The devil's greatest trick

Kevin Beckman's picture

I don't have the exact quote handy, but the eponymous Uncle Screwtape from C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters told his nephew Wormwood that demons find it great sport to have human beings knee deep in one sin while putting them on guard against the opposite sin. "The trick," he said, "is to get them running around with fire extinguishers when the ship is already halfway sunk."

The devil is conspicuous by his absence from contemporary Catholic preaching. I can't recall a single non-Traditionalist priest who has ever preached on the spiritual combat, or the reality of Satan, or the existence of hell and the possibility of going there. Some of my brothers and sisters in Christ have speculated that this is simply a morbid fascination on my part. While I readily admit that I'm far from an exemplary Catholic, I don't think this one counts among my many faults. Consider this: the "Good News" of the Gospel is the redeeming death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, this good news is unintelligible apart from the "bad news" of humanity's fall. It doesn't make any sense to speak of salvation if damnation is not possible. If we didn't fall, then we don't need to be raised up. The best description of liberal Christianity ever penned comes from Richard Niebuhr: "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross."

The saints constantly preached about the spiritual combat. St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, routinely exhorted his parishioners to reform their lives of face the possibility of eternal damnation. The saints were all human beings like us and they often spoke in strong language that would strike modern ears as being excessively harsh. But in the words of our Blessed Lord, by their fruits ye shall know them. In moving away from such timeless topics as sin, grace, salvation and damnation, what have been the fruits in the lives of modern Catholics? Less than a third go to Mass every week. Less than half believe in the Real Presence. We divorce and remarry at about the same rate as the general population. Correlation does not prove causation of course, but it does wave its arms and yell "Hey, look over here!"

Jesus did not get into specific numbers of the saved and the damned, but he did say that the road to perdition is wide and easy, and that many would tread its path. He said that we must strive to enter life by the narrow way. St. Paul said that we ought to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Now this doesn't mean we should approach God with a sense of abject fear like a slave would an abusive master. God is our father and he most assuredly loves us. But why would Jesus need to die if not to save us from eternal death? If All Dogs Go to Heaven, then what's the point of repentance, confession, penance, fasting, and discipline? If we do not amend our lives and pursue holiness then what makes us any different from social do-gooders? Is it any wonder that so few Catholics go to confession anymore?

Think back to Uncle Screwtape. If the Church's priests go to the opposite extreme within our lifetimes, that is if they preach the Cross without Christ instead of Christ without the Cross, then it would be our duty to remind people that yes, it's possible to lose the game, but if God is with us then who can stand against us? St. Francis of Assisi is reputed to have said, "Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words." I'm just an ordinary lay slob but if I may presume to add to that, "Preach the Gospel at all times, especially the parts we need to hear and not just what we like to hear."

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