Upon hearing the puerile remarks of Governor Andrew Cuomo last week, Chesterton came to mind. The lapsed Catholic governor is usually prone to inanity and offense, but this reached new heights: "We have turned the corner on the Coronavirus plague. It was not faith or prayers that did it. Only hard work and science." To such blather, Chesterton says: "The madman is the one who has one idea completely right, but one does not know where it fits into the whole of things." Indeed, as with so many men of modernity, the governor is a madman. Yet he does have one idea right: essential to man's flourishing is hard work and the pursuit of knowledge.
But he does not know "where it fits into the whole of things." The whole is God, which Mr. Cuomo fails to see, and that blindness is as large as a galaxy. Faith and prayer precede, accompany, and complete every act of man. Denying this is a reprise of the ruinous sin committed in Eden. This original sin was the emancipation of man from the clutches of God. Pride is the only sin that an angel could commit—and Lucifer did, with his non serviam. His was the first act of madness. Mr. Cuomo marches in that line.
Pride can infect even the rays of truth. Man is made in the imago et similtudo Dei, and bears the obligation to use the gifts of intellect and will for the good. Yet, as man deploys those gifts, he knows they are not of his own making. He has received them; they are gifts. To use them without knowing the intended designs of their Maker is to use them to his undoing. Aristotle teaches, "The greatest offense against reason is to use reason against reason." Put in a Catholic key, to use reason against the designs of God is to leave reason corrupted. Every man in every time stands at the edge of this precipice—attempting to use God's gifts without the help of God's grace, or even acknowledging that they are gifts. Isn't this the chilling lesson of Babel? Most of the human race has been bound to this truth, reflexively making religion the cornerstone of culture since the beginning of time. The very word culture traces its derivation to the Latin word cultus, or ceremonial rites honoring God. Hence the inescapable union between culture and religion. Since the Enlightenment, only the secular culture of Western civilization has exempted itself from this perennial law, with woeful consequences.
If Mr. Cuomo and his fellow travelers so esteem knowledge, they should take note that the Catholic Church alone is its greatest proponent. The very existence of universities is owed to the Church, from the earliest medieval Cathedral schools to the founding of the Universities of Bologna (1088), Paris (1150), Oxford (1167), and a score of others. All emerged, in the felicitous phrase of St. John Paul II, ex corde ecclesiae. The Church recognized that man's perfection required the progress of knowledge, but that his fullest perfection demanded adoring the sovereignty of God. Otherwise knowledge repeats the ancient lure of the serpent,
"Ye shall be as gods." Kierkegaard captured this modern inversion when he remarked, "For the Middle Ages, the hero was the saint; for modern man, the hero is the genius." When man is without God, the knowledge he discovers is a noose from which he hangs. Or worse. Mary Shelley was writing more than a Gothic horror story when she penned Frankenstein. It was a premonitory tale of a modern world without God, where "hard work and science" replace "faith and prayer." In the scene when the monster finally rises from his gurney, he looks down at Dr. Frankenstein and boasts, "You are my creator, but now I am your master." In a world without God, man is no longer his own because he does not first belong to God. St. Thomas teaches that man is "dominus sui" (master of himself)—not master of reality, only master of himself. Man becomes his own master when he first makes God his Master. Through understanding and free will, he lives by God's truth, defying the tug of unruly passions. This alone is man standing tall. Without God man finds himself becoming smaller and grotesque. Each man becomes a god unto himself, leaving man only to a Nietzschean triumph of the will.BACK TO LIST