Friday, February 10, 2012

John Henry Newman: Our Minds are Bewildered

A few days ago, I ran across an interesting excerpt from a sermon by Blessed John Henry Newman (you can find it here; it’s from Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons, Vol. VIII, p. 26-27).

It struck me as particularly descriptive of how our society has come to be found in its miserable state of moral turpitude – our descent down the slippery slope.

Blessed John Henry Newman says [emphases mine, throughout]:

…[C]uriosity strangely moves us to disobedience, in order that we may have experience of the pleasure of disobedience…We indulge our reason, we indulge our passions, we indulge our ambition, our vanity, our love of power; we throw ourselves into the society of bad, worldly, or careless men; and all the while we think that, after having acquired this miserable knowledge of good and evil, we can return to our duty, and continue where we left off; merely going aside a moment to shake ourselves, as Samson did, and with an ignorance like his, that our true heavenly strength is departed from us.

Ah, yes. I have heard many people talk about how they started smoking cigarettes as an act of rebellion, and how they always thought they could just stop whenever they wanted…until the addiction established itself and control seemed to be wrested from their grip. Other less physically addictive behaviors take the same path, though. Blessed John Henry Newman gives this example:

Everyone is shocked at cursing and swearing when he first hears it; and at first he cannot help even showing that he is shocked…But when he has once got accustomed to such profane talking, and been laughed out of his strictness, and has begun to think it manly, and has been persuaded to join in it, then he soon learns to defend it.

He goes on to tell us how Satan deludes us and lulls into acceptance of sin. Satan, he says,

… knows well that if he can get us once to sin, he can easily make us sin twice and thrice, till at length we are taken captive at his will…Now our great security against sin lies in being shocked at it.

And that is the problem in our society today, is it not? We are not shocked at sin. We’ve been exposed to it so much that we are oblivious to the inappropriateness of much of the sin we see.

For example, I think that many children and teens today don’t have the faintest notion of modesty. Nothing seems to shock them in terms of revealing clothing worn by their peers; they have become used to seeing each other half naked. (Side note: although I’m well aware of the immodesty that is so prevalent, I have learned to avoid it. But yesterday, when I was at a shopping mall with my daughter, I found myself actually feeling embarrassed by those larger-than-life photos of women clad only in their underwear – if you can actually call it that! – prominently displayed on the windows of Victoria’s Secret for all passers-by to see.)

Our souls are not oblivious, though. Our souls are affected by the sin we see, but our intellect denies the damage. The prevalence of sin today – in books, movies, advertisements, and everyday life – has mesmerized our minds and emotions. Newman continues:

We know that some serpents have the power of what is called "fascinating." Their eye has the power of subduing--nay, in a strange way, of alluring--their victim, who is reduced to utter helplessness…What a dreadful figure this is of the power of sin and the devil over our hearts! At first our conscience tells us, in a plain straightforward way, what is right and what is wrong; but when we trifle with this warning, our reason becomes perverted, and comes in aid of our wishes, and deceives us to our ruin.

People used to know that it is wrong to for couples to live together and engage in sex before marriage. Today, though, it’s commonly accepted that “everyone” lives together before marriage, and consciences have been numbed by the prevalence of the sinful behavior. Most adults today are not shocked to hear about a couple cohabiting, and the people engaging in that behavior generally seem to have no compunction about it – they are not embarrassed at all, whereas in days gone by people used to go to some pains to hide the truth. Now it’s just a fact of life.

How is that our consciences become numb and silent? We listen to wrong ideas:

Then we begin to find, that there are arguments available in behalf of bad deeds, and we listen to these till we come to think them true; and then, if perchance better thoughts return, and we make some feeble effort to get at the truth really and sincerely, we find our minds by that time so bewildered that we do not know right from wrong.

There you have it. A perfect description of what’s gone wrong in society today. “What’s so wrong about two people who love each other living together?” people ask. And then it becomes “What’s wrong with two same-sex people who love each other wanting to be ‘married’?” as they contemplate homosexual “marriage”. “Our minds are so bewildered, we don’t know right from wrong.” We’ve forgotten how to properly form our consciences.

In addition, it seems to me that at least one or two generations have never been trained in logic and critical thinking. That’s why Obama can offer an “accommodation” of the HSS contraception mandate like this

“If a woman works for religious employers with objections to providing contraceptive services as part of its health plan, the religious employer will not be required to provide contraception coverage but her insurance company will be required to offer contraceptive care free of charge.”

…and expect the American public to say, “Oh yeah, that sounds good. Nobody has to pay for it. That’ll work. Cool.”

To be fair, I guess people have always been willing to believe it is possible to get something for nothing. Still, for someone like Sister Carol Keehan to receive Obama’s statement as if it were manna from heaven is ludicrous. Perhaps she should learn to read a statement before offering her approval of it (see Fr. Z).

"Our minds are so bewildered, we don't know right from wrong."

Blessed John Henry Newman, pray for us!

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