Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
In his Historia Anglorum, the 12th century English chronicler Henry of Huntingdon handed down the oft-repeated story of King Canute, the legendary Viking leader and 11th century King of England. Like individuals in authority in any age, he was continually being fawned over by those currying his favor. They praised him as the greatest monarch who had ever ruled. They extolled him as the mightiest man ever. They claimed that no one or anything would refuse to obey him. A man of common sense, he decided to expose the foolishness of their flattery.
One day, King Canute took his leading men and courtiers down to the sea. He ordered his chair to be placed at the edge of the water. There he sat and commanded the waves not to break upon the land or touch his clothing. But the sea did not obey. It crashed against the shore, disrespectfully drenching the very person of the king.
Jumping up, Canute exclaimed, “Let the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless. There is no king worthy of the name save him by whose will heaven, earth and sea obey eternal laws.” Before the Almighty God, every creature in the universe is feeble. In God alone is all power. With a simple nod, he can level the towering pride and ambitions of any people, nation or person.
No one can tame the tide. The tide rises and falls. It ebbs and flows. In the same way, time itself follows its own inexorable law. The seconds fly, the minutes move and the hours pass. Time has its own course that cannot be stopped by human ingenuity. In his Prologue to the Clerk's Tale, Chaucer enshrined this truth in the proverb “Time and tide wait for no man.”
For thousands of years, people have been keeping track of the passing of time. Ancient Egyptians used sun dials; the Greeks, water clocks. The Chinese employed a candle clock; the Tibetans, the time stick. In the 16th century, Peter Henlein, a master locksmith of Nuremberg, began manufacturing the ever popular pocket watches. Today, atomic clocks mark the ticking away of time with greater accuracy than any previous timekeeping device. In fact, the caesium atomic clock will only be off by 1 second in about 30 million years. With greater and greater precision, we can measure time; but, we remain powerless to stop it.
The 16th century German theologian Caspar Huberinus coined the Latin proverb Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis, (Times change, and we change with them) to express the effects of the relentless march of time on us. With the passing of the years, very little remains the same. We either improve or worsen our situation. History teaches us that nothing stays the same.
One hundred and sixty years ago, we kept human beings as slaves in this country. Not today. Eighty years ago, children were working for low wages in factories in unsafe conditions. Not today. And, as recently as fifty-two years ago, public schools in parts of our country were segregated. But, this has ended. Thus, within the lifetime of our parents and grandparents, there have been some very good changes. And, we have changed, becoming less prejudiced and more concerned for the rights of even the youngest among us.
But, with the passing of years, not all change has been for the better. Some Americans have become more accepting of sex outside of marriage, abortion, scientific experimentation on human life, the breakdown of the family structure, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. The times have changed and so have the morals of those who now accept these behaviors once universally judged wrong.
A recent poll shows that 76 percent of Americans say that our values have declined. In a word, they believe that, with the passing of time, we are getting worse, not better. Respect for all human life from conception to natural death, the sanctity of marriage as a union of a man and a woman and the dignity of every human person, including the disabled, the terminally ill and the elderly, are basic human values that should be upheld in any age.
Today’s decline in moral values is happening at the very same time that more and more Americans are moving away from the regular practice of religion. A recent study by the Pew Research Center has noted an alarming decline in church affiliation. In the 1950s, more than 90 percent of adults identified themselves as Christian. Today, 75 percent identify themselves as Christian, while 20 percent are not connected with any church.
In Europe, before the Renaissance, Christianity influenced every sphere of life. Religion provided a standard moral code to guide education, medicine, business and culture. But, with the rise of humanism, a religion-based morality was replaced by a reason-based morality. As a result, people’s moral judgments began to differ, depending on how they reasoned to what is right and what is wrong. Leaving individuals to decide on their own the standard of right and wrong eventually leads to social chaos. As Dostoevsky once said, “Without religion, everything is allowed.”
In Christ, who is “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, Beginning and End” (Rv 22:13), God has given us the truth to follow and the strength to make those morally right choices that benefit all. In a time when public opinion has turned against religion in many ways, we cannot simply impose our faith and our morality on others. But, we can live it consistently, publically and joyfully.
This witness, this “joyful certainty of those who have been found, touched and transformed by the Truth who is Christ, ever to be proclaimed,” can move others to recognize the irreplaceable benefit of religion to society (Pope Francis, Homily, World Youth Day, July 27, 2013). Time and tide wait for no man. But the Lord is waiting for us to be the salt that preserves society from corruption and the leaven that transforms society for the better.