After his confrontation with Ahab and the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, where he called fire down from heaven and killed those prophets, Elijah fled for his life, first to Beersheba then to Horeb (I Kings 18:16-19:18). At Horeb the Lord appeared to Elijah, but before this appearance, the prophet experienced a powerful windstorm, earthquake, and large fire—all of which Yahweh was not in. But he was in what followed these major events: a gentle whisper (19:12), what the King James Version translates as “a still, small voice.”
When I think of a new Catholic, who is in the early stages of catechesis and spiritual formation, my prayers become more fervent for them when I realize how difficult it can be sometimes to hear the still, small voice of the God of orthodoxy when there are so many distracting and competing windstorms, earthquakes, and fires all around them that are louder, flashier, better-financed, and more aligned with the cultural ethos, both inside and outside the American Catholic Church.
It’s a small miracle, in our present moment of pronounced decline, that any new Catholic eventually arrives at the destination of robust orthodoxy, fervent spirituality, and luminous sanctity. Recent polls confirm this thesis in disclosing the widespread heterodox beliefs and practices of American Catholics:
65 percent believe that employers who have a religious objection to the use of birth control should be required to provide it in health insurance plans for employees; 32 percent disagree.
54 percent believe that businesses that provide wedding services should be required to provide those services to same-sex couples; 43 percent disagree.
47 percent believe that transgender people should be allowed to use public restrooms of gender with which they currently identify; 50 percent disagree.
The results among American Catholics who attend weekly Mass are more aligned with Magisterium but still indicate that the Church is in deep trouble.
Think of the constellation of issues related to human sexuality: fornication, co-habitation, homosexuality, abortion, contraception, transsexuality, etc. On the one hand, you have the voice promoting submission to the teaching of the Church, the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15), that emerges out of a divine metanarrative (i.e., Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium); on the other hand, you have all the earthquakes, windstorms, and fires that are promoting a divergence from this teaching. The new Catholic is in the middle.
Windstorms, Earthquakes and Fires in Western Culture
First, they find themselves living in what Arnold Toynbee called the Twenty-first Age. In the previous twenty ages, civilization in the West appealed to sacred traditions and holy texts for guidance, but not in the Twenty-first where the windstorm of secular autonomy reigns.
Second, they find themselves in an American culture where the central institutions that shape that culture—the media, academia, and the entertainment industry—walk in lockstep against the still, small voice of orthodoxy. There is no need for the powerbrokers of these institutions to get together and have cabals to make sure the content of their message is the same; that all happens quite naturally, emerging from the same leftist, secular world-view.
While our new Catholic may be fortunate enough to hear an excellent homily at Sunday morning Mass by a stalwart, orthodox priest, they still must go out into the broader American culture and deal with the raging fires of autonomy that encourage them, not the Church, to be the arbiters of truth and morality. This conflagration encourages them to “follow their heart,” embrace “my truth,” and listen to what was popularized in the book, Eat, Pray, Love: “the god within,” which, as Ross Douthat argues, isn’t a divine voice at all but an amplified human voice that caters to our self-love.
This dovetails with what sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah, found over three decades ago in his research, and, especially, in a famous interview he did with a woman named Sheila. Sheila said, “I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” In short, the subjectivism of the therapeutic self eclipses the objective truth of the divine meta-narrative deposited in the Church.
Windstorms, Earthquakes, and Fires Within the Church
Sometimes an earthquake is not so much the presence of something but the absence of something. The aforementioned recent polls of the beliefs and practices of American Catholics confirm that catechesis is simply not happening in many local churches. I’ve heard this from many practicing Catholics over the years. Additionally, instead of a priest in the likeness of John Paul II or Benedict XVI, they may be saddled with a “progressivist” priest, a Zeitgeist puppet with his groovy grab-bag of feel-good religion and social justice bromides.
A recent windstorm: Fr. James Martin, SJ, with his large media footprint reflected in the dog and pony show that preceded and followed the release of his new book that contravened the Church’s teaching on homosexual behavior. Fr. Martin opines that the Church “must now switch to a new teaching, namely that the union of man and woman in marital love is not the only path for the true and good expression of human sexuality.”
A significant fire: Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, regarded by many as Pope Francis’ go-to guy on difficult theological issues, avers that it is good and proper to ask the question if the sexual activity of an unmarried couple “should always fall, in its integral meaning, within the negative precept of ‘fornication.’” This egregious conflagration and Fr. Martin’s heresy are both insightfully covered in Crisis by Deacon Jim Russell.
