Sermon: Living Not by Lies
Last Wednesday was a historic moment with the inauguration of the second Catholic president in the history of the United States. Presidential inaugurations are usually met with a short congratulatory statement on the part of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, usually focusing on promoting good will and pledging to work together for the common good. A statement was issued Wednesday by Archbishop Jose Gomez, president of the US Catholic Bishops conference, but unlike past statements it described at some length the opportunities and challenges that Mr. Biden’s presidency represents.
“[I]t will be refreshing,” Archbishop Gomez wrote, “to engage with a President who clearly understands, in a deep and personal way, the importance of religious faith and institutions.” However, he continued, “I must point out that our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender. Of deep concern is the liberty of the Church and the freedom of believers to live according to their consciences.”
At the inauguration on Wednesday we heard a lot about unity – much indeed that was admirable and good. And there is little doubt that our beloved country and our beloved Church stand in need of unity. But who gets to define what unity is? Real unity can only be unity in the truth.
That is why it is so sad that within 24 hours of taking office, the President had already released a wide-ranging executive order promoting gender ideology, an order that threatens to prompt actions harmful to the well-being of women and girls by erasing the inherent differences between male and female, lead to ideological re-education in our schools, and punish institutions that resist this lie about human nature. This cannot be unity because this is not true.
Equally troubling was the new administration’s commitment Friday on the tragic anniversary of Roe vs. Wade to codify that decision in federal law and appoint judges committed to upholding this deeply wrong precedent. This also cannot be unity because it is based on a lie – a lie about the fundamental rights of the human person both before and after birth.
The reality, though, is that we are very hesitant to talk about truth, in large part because we are afraid of being labeled. People who disagree about the nature of marriage are homophobic. People who disagree about what it means to be male and female are now transphobic. Rather than engaging in meaningful discourse about what marriage, maleness, and femaleness are, we treat disagreements as pathologies, mental illnesses with which there cannot be rational engagement. This also cannot lead to unity because it relies on stigmatization rather than discourse and is concerned not with working together to arrive at the truth, but rather with establishing who possesses the moral high ground. (Although it would be fair to note that those who promote traditional notions of marriage, maleness, and femaleness could be getting their comeuppance after many years of unjustly harsh treatment of the non-conformers. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.)
Faced with the enormity of the situation that confronts us, it would be understandable if we felt overwhelmed or experienced despair. The prophet Jonah certainly felt that way. Before preaching repentance to the city of Nineveh, Jonah did give in to despair and ran away from God. But after the storm, his three days in the belly of the whale, and getting coughed up on the shore, Jonah set off to preach repentance to the wicked city.
Jesus’s first preaching at the beginning of His public ministry in the first chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel today also contain this important call: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” We can certainly see ways in which the world around us might need this message of repentance, but what if that message is actually meant for us?
We hear St. Paul say today that, “the world in its present form is passing away.” We can relate to that, as everything seems to be changing faster than ever. But still, we hopefully wonder, how did we get to the point where we could so thoroughly misunderstand the most basic realities of human existence – what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman? The truth, though, is that there have been concrete steps along the way that have led to this point.
Most people would start with the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, when long-standing notions about human sexuality began to break down. Little attention, though, is given to the role of artificial contraception and sterilization in this process. By disconnecting physical intimacy from its biological role of producing new life, we created the possibility of pursuing physical gratification in a manner unmoored from human nature. No contraception, no transgenderism.
More overlooked, though, is the culture of self-esteem and constant affirmation. When children, and even adults, are constantly affirmed and never challenged, never told that they are wrong or that their feelings are disproportionate to reality, we created the possibility of children and adults living according to their own reality that no one else is allowed to deny, at the risk of being a something-o-phobe.
Related as well is the religious phenomenon I mentioned two weeks ago – the descent of Christian preaching into a moralist, therapeutic deism that replaces the centrality of Christ with a sentimental self-help spirituality, the prosperity Gospel, and do-gooderism. I received an alumni magazine from my (Catholic) high school alma mater recently. The introductory letter from the new president of the alumni association referred several times to the school’s mission of forming young people to change the world! When Catholic institutions think that their mission consists in such bland and secularized platitudes, it is little wonder that their graduates are indistinguishable from those of secular schools.
The most concerning phenomenon of all, though, that has led to our lack of ability to understand the basic facts of human nature is the rapidly accelerating process of the technologicization of the human person. This is why the rate of change in our world is accelerating so suddenly, why grandparents and grandchildren seem at a total loss to discuss anything happening in the world and understand the other’s perspective. As more and more of our lives are governed by and even replaced by technology, it becomes logical to conclude that we can be the “masters and possessors of nature” – that technological processes can replace any aspect of the human person or alter them at will, and that nothing about men or women is a given that technology cannot overcome.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn was one of the most important critics of the totalitarian communist regime in the USSR. When he was expelled from his country in 1974, his parting wisdom to the resistance movement was, “Live not by lies!” Solzhenitsyn recognized that the average Russian did not have the power to overthrow Soviet communism, but each one did have the power, in his or her own life, not to live according to the lies perpetrated by the communists.
Each one of us might also be powerless to overturn the massive movement in our society away from our authentic human identity, but each of us does have the power to decide, here and now, to live not according to those lies. Jesus invites you, just like he invited Simon and Andrew, to abandon your nets and follow Him. You can do that today by rejecting the culture of self-esteem and constant affirmation, by examining your own conscience regarding how you have lived the gift of human sexuality, committing to live the Gospel and the teachings of the Catholic Church with courage and conviction, and living more in the real world than in the world of technology.
“The world in its present form is passing away,” and that is not all bad. The world that is passing away is the world of hunger, illness, pain, and death. It is the world of lies. You can choose here and now to “live not by lies.” You can live not by the lie that says that human sexuality is separable from the gift of new human life. You can live not according to the lie that says that the human constitution is so fragile that it cannot handle critique by refusing to label and “cancel” your ideological opponents (whatever side of the political aisle you find yourself on, because it happens on both sides). You can live not according to the lie that technology can replace our most fundamental human experiences.
This last lie is particularly deserving of our attention. St. Paul urges us today to let “those using the world [do so] as not using it fully.” We need to curtail our use of “smart” technology in order to live not in the lies of the digital world, but in the truth of the real world. Our families and our homes need truly “safe spaces” – spaces not “safe” from challenge and critique, but safe from the omnipresence of “smart” tech. We need the deep reassurance that comes from interacting with the real, physical world that technology will never be able to substitute for the reality of who we are as men and women.
When we choose to live not by lies, there is always hope. Solzhenitsyn did not expect that only 16 years after his expulsion from his native land, the communist regime would fall. Jonah did not expect the Ninevites to repent from their evil ways. No one would have expected those four fishermen and their eight companions to spread a message of love, hope, and truth that would overcome the resistance of the mighty Roman empire, barbarian hordes, and pagan nations throughout the world to become the faith of one third of the world’s people. And most importantly of all, no one aside from our blessed mother Mary expected that the lifeless victim of Calvary would three days later be the triumphant redeemer.
When we choose to “live not by lies,” there is always hope. “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
III Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXI
Image: Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch (1877)