Published July 24, 2021
Editor’s note: The following text is adapted from July 24 remarks at the 2021 national Napa Institute summer conference.
Napa’s summer conference gets better every year. It’s an island of encouragement in a world that can look pretty rough when we get home. Back in the “real” world, it can be hard to be optimistic. And depending on the size and scope of our problems, optimism can actually be pretty unwise.
Optimism is not hope. Hope and optimism and are very different creatures. Optimism is an attitude. Attitudes come and go. Hope is a virtue, and that word “virtue” comes from the Latin word meaning “valor.” Hope is grounded in reality, not emotions. It’s the muscle — the strength of character — we get from fidelity and endurance under pressure. It’s the courage we need to learn from, and draw from, the believing generations that came before us. As Christians, we’re branded at baptism as people of hope. And we have very good reason for our hope. If you bear with me for a few minutes, I’ll tell you why.
This year’s conference theme is “all things made new.” And this final day is meant to focus on renewing our nation and culture. But I want to start with stuff not new, but old. The reason is simple: Looking back can help us think forward, because memory matters. History matters. The past is a great teacher because it’s a record of who we are; a diary of what works and what doesn’t.
George Orwell said that he who controls the past, controls the future. And he who controls the present, controls the past. What he meant, and what he warned, is that in the hands of bitter and vengeful people, control of the present becomes a tool to rewrite the past. And once the past is reinvented, it becomes a tool to control the content of things to come. This is the spirit behind today’s 1619 Project, the defacing of public monuments, and the whole poisonous narrative of America as an irredeemably unjust state.
The trouble is that “grievance culture” — the kind of culture we have today — is deadly. There’s always another oppressor to expose and accuse. Grievance feels good in an ugly sort of way. And it’s addictive. It presumes the wickedness of anyone who disagrees. It kills reasoned discourse. After all, who wants to waste time listening to stupid or evil people — especially if, by definition, they’re stupid or evil because their views conflict with our own? This explains why our nation’s political life is now so toxic. It’s senseless for our leaders to blather on about the “common good” when, by their words and actions, they make a genuine common good impossible.
But it’s not only our leaders who are at fault. It’s also us. In effect, politics is our new religion. The more resentment we bring to our politics as citizens, the more venomous our political culture becomes. It will get worse until we remember the roots and purpose of our country. And that won’t be easy because memory is not, and never has been, an American strong suit.
We Americans have always had a split personality when it comes to the past. On the one hand, the Founders were shaped by biblical morality and Enlightenment thought. They had a deep admiration for the Roman Republic and the Classical age. These things shaped the checks and balances in the structure of our government.
Our problem with the past lies in the words the Founders themselves used. We’re a novus ordo seclorum; an entirely “new order of the ages.” As a nation, we’re manufactured. We’re a product of the human mind. Our system works very well when people share a basic mutual respect, and the same broad moral convictions. And it doesn’t, when they don’t. That’s where we find ourselves right now. The terrific talks this morning by Carl Trueman and Mary Eberstadt showed us just how deep our divisions go.
The other half of America’s personality was summed up neatly by Henry Ford: “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that’s worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today.” We’ve always been a nation of pragmatists and innovators. Dragging around the past as a kind of mortgage on the future interferes with our freedom to invent and reinvent ourselves. In some ways this is a strength. But it also means that we forget things we need to remember, like the cost of self-indulgence.
The Founders revered the Roman virtue of pietas, a mix of piety, duty, loyalty and gratitude. Self-mastery and self-sacrifice are qualities of personal character that make a real political community possible. What we have as a nation today, instead, is an empire of desire.
Imagine a giant Walmart of appetites and distractions run by Pontius Pilate, with a corporate slogan of, “What is truth?” That would be a very unkind, and very incomplete, description of America in 2021. But not an entirely false one. We have tens of millions of good people in our country. They make the good that remains in our nation worth working and fighting for. But “what is truth” really is a kind of national anthem for some of the most privileged people in our leadership classes. And if there really is no over-arching truth that judges us all and binds the world together, but only your truth and my truth, then “truth” is simply an alibi for the arbitrary will of whoever has power, and the ruthlessness to keep it. We know where that leads. It’s not a life, or a society, worthy of human beings.
So what do we do about it?