Windstorms, Earthquakes, and Fires Within the Human Person
The teaching of the Catholic Church recognizes the stubbornness of sin in our lives and anticipates a life-long battle with it. At Baptism “all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin… Yet certain temporal consequences of sin remain… as well as an inclination to sin…” (CCC #1263, 64). This may mean that when the teaching of Holy Writ and sacred Tradition are understood, there sometimes might be a part of us, a fallen inclination, that fights receiving it.
We inherited this from Adam and Eve. A divine command was made clear to them: you shall not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; on the day that you eat of it, you shall die. Using today’s vernacular, Eve disobeyed and “followed her heart,” “embraced my [her] truth,” and “listened to the god within,” and then convinced Adam to do likewise.
We see this echoed throughout the biblical narrative when, for example, there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in their own eyes (Judg. 21:25). This fallen disposition was warned against in ancient Hebrew wisdom: “There is a way which seems right to a man but its end is the way to death” (Prov. 14:12). This cautionary thread culminates in the teaching of Jesus when he contrasted the wide and easy way that many travel on that leads to destruction with the straight and narrow path that few are on that leads to eternal life (Matt. 7:14).
When talking about a gay couple or a co-habiting heterosexual couple, I have heard this line of thinking many times from other Christians:
I know Bob and Bill (or Tim and Nancy); they are wonderful people and wonderful neighbors. I like them better than many church-going Christians I know and there’s more love in their relationship than many straight (or married heterosexual) couples I know. They have the same hopes, fears, and dreams that you and I have. They’re hard-working, pay their taxes, and play by the rules. Does God really care about what they do in the privacy of their bedroom?
In short, how they feel about Bob and Bill or Ted and Nancy drowns out the still, small voice of orthodoxy. The fact that these two couples may have qualities that are congruent with human beings made in the image of God hinders the foolish Christian from recognizing any behavior that may be “disordered.” As a former pastor, some of my favorite people in my church in rural Alaska were struggling alcoholics; however, their endearing traits didn’t blind me to their destructive behavior.
Help For the New Catholic From the Wisdom of Saint Anthony
An instructive image emerges from the Apothegmata: Saint Anthony comes out of his hermitage in the Egyptian desert and looks out and sees the many snares of the devil spread out over the entire world. He cries out to heaven: “My God! How can anyone be saved?” A voice responds from heaven: “Humility.” With windstorms, fires, and earthquakes to the left and right of us, in front of us and behind us, there is a way out.
The truth is that even the most rock-ribbed orthodox Catholic, a real Catholic warhorse, has had inner dialogues within his head and heart similar to one cited about Bob and Bill or Ted and Nancy, but, again and again, they maintain fidelity to the teaching of the Church. Why? A parallel comes to mind from contemporary American Jewish life.
Prominent national figures Dennis Prager and Alan Dershowitz have had a few public debates over the years concerning various controversial issues. As far as religion, Prager summed up their differences by saying, “When Alan disagrees with the Torah, he thinks the Torah is wrong; when I disagree with the Torah, I think I’m wrong.” Dershowitz replied: “Finally, we agree on something.”
The key to hearing the still, small voice of orthodoxy for the new (and old) Catholic, amidst all the windstorms, earthquakes, and fires, is humility. It’s not a coincidence that Jesus made it the first Beatitude and presented it as the gateway to the kingdom of God: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Matt. 5:3).
First, humility leads one to a biblical anthropology. This anthropology tells us that humanity is not basically good, but is instead finite and fallen. As the Catechism says, even after Baptism, there “is [still] an inclination to sin.”
With this internal disposition, we cannot trust ourselves to be the arbiters of truth and morality, but must instead submit ourselves to divine texts, sacred traditions, and the teaching of the Magisterium: “He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way” (Ps. 25:9).
Autonomy is not an option. Humility inoculates us from the spiritual and moral viruses inside the Church and outside in the broader culture and shapes our will to hear the still, small voice of orthodoxy rather than the narcissistic “god within.”
T.S. Eliot summed it up well in his poetry: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire/ Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” Like Socrates, the American Catholic Church can become the wisest institution in the nation, not because it knows anything, but because, unlike the other institutions that have been ransacked by the Secular Left, it is acutely aware of its own ignorance without God.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail of “Elijah in the Wilderness” painted by Frederic Lord Leighton in 1878.