Prudence Is The Alibi Of The Cowardly

That's George Bernanos, cited by Chaput the Great in a talk given at the Cardinal Krol conference in Philadelphia earlier this week and posted now at First Things. It's a marvelous essay, although I'd quarrel with His Excellency & Bernanos on their understanding of America. What Chaput says about us is accurate enough as a critique of media culture, but he seems to make the mistake of seeing America in its founding as a wholesale product of the Enlightenment, which it isn't. But I'm not in the mood to rehearse that debate now. Instead, on to two points I loved as they're two themes that recur in this blog frequently, though stated more eloquently than I've ever done. First: freedom.
Time and freedom are the raw material of life because time is the realm of human choice. Bernanos reminds us that the Antichrist wants us to think that freedom really doesn’t exist, because when we fail to choose, when we slide through life, we in effect choose for him. long as man lives in time, which is the realm of change, man may still choose in favor of God. And, of course, God is always offering the help of his grace to do just that. If the Devil can sell us the idea that history is a single, determined mechanism; if humanity’s freedom of will can be forgotten or denied; then man will drift, and the Antichrist will win.
He goes on to cite a concrete example:
Incidentally, if he were alive today, Bernanos might throw an interesting light on the language of the abortion debate. When we examine “pro-choice” vocabulary, it really isn’t about choice at all. Instead, it’s phrased in terms of “what choice did I have?” “I couldn’t choose not to have sex.” “I couldn’t choose not to kill the child.” “You have no right to expect more from me; I had to have an abortion, and so I had a right to do it.” In the abortion debate, pro-choice means agreeing to the fiction that nobody really had a choice. As for the Devil, rapid technological change very much serves his purposes in any bioethical debate by helping us believe that only the future matters and that there isn’t time to consider fundamental questions.
And isn't that the problem with global warming alarmism too, while we're at it --not the assertion of change but the insistence we must act precipitously, no thought allowed?

Another quarrel I have with Chaput arises here, however. He quotes Frank Sheed approvingly thus:
The soul of man is crying for hope of purpose or meaning; and the scientist says, “Here is a telephone” or “Look, television!”—exactly as one tries to distract a baby crying for its mother by offering it sugar-sticks and making funny faces.
I don't think it's the scientist who does that. I prefer C.S. Lewis' formulation in the Abolition of Man. Lewis there argues, counter-intuitively at first, that of the four categories Science, Technology, Religion, Magic, it's Science & Religion that go together and Magic & Technology that are of a piece. His reasoning is that Science & Religion both seek to discover reality and to live in accord with it, whereas Magic & Technology seek to manipulate reality and conform man to it. Therefore, it's not scientific inquiry that is the danger to us; it's technology unhinged from the natural law (Peter Kreeft has a wonderful lecture on this point here, by the way), because as soon as technology becomes liberated from serving man in accord with his nature, it begins to enslave him. The conquest of nature means some men wielding power over other men --perhaps with their consent, but nonetheless. Peter Kreeft illustrates the point for us thus.
Monarchy is not oppressive if the king and the people are working for a common goal under a common law and share a common dignity. But if the power elite, whether king, voting majority, or media elite, cease to believe in an objective Tao [moral law], as is clearly the case in our society, then they become Controllers, Conditioners, Social Engineers, and the patients become the controlled.
Without that distinction it is too easy to turn Christianity into mere wistfulness for the days of the yeoman farmer, I think. Too easy as well to fall into a kind of materialism, in which we have an untoward fear of the material world. With that distinction I can go back to Chaput/ Bernanos:
the first requirement in regaining human freedom is to regain human history, to tell the human story as a chronicle of free will.
( May I say tangentially that this would make history textbooks more interesting, too? There is nothing worse than a 400 p. tome utterly devoid of drama and written in simple declarative sentences. See history flow. Snore.)
For Bernanos, the act of remembering the love of God and the history of our salvation begins the only kind of revolution that matters. In the words of Bernanos, “It is a question of starting tomorrow, or even today, a revolution of liberty which will essentially also be an explosion of spiritual forces in the world, comparable to the one that occurred 2,000 years ago—in fact, the same.”
Now he's speaking my language. This is the "adult faith" Benedict has called us to: the faith of free men. Enter, too, the virtue of prudence rightly understood (which, we've established, it isn't).
Bernanos once said that “the world will be saved only by free men. We must make a world for free men.” He also said that prudence—or rather, the kind of caution and fear that too often pose as prudence—is the one piece of advice he never followed. “When trouble is looking for you,” he said, “it’s primarily a question of facing it, since it would be still more dangerous to turn your back on it. In that case, prudence is only the alibi of the cowardly.”
That is a meditation all of us professed Christians should take to heart. I'm convinced that a careful consideration of both prudence and generosity would revolutionize the rather shallow and captious way in which we currently invoke "Just War" theory, just for one example. In any case:

We most truly serve the common good by having the courage to be disciples of Jesus Christ. God gave us a free will, but we need to use it. Discipleship has a cost. Jesus never said that we didn’t need a spine. The world doesn’t need affirmation. It needs conversion. It doesn’t need the approval of Christians. It needs their witness. And that work needs to begin with us.

Bernanos said that the “scandal of Creation [isn’t] suffering but freedom.” He said that “moralists like to regard sanctity as a luxury; actually it is a necessity.” He also said that “one may believe that this isn’t the era of the saints; that the era of the saints has passed. [But] it is always the era of the saints.”

Hear, hear.