In his remarks yesterday, Archbishop Chaput mentioned the deep differences that separate our own time from the Europe of 500 years ago. But he also noted that our culture today and the world of the Reformation era share some striking similarities: political and social turmoil; big changes in technology that reshape how we learn, think, work, and believe; and ambiguity and conflict within the Church herself. He also mentioned the names of some key Catholic humanists and reformers: Thomas More, John Fisher, Erasmus, and John Colet. The first three names are well known. John Colet much less so. I want to focus on Colet for just a few minutes. I think he speaks directly to our age.
John Colet was born in England in 1467. He arrived in the middle of a 15th century that began with the chaos of three simultaneous and rival popes. It was marked throughout by fierce political conflict. And it ended with a corrupt Renaissance papacy. Colet was ordained a priest in the late 1490s. He began his ministry during the papacy of Alexander VI — one of the worst popes in a 2,000 year line; a man of greed, intrigue, nepotism, and illicit sex. None of this pushed Colet away from the Church. But it did anger him in the same way Christ dealt with the moneychangers. Google the words “John Colet, 1512 sermon.” You’ll be a taken to a homily that he gave to English Church leaders just a few years before Luther posted his 95 theses. Five centuries later, it’s still a barn-burner on the urgent need for Church reform. Nobody listened. We know the rest of the story.
Colet died in 1519, just as Martin Luther was gaining steam in Germany. So he’s sometimes described as a kind of proto-Protestant. But the facts simply don’t support that. Colet placed a very high value on personal humility. He rejected any idea that we can “earn” salvation through good works. Everything good is achieved through God’s grace. But God does leave us room to refuse or cooperate with his purposes. In other words, unlike some Protestant reformers, Colet believed that we do have free will. Our choices and actions do matter. He also, and very strongly, believed that the clergy, despite their sins, were absolutely necessary for the saving role of the Church. Had he lived, it’s unlikely he would have sought any restructuring of Church doctrines or sacraments. He was fundamentally a man of fidelity, continuity, and stability. To borrow a thought from another Catholic reformer of his time, Colet believed that “men must be changed by religion, not religion by men.”
So that’s some background. But the real reason I mention Colet lies elsewhere.
Colet had a deep love for the clarity and zeal of St. Paul. In 1497, and barely 30 years old, he gave a series of lectures at Oxford University on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. His lectures still have remarkable power. They speak directly to us, here and now, today.
And here’s why: Read Paul’s epistle. The Rome that Paul describes there, especially in the first two chapters, will be uncomfortably familiar — the malice, the vanity, hypocrisy, strife, and idolatries; the perverse and promiscuous sex. St. Paul’s purpose in writing his epistle to the young Church in Rome was very simple: How should Christians live in such a corrupt and difficult place — the pagan capital of a pagan empire? Rome at the time was the pre-eminent power in the world, just as our own nation is today. Most first century Romans viewed Christianity as an ugly superstition. Many saw it as a threat to public order and welfare. And if we think that Joe Biden and Donald Trump are disappointing models of leadership, the Christians of Rome dealt with Nero. To put it simply: The Romans of today are us.
In unpacking the epistle for his Oxford audience, Colet made a masterful tour of its meaning. But two lessons are especially useful for our time together today.
First, we need to live and act wherever God places us in the world, and in the concrete conditions of our times. We can’t escape or wall ourselves off from reality. We’re involved with the world, and we need to deal with it. In other words, the Christian community mustn’t try to flee the world, but rather be a purifying leaven within it. One of the duties this implies for the Church is a law-abiding respect for worldly authority. As a result, Christians need to set an example of good will, discretion, service, and charity — even to their enemies — for the sake of the unbelieving world around them. St. Paul’s letter stresses that Christians have an obligation of obedience to the emperor and Roman magistrates in all things. And Colet, in his homilies, adds the one obvious exception: No such duty applies to authority that attacks or violates one’s faith.
Second, and here I’m quoting from Colet directly: “[It] is from moderation, order, and love that all things are established in beauty.” Colet stresses that “This is what St. Paul here enjoins, that [Rome’s Christians] should be transformed to a new sense and judgment of things; that they should prove and make manifest by their deeds . . . what is good and perfect and well pleasing to God, instead of to themselves.” The human heart, even when it’s ignorant of God, and even in its fallen state, has a natural appetite for the true, the good, and the beautiful. And if we as Christians live our faith well, we can trust the Gospel to attract the lost, and be food for the searching soul. Whether we ourselves see the fruit of our actions is not important. God will handle the rest.
