Dr. Alice von Hildebrand is a good friend of Catholic Answers and frequent contributor to This Rock. This story originally appeared in April 1997.
Shortly before his death, my husband said to me: "Unfortunately, I am too weak to write a book that has matured in my mind. I would have called it Hitler Won the War. Even though Hitler was militarily defeated, his ethos, his philosophy, have triumphed and have penetrated so deeply into our mentality that we no longer even notice it."
It is well-known that Hitler legalized all sorts of moral abominations—euthanasia, scientific research on fetuses, brutal disrespect for the dignity of human life, ruthless persecution of the innocent (cf. Inge Scholl, Die Weisse Rose, 69ff). What is frequently overlooked is that all of these horrors have now penetrated our own society. Some have been legalized and consequently have become not only acceptable but almost respectable: "The state government allows it, so it must be all right."
In 1945, when Nazi crimes became public knowledge, people were horrified. Today, some of the same abominations make little impression. John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote: "Now our great security against sin lies in being shocked at it" (Parochial and Plain Sermons, 5). The 20th century (which Chesterton called "the century of uncommon nonsense") turned out to be one of the bloodiest, most criminal of all centuries—and we scarcely seem to notice.
Moral abominations have been perpetrated—and always will be, so as long as man’s heart of stone has not been replaced by a heart of flesh (cf. Ez 11:19). But what is amazing about the last 40 years is that moral aberrations which in the past were loudly condemned are now publicized and espoused by the news media, officially endorsed, legalized, and thereby given the seal of respectability.
From "Abomination" to "Right"
When in 1969 Dr. Bernard Nathanson started to lobby for the legalization of abortion, most people turned against him in horror and dismay. Four years later, after he had used (as he himself tells us) every possible devious means to control the media, abortion was not only legalized, but considered to be a "right."
Murderers get used to murdering, becoming so accustomed to it that they often fail to realize that it is murder, just as butchers get used to cutting animals to pieces. Today, the killing of an innocent unborn child has become a "right." In order to guarantee this "right" with a good conscience, it was necessary to convince the public that an unborn baby is not a human being, but just a glob of tissue in the female womb, an undesirable intruder that can be rightfully expelled. What everybody knew to be a crime—the murdering of an innocent human being—is now seen as a legitimate self-protection to which every woman should be entitled.
Cardinal Newman seemed to have had an inkling of the gravity of this disease. He wrote: "When we trifle with this warning, our reason becomes perverted, and comes in aid of our wishes, and deceives us to our ruin. Then we begin to find, that there are arguments available in behalf of bad deeds, and we listen to these till we come to think them true" (Parochial and Plain Sermons, 5).
Man is a free being. For this reason, he has the "freedom" to commit crimes. But to claim that he is entitled to do so is to open the Pandora’s box of radical immorality. It is bad enough when a person commits a hideous deed, knowing it to be wicked, but doing it because it strikes him as essential to his immediate benefit is infinitely worse.
It is easy to foresee how the legalization of abortion will inevitably lead to the legalization of other crimes—for example, euthanasia—and how this in turn will threaten a total collapse of public morality.Today we accept abortion as a matter of course. Soon, we shall "get used" to euthanasia and to the murder of the severely handicapped and of infants who happen to be an unwelcome burden to their parents. We utter cries of horror when a mother in South Carolina drowns her two little boys. Had she aborted them shortly before their birth, society would have accepted this moral abomination as her right, and she would have remained a "respectable" citizen. If we continue on this downhill slope of immorality, it will not take long until we find valid reasons for justifying the abominable action of Susan Smith. After all, these children seemed to stand in the way of her "self-fulfillment."
Some people are born physically blind. It is not their fault. Unfortunately, some choose to become morally blind and succeed so well that, when they claim that they see "nothing wrong" about removing "tissues" from a woman’s uterus, they feel themselves to be perfectly "honest." Recall the words of Isaiah: "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness . . . woe to those who are wise in their own eyes" (Is 5:20-21).
Prepare the Millstones
In Orthodoxy Chesterton wrote, "For any man who loves children will agree that their peculiar beauty is hurt by a hint of physical sex" (ch. 9). What would he say today about the scandalous sex education programs taught in many Catholic schools, in which small children are taught about artificial methods of birth control, as well as about various sexual perversions?
