The Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ is the “Good News” that our King and High Priest ordered to be preached “to every creature.” Not exclusively for one tribe, nation, or continent, it was intended to go to all the nations. As holy Simeon will tell us on Candlemas Day, Jesus is “A light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:32).
Holy Simeon’s words would have scandalized any Pharisees or Zealots within earshot, for these men hated the Gentiles and wanted to retain their monopoly on the true religion. But Simeon only reiterated what the Old Testament had stated about the Gentiles coming into the true Church, as we are reminded by the Church’s liturgy during Epiphanytide.
While our Creed is the Good News, Catholicism is not a religion of optimism or a religion of pessimism. It is a religion of conformity to reality. In fact it is the only religion that conforms our minds to reality. And this reality includes not only good, but also bad things.
There are various ways of denying the Gospel. One way would deny that it is either true or good — which sadly describes what most of humanity think of it, if they think of it at all. Another is to dilute its goodness by denying the “Bad News” that forms the necessary background to the Gospel. If all the news of our race is good, then the Gospel does not stand out. Not only would it not stand out, it would not be necessary.
But the Gospel must stand out as uniquely true, good, and beautiful — and necessary.
Among the contents of this “Bad News” that must be accepted to appreciate the Good News are the following: the Fall, Original Sin, the evil tendencies in all of us, our actual sins, the horrible religious and moral state of the pagans during the time before Christ, the unimpressive history of God’s own people in the Old Testament, and the fewness of the saved.
I will here consider only one article of this Bad News: the sad spiritual state of the pagans. Saint Paul tells his Ephesian Gentile converts, “That you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the conversation of Israel and strangers to the testament, having no hope of the promise and without God in this world” (Eph. 2:12).
Christ is truly the Light of the Gentiles, the corollary to this being that the pagans were “the people that sat in darkness” (Matt. 4:16). Their darkness was caused by the fact that they had abandoned the true religion. Every member of our race being the offspring of Adam, and also of Noe, we should all be in possession of the supernatural revelation that was given to our fathers. The Gentiles were in possession of some of it, or else the Magi (likely from Iraq) would not have understood the significance of the star that was mentioned way back in the book of Numbers (24:17). So many things confirm that the nations long possessed some more-or-less corrupted portion of that primeval revelation: the cult of sacrifice common to so many world religions, the idea of a fall, the expectation of a deliverer, the monotheism which anthropologists know antedates polytheism, the history of a cataclysmic flood, and the story of creation itself. But these truths came to be mixed with so much error, so much immorality, so much genuine diabolism, that the pristine primordial revelation was stripped of its holiness.
As an example, Saint John de Brebeuf thought that he could detect the faint remnants of our common revelation even in the decrepit religion of the American tribes whom he evangelized.
Turning from the lower culture of the American Indian to a higher and undeniably great civilization, we can consider the Greeks, who built so much of the intellectual and artistic culture of Western Man, so much of what the evangelists of Europe would build on. Even these best of pagans had a miserable religiosity. Zeus, the head of the Pantheon, was a philanderer who endangered the lives of his mortal lovers by putting them in harm’s way; for Hera, his jealous wife, might kill them or torture them with a stinging gadfly as she did to poor Io, whom Zeus turned into a cow in an unsuccessful attempt to protect her from Hera’s revenge. Apollo, the very god of wisdom himself, raped the poor mortal, Creusa (as Zeus had Leta), and left her bereft of help when she conceived his son, Ion. The gods themselves went to war, taking sides against each other when Greece and Troy fought for ten years. And the demigod, Hercules, was little more than a dumb jock, roughly on a par with the inhabitants of our modern athletic Pantheon. (Like the linebacker Jovan Belcher, who recently killed himself after murdering his girlfriend, Hercules would have committed suicide after killing his wife and children during a fit of insanity, had not his friend and much wiser fellow jock, Theseus, prevented him.)
Euripedes (480-406 BC), one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, was bold enough to announce these words to his audience: “Look at your Apollo, the sun-bright Lord of the Lyre, the pure God of Truth. This is what he did. He brutally forced a helpless young girl and then abandoned her.”
This skepticism about the received religion of Athens was echoed by Euripedes’ younger contemporary, Socrates. In Plato’s dialogue, Phaedrus, the young man, Phaedrus, asks Socrates about the story of Boreas (the god of the north wind) abducting Orithyia from the banks of the Ilissus river, where the two philosophers were walking as they conversed.
“I beseech you to tell me, Socrates, do you believe this tale?” Phaedrus asked.
“The wise are doubtful, and I should not be singular if, like them, I, too, doubted,” answered Socrates.
Socrates believed in one God, like Plato and Aristotle after him. This, by the way, is why the state killed him for being an “atheist.” He did not reject God; he rejected the gods of Olympus.
The religious condition of even the best of the Gentiles was such that the true wisdom, which the philosophers sought, would have to reject the official religion of the state. And they that pursued wisdom were few.
But what of the capacity of man’s natural reason?
Vatican I taught us about man’s unaided reason: “Our holy mother, the Church, holds and teaches that God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason.”
But hear what Pope Pius XII taught in Humani Generis, echoing the Church’s traditional wisdom on this point, so evocative of the “Bad News” we have considered here: “Though human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, who watches over and controls the world by his providence, and of the natural law written in our hearts by the Creator; yet there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty. For the truths that concern the relations between God and man wholly transcend the visible order of things, and, if they are translated into human action and influence it, they call for self-surrender and abnegation. The human mind, in its turn, is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful.”
Therefore, the Holy Father continues, man stands in need of supernatural revelation, not only in order to know about such doctrines as the Trinity and the Incarnation, but also to know “about those religious and moral truths which of themselves are not beyond the grasp of human reason, so that even in the present condition of the human race, they can be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error.”
How necessary is the Good News that has been entrusted to the Catholic Church! What a grace, what a mercy to mankind! News, as Father Feeney reminded us, is meant to be told. Let us tell it loudly and clearly by our words and by our deeds.