Watch out for the idols


By Frank Wessling

The discovery of a child molester on the football coaching staff at Penn State University offered, among other things, an illustration of how easily idols can split us from our full humanity. Some of the students there rioted, not in rage over what a former assistant coach had done to several boys, but because the school’s trustees fired the beloved head coach, Joe Paterno.

Paterno is a proven winner with football teams, and fans — remember, that little word comes from fanatic, someone in the grip of unreasoning emotion — want to forgive anything for a win. Pushed aside is the fact that this winner knew someone on his staff was sodomizing young boys and did not report it as a crime.

We tend to think of lying, stealing and selfish sexual behavior as the most common violations of the Ten Commandments. But the first of those 10 is key to respect for the rest and is, thus, the one most ignored: God is one; desire this unity, this communion, this satisfaction, this fulfillment. All other desire is partial and false as the human purpose.

When we stop seeking the one God and put too much of our energy into lesser gods, like a Big Ten championship, we are on a path to lesser goods, not the greatest good.


The same pattern shows up in the way so many people become caught up in attachment to a political party or ideology. Catholics attracted to the Democratic Party know what tension exists between their affiliation to the Church and that party. It is in captivity to an ideology of easy abortion.

But Catholic Democrats may be better off, in a way, than the Republicans who share a church pew with them. At least the Democrats are fully aware that they tread dangerous ground: it’s thrown in their faces all the time. With Catholic Republicans the danger of idolatry is not as clear. A note of clarity came from the Vatican late last month.

The pope’s Council for Justice and Peace issued a document critical of the way free market ideology contributes to “inequalities and distortions” in human development around the world. The document’s ponderous title — “Toward Reforming the International and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority” — is enough to alarm Republicans.

The council document is unsettling, to say the least, for anyone enamored of the individualist, anti-regulation, anti-tax, jingoistic nationalism that rides high in the current Republican Party. Some Catholic commentators usually referred to as “conservative” have noted the difficulty they face and dismissed the document as unknowing and unimportant blather from an obscure office far from the pope.

This won’t do, though, as it won’t do for Catholic Democrats to dismiss the emphasis Catholic teaching places on abortion as a violation of God’s call. What the Council for Justice and Peace did was bring together at this moment themes in Catholic social teaching that have been there for decades as enunciated by the Second Vatican Council, international synods of bishops, nearly all popes of the 20th century and Pope Benedict XVI, and our own American bishops in their 1986 pastoral letter, “Economic Justice for All.”

It was Pope John Paul II who used the phrase “idolatry of the market” in 1991 as he warned the Western democracies against smugness after communism collapsed. Today the reason for that warning is evident in the global pain and danger from years of unregulated greed in financial markets.

Idols come in all disguises and none of us is immune to seduction in whatever ways we become excited. Sports and politics are only two of the ways. To stay balanced and on course in life let’s keep in mind the First Commandment as given by Moses and its fuller exposition in the life of Jesus.

And you can read the recent Vatican document online at Rest assured that the pope knew all about it and approved. It is not a marginal bit of Catholic teaching.

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