Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Thou Shalt Chill Out: Gentleness and Catholic faith

A Basic Distinction

"For modern American culture, everything is tolerated but nothing is forgiven, while for Christianity it’s exactly the reverse – many things aren’t tolerated, but everything can be forgiven." --Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago

This pithy teaching stuck in my mind from Francis George's homily given at the ordination of a new bishop in late 2005-early 2006. It's also a point from his book, The Difference God Makes. As a sound byte, it might be criticized for generalizing (especially in regards to his description of American culture).

However, as a description of Catholicism, it is spot on.

Here is a basic distinction that I wish had been taught to me when I was learning about my faith as a teenager. On the one hand, you have what the Church teaches. And on the other hand, you have how the Church loves (i.e., how the Church administers care).

We might call these moral theology and pastoral theology.

Or better: what the Church hopes you will do, and how the Church responds when you (of course) didn't do it.

Now, the distilled results of moral theology are available to anybody with a Catechism. That is not the focus of this post. It's the second half, how the Church loves, which feels a little bit neglected in popular discourse.

Here is the basic problem: it is too easy to associate a strict morality with harshness. This is understandable, but it is a mistake. A strict morality is no more necessarily harsh than a lax morality is gentle or kind. Harshness and gentleness are not products of a certain teaching or moral truth; they're products of one's attitude, one's fundamental worldview, one's anthropology.

If someone is harsh, the defect does not lie in the content of his moral opinions, but in his understanding of the human drama.

Let me illustrate, graphically, the difference between living Catholicism knowing What the Church Teaches without knowing How the