As my wife and I prepared to leave a family gathering, saying our goodbyes to everyone, one of our young nephews asked, “Well, we’ll see you tomorrow, right?” An awkward pause worthy of the TV show “The Office” followed.
The next day one of our relatives was getting married outside the Church, and we were the only family members not attending. Our extended family had come to an unspoken agreement that there would be no public debates on this topic, deciding that no discussion was better than a heated argument, but, of course, our innocent young relative had no idea of the enactment of this familial policy. We quietly mumbled something to satisfy our nephew and then beat a hasty retreat to our car.
This scene is anything but atypical in Catholic families today. Not uncommon are brothers who proudly announce their vasectomies, cousins who are practicing homosexuals, and adult children who cohabitate before marriage; almost every Catholic has some family member openly defying Church teaching in some area of his life — with no trace of shame or guilt.
Modern people like to frown upon the old days, when those who sinned publicly were shunned or ostracized from “polite society,” but today it is those who resist supporting such behaviors who are shunned and ostracized. What is a Catholic to do in such awkward moments, where family unity seems to conflict directly with holding to what we know to be true?
Standing for the truth
If a person only knew the teachings of Jesus from what he heard from the media or many popular TV preachers, he might think Christ’s teachings can be reduced to “be happy,” “live for your dreams” and “tolerate others.” This is the message of much of American Christianity, and in fact much of that message has seeped into too many American Catholic parishes. However, even a cursory reading of the Gospels shows that the message of Jesus is radically different. (Too few Christians actually read the Gospels, however.)
Take, for instance, some of Christ’s most well-known words, the Beatitudes. Most of us know that he begins with, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3). But we may forget the end of the Beatitudes, when Jesus proclaims, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt 5:10-12). Our Lord is telling us that we will be blessed — happy in the ways of the Lord — when we are attacked, maligned and mistreated. How this contradicts the message of the world!
While these words of Jesus don’t necessarily mean that we should go looking for persecution, they very clearly tell us that we shouldn’t do everything to avoid it, either. By following Christ, we agree to be maligned on his account — we agree that we will put his teachings and his commands above human respect.
This sounds all well and good when reading it — “Yes, I’ll follow Jesus no matter the cost!” — but making it happen in real life can be painful and difficult. Persecution for Christ is great in theory, but not so attractive in real life. And although this persecution today is usually not physical — such as torture, imprisonment, or martyrdom — those that are more common for us today — loss of human respect, ridicule, social ostracization — can still constitute a severe trial.
So, to be a faithful Catholic today, one must remember first and foremost that to do so means being rejected at times, even by those we dearly love, but this rejection can be a means of drawing closer to Christ — of being truly blessed.
Unfortunately, a common perception of those who oppose immorality is that such people must be dour kill-joys who can’t mind their own business. But standing for the truth doesn’t mean we walk around with sourpuss faces, trying to find ways to condemn others. We can be faithful to our Lord in ways that are loving as well as attractive to those of good will. After all, we are proposing to others the way to a joy-filled life, aren’t we? So when a family member brags about his vasectomy, you don’t have to give a sermon detailing the sins of a contraceptive mentality and the importance of the procreative purpose of marriage — you can express your joy at your own kids and how you can’t imagine life without them. Or, if you have a large family yourself, you can mention what a great retirement plan having a lot of kids is. Over time, you can work to properly catechize your relative as to the Church’s teaching on marriage and its meaning and purpose; there is a good chance that he has never been properly instructed and doesn’t understand how contrary the procedure is to Catholic teaching.
It is vital, therefore, to think long-term when confronted with these situations. Don’t try to convert someone overnight — the most likely result would be offending the person and turning them away even more. Instead, work to plant seeds that will eventually bear fruit. In the most common situation today — someone who rejects the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality — the best offense is living a joyful, faithful marriage or a joyful chaste life of celibacy. Every time you embrace a bit of suffering for the sake of your children or your spouse, you witness to the importance and meaning of sacramental marriage. Whenever you have more children than the 2.3 “norm” — whether biologically or through adoption — you proclaim that children are not the result of simple human “planning,” but instead the result of trust in God and his plans for your life. Whenever you happily live chastely in a sex-drenched culture, you bring forth the beauty of a life lived for God rather than immediate pleasure.
What is the essential virtue to practice when confronted with these awkward situations? Humility.
This august virtue helps us to recognize that we are all fallen creatures completely dependent on God’s mercy. A family member or friend might be sinning publicly, but we must remember that we, who know the truth, still sin privately every day. We must approach others with this in mind, and recognize that our avoidance of those public sins is a gift given by God, and not a merit solely of our doing.
We will likely face criticism and harsh judgment when we contradict the prevailing worldview. Humility will enable us to face this humiliation without losing our peace. When family members or close friends scorn us because we refuse to accept their sinful actions, our pride wants to react: either by compromising the truth or by lashing out at the other person.
But we must be like Christ, who accepted the humiliation of the scourging at the pillar and the crowning with thorns in quiet resignation. Furthermore, our acceptance of such humiliation is a wonderful penance to be offered for the other person’s repentance. We must recognize that our sinful behavior and the sinful behavior of others grieves God deeply, and we must work with him — in his time — to help others reject sinful actions.
Often when a Catholic decides to speak up against some action contrary to the Faith, it is this “dissenter” who is accused of betraying family unity. “Don’t you know that your comments offended Uncle Rob?” “Your cousin’s lifestyle doesn’t harm you; why can’t you just let her live the way she wants?” Those who stand for the truth are seen as the divisive trouble-makers.
However, although family unity is important, and a virtue to be sought after, it cannot be put ahead of other, more important virtues. If we truly love someone, we want that person to be truly happy and fulfilled — and prepared for the life to come. And nothing contradicts a happy and fulfilled life more than sin. So to simply ignore these behaviors in those close to us is contrary to true love.
We must have the courage to face rejection for the sake of our loved ones. If we are grounded in love and humility, we can be sure that our actions are for the best for those around us, even if the initial reaction is not pleasant to endure.
One day, God can use our deeds and our prayers to bring our loved ones closer to him and away from any actions that separate them from him. It is only through our union with the Source of unity that we can achieve true family unity — now and in the life of the world to come.
Eric Sammons is director of evangelization for the Diocese of Venice, Fla. His next book, “Holiness for Everyone: The Practical Spirituality of St. Josemaría Escrivá” (OSV), will be published in spring 2012.