Our moral blindness has reached such a point that not only do we constantly refer to physical sex in newspapers, magazines, advertisements, and movies that every child can see, but some Catholic parents irresponsibly endorse certain sex education courses (often approved by the local bishop) which teach innocent children things which should make us blush with shame—facts which most of us, of the older generation, never even knew about when we were young because it is unnecessary and bound to destroy the child’s innocence. When a young boy of eight, watching a tennis tournament, turns to me and says, "Do you know that she (referring to one of the players) is a lesbian?" it must make the angels cry. When grammar-school children are taught the standard forms of artificial birth control and various forms of sexual perversions, we ought to wake up to the fact that evil is now presented as perfectly acceptable—no, respectable. For the child, his parents and teachers are authorities, and he will accept as "perfectly all right" sex information sponsored by his teachers, in programs financed by the school that teach the children "the facts of life" and invite them to "experiment." Children love to try things out. These little ones are too young to carry the weight of this "scientific" information.
Moreover, they are taught to be "tolerant" toward "other lifestyles," and perversions are put on the same level as differences of race and color. To be black, white, or yellow is not a moral question. It is morally irrelevant, and this is why racial prejudices are both stupid and immoral. But homosexual activity is morally relevant indeed (both Plato and St. Paul condemned these practices in the strongest possible terms, and the gentle St. Francis de Sales echoed their views when he refers to this sin as "the most detestable disorder that human flesh can commit" [Treatise on the Love of God, 11:11]). We are reminded of the words of Jeremiah: "They do not know how to blush" (6:15, 8:12).
The situation is so grave because we have become anaesthetized by the media and live in a state of total moral somnolence. We are now so used to abominable practices that they no longer scandalize us. Yet Christ said, "Woe to those who scandalize one of these little ones; it would be better for him to have a millstone put around his neck" (Mt 18:6).
One of the greatest moral dangers threatening us today is that all of us, constantly exposed to the horrors shown on our television screens and the artful propaganda of "liberal" views, have become morally blunt and blind. Assisted suicide, scientific research on fetuses, and the abortion of millions of helpless infants are accepted as a matter of course. Now that a democratically elected U.S. president [William Jefferson Clinton], abetted by his wife [Hillary Rodham Clinton], officially defends the right of a woman "to control her reproductive organs"—that is to say, makes the murder of an innocent child a "right"—and proclaims that he will veto any bill prohibiting partial birth abortions, we should realize that we have hit the rock bottom of moral decadence. The greatest political authority in the U.S. proclaims that a crime is a right.
Individuals in any given society will commit crimes. But the moment that a state legalizes crimes and lobbies for the subvention of these crimes by the state, we have, humanly speaking, reached the point of no return. God alone can save people who have strayed so far from his laws.
This is precisely what happened in Germany when Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933. He too legalized crimes of all sorts. Because the state is a powerful institution and enjoys a de facto respectability, the danger of accepting its views becomes immense. "It requires courage, both moral and mental, to believe the whole of a grand nation in the wrong" (P. Gueranger, Liturgical Year, 8:218).
There is a great danger that those who at first reject these abominations with horror will after a while replace horror with regret, which will degenerate into tolerance, then acceptance, leading to total callousness and indifference. Once this stage is reached—the acceptance of the legalization of crimes—the fabric of the state is threatened. The state should stand for justice. Once it condones the most crying injustice, it has sapped the foundation of its authority. The worm of immorality has eaten so deeply into the apple that it is now rotten to the core and, humanly speaking, it cannot survive.
Our society is afflicted by the terrible disease of moral blindness. The physically blind person knows, at least, that he is handicapped. The morally blind person accuses those who see of being fanatics. The great Blaise Pascal raised the question, "Why is it that, when I see a limping man, I feel sorry for his plight? But when I meet a limping mind, I am irritated beyond words?" His answer testifies to his genius: "Because the limping man knows he is limping; the limping mind accuses me of limping." The pro-abortionist and the abortionist have "limping minds," yet they accuse those who understand the rights of the unborn as limping.
This is the situation we face today. In this respect we can say that Hitler has won the war in the Western world.
Good and Bad Habits
Habit can be a great friend to us. It can facilitate the daily tasks we have to perform, rendering easy what, at first, is arduous and difficult.
How clumsy is a person sitting for the first time in front of a computer! A letter would take hours to type if the typist had to think of the location of every key on the keyboard. Most of our daily activities are made easy by habit. To perform an action repeatedly creates in us a sort of automatism that enables us to do it with ease and speed.
Habit also enables us to perform our workaday duties with a minimum of attention, liberating our minds for better and more important things. We get dressed in the morning by habit. We lock our front door by habit. We turn off our headlights by habit, and so on.
Habit is likewise valuable when we have to deal with things which are difficult or unpleasant, but which we get used to because they have been our fate for a long time: a hard bed, little space, little money, a bare minimum of sleep. For Americans to share a kitchen with two, three, or four other families would constitute a serious hardship. For people living in Eastern Europe, however, these conditions—although trying—are "normal," and they have found ways of adapting themselves to this trial. Habit can even ease the adversity of a serious physical handicap. Not long ago, The New York Times published an article about a man, born with only one hand, who entered the Jesuit order as a lay brother and became an expert baker. He trained himself masterfully to do with one hand what others cannot do except with two: He compensated for his handicap. We all know people whose mobility is seriously impaired, and yet we marvel at the way they drive cars and manage without help.
There are domains, however, in which habit can have devastating effects. This becomes evident when we recall that things done by habit are performed with a minimum of consciousness. It should be obvious that all truly important things call for our full attention. Two are particularly worthy of mention—great positive gifts that God grants us and, in the opposite direction, horrible crimes, abominations, and perversions. To get used to God’s gifts means that we no longer appreciate them and are threatened by the serious sin of ingratitude; to get used to grave immoralities means that we have become morally blind.
It is one of the sad tendencies of our fallen nature that we often fail to appreciate properly the great gifts we have received because we get used to having them. How many people thank God daily for the gift of faith? How many go down on their knees for being given the opportunity to assist at the sacrifice of the Mass? If they were persecuted and had to risk their lives to do so, how deeply would they appreciate the unfathomable privilege granted to them? How many happily married people take this unique gift for granted? How many people never thank God for their marvelous health, for their eyesight, for their talents?
A Catholic who, through grace, has shaken himself from the torpor which is a consequence of original sin has no difficulty understanding the words of Paul: "Rejoice, I tell you again, rejoice" (Phil 4:4); for even though he lives in a vale of tears, the Christian knows that he is redeemed through the blood of Christ and that, if he collaborates with his grace, he can hope to reach eternal union with God. This is why Francis of Assisi walked singing through the Umbrian hills. In spite of the tragedies that are the warp and woof of our earthly life, God’s creation is rich in value. Truth, beauty, and goodness shed luminous rays on this world of sin in spite of the threatening darkness of the sky. Against this background, the words of Paul calling us to gratitude (Col 3:15) gain their full significance. Whether joyful or in tears, the Christian’s constant theme is gratitude.
The great paradox of Christian life consists in this: No true Christian can be humanly optimistic; he knows that without the help of grace his fallen nature is capable of every kind of betrayal, every meanness, every crime. But he also knows that Christ has saved men and that all we need do is stretch out our hand and beg for his help. The Christian is clear-sighted and knows that the devil is lurking, "seeking whom he can devour" (1 Pt 5:8), but he also knows that he has been redeemed by Christ and can therefore at all times say with Paul: " Gaudete, iterum dico vobis, gaudete" (Phil 4:4).
It is our daily task to shake ourselves out of our lethargy for fear that we might get used to great gifts, fail to appreciate them, and no longer give them the proper response of gratitude that they call for. We should never get used to a sunrise, a sunset, the majestic beauty of a star-studded sky or of the ocean, friendship, love, marriage—the innumerable gifts that God has placed on our path. The fact that we know every note of a great piece of music, far from having a blunting effect on our appreciation, should, on the contrary, deepen it. We can apply to great values the words of Augustine: " Tantum notiores, tantum cariores" (the better known, the dearer). Never should we allow the dulling force of habit to take over and render flat our perception of great things.
This applies above all to the holy sacrifice of the Mass. How dreadful it would be if daily communicants fell into the trap of habit and no longer appreciated the unfathomable gift granted to them in this renewal of the sacrifice of Calvary. How awful it would be to go to daily Mass as a matter of routine.
Kierkegaard perceived the threat that habit can be to our spiritual life. He wrote, "Even that which in itself is arousing, such as thoughts, reflections, ideas, can by custom and monotony lose all their significance . . . It is for this cause we go into the house of God, to be awakened out of sleep and to be riven away from enchantments" (Christian Discourses, 173). He considered the danger to be so great that he wrote further, "Let the thunder of a hundred cannons remind you three times daily to resist the force of habit" (Works of Love, 37). And the obvious conclusion is, "To what is said of eternal life, that there is no sighing and no tears, one can add: there is no habit" (Works of Love).
Important as it is that we never let ourselves become used to God’s great positive gifts, it is equally important that we be on our guard lest we get used to the moral evils that abound in our midst. Tragically, most people do not even notice the terrible change that has crept into our mentality. We are getting used to horrible crimes, abominations, desecrations, blasphemies.