This past month, the adults in our parish faith formation program discussed Lesson 4 from Fr. Barron’s Catholicism DVD series, “Our Tainted Nature’s Solitary Boast: Mary, the Mother of God.” One of the consistent bits of feedback we heard when we started this video series last year is that sometimes Fr. Barron gets a little academic for the average lay audience — and as a result, the material and discussion questions sometimes miss the mark when it comes to generating discussion. In the case of the lesson on Mary, even the title warranted translation.
I watched most of the Mary video at least six times over the course of the past few weeks, and one part, in particular, stuck out to me as academic and not very applicable to the lives of most Catholics — until I thought about it in a new light.
When Fr. Barron discusses Our Lady of Guadalupe and the impact her appearance to St. Juan Diego made on Mexico, he references a two key facts:
- The fact is that within 10 years, almost the entire nation converted to Christianity — nine million souls, or roughly 3,000 people a day, every day, for decade turned to Christ.
- With that conversion, the culture changed fundamentally, and the practice of human sacrifice to appease the gods was eliminated completely.
Then Fr. Barron goes on a brief tangent, discussing philosopher Rene Girard’s cultural theory of the scapegoat mechanism. Briefly, Girard suggests that a dynamic underlies our cultural, social, and personal relationships that serves to restore order during periods of violence or social upheaval by assigning responsibility to a particular victim or victims. The victim is punished, cast out, or killed — and in doing this the society will find itself renewed and unified in common understanding and common purpose.
We see this idea in literature, like the gut-wrenching short story “The Lottery;” in our modern history of wars and genocides; and of course, laid bare in Christ’s crucifixion and in Caiaphas, “who counseled the Jews that it was better that one man should die rather than the people (John 18:14).” Even so, I struggled to relate this theory to our lives today, until I asked myself specifically, “Who do we sacrifice today, and what underlying tension are we trying to resolve?”
It seems to me that we today sacrifice the most vulnerable among us: the unborn, the disabled, the ill, and the dying. If that’s true, to what end do we sacrifice them?
First, let me say that most people never decide to abort a child or to assist someone in ending their lives — nor would I suggest that those who do aren’t at the end of their ropes and genuinely desperate (though, from a Catholic standpoint, they are sadly misguided). But many of us — even many who consider themselves to be good Catholics — are willing to permit the sacrifice of the vulnerable, at least in some cases.
Why? I would argue it’s so that we won’t have to suffer with with them.
Let’s face it: most Americans (myself included) have no concept of the way much of the rest of the world lives. Most of us have no stomach for suffering, poverty, or pain. So our society allows human sacrifice and calls it mercy. We do it for the “health of the mother,” or of society, or of the planet. We tell ourselves that we have limited resources, and it’s irresponsible to lavish them on one person, one family, or one nation (never mind that many larger families get by on less, not more, than their small-family peers). Like Caiaphas, we advocate a definite “smaller” evil to avoid an indefinite “bigger” evil. We end their suffering and ours, not by giving of ourselves or sacrificing our present to make a better shared future, but by sacrificing their future — their very lives — so that we may enjoy our present.
This really hit home for me during the recent Life Chain event. Scores of people stood along Hwy 19 between St. Michael and Albertville, holding signs and praying silently for an end to abortion — and for the courage and will to do what is necessary to bring about that peaceful end. It is an uncomfortable experience to stand, exposed and silent, for an hour, confronting one’s neighbors with the evil we permit to occur so that we may live comfortably — but even moreso, perhaps, for the passersby. One young man slowed his car in the lane nearest me, looked hard into my eyes, and pumped his thick middle finger at me — watching me over his shoulder as he passed, for emphasis. I prayed him over the hill and out of sight.
Why so much anger? Because the natural fruit of evil is guilt, suffering, and death. It’s easy to allow death in the abstract, but to be confronted with it, not in anger but in charity, hurts.
Blessed Mother, pray for us, that by your example we will say yes to God, whatever the cost, and that we may suffer well ourselves so that the vulnerable may be spared. Amen.