The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Truth and Lies

We live in a world in which encounters with the truth have become increasingly rare. I suppose it's all a symptom of what Pope Benedict XVI called a "dictatorship of relativism" in which everyone can decide on his own truth. In his homily to the Cardinals shortly before the 2005 conclave in which he was elected Vicar of Christ, the then Cardinal Ratzinger said:
"We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires."
Agreeing with his predecessor, Pope Francis, speaking to members of the diplomatic corps, stressed the consequences of this sort of misguided thinking:
"But there is no true peace without truth! There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth."
I'm reminded of Pilate's impudent question when, shortly before he sentenced Jesus to death, he asked Him, "What is truth?" [Jn 18:38] Jesus, of course, didn't respond but allowed Pilate to continue in his confusion and ignorance and follow the path that would lead to the fulfillment of the Father's plan. Pilate, no doubt a typical functionary of the Roman Empire, would probably have been quite at home in our 21st-century world.

Some years ago, not long before the beginning of this century, I heard a commencement speaker inform his audience of new college graduates that, "The purpose of education is to find yourself, to learn to believe in yourself, to seek out and capitalize on your strengths, to show the world who you are, to lay the foundation for future success." I may have a word or two wrong, but that's pretty much what he said. It so surprised me that I've never forgotten his comment.

For years I had naively believed that education, indeed, life itself, involved the search for truth. But now I was told that my education had actually been all about me. I just didn't know it. Of course, this revelation came too late for one who, at the time, was only a few years from retirement. But all those young people in the audience that day lapped up every word and no doubt began the lifelong process of creating and polishing a personal brand that would separate them from all the other personal brands out there. As Pope Benedict astutely observed, relativism's "ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires."

Unlike those young people -- and I knew a number of them, so I speak from personal experience -- who collected their degrees while bursting with self-esteem, I recall my own spotty education as a remarkably humbling experience. Paradoxically, the more I learned, the more I realized I didn't know. As the knowns grew, the unknowns expanded even more. Ultimately, I came to realize that God's creation was far greater and more complex than anything we could ever imagine. An understanding of just the material universe would always be far beyond us. As for the spiritual universe -- the eternal habitat of angelic beings, the realm of God Himself -- we know virtually nothing. Yes, it's all very humbling.

But I digress. I had intended to write about other things when I began this post; and so I will get to it.

Watching the world go by I am constantly amazed by so many inexplicable things that people say and do. I realize that I, too, am not always rational, and that I can shade the truth with the best of them, but the things I do are unlikely to make the headlines. Anyway, it's much more fun to question the words and deeds of others. For example...

Salvation. The other day, at the Soup Kitchen, I was asked by one of our guests, who attends a very fundamentalist church, whether I was saved. I'm always a bit surprised when asked this question, something that happens rather often, and I usually respond with, "Yes, I certainly hope so, and I continue to work on it, trusting in God's mercy." For some reason this response tends to confuse those who ask the question since they are so sure of their salvation and I suppose expect me to be equally convinced of mine. This time, however, I turned to Scripture [Phil 2:12] and said, "Like St. Paul I'm working out my salvation in fear and trembling. I suggest all Christians do the same." She said nothing more to me.

Abraham's Ratio. A few months ago, while chatting with a parishioner before our weekly Bible Study, he rattled off a litany of woes plaguing our nation and then added, "I'm afraid the USA is doomed." The truth is, he's not alone in his belief. Have you ever felt helpless in the face of evil? Surrounded by all the strangeness in our world today, it's easy to understand how individuals, good people, can feel powerless. The culture of death seems to be burrowing more deeply into our society. Our government, a government that once protected the religious freedom of citizens, is now suppressing that right in the name of a lie called political correctness. In much of the world Christians are being persecuted and martyred in numbers that exceed anything experienced in 2,000 years of history. The woes go on and on.

Whenever I detect these signs of despair in my own heart, whenever I begin to fear for the future of our country and our world, I turn to Genesis 18 to remind myself of Abraham's Ratio, and the power of intercessory prayer. It's in this wonderful passage that we discover the extent of God's mercy. He would spare the sinful city of Sodom if only ten righteous and holy people could be found among the population. And so God not only teaches that a few holy people can make a very big difference, but He also reminds us that, like the prayer of Abraham, our prayer, too, has an impact [Gen 18:16-33].

Veterans, Bureaucrats and Politicians. The problems within the Veterans Administration are not that fault of the current director, or any of the past directors, since none of these men could really have much of an impact on the functioning of such a huge bureaucracy. The problems all result from the simple fact that the VA is a perfect example of socialized medicine at work. If you want to see how a single-payer healthcare system will function, simply look at the VA. For decades politicians of every stripe have done what they do best and simply thrown money at the VA with little to show for it, except the creation of more federal bureaucrats who will support them at the polls.

In truth, the VA is really a quasi-Marxist organization, one that places crucial, life and death decision-making in the hands of bureaucrats who are protected from the consequences of their own incompetence. I have no doubt that there are many good and competent people working at the VA, but it takes only a small percentage of incompetent or unethical managers and supervisors to create a largely dysfunctional organization. And when upper management is driven by a set of metrics that replaces human beings with numbers, the result will be anything but healthcare. For example, one of our soup kitchen guests, a low-income Vietnam-era veteran who is almost blind because of cataracts, has finally been scheduled for the rather simple procedure to correct the problem. It took the VA only four years to approve it.

As for Congress and the executive branch, neither really cares much about veterans. They might talk about us a lot, but they've never really done anything about these problems and likely never will. After all, how long has the VA been dysfunctional? (Answer: since it was created back in 1930.) You see, deep down, the vast majority of politicians neither understands nor likes the military. Indeed, many see the military as a threat, as a weapon that might be turned against them. They project these motives because if it were in their power, they would politicize the military and use it against their own internal political opponents, much as they have done with other federal organizations like the IRS and FBI.

It's a sad situation, but just a symptom of what happens when a significant percentage of the citizens of a representative republic slouch into laziness and realize politicians will do just about anything for their votes.
Memorial Day. For many today is no more than a convenient holiday, a day to kick-off the summer, a day for barbecues and beer, a day for sales at the mall or a deal on a new car. I would hope, though, that most Americans recognize today as a day of remembrance, a day when we offer thanks for those who sacrificed their lives so you and I can enjoy the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution these men swore to preserve and protect. It's on this day that I especially recall those men whom I knew and with whom I served, forever-young men who made the ultimate sacrifice. Today I remember Henry Wright and my eight other Naval Academy classmates who died in Vietnam. I remember Ron Zinn, my brother's West Point roommate who gave his life in that same conflict. Yes, I remember them and many others, too many to name here, who will never be forgotten as long as we celebrate their lives every Memorial Day.

If you've never visited one of our 131 National Cemeteries, take some time to do so today. As a deacon who lives in Sumter County, Florida, the home of the National Cemetery at Bushnell, I have the privilege of conducting occasional committal services at that cemetery. I never tire of these visits. I never tire of hearing those haunting 24 notes of Taps. I never tire of the crack of the rifles that salute the fallen. I never tire of gazing on row after row of white headstones. And when you visit, take a child with you so the memory of these heroes will live on.

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