Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

Looking Past the Mirror

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 09, 2008

The Vatican has recently confirmed that anyone who attempts the priestly ordination of a woman will incur automatic excommunication. At the same time, this year’s Lambeth convocation of the world’s Anglican leaders has opened the way for the ordination and consecration of female bishops. To the Anglicans at Lambeth, the issue is no doubt obvious. But the question of the ordination of women is just the tip of an iceberg.

Slaves to Fashion

The contemporary West is largely existentialist. By this I mean that we instinctively believe that there is no particular order and meaning to the universe apart from the order and meaning we impose on it through our own choices and decisions. Of course, most people wouldn’t define themselves as existentialists (which would imply some minimal philosophical analysis). Instead, we see things a certain way and we presume that the way we see them constitutes a clear, obvious and incontrovertible position upon which we ought to act. Perhaps partly because of our modern notion of progress, we naturally assume that if our perception of reality differs from those in the past, it is logical to assume that we must see more deeply and more perfectly than did previous ages, and so our conclusions must be correct.

This attitude toward reality leads us to continuously redefine the fundamental order of the universe according to our own changing perceptions. The ordination of women as priests or bishops is only one example of a general trend. It is completely obvious to us that men and women are equal, and that they must therefore have equal opportunities. It follows as night follows day that the priesthood and the episcopate must be open to women. If past ages had trouble seeing this truth, it can only be because they—not we—were inhibited by ignorance and prejudice: After all, the matter is so very obvious. Accordingly, we proceed to impose a new order of meaning upon the world existentially—that is, through our own choices, decisions and actions.

To a pure existentialist, of course, this constant creation of meaning must be a highly individual affair. But we are not speaking of pure existentialism here. Rather, a philosophically uncommitted population must invariably rely more on broad cultural predispositions than on personal analysis. It is what “everybody” thinks that matters, with “everybody” defined as the relatively numerous and relatively influential group which controls the trajectory of the current culture. We all sense this trajectory even if nobody can say exactly how it arises. The result is a sort of rule by moral fashion, a rule with which many are supremely content because, again, it is just so obvious that it is right. Indeed, nothing is more obvious than fashion.

Thinking about Reality

But what if there is an underlying order and meaning actually built into the universe and quite independent of our opinions? To take again the example of the ordination (or consecration) of women, what if there is something in the specific natures of God, creation, man and woman such that for a woman to aspire to be a priest or bishop is essentially the same as for a man to aspire to be a mother? Granted that some now believe that men should be able to be mothers if they want to, perhaps most will still understand the question: What if “priest” and “woman” are essentially contradictory terms?

Again, the ordination of women is simply an example of a larger problem. Suppose it is a very foggy day and two men are about to cross the street. One looks left and right, sees nothing, and so assumes the way is clear. The other has read a schedule and knows the 2:15 bus should be passing this way at any moment. He doesn’t see the bus, but he recognizes that there are circumstances which make it impossible to see everything he should. He suggests to his friend that they wait a bit. But it is perfectly obvious to the friend that the way is clear, and so he is run down by the bus. Or, to modify an example frequently used by an old friend, suppose a young man—we’ll call him Freddie—purchases a new car. For some reason Freddie is convinced that the car can run on pancake syrup. He refuses to consult the owner’s manual. He insists that it his car and he can do as he pleases. So in goes the pancake syrup. Thus does Freddie prove that he is young, modern and free. He is also a pedestrian.

Avoiding Narcissism

We need to ask “what if” questions because there are innumerable pitfalls in confronting reality, and some of them are deadly. To cope properly with reality we need to stop trying to define it by making things up to suit our moods, satisfy our prejudices, or compensate for our own limited vision. I’ve argued elsewhere that, in matters supernatural, the only first step that makes sense is to search for a credible revelation. As merely natural beings we cannot possibly know anything about the supernatural, or even whether it exists. Therefore, the first “what if” question is this: “What if there is information about the supernatural that comes to us corroborated by signs that are not natural in origin?” Recognizing the inestimable value of such information, we ought to search for it. And if we find it, we ought to use it to shed light on everything else.

But that’s not all. Natural reality, and particularly the natural moral law (if it exists), must be properly interpreted too. Here the first question is: “What if there is a fundamental meaning and purpose built into the natural order?” Indeed, what are the consequences of ignoring this meaning and purpose? Is a right understanding important to my happiness? If my ideas are wrong, will I do damage to others? A culture that refuses to ask the questions necessary for the mind to grasp reality is doomed to confuse reality with its own collective misconceptions. Those who reflexively assume that both revelation and past wisdom are groundless have already embarked on a program of self-worship. Any religion that leads in this direction is mere narcissism.

We have to stop thinking, saying and doing things just because they are “obvious”. Consider again the differing positions of the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church on female priests and bishops. Which church is attempting to conform to a reality it finds outside itself? Which one is assuming that only twenty-first century perceptions can be correct? Our answers should give us pause. And as this question goes, so too must every other. If we are to engage reality successfully, we must look into something other than the mirror.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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