Our Idols and Ourselves
Elizabeth Scalia unmasks the false gods of everyday life.


Kathryn Jean Lopez


LOPEZ: You assert: “Nothing grows in no.” Isn’t Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, one big no?

SCALIA: The whole world was created on the intentional “yes” of God. Had he not said “yes,” nothing would have been created. It’s that lovely opening to John’s Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.

I’m always struck by that: “Without him, nothing came to be.” There could never have been “nothing.” God was always there, and God fills everything, down to the molecules and atoms. So, there can only be “nothing” where God is not. Like an idea, an intention is a thing; what God has created in his intention — his “Yes” — has no counterpart in “no.”


I often hear that Catholicism is the “church of ‘no’” or that the Commandments are all about “no,” but how we receive things is a choice we make. If it all looks like “no” to us, it is because we’ve chosen to understand it as “no” — and we’re backed up in that understanding by the affirmation of the world, which seems so full of “yes” — the permission to indulge all of our longings. But the world is worldly; how can we use a worldly measure to receive what is other-worldly? The God of No; Church of No; Rules of No are only “no” if we insist on keeping our understanding tied to what is before our eyes and earthbound. But if we choose to broaden and deepen how we receive a thing, we are more likely to discover the “yes” that underpins everything.

LOPEZ: How is it that “ideas lead to idols” and “ideologies lead to super idols”? Ideas have consequences, and sometimes good ones, don’t they?

SCALIA: Sure. Ideas can be great — the gas oven was a great idea until someone decided that it was useful not just for a Sunday roast, but for the efficient slaughter of human beings. How we let an idea grow — how we allow it to grow, again in that eternal dialogue — is where we get into trouble. Once we’ve moved from idea to idol to super-idol — and I think this happens to us most dangerously when we have made an idol of ideology — we have done more than blocked God, we’ve moved past him; he’s in the rear-view mirror, and we’re intent on creating something of our own, wholly without him. At that point, all we can create is sin and death. We begin treating human beings as commodities and “things.” We begin thinking of other humans not as people fighting all the same demons we are, but as “theys” and “thems” to whom we may assign all manner of evil, and who are therefore due all manner of punishment. We are in the “nothing” where God is not.

LOPEZ: Why is the high-school honor roll so important?

SCALIA: Even the elementary-school honor roll is important because it provides two very excellent life lessons: Sometimes if you work hard, you reap the benefits. And sometimes, you work hard but things don’t turn out as you had hoped. Both lessons are sound. The first gives you optimism, the second gives you fortitude — they’re both necessary to live a healthy, balanced life, and both teach a hell of a lot more than “everyone is special,” which — outside of God, family, and a few friends — is irrelevant.

LOPEZ: You write, “We need to reclaim all the words we’re seeing redefined, for the sake of honesty and reality; but of all of them, it is imperative that we reclaim the word love.”

SCALIA: It’s the most important word, and we haven’t a clue anymore what it means. It is a word of depth, communicating all kinds of messages about permanence, commitment, self-abnegation, and sacrifice, but it has become like the word “amazing!” so overused as to be rendered meaningless — they’re wallpaper words we use to shove into awkward moments. “I love your dress. I love the flowers by the road. Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh, I’m lovin’ it!” Really?

I used to tease my kids, “You love it? Would you want to marry it?” What is the action of love? Love creates; love supports; love surrenders. I think so many people choose to use the reading from 1 Corinthians 13 at their weddings because they’re rather desperate for someone to define what mature love really is in an age where the word is thrown around so casually, and where love no longer seems like something that can be permanent or unconditional.


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