The passion of John Colet’s life and witness, in a time of widespread confusion and deep corruption in the Church and in the world, was his call to personal righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ; personal repentance for sin; personal conversion of heart; and a life of personal choices and actions that radiate the truth of the Gospel. St. Paul preached exactly this message, and it conquered the Roman empire, from the inside, one soul at a time. Colet saw it as the only sure answer to the crises and failures of his own time; the task of what he called a “divine reformation” of persons, Church, and world, beginning again with each believer, ad fontes — in other words, from the sources and foundations of the Christian faith. The same applies to our own nation, our own culture, and the world we have today.
We really don’t want to hear that. The “personal” sounds too small, too slow, too pious. We Americans compulsively think big. It’s in our DNA. We want plans, policies, programs, and committees; the machinery that gets things done. And these things do all have their place.
But you see, the reason things like “personal conversion” and “personal righteousness” seem so irrelevant to the Really Big Issues of national life is that nobody wants to do them. And we don’t do them — I don’t do them — because they’re hard. They take time and effort. It’s easy to sign a petition, or give a speech, or rant on Twitter, or throw a rock, or make a fist, or a put a BLM sign on your upscale, white-neighborhood lawn. But it’s brutally hard to examine, and know, and speak the truth to ourselves; to honestly acknowledge our own sins and hatreds; to repent and convert; to forgive precisely the irritating people whose views and behaviors most offend us.
But in Jesus Christ, these things are possible. In his mercy, and with his courage, we do have the power to change ourselves and the world around us, because even non-believers “have what the law requires . . . written on their hearts” — Romans 2:15. Jesus came that “we might no longer be enslaved to sin” — Romans 6:6. “We know that in everything, God works for the good with those who love him,” and “if God is for us, who is against us?” — Romans 8:28 and 31. We need to understand that we’re never powerless. Vaclav Havel, the great Czech poet and dissident of the Soviet era, often said that “the power of the powerless” resides in the simple willingness to speak and live the truth, whatever the consequences. St. Paul and John Colet would fully and passionately agree. But when speaking and living the truth, they’d add the words, “with love.”
Truth has power because it anchors our words and our world to reality. And precisely because of that power, it needs to be guided by love.
As Americans, we have the privilege to be part of a great experiment in ordered liberty. Each and every one of us here today has the duty as a citizen — but even more so as a Christian — to bring the Catholic faith to bear in advancing that experiment in its service to human dignity. What we believe as faithful Christians is integral to who we are. And if we don’t advance those beliefs peacefully but vigorously in our politics and public discourse — in season and out — then we make ourselves into liars and thieves. We steal from our nation the best we have to offer.
Again: We’re never powerless. And we’re also never alone. These are challenging times. But as the great saint and Church Father Augustine said, we are the times. We make the times by what we do in our daily lives. So it’s impossible to be distressed, and to feel anything but really good, at a conference like this — and rightly so.
Look around us today at all of the astonishing people and ministries that are here and already serving the task of renewal: the Augustine Institute, EWTN, the Napa Institute, the Magis Center; FOCUS; the Napa Legal Institute; Ignatius Press; the Leonine Forum; the Thomistic Institute; Becket Law; the Catholic Leadership Institute; Alliance Defending Freedom; and writers, thinkers, and evangelizers like Mary Hasson, Mary Eberstadt, Chris Stefanick, Curtis Martin, Ryan Anderson, Roger Landry, Carter Snead, and Rusty Reno, who’s our wonderful next speaker — the list goes on and on.
Our talent pool is wide and deep. And it’s refreshed and made clean in every generation by the Word of God, through the courage of people who commit their lives to the mission of the Church. Don’t ever allow yourselves to be fooled. We’ve been here many times before. We have every reason for hope, and every reason for joy — because Jesus actually meant it when he said he’d be with us until the end of the age. So take confidence in the gifted friends and leaders who gather here this weekend. And support them in any way you can, because they’re doing important work that urgently needs to be done.
What we need to remember — and remembering is a sacred task — is that there will be no real novus ordo seclorum, no genuinely “new order of the ages,” without the kingship of Jesus Christ. And that new order, that “new reformation,” will only happen when we each take to heart the words of St. Paul, which John Colet preached again and again and again, throughout his life: “Be not conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:2).”
Thanks for listening. And God bless you.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior research associate in Constitutional studies at the University of Notre Dame.