Ciceronianus vel Christianus?

The question above, according to Saint Jerome’s own account, came to him one day as what we might call an “epiphany moment”.  Jerome, a Christian, was a young man of the Fourth Century AD and totally enthralled and absorbed in the Latin writings of the Roman authors of the recent past; all of whom were pagan. He spent hours reading and admiring the great minds of the pagan Rome fading into history. His favorite was the writings of the author and politician Cicero who lived 300 years before him and was considered a model of rhetoric. Then one day Jerome said he felt the Lord ask him a question that changed his life: Are you a Ciceronian or a Christian?

At that moment, Jerome knew he had to make a fundamental decision about himself: who was he? Whom did he really adore? Where was his treasure? to use Jesus’ words.

He made the decision that he was, not only in name but in fact, a Christian and dedicated the rest of his years and his considerable talents in the service of the Church at Rome and in the Holy Land. He accepted Pope Damasus I’s commission and spent decades on the formidable task of translating the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible into Latin; then the popular or “vulgar” tongue of the Western Roman Empire. His Latin Bible, known as the Vulgate, after several revisions, forms the basis even today of the Catholic Church’s official Latin text of the Scriptures.

I give this story and the question above because I’ve been musing on it today.

In the words of Jesus Where your treasure is, there will your heart be.

Where is my treasure? Where is yours?

It is very easy to combine a more or less sincere profession of Catholicism with other, secular interests and hobbies. That is good as far as it goes, but, how far does it go?

I’ve known clerics who seem barely interested in the history, lore, and practice of the priesthood; yet mention fly-fishing, Broadway plays, sports or historical hat collecting and their eyes light up. Decent fellows to be sure, but no world-burners unless it comes to their real interest. Mass-goers leave church and complain to the priest in all seriousness that the length of the “sermon” (notice it’s NEVER the length of the readings, music, Prayer of the Faithful, or announcements) interfered with the (fill in your own blank) game. A colleague who once told me he’s never used any other Eucharistic Prayer other than “Canon Two” 365 days a year, Christmas, Easter, you name it, because it’s “short”; spent at least 2 hours a day exercising.

And me, when I think of the nonsense I’ve wasted time and money on for amusement!

While some of this may be in the realm of the harmless hobby or intellectual interest, the phenomenon can go deeper to questions of basic loyalty.

This is certainly a question when it comes to significant issues in public life.

One of the hoped-for results of the Catholic Church in America’s unprecedented devotion to privately funded Catholic education at all levels was to influence the public life of the country along “Catholic principles.” Decades of sacrifice, talk of “Catholic Action”, Catholic textbooks and apologetics were to, among other things; provide a crop of Catholic leaders in every field who would influence the political, professional, social, industrial, and educational culture of the United States. A free Church in a free country, “our own” would by persuasion, conviction, and a superior education give a Catholic tinge to everything.

Above all, we might have expected legislators and statesmen/women, benefiting so often from Catholic colleges and universities to be exemplary leaders of our national life. A whole tide of Irish-American and Italo-American politicians ( traditionally the two biggest Catholic ethnicities of our region) coming out of Saint John’s, Fordham, “Catholic U”, “BC”, Notre Dame, etc., would, without any forcing of anything on anybody, make Catholic moral principles an integral part of American public life.


A wag once described the 19th century Church of England as “the Tory Party on its knees.” This meant that the mores, culture, outlook, and values of what was supposed to be a national Church was actually just a partisan body.  It has been sometimes said that the Catholic Church in America runs a similar risk.

Historically Roman Catholics tended to vote (and still often do) for the Democratic Party. It is a party now full of Irish, Italian, Polish, and Spanish names all betokening a Catholic background. Many of them are quite willing to trade on their Catholic roots and ethnic associations on  Columbus Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Pulaski Day, St. John the Baptist Day, etc.

Some of them indeed are highly praised for their concern for the poor and the immigrant.  However, one class of the “poor” they seem to successfully not have concern for is often the unborn child. Almost to a man or woman they rarely if ever oppose abortion; and if they do, it’s muted and almost never to the fore. They indeed, often act to extend and “protect a woman’s right to choose” to the exclusion of any other consideration.  It is argued, even by some who ought to know better, that this pro-abortion stance (indistinguishable from any other secular “progressive”) is balanced by the afore-mentioned concern for the poor.

Well, in what does this concern for the poor usually consist?

Is it in personally serving the poor in simple and practical ways? Is it by refusing ostentatious and affluent lifestyles? Passing up private jets, summer homes, and large (often inherited) private fortunes? Or is it by advocating “public” programs that basically take money from one segment of the population and transfer it to another by legislation? Prescinding from both the inherent morality of such programs and the effectiveness in actually solving the problems addressed, I do not see an equivalence in the moral calculation of “he/she may be pro-choice, but there are OTHER moral issues such as care for the poor” arguments often advanced by apologists for the “pro-choice Catholic”.

How can it be that a theoretically POSSIBLE benefit to the poor (however defined) can balance an ACTUAL destruction of an ACTUALLY existing innocent life?

It can’t.

Let me put it simply and graphically.

Assume that the government came to you and said “We can end poverty, advantage the disadvantaged, end injustice beyond any doubt by legislation. There is, however, one little catch. We just need to strangle ONE infant child. Just one out of all the thousands of infants in the US; not much to ask. OK, folks, who wants to volunteer your baby? Anybody?”

No? I didn’t think so.

That’s my point in a nutshell: one may NEVER commit an actual grave moral evil for a putatively good end.  Also, while one may never presume the subjective moral state of another individual before God, one should at least not be taken in by specious arguments that evade the truth, however difficult.

But then again, that’s just me…


April 6, 2011

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *