. Let us recall the words attributed to Archimedes when soldiers interrupted his geometrical work; … “do not disturb my circles.”  He was murdered. We are all like him, and yet, from time to time, God sends us heroes: those willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of fighting Evil par excellence: moral evil.

In his Memoirs, My Battle against Hitler, Dietrich von Hildebrand deplored the “the political prudence” of German bishops, who were clearly called upon to denounce the “Fuehrer.” It was clearly their mission to denounce this diabolical philosophy, so clearly in contrast with the teaching of Holy Church which they had the mission to defend.  Had they, from day one, been united in declaring: non possumus, as it was their duty to do as pastors of their flock, there might have been a slight chance that the attraction of this modern anti Christ would have been weakened. In 1933, most of them were “prudent.” Thank God, later when they were forced to open their eyes, several of them lived up to their mission. These are moments when one recalls the fearful words of the Apocalypse:  “because you are neither hot nor cold, I will spew you out of my mouth.”(III-16)

History repeats itself: how desirable it would have been for our spiritual leaders today to go on the streets and loudly oppose the legalization of abortion followed by the legal placet given to homo sexual marriages - views which years ago would have triggered screams of horror.

But “prudence” (a euphemism for cowardice) is not the only virtue that the Evil one has hi jacked to spread confusion. His new victory was achieved when – with diabolical cleverness - he tried to convince a sleepy public that the Church – in her radical condemnation of sins against nature, is “lacking compassion.” It should be clear that “true charity” is incompatible with “anathema sit.” It is “high time” to realize that a condemning Church is not and cannot be a “Church of love” as she claims to be.

The word “compassion” (to suffer with) is indeed a beautiful word prominent in the Gospel bound to win our assent as soon as we hear it. But Lucifer – the father of lies - has now cleverly whispered into the ears of sleeping Catholics that the Church has clearly betrayed her “mission” and while claiming on paper that She is a Church of love is in fact a ruthless judge sending millions of her so- called children to hell. Satan now has the noble mission of reminding the Church of what her “authentic”’ teaching is; he presents himself of an apostle, he who truly understand Christ’s message which is MERCY.

“Infiltration” is a much more effective way to conquer a citadel that a frontal attack – powerful as the latter might be. Once the enemy is “within,” victory is guaranteed. This is the one chance given Lucifer to defeat or at least to weaken the Rock of Peter that he fears more than anything else: the Roman Catholic Church, built by Christ, and who through Peter, has the key leading to the Kingdom. From the very beginning, She has been the butt of his vicious frontal attacks, but today his technique is to use “holy words” while perverting their meaning: the word remains the same; what it communicates is radically different.

Compassion is today the Devil’s preferred tool: it sounds so “catholic.” Is not the Gospel replete with examples of compassion: the father of the prodigal son hastening toward him; Christ showings compassion toward the woman caught in adultery.  Our Savior is the good Pastor, leaving 99 sheep to look for the lost one. This is, according to Satan, the authentic message of the Gospel which in our time has been distorted due to “paralytic morality rules” which are perfectly meaningless in the modern world. The time has come to proclaim on roof tops: true love of the sinner inevitably means a loving understanding for his sin: for they essentially belong together. The homo sexual loves homosexuality; a practice that gives him so much satisfaction that he “cannot live without." Up to now we have totally overlooked what is “positive” in homosexuality by ruthlessly condemning it. The call of the hour is to do justice to what is positive in this type of relationship.

Once again, Plato gave us an answer to that question: why is this sin against nature so attractive?

His answer is that it is “triggered by “unbridled lust” (Laws, I, 626). But that was a long time ago; should not modern man benefiting from the discoveries of “social sciences” honestly raise the following question: “it not God himself who has linked certain activities with pleasure? is not pleasure to be viewed as a gift that we are invited to enjoy? Is it not sheer ingratitude not to make the best of what is our nature? We both enjoy it; what could be wrong with it?"

An analogy with surgery might be of help: if a patient is afflicted with a cancerous tumor close to his heart, he has no choice but find an outstanding surgeon who will remove these tissues which happen to be deeply incrusted in his body. This can only be done by means of a scalpel – an instrument of extreme sharpness – just to look at it makes one shudders. The patient understandably dreading such a grave operation will look at the surgeon with fear and horror. He is a “butcher” and has no understanding for the fact that the tumor is so ensconced in his body that to remove it will inevitably not only cause terrible sufferings but will leave deep scars on him. He is now the enemy.

The same applies to heresies and moral perversions: the initiator of these devilish lies has an easy time convincing gullible masses that any condemnation of them is inevitably harsh and uncharitable toward their perpetrators. Lutheranism is Luther’s child, and to condemn it is to wound its father with a mortal wound. Is it not more “compassionate” to look for positive traits in this doctrine?

I shall dub this approach “a eunuch charity.” For Luther’s greatest enemy is Lutheranism, and in refuting it and fighting it, we prove ourselves to be the loving friend of the “great” (tragic) reformer.

The words that we should meditate on today are those of St. Paul to the Galatians: “have I become your enemy because I spoke the truth?” (Galatians, 4 - 16)

How right Kierkegaard was when he wrote: “we are all more or less afraid of the truth," because to know it means to live it and to live it necessarily implies suffering and persecution in a world in which the very word is hated or at times ridiculed, as by Nietzsche who wrote: truth is the type of error that some people cannot do without.

We live in a fearful “world," a world for which Christ refuses to pray. But through his death on the cross, He has given us the tools to achieve victory for He has vanquished the “world."   
Alice von Hildebrand is a lecturer and an author, whose works include: The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002) and The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand (2000), a biography of her late husband. She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory by Pope Francis in 2013.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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