The public square, these days, is nasty, brutish and loud.
People have bemoaned the lack of civility in the world of blogs and tweets and Joe Wilson, and it’s true. While ideas do matter, and doing intellectual battle over issues of great import is vital — particularly in a democracy — there is something more insidious going on in the public conversation these days.
Politics is never a sport for the sensitive, but there is now an entire opinion industry that profits from assuming the worst, alleging the nefarious, and using ad hominem attacks instead of reason. This level of invective and histrionics has been widely diffused, poisoning the airwaves and even corrupting the water cooler conversation and the family reunion.
This kind of debate via accusation has infiltrated the Church. That leaders are so openly criticized and issues so thoroughly debated is a change from decades past, and it may not be always a bad thing, if done with some charity and humility. But I suspect that if most of us saw the correspondence that the average bishop or pastor receives, we’d be shocked at the tone and content of many letters. This reflex to assume the worst is particularly tempting, unfortunately, to those who are often the most passionate and engaged. I hasten to add that this is not exclusive to either the right or the left, but I call it an Archie Bunker ecclesiology, with lots of armchair popes taking potshots at the meatheads.
So we face angry extremes and an often uncomprehending middle that may not know enough to be outraged about anything. What we don’t see often enough in much of Catholic public life these days is joy.
C.S. Lewis once wrote that “joy is the serious business of heaven.” I’ve met Catholics in a variety of situations — working with the poor, working in chanceries, volunteering in parishes, or simply going about the daily business of their work and families — who exemplify this “serious business.” They are passionate, fervent, hardworking people, but what is striking is their joy.
When I think about the joyful people I’ve met, what I find most common about them is their attitude of trust. At a religious conference several weeks ago in Orlando, I began to reflect on the link between joy and trust. It is not the exclusive domain of one faction or another, but where it is truly found, there is often a generosity of spirit and a power of witness that unselfconsciously attracts others to Christ.
Trust leads to peace. Trust leads to joy. Mother Teresa, for example, who evidenced such a profound trust in God, even when he was veiled from her, exuded a kind of transcendental joy, but in our parishes and our communities I’m sure we can recall less well-known people who evidence that same joy.
Pope John Paul I once wrote, “To be optimistic in spite of everything, trust in God should be the pivot of our thoughts and actions.” Optimism seems in very short supply amid the huffing and puffing of our Catholic ideologues. But the ultimate challenge is trust. Do we believe that God is present, that he will not abandon his Church, that we are not the ones in control? Without that faith, the joy will never be present.
Other virtues come to mind too: obedience, patience, humility, as well as courage and fortitude. The debates are worth engaging in, the battle is often worth fighting. But at the end of the day, it is joy that evangelizes most powerfully.
“Count it all joy,” St. James wrote. That’s a hard one. If we are just like all the other cranks and lukewarm bystanders that occupy the world and its airwaves, will anyone be attracted to us? But give us a joyful saint or two, and the world will have no answer.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.