The 1986 film “The Mission,” rated by none other than the Vatican as one of the great Catholic films of all time, is a story of sin and repentance — and therefore grace — set against the geopolitics of 18th-century South America.
The Spanish-Jesuit missions have brought Christ and peace to the indigenous Guaraní people, but a cardinal has been dispatched from Rome to manage the orderly transfer of the mission lands to Portugal, which sees the Guaraní as good for nothing but slave labor.
After a bloody clash in the jungle highlands as colonial forces evict the Jesuits and their charges, the cardinal is crestfallen.
He accosts the Portuguese legate: “And you have the effrontery to tell me this slaughter was justified?” The secular authority responds coolly: “We must work in the world, Your Eminence. The world is thus.” The cardinal shoots him an angry glance before uttering one of my favorite lines in film: “No, Señor Hontar. Thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it.”
How many times have we been assured that some enormity was a necessary response to the reality of a fallen world? Torture. Abortion. Nuclear devastation. Brutalization of immigrants. Starvation wages and cruel labor practices.
All of these have been defended, sometimes even by Catholics, as regrettable but obligatory choices in the face of unpleasant realities, whether the unavoidable cruelty of war or the unalterable demands of the marketplace.
And then those who stand up and say, “No, we don’t have to incinerate civilians to achieve a strategic goal; no, we don’t have to permit the destruction of the unborn even though pregnancy can be emotionally and socially traumatic; no, we don’t have to treat workers like disposable economic inputs just because our economic theory treats them as such; no, we don’t have to do evil that good may come.”
Those people are scoffed at as naive idealists utterly unsuited to the grown-up business of political decision-making.
But the world where these personal and social sins seem necessary is not an unchangeable fact, and certainly not the world God made for us or intends for us to live in.
This is the world we made: the world of sin, the world of going it alone, the world where Christ’s grace and peace are spurned. The idea that we can make the world safe for that grace and peace by sinning against them is neither realistic nor reasonable.
Too often we think of the claims of the Church as “just our thing.” We might feel comfortable bringing certain aspects of our Christ-informed worldview into public — maybe a few key moral teachings inform our votes or our business practices or our friendships — but other essential parts of our Catholic faith we file away as private, parochial, sectarian.
Primary among these teachings that have been quietly put aside is the reality of grace, and especially sacramental grace.
In an often subconscious bid to be socially and politically relevant, even many of those Catholics who rail against secularism have trained themselves to accept basically the secular understanding not just of the public square, but of the very reality of humanity and our relationship with creation.
We think that political and economic “realism” can only describe a lowest common denominator worldview. The problem? It’s an idea that amounts, in practice, to a denial of essential spiritual realities.
We stress the fall of Adam and Eve when it’s convenient to give cover for some lesser-of-two-evils-but-still-evil policy, but we ignore the restorative power of grace to transform our world into one where no sin ever appears obligatory.
But grace is real, and any “realism” that denies its power is not only incomplete, but dangerously misguided.
Grace gives us the confidence to press forward in Christian joy and love when the path of purity seems impractical and even dangerous in worldly, materialist terms. Grace makes the justice that seems impossible — economic justice, racial justice, migrant justice, authentic reproductive justice for the unborn and their mothers — credible, desirable, and achievable.
I can almost feel on my face and in my heart the heavy sighs of readers and commentators. This talk of grace as a social force is all well and good in a theology classroom or maybe in seminary training, you might think, but this is the real world we’re talking about.
Of course, we all believe in the transforming power of grace. That’s why we pray, why we go to Mass, why we wait in line for the confessional. The love of God we demonstrate and cultivate in prayer and the sacramental life is inspired and cultivated by grace: We understand that.
But — but! — to think of grace as essential to society, to apply the sacraments corporately rather than just personally — that just can’t work in our modern, liberal, secular order.
Here I’d like to suggest, along with the cardinal from “The Mission,” that the problem is with us and the world we’ve built, not with Church teaching or the efficacy of God’s ineffable and inexhaustible gift of grace.
The healing and perfecting power of grace doesn’t end with the individual or even with those who believe in it: Grace is communicable, transferable, or, as the online generation would say, viral.
The confessional, for instance, is not just a place of personal healing, but a wellspring of reconciliation for the entire parish and wider community.
When our relationship with Christ is healed, we are then empowered to radiate that grace into our earthly relationships, healing and, God-willing, elevating them to higher planes of communion. We can recognize in a way we didn’t before what we have in common — not necessarily hobbies or interests, but our kinship in Christ and our eternal destiny.
The result is peace. Grace brings peace. Indeed, peace — not just the absence of conflict but the presence of harmony — is only possible with grace. The best that the “realism” of pundits and politicians can manage is barely sublimated perpetual conflict, roiling beneath the surface of an uneasy and often aggressively enforced truce.
And, it’s true, that might be the best we can do on our own, but we aren’t on our own. Any view of politics that fails to recognize the deeper reality of God’s presence and love and grace has missed the entire point of organizing a common life: the common good.
We must not let a myopic “realism” limit our vision of what is laudable and even achievable in politics and economics and statecraft. While we may be living in an era where grace is widely and sometimes quite intentionally spurned, and while we should be conscious of what may or may not be immediately feasible in such an era, we cannot acquiesce to the graceless view of organizing our common life.
We must not permit ourselves to override our consciences and the moral law because we can’t imagine the world as God imagines it — full of peace, full of grace. That’s how God made the world to be. What we see all around us? Thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it.
Brandon McGinley writes about faith, culture, and politics from his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He works as editor of EWTN Publishing, Inc., a book publishing collaboration between the global Catholic media network and Sophia Institute Press.
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