In the past couple of weeks I’ve been thinking about what it means to be Catholic in a pluralistic society, especially in one like ours, in which many dominant cultural forces are so antithetical to the Catholic understanding of love, virtue, freedom, family, human dignity and belief itself.
There’s no simple answer to being “in the world but not of the world.” When is “courage” self-indulgent, and when is “wisdom” cowardice?
That’s something each of us, depending on our circumstances, talents and vocation, have to work out for ourselves.
But — and this may seem surprising — it strikes me that one attitude we’ve got to first get straightened out is our approach to sin.
Mark Shea, an author and regular contributor to OSV Newsweekly, recently wrote that he saw the marks of Calvinism in some Catholics’ approach to those “disordered appetites” and weak inclinations. His examples were same-sex attraction and gluttony, but the insight has a much broader application.
Just as it is wrong, on one hand, to celebrate human weaknesses as virtue, he said, on the other hand, “we can err by going all Calvinist and identifying nature as essentially sinful — as though sin constitutes our humanity and redemption consists of smashing and annihilating our human nature.”
He continued: “You’d be surprised how often people inclined to harshness toward human weakness tell themselves that their brutality is ‘tough love.’ It’s one thing when somebody is trying to make ridiculous justifications for sin and even attempting to threaten those who rightly maintain that sins are sins. Christians have an obligation to defend the truth about the Church’s moral teaching even when they are unpopular. Sometimes we have to say hard things and even to offer rebuke to intransigent sinners. But many is the time that Christians indulge the sins of anger or violence against innocents or penitents while congratulating themselves on their ‘courage’ or, in a tedious and overworked strategy, comparing themselves to Jesus versus the money-changers.”
Probably, especially, in circumstances like ours, in which the battle lines of the “culture wars” are so clearly defined and Catholics find themselves seemingly increasingly divided, the temptation to indulge in self-righteousness is both stronger and more likely to have a negative effect.
There’s another down side. It reinforces the voice of the Father of Lies within us that our sinfulness and weak inclinations are who we really are, and so makes us slower to turn promptly to God for his loving grace and mercy in our times of trial.
I think to be a Catholic in a troubled world, it first takes firm belief that God delights in each of us and wills the happiness and liberation from weakness of every single last person.
Thoughts? Write firstname.lastname@example.org.