Msgr. Jeremiah McCarthy, Ph.D., is a member of the In Trust Center board of directors and is a professor of moral theology at Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. At a board meeting in September, he shared a devotional thought to open the board’s meetings. This is an edited version of his thoughts.
Recently, as the tragic resistance to public health measures to combat Covid-19 has escalated, Matt Wuerker, the savvy and clever political cartoonist for the online journal Politico, produced a gem (August 2021) that conveys a powerful image of what is wrong with us today. At the center of the cartoon is an enraged man in a red hat, wearing a shirt emblazoned with the words, “I don’t care.” The cartoon is titled: “The Bible teaches us about the Good Samaritan. Covid teaches us about the Bad Samaritan.”
On each side of the angry, eyes a-goggle, Bad Samaritan are several panels that read:
“I don’t care if masks protect my family and friends.”
“I don’t care if my refusing the vaccine prolongs the epidemic.”
“I don’t care if unvaccinated sick people are breaking our hospitals.”
“I don’t care if the virus is now spreading to kids and schools.”
As the laconic and revered golf commentator, Henry Longhurst, would say in his understated British way, “There you have it.” The Wuerker cartoon resonates with me and supports an insight I have gleaned from a recent, and powerfully written book, by O. Carter Snead, Professor of Law and Director of the Nicola Center for Ethics at the University of Notre Dame, titled: What It Means to be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics, (Harvard University Press: 2020). At the root of many of our most intractable public debates, whether it is new reproductive technologies, abortion, and the campaign to legalize physician aid in dying, Professor Carter identifies a notion called “expressive individualism.”
Building on the work of sociologist Robert Bellah and philosopher Charles Taylor, Carter defines expressive individualism:
“…persons are conceived merely as atomized individual wills whose highest flourishing consists in interrogating the interior depths of the self in order to express and freely follow the original truths discovered therein towards one’s self-invented destiny.” (Snead, p. 5)
The book is a rich and wonderful read, but I want to highlight for the purposes of our prayer and reflection that expressive individualism glorifies our sovereign wills to power. What is missing from expressive individualism and what it conveys most profoundly, in the words of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre is “forgetfulness of the body.” The exaltation of our wills, our power to choose, is inadequate to deal with our embodiment, that we are not just spirits who inhabit a body, but real embodied selves that confront dependency, vulnerability, and finitude. We are born, we grow, we age, we die. Our bodies remind us of our connections to one another, a reminder that we are tethered to past, present, and future. Moreover, as Christians, because we treasure the grace of our bodies, we trust in the promise of the resurrection, namely the conviction that the divine intention is transformation, not annihilation, of the creation God has made.
Professor Snead invites us to investigate what is ailing us as a society. If we lose sight of the fact that we are interdependent, that we cannot control everything, that we must be mindful of the “unbidden” realities of illness, weakness, death, disability, and suffering, then we descend into the maelstrom of a sterile solipsism, the fate of Lucifer and the fallen angels. Walker Percy described sin as “the ceaseless suck of self.” Martin Luther gets it exactly right when he describes sin as “incurvatus in se” (curved in upon oneself).
So where is the good news in this somber reflection? Joyfully and gratefully, I submit, it is in the work of the In Trust Center and the seminaries that we serve. Seminaries embody the work of Christ and the Church. They give living witness to grace, to hope, to life beyond the grasp of the imperial self of postmodernity. They remind us of the gospel witness to Jesus, who “did not deem equality with God something to be clung to, but accepted, death, yes, even to death on the cross.” Seminaries remind us of our ecclesial embodiment. We are the Body of Christ, and His body requires our embodied selves to accomplish His work.
We are so inured to the Enlightenment legacy of choice, power, and control that we forget, as Stanley Hauerwas cautions, that some of the most morally charged experiences and events of our lives escape the narrow confines of the narrative of control and power. We encounter realities that elude our Promethean temptations to escape the limitations of our finitude. We discover that we are “stuck” with our family members, the surprises that unfold with the gift of every newborn child, a disagreeable relative, the diagnosis of a critical illness, our time-limited sojourn on this earth. We are “stuck” with the natural limitations of our bodies and our talents. In moments like these, we must be fortified with the virtues of patience, forgiveness, and forbearance, empowering us to live life gratefully and gracefully, and not as solitary sovereign wills mired in the illusion that we can unilaterally manage our fate.
The antidote to the corrosive individualism of Wuerker’s “Bad Samaritan” is the solidarity in grace that we have in Christ. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ last gift and testament bequeathed to us posthumously, following his death last November, is his beautiful book, titled, simply, “Morality.” Its central thesis can be summed up in one sentence. “We must move from ‘me’ to ‘we’ if we are to survive.”
Our students, faculties, and staffs, who put flesh and blood into the mission of the Church, who are living embodiments of incarnate grace are an answer to our broken world and its broken politics. The encounter with the gospel and the nurturing of the sacramental life, the service of others, practicing fidelity in season and out of season, is what gives life and what gives me hope about the work of our theological schools. Contrary to Wuerker’s “I don’t care” bad Samaritan, the In Trust Center and the seminaries it serves are about the work of forming truly Good Samaritans, those who care for others because of their love for Christ and the gospel.
And so, I read Paul’s Letter to the Philippians with new eyes and new insight mindful of the mission entrusted to us. John Calvin counsels us that “we are not our own.” Let’s pray with gratitude and take comfort and hope once again from the image of the suffering Christ, who emptied himself for us, and taught us how to do the same today. Our individual wills are only sovereign when they remain connected to Life’s Only True Sovereign.
Let us pray:
Philippians 2:6 Who, being in the form (morphe) of God, did not regard it robbery to be equal with God
7 But he emptied himself taking the form (morphe) of a slave,
being in the likeness of human beings
8 And being found in appearance (schema) as a human, he humbled himself,
Being obedient unto death, even death on a cross
9 Therefore also God highly exalted him in the highest place
And granted to him a Name that is above every Name
10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth
11 And every tongue confess that the Lord Jesus is the Christ to the glory and praise of God the Father.