May 2021 Print

Restoring the Broken Ladder of High Designs

By Robert Morrison

In his Life Everlasting, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange recalls the words of two saints to illustrate a point about the virtue of humility. From St. Augustine we have:

“There is no fault committed by another man of which we ourselves are not capable if we were placed in the same circumstances and surrounded by the same evil examples from the time of our youth.”

And St. Francis expressed a similar idea about a criminal who was being led to execution:

“If this man had received the same grace as I have received, he would have been less faithless than I. If the Lord had permitted in my life the faults which He permitted in this man’s life, I would be in his place today.”

These reflections naturally inspire humility and gratitude to God for all that He has given us. They should also remind us that “unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required” (Luke 12:48). The two saints considered both the graces they have received and the extent to which they accepted those graces to pursue virtue and avoid sin. In their humility, they realized they are nothing of themselves, relying upon God’s grace for everything.

These thoughts of St. Augustine and St. Francis are thus important for us to consider in our own pursuit of virtue, but they also have bearing on how we view and treat those who have found themselves in less favorable circumstances. When this inspires us to perform spiritual and corporal works of mercy, we improve the circumstances of those in need and grow in grace and virtue. Conversely, we can easily fall into the sin of the Pharisee judging the Publican when we forget that we will not know what graces others have received until the General Judgment—perhaps there are people we perceive as great sinners who make better use of grace than we do.

The Church itself has always had a role in fostering the conditions in society that promote virtue. Just as a doctor who treats diseases but also helps his patients avoid them, the Catholic Church welcomes sinners but also attempts to improve their circumstances before they become a breeding ground for vice. The Church teaches that the ultimate end of man is to glorify God and attain salvation, but it does not neglect the material aspects of our lives. Through missionary work, schools, churches, and hospitals, the Church establishes the spiritual and material means by which grace can flow most effectively to souls.

As important as the Church is in developing and sustaining the conditions for virtuous life, secular government establishes the legal frameworks that, in various ways, incentivize or discourage virtue and vice. Even when there is separation of Church and state, society can promote virtue and curb vice (which often becomes crime) by ensuring its laws are consistent with natural law and respecting traditional family life. However, in varying degrees, today’s “enlightened” societies reject natural law and the Catholic beliefs about the purpose of our lives on earth as well as what constitutes virtue and vice.

So the Catholic Church (as distinct from its false shepherds) and modern societies are in opposition over the most fundamental beliefs about human nature. In many purely secular matters, people and organizations may arrive at satisfactory outcomes despite fundamentally different viewpoints. This is generally not the case, though, when dealing with matters of morality, for God has set the laws of human nature and we cannot change them. As society drifts away from God, its laws and customs deviate more and more from natural law. Man, instead of God, effectively becomes the supreme legislator.

The rejection of God sets in motion a tragic cycle as society still must address the circumstances that lead to crime even though it cannot make a proper diagnosis. So, for instance, society has long created conditions, such as the ease of obtaining a divorce, that attack families. With broken families comes an increase in crime. Incarceration of parents further disrupts families, worsening the circumstances that give rise to crime. Unwilling to do anything but exacerbate the circumstances that lead to crime, a godless society must excuse the crime or blame someone else for it. Not surprisingly, misidentifying the crime and the culprit creates circumstances that lead to more crime.

Pope Leo XIII described our current situation in Libertas Praestantissimum:

“For, once ascribe to human reason the only authority to decide what is true and what is good, and the real distinction between good and evil is destroyed; honor and dishonor differ not in their nature, but in the opinion and judgment of each one; pleasure is the measure of what is lawful; and, given a code of morality which can have little or no power to restrain or quiet the unruly propensities of man, a way is naturally opened to universal corruption. With reference also to public affairs: authority is severed from the true and natural principle whence it derives all its efficacy for the common good; and the law determining what it is right to do and avoid doing is at the mercy of a majority. Now, this is simply a road leading straight to tyranny.”


Yes, the universal corruption and road to tyranny we see now has its roots in the liberal principles that Pope Leo XIII saw so well in 1888. But Pope Leo XIII traced the deepest roots to man’s fallen nature: “Man, indeed, is free to obey his reason, to seek moral good, and to strive unswervingly after his last end. Yet he is free also to turn aside to all other things; and, in pursuing the empty semblance of good, to disturb rightful order and to fall headlong into the destruction which he has voluntarily chosen.”

Society rarely chooses this destruction all at once, rather falling by degrees through the progressive rejection of God’s grace. Each step of the way leads to a further disruption of proper order, which brings odious fruits that should alert society to the fact that it has chosen the wrong path.

One of the great dramatic representations of the inversion of order in its various forms comes from Ulysses in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida:

“Oh, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder of all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogeneity, and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, scepters, laurels,
But by degree stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows. Each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy. The bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe;
Strength should be the lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead;
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey
And last eat up himself.”
(Act 1, Scene 3, lines 101-124)

What we have failed to learn through the wisdom of the Church, or even Shakespeare, we now must learn through painful experience. The process of completely overturning order in society has been slow, but it is nearly complete. Strength is now the lord of imbecility, and it seems that society no longer understands the concepts of right, wrong, and justice. By rejecting the ultimate ladder of high designs—advancing in Christian virtue to the Beatific Vision—modern man has now lost the ladder of even the most mundane designs.

And yet, all is not lost. There is the grace of which St. Francis spoke, which God still provides in abundance to those who seek Him. If our circumstances are now dire, or will become so, we can honor God so much the more if we strive to avoid sin and cultivate virtue.

In a certain sense, we may even be blessed to find that the current deterioration of society affords propitious circumstances for restoring virtue, at least on a small scale. Many people who have not previously embraced the truth now sense that they must repent and turn to God. Moreover, the wisdom and merit of true Catholic teaching shines forth more brightly at precisely the time that all that once drew souls away from the Church is revealed as empty. By remaining faithful to what the Church has always taught and professing it unflinchingly, we can show those who still have eyes to see that our Faith is the ultimate ladder of all high designs.