This week, I was called upon to exercise my civic duty and present myself at the federal court for jury selection. While I was there, a woman said what many seemed to feel: “Democracy is about choice. I should get to choose if I want to be called for jury duty or not.” Now, I grumbled with all the rest about being expected to wake up early, drive downtown, and leave my life behind to sit all day in a court room. Her words, however, did not sit right with me. I know enough about the foundation of our country to realize that this kind of “democracy” was a far cry from what the founders had in mind. I also know enough about our culture to know how innocuous, and even commendable they sound to ears accustomed to modern American rhetoric. Americans have become obsessed with choice, and anything that requires the submission of the will to another is viewed with suspicion and even disgust.
We have come to the point in American culture where the ability to choose, regardless of the effect on our own or others physical, spiritual, and emotional health, is seen as a sacred right. How often we hear “just do it,” “it’s my choice,” “do what makes you happy,” “march to the beat of your own drum,” and other such platitudes? Even soda machines trumpet 140 flavor options. But a glut of options does not guarantee happiness or health. They may simply be 140 ways to fill your body with high fructose corn syrup and empty calories, for example. The love of choice extends into American religion as well. If one does not like the music, preaching, people, or doctrines at a particular church, they simply find a new one that speaks to them. The individual, the ultimate arbiter or, at least, interpreter of truth chooses the teachings that align with their own.
This fascination with choice is natural to the human condition. Even my three-year-old loves to list the choices of what he can have for breakfast or which movie he can watch. Free will is a gift from God, something that sets us apart from animals driven by instinct. Without free will, we are little more than pawns in a cosmic game. In fact, Catholicism celebrates our ability to choose to participate in our own salvation — to work with God. We make a choice to baptize our children and raise them in the faith, and they themselves choose again that faith at confirmation. Yet, choice in itself is not seen as a positive good, something to be pursued for its own sake.
When those who do love choice for choice’s sake come into contact with Catholicism, they simply cannot imagine what would possess someone to give up their autonomy of choice to the Church’s authority. The difference is particularly stark during the season of Lent. When the world says, “it’s my body,” the Church says “Fast, abstain, be chaste, and respect the temple of God.” When the world says, “It’s my time,” the Church says, “Attend mass when required, confess your sins often, give to the Church and the poor, and spend time each day in prayer.” The Church insists on helping her members get to heaven, by making good choices a requirement and labeling bad choices what they truly are — sins.
On matters of faith and morals, members of the Catholic Church cannot simply decide what to believe. Despite what so-called “cafeteria Catholics” feel, Catholics are not allowed to pick and choose from the doctrines of the Church. They cannot make the Church into a democracy that will change with times. The Catholic submits not only his soul and his body, but also his mind to the Church. It baffles outsiders that extremely intelligent people could forfeit their choice in this way. But those who accept the Church as the vehicle of God’s truth on Earth, guided by the Holy Spirit, and entrusted with the salvation of men, have already made their decision. As St. Peter said, “Lord, to whom else should we go? You have to words of eternal life.”
To those who belong to the cult of choice, Catholicism seems stuffy and stifling. The narrow road doesn’t attract many who want to go their own way. Yet, to those who have experienced the freedom of following Christ in His Church, the possibilities for loving and serving the Lord are as many and varied as the saints in Heaven. In sacrificing our ego, our desire to control our lives and decide our own right and wrong, we discover the joy of choosing Christ daily.