Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
January 21, 2008
Read with astute spiritual discernment
Steve Wood, founder of St. Joseph's Covenant Keepers, decided to study Philip Pullman's trilogy of children's novels, His Dark Materials. Throughout his study, Wood prayed the Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel for spiritual protection. You know, the prayer that asks the archangel to protect us "against the wickedness and snares of the devil."
My first impression was that this was overwrought. Surely, a devout Catholic in his 60s should be able to withstand whatever temptations a children's novel might throw his way.
Then I recalled the experience of Pierre Elliot Trudeau. During his studies in various locales during the 1940s, Trudeau regularly sought the permission of his local archbishop to read "forbidden books" such as Karl Marx's Das Kapital, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The Social Contract, and the writings of John Maynard Keynes. The bishops gave him permission with the proviso that he keep the books to himself and guard them closely.
A devout Catholic in his youth, Trudeau retained a personal Catholic faith to the end. But one could question the extent to which he thought in accord with the teachings of the Church in his public life. His writings and actions seemed governed more by the sort of writers he had sought episcopal permission to read.
My own life had a similar pattern. As a high school and university student, I read widely in philosophers and social scientists who were atheistic or agnostic. That reading was a primary reason I lost my faith for several years.
The road back was initiated by more reading - the reading of the works of a saint (Augustine) who revealed to me the beauty and the mystery and the depth and the loving warmth and the truth of a God who was made known through the Catholic Church. This was so much more real and alive than the sterile, bleak and artificially narrow world of the sceptics.
Today, good parents protect their children from movies, TV and literature that exploit sex and violence. We don't give as much attention to the intellectual realm where faith can also be challenged. Not to be forgotten is Pullman's own statement that he wants to lead children away from faith and the Catholic Church.
Germain Grisez, the leading American Catholic moral theologian of the post-Vatican II era, maintains, "Morality essentially pertains to thought; evil is much more in the heart than in outward behaviour." He is supported by the council itself, which said interior sins "sometimes wound the soul more grievously and are more dangerous than those sins which are committed openly."
These are stunning statements in a Western world where people widely believe that anything is OK if no one gets hurt.
Jesus' revolution in morality lay in that he saw ritual purity as inadequate and taught that only the pure in spirit would see God. He criticized the Pharisees as "whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men's bones and every kind of filth" (Matthew 23:27).
The moral significance of evil, Grisez says, lies not in the outward harm done but in the deprivation in people's souls.
This deprivation may not always be obvious, but it brings disharmony into people's relationships with God and other people.
He goes on to say that if in the past, Church instruction about sins of thought was vague or confused; today it tends to be lax or non-existent.
None of this means that Catholics should lock ourselves in a cocoon, reading only the lives of the saints and their writings - although we would do well to do more of that. We need to be engaged with the events and the intellectual trends of the day.
But in such engagement, we need to respect what we are up against. Reading is not just a fun pastime, but can also be a battle against "Satan and all the evil spirits, who roam throughout the world seeking the ruin of souls." We should prepare ourselves accordingly.
- Glen Argan
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