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Schemes for perfecting society are often called progressive, a term of approval. They are sometimes called utopian, which is nearer the mark. The word “utopia” is Greek for “no place” or “nowhere,” and its use to describe ambitious programs for human betterment expresses the doubt that any rearrangement of the social and political order can have a genuine and enduring effect on our lives.
Underlying every utopian scheme is the belief that most of the ills that we suffer are due to external causes. We are all seen as victims of structures imposed upon us unwisely, either through the agency of bad or foolish men or by an unhappy coincidence of impersonal forces. All we need do to correct the situation is to take control of the institutions that give shape to society and reform them in an enlightened manner.
Utopian rhetoric exhorts us to wake from the unpleasant dream of our present life and to see clearly in the light of day what we must do to make this a brighter, happier world. Politicians and ideologues are fond of such rhetoric. We hear it so often and from so many sides that it becomes the background noise of our lives. Every election – local, state or national – becomes a referendum on who the public believes is more competent to move us toward the happiness that is universally considered possible for all of us, if only things were properly set in order.
The effect of utopian beliefs necessarily leads us to invest our hope in the state, for if social organization is the key to happiness, it must be taken in hand by the biggest engine of social organization, the government. The greater our belief in the possibility of happiness in the here and now, the more susceptible we will be to the lies and half-truths that are the staple of politicians. That we now have a 24-hour news cycle, as it is called, is symptomatic of the centrality of government in our lives and of how much we hang on what our leaders say and do, as though our welfare depends upon their words and actions.
The Catholic Church, until recently, has always been the enemy of utopian schemes, for our Faith locates our unhappiness, not in social structures, but in ourselves. We are unhappy because we commit sin, and sin is an offense against our nature, not in its fallen condition, but as it is God-given and made in His image. And a great motive for sin is the illusion that we can become happy through some arrangement of our lives that will ensure the satisfaction of our appetites.
Sin, in its essence, is the notion that we are made for this world; that our happiness is proportioned to the fulfillment of our earthly desires. If this is so, then the acquisition of sufficient money, goods and power should be our principal concern. Any government scheme that we see as beneficial to this acquisition enlists our support; any scheme that we see as detrimental to it arouses our anger and opposition. And so, social and political life becomes a competition for the limited goods of this world. In this way, life becomes the war of all against all, and every utopian scheme for the common good, when implemented, becomes a plan for the self-aggrandizement of the powerful.
There is, at the heart of the Gospel, a profound pessimism about the possibilities of earthly happiness. It is rooted in the nature of reality: nothing here lasts for long and any pleasure we may enjoy will soon vanish, leaving in its wake an emptiness that is sure to be filled by a new desire, and so on. And no matter how magnificent a society we manage to build, or how grand our life becomes, time will assert its rights and all will be reduced to rubble in the end. History is studied amid its ruins.
It has been the office of the Church to remind us of all the above; to direct our eyes toward Heaven, toward what is real and lasting. But we have seen, of late, a radical shift in papal rhetoric. This shift began at the Second Vatican Council and appears to have reached its high point under the pontificate of Pope Francis.
We are treated almost daily to exhortations from the Casa Santa Marta, where Francis lives and delivers his homilies, to direct our gaze toward the world. We are told of the moral imperative to welcome the continuous flow of Muslims to Europe and North America and to oppose secular governments that would restrict such immigration to preserve the Christian character of their culture and nation. We are told of the moral imperative to protect the environment, whatever that may mean, and concern over the fate of mangrove swamps and the profligate use of air conditioning is raised in encyclicals. We are told about the evils of arms manufacturing, of capitalism, of poor wages and substandard housing, of social and economic inequalities of every sort.
And although this constant barrage of papal remonstrances, denunciations and proposed remedies is couched in moral language and passages from Scripture are invoked (sometimes wrongly), the main focus of these exhortations is worldly: it is all about some supposed Evangelical demand that we exert ourselves to make our societies models of egalitarianism. It all rests on the presumption that the Gospel is about making this world our home.
We are then urged to measure our fidelity to the Gospel by our efforts to promote social justice, as the Pope defines it. We are even chastised for entertaining the notion that holiness is personal. According to Francis, such a concern with individual sanctity is a turning away from our greater obligation to make this a better world.
But no matter how we may exert ourselves in what the Pope considers progressive causes, whatever we accomplish will be short-lived. No society, no matter how enlightened or how wretched, can claim a long lease on life. No earthly good, no matter how noble, can replace spiritual good. And to tie the former to the latter is to distort the heart of the Gospel.
We easily forget the fact that we don’t belong here. Our home is Paradise, not this fallen world. And whatever we may accomplish in this short life we have been given can have no lasting worth unless it moves us toward God. This means, of course, that all that happens here is relative to our ultimate destination. It is always a means, not an end. In Divine Providence, all things can be used to accomplish our salvation, even poverty and injustice.
When Job finally succumbed to his desire to know why he had suffered and asked the Lord, he was answered from out of the whirlwind, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?” In other words, how can you presume to understand the Divine design of creation and your place in that design? How can you ever know, with the limited human mind, that which transcends space and time?
Knowing our limitations, we should never think we can remake the world; that we can correct the Divine plan and make this vale of tears into a Garden of Eden of our own design. Nor should we ever encourage in ourselves a desire to do so. Soon, much sooner than we might imagine, we will be called out of this world. Then, all of our grand plans and accomplishments, no matter how wonderful, will fall away. Then, what is real will remain: our soul in the eyes of God. We would do well to live in that reality now, as much as we are able.
When Our Lady appeared at Fatima, She spoke about the salvation of souls, about prayer and penance, about the need to consecrate Russia to Her Immaculate Heart, not about social reform or economic equality or immigration. It is true, She promised a period of peace to be given to mankind following the consecration of Russia, but this peace will be given to us from above as a result of the miraculous grace of conversion which Our Lady then effects in souls. The foundation of this gift of peace will be that men are at peace with Our Lord. In the meantime, as we await and pray for Our Lady’s triumph, we still have the consolation of the interior peace that Christ left to His disciples. One who is at peace with God can live in that peace under any circumstances, for the world is then seen for what it is: God’s creation, not ours. And our responsibility is not to make this a better world, but to make Heaven our home.