In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, perhaps the greatest English Catholic novel, Rex Mottram needs to convert to Catholicism so that he and Julia Marchmain can have a Church wedding. Rex, an adulterer, liar, and financial criminal, is happy to join the Church. “What do I have to do? Just show me where to sign.”
Cordelia plays some games to see what’s really going on. She gets Rex to accept, for example, “the sacred monkeys of the Vatican,” and the importance of sleeping with feet facing East, so it will be easier to walk to heaven.
Fr. Mowbray, the Jesuit who is assigned to instruct Rex in the faith, concludes that Rex is less than human. In a classic Waugh-ian critique of the modern world, he says that the pagan world knows no such emptiness of the human mind as in Rex. Rex is happy to embrace a life of total incoherence, where one part of his personality has nothing to do with any other part of his personality.
We could add to Waugh’s critique of Rex’s humanity a critique of Rex’s God. A God of the absurd – a God who requires you to believe in sacred monkeys so that you can have a pretty wedding – is no God at all. Indeed, the glory of the Catholic faith – Waugh brilliantly shows this – is precisely in the coherence of creation: beauty, order, wisdom. To be restored to true love of the Creator God, and even to become his sons and daughters, is to see the meaningfulness of everything.
Rex is no man. Rex’s God is no God.
After a December break, we return to our last few meditations on the Aparecida document. Perhaps it’s good to begin with this bigger picture.
Pope Francis (the principal editor of the document) and, in various ways the document itself, speaks often against the danger of “proselytism.” I wonder if this word is more familiar in the Latin Ameican context; I don’t think North Americans typically know what it means.
I think what Francis means by proselytism is scoring conversions like Rex Mottram’s. It is possible, you know. Fallen man is more than willing to embrace total incoherence, both in his thought and in his moral life. Modern man, with modernity’s deconstruction of reason and culture, wildly accelerated by the modern media, is especially susceptible to this.
This is the real meaning of heresy: to accept part of the faith and reject other parts – and heresy is not that hard to come by. Perhaps more deeply, there is the technical term “dead faith” (see Summa theologiae IIa-IIae, q. 4, a. 4). Dead faith is the real possibility that you can have true, orthodox faith, believe all the right things, but not love God, and so be in a state of mortal sin. It is possible to be completely orthodox and go to Hell.
We in the orthodox Catholic world need to beware of all this, both in ourselves and in our apostolates. Faith alone is not sufficient. That means, too, that being a good culture warrior is not the same as being a good Catholic: you can hold all the hardline positions – all of them! – and not love God or neighbor, and that is death. And this means loving God, not just kind of, in the background of our orthodoxy, but with all our heart and mind and soul and strength; loving our neighbor not just sort of, but as we love ourselves.
This is the danger in apologetics. Apologetics has its place! But a true apologetics must not just win over Rex Mottram’s, who say, “fine, I believe in the Real Presence and the Infallibility of the Pope,” (or, perhaps more dangerous, “yes, I love being uber-traditional”) but do not have a real spiritual life that spills into their entire practical life.
Aparecida, then, proposes a model of evangelization that is total: “varied dimensions of life in Christ,” “At the service of a full life for all,” “Kingdom of God, Social Justice, and Human Dignity,” etc., along with Francis’s emphasis on the evangelization of “accompaniment.”
There is a place for argument. But more deeply, we need to show, by the way we live, the coherence of the Gospel, the way it impacts our life in its totality, and the way it is meant to bring total conversion to others, not just “signing on the dotted line.”
Aparecida goes to the heart when it puts all of our life and all of our mission under the sign of Mary, for she is the image of total conversion, a life utterly transformed by Christ, down to washing the dishes.
Think about the most boring elements of your life. Could they show forth the Marian face of the Gospel?