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Doctrine and the Cure of Souls

Source: Anthony Esolen via The Catholic Thing.

One of my neighbors is a pleasant and apparently hard-working young man with a child by a marriage that smashed on the rocks.  He has nothing good to say about his ex-wife, so he says nothing at all, though you can tell that he hasn’t forgiven her.  The little boy gets shunted from one bitter parent to the other.

It doesn’t appear to me that he goes to any church.  I suppose it is possible.  But I am guessing, if he is like countless others of his age, that he regards it not as a duty, or even as an invitation to a realm of wonder, but as a form of therapy, or of socializing; a kind of hobby with a little bit of special language and a couple of beliefs you are supposed to hold, though nobody would inquire too closely into it.

If you said to him, “God loves you,” he might smile and agree, but it would be a mere abstraction, and his life, which has settled into a state of personal failure and modest economic success, would be untouched.  He knows that his son loves him.  He can see that.  He knows that his ex-wife used to say she loved him, and perhaps she did.  He can remember that.  But God?

How do you reach that young man?  Or how do you reach his son, who will be raised amid the confusion of a broken home, and who will find it difficult to believe in earthly fidelity and love, let alone the divine?

If the year were 1954 and not 2024, I would not have to ask these questions.  Most people, from the best of us to the worst, assumed that marriage was for keeps, and they tailored their lives and their expectations accordingly.

Most people assumed that we owed praise and gratitude to God.

It will be said that their faith must have been rickety, to have been smashed to sticks and mud by the tidal wave of the next decade.  As if it is better to have no house at all, and as if the remaining faithful in our most blessed time of faithlessness all have houses made of solid rock!

It will be said that their faith was shallow, “merely” cultural, which is a little like saying that a people’s patriotism is “merely” an expression of the habits they have learned and preserved from the time that they were children.

It will be said that their faith had little intellectual substance to it.  But somebody made the Doubleday Image imprint so successful and profitable – mass-marketed paperbacks bringing the Church’s wealth of intellectual, historical, and literary accomplishments to the people.  Somebody made Fulton Sheen the most beloved man on television.

April 14, 1952 [Bishop Fulton J. Sheen: “No Easter without Good Friday”]

In short, had my neighbor been born when my parents were born, he would have been like them and their siblings.  With his personal virtues, he would be a pillar of the neighborhood, and we would hear the merry shouts of children from across the way, rather than the rushing of the brook alone, and in six years not one single child splashing about in it.

How does the Church get that man’s attention?

I hear it said that the current pontificate is not about doctrine but about pastoral care.  I do not believe that the two can be severed.  The doctor who aims to heal you has to know the specifics of your ailment, and the specifics of the means he is going to use to treat it.  Pleasant feelings do not a healer make.  He might pleasantly give you a dose of belladonna, and you might softly and tenderly slip into a coma and cardiac arrest.

I do not pretend to be deep into the cure of souls.  All I know is that they must be cured.  Somehow, the disease must be probed, and the corrupted matter must be cut away.

The trouble with us sinners is that we get used to the sin.  It is and it is not a part of us.  It is not a part of us, because it is a lie, and it obscures even from our own hearts what God has intended for us to be.  It is a part of us, because it sends its shoots and tendrils into all that we do, day after day, and all that we think about ourselves.

Therefore to cut it away must require a kind of death.

At some point, in some form, from some spokesman and subordinate, the sinner must hear the divine surgeon’s words.  For someone like my neighbor, they may sound like this: “Son, your ex-wife was not the only one to blame.  Did you two sin against chastity before you were married?  Wasn’t that as much as to say that a sexual relationship might be broken at will?”

“And aren’t you doing the same thing now?  You know that it is wrong for your son to be harried from pillar to post.  But what did you expect was likely to happen, had he been born before you were married?  What happened to the duty you owed to him, or to any other child that might be conceived by your actions?”

“And why have you been keeping away from God?  Is it because you were never taught to worship him?  Or is your conscience uneasy?  God loves you, but where is your own love?  You are not what people would call a selfish person.  But look where mere human virtue alone has gotten you.”

But such a man as my neighbor has no advocates in the Church now, and his small son may as well be invisible.  He is where he is, precisely because people have made light of the kind of wrong he has done and has been done to him, and they have done it in the name of love.  He shrugs, smiles a sad smile, and drives away to pick up the principal sufferer.

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