by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
On Saturday night a few weeks ago, while eating a late night snack, I broke off one of my teeth at the gum line. It was the tooth immediately adjacent to my right front tooth. It left a very visible gaping hole in my mouth.
The next morning I was scheduled to make a pastoral visit to St. Paul Parish. I became keenly aware of my vanity as I was very self-conscious about the gap in my upper teeth. I was hesitant to smile as this exposed even more my missing tooth.
I have an incredible dentist who came in on Sunday afternoon to glue my broken tooth back into place until a more permanent solution could be accomplished.
My tooth problems actually occasioned for me a helpful Lenten meditation. The immediate cause of the fracture of my tooth was a piece of bacon. However, the true causes were a lifetime of poor eating choices coupled with the absence of consistent flossing. This tooth had several cavities over the years that eventually rendered it so fragile that it was fractured by something as harmless as a piece of bacon.
This is probably more information than you care to know about my oral hygiene. However, it got me thinking about parallels with my spiritual life. Oftentimes, our moral compromises can seem in isolation somewhat minuscule and insignificant, like failing to floss or eating too many double-stuffed Golden Oreos.
At the time, choices to indulge selfish inclinations rather than care for the needs of others, or decisions that value something or someone more than our relationship with God, do not seem all that important. Yet, when these become patterns of behavior, they create moral decay that can be disguised and temporarily repaired but actually are hollowing out the moral strength of our souls, leaving them vulnerable to collapse even under relatively weak pressure.
Without some life-style changes, these moral compromises (sins) can leave us with some gaping holes in our moral character that become quite impossible to hide and very difficult to repair. Would that I was as concerned with these gaps in my moral integrity as with missing a prominent tooth!
At Easter, we celebrate the victory of Jesus over sin and death. Most of us readily understand the need to be liberated from the finality of death. As we grow older, the fragility of life and our mortality become more and more apparent. There are not many people who fail to welcome a Savior that can rescue them from the jaws of death.
However, when it comes to sin, it is easy to choose the path of denial. Some have described our time as a post-truth and post-virtue era. In our culture, more and more people deny there are objective moral truths. For many, ethical choices are based on feelings rather than conformity to an objective moral code.
Last year, there was a very revealing YouTube video featuring a 5-foot-10-inch Caucasian male interviewer on a secular campus in the Northwest who asked students for their reaction to his claim to be a woman. Every student concurred that if that is who he thought he was, then they had no problem accepting him as a female. The interviewer kept pushing the students with additional claims that obviously defied objective reality. Finally, when he claimed to be a 7-foot-2-inch Chinese woman, a couple of the students at least hesitated to accept this outrageous assertion.
This video is a powerful illustration of the logical consequences of the post-truth philosophy that subscribes to the absurd notion that you can have your truth and I can have my truth, even if they contradict each other. In such a universe, there is no real truth, but rather truth can be whatever each individual conceives it to be.
With such a worldview, there can be no objective, universal moral law. There can be no sin, since all behavior can be justified by our feeling a choice is right for us. My choices need not conform to the Ten Commandments or any other moral code. What makes a choice morally right is solely how I feel about it.
This is quite different than traditional Catholic moral teaching that correctly holds my moral culpability may be diminished or negated if I do something that is objectively wrong, but I am not aware that it is evil. The moral principles remain true even if I am unaware of them and their application to my particular choice.
The Catholic moral tradition also recognizes the reality of natural law that means there are certain moral truths that we do not need to be taught because they are inscribed upon the heart of every human being. We know instinctually in our conscience that killing an innocent human being or stealing another’s property or committing adultery is wrong. However, if our only moral compass is what makes us feel good, then it is possible to rationalize and justify most any choice.
I love my dentist. No matter how difficult a dental problem I present to him, he is able to find a creative way to restore the well-being of my mouth!
Our Christian faith allows us to face honestly the gaping holes in our souls. It gives the courage to acknowledge honestly our sin. The beauty of our Catholic faith is no matter how bad our sin and the moral decay resulting from it, Jesus can heal and restore the health of our souls.
During the Lenten season many, many people in the Archdiocese took advantage of the sacrament of reconciliation and its power to heal and restore health to our hearts. The Octave of Easter, the Sunday immediately following Easter, is Divine Mercy Sunday. The Gospel for this Sunday reminds us how Easter night God empowered the apostles to continue his ministry of mercy and healing.
If you have not received the sacrament of reconciliation during the Lenten season, I encourage you to take advantage of the sacrament during the celebration of Divine Mercy. Frequent and sincere reception of this sacrament of mercy can keep our souls healthy and protected from the weakening and corrosive effects of our sin. Take advantage of the sacrament of reconciliation and you will have every reason spiritually to smile.