|Coat of Arms|
In culture of confusion, Church the only reliable guide
The short story, “The Lottery,” is set on a summer day in a small town in 1940s America. The people are assembling for a very old annual ritual. The ritual has something to do with imploring a good corn harvest—but there’s no mention of any God, and no clergy anywhere in the picture.
Each person in the village lines up to draw a slip of paper from an old wooden box. Tessie Hutchinson, a young wife and mother, draws a slip with a black mark. From that moment, the story moves quickly to its conclusion. The lottery official gives the word, and the villagers move in on Tessie. And they stone her to death.
“The Lottery” is one of the most widely read stories ever published in the United States. And for good reason. It’s well told. The ending leaves the reader breathless. Teachers like it because it provokes sharp classroom discussions. Or at least it used to.
A few years ago, a college writing professor, Kay Haugaard, wrote an essay about her experiences teaching “The Lottery” over a period of about two decades. She said that in the early 1970s, students who read the story voiced shock and indignation. The tale led to vivid conversations on big topics—the meaning of sacrifice and tradition; the dangers of group-think and blind allegiance to leaders; the demands of conscience and the consequences of cowardice.
Sometime in the mid-1990s, however, reactions began to change.
Haugaard described one classroom discussion that—to me—was more disturbing than the story itself. The students had nothing to say except that the story bored them. So Haugaard asked them what they thought about the villagers ritually sacrificing one of their own for the sake of the harvest.
One student, speaking in quite reasonable tones, argued that many cultures have traditions of human sacrifice. Another said that the stoning might have been part of “a religion of long standing,” and therefore acceptable and understandable. An older student who worked as a nurse, also weighed in. She said that her hospital had made her take training in multicultural sensitivity. The lesson she learned was this: “If it’s a part of a person’s culture, we are taught not to judge.”
Haugaard’s experience with “The Lottery” is worth some serious thought. Our culture is doing catechesis every day. It works like water dripping on a stone, eroding people’s moral and religious sensibilities, and leaving a hole where their convictions used to be.
As Haugaard saw firsthand, it took less than a generation for this catechesis to produce a group of young adults who were unable to take a moral stand against the ritual murder of a young woman. Not because they were cowards; but because they had lost their moral vocabulary.
Haugaard’s students seemingly grew up in a culture shaped by moral ambiguity. In other words, they grew up in an environment that teaches, in many different ways, that good and evil can’t exist in any absolute sense.
This is the culture we now live in, and the catechesis is on-going. But I don’t think this new kind of barbarism—because that’s what it is; a form of barbarism—is an inevitable process. It’s not easy to de-moralize and strip a society of its religious sense.
Accomplishing the task requires two key factors: First, it takes the aggressive, organized efforts of individuals and groups committed to undermining faith and historic Christian values. Second, it takes the indifference of Christian believers like you and me.
Sixty years ago, when Shirley Jackson wrote “The Lottery,” she could count on her readers knowing what right and wrong were. She lived in a culture that reflected a broadly Christian consensus about virtue and moral integrity. That’s no longer the case. The culture we live in today proselytizes for a very different consensus—one based on political and moral agendas vigorously hostile to Christian beliefs.
In a culture of confusion, the Church is our only reliable guide. It’s never been more urgent for us to preach and teach our Catholic beliefs with passion. So let’s ask God to make us brave enough and humble enough to follow our faith to its radical conclusions.
This week’s column is condensed and adapted from the archbishop’s Oct. 15 remarks to a Diocese of Victoria, B.C., catechetical congress. To read the full text of this and other addresses given during this congress, click the following link: http://www.archden.org/index.cfm/ID/278/Addresses/.
Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M., Cap. is the Archbishop of Denver. To read more from Archbishop Chaput, click here.
Thursday, Oct. 21:
Friday, Oct. 22: Colorado Catholic Conference board of governors meeting, Colorado Springs (10 a.m.);
St. Joseph Bakhita Award Dinner (6 p.m.)
Saturday, Oct. 23:
Sunday, Oct. 24:
Mass, Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (6:30 p.m.)
Monday, Oct. 25: Archdiocesan Finance Council (8:30 a.m.);
U.S. Air Force Academy Talk, Colorado Springs (6:30 p.m.)
Tuesday, Oct. 26: Candlelight Mass for Vocations and St. Andrew Dinner, Boulder (6 p.m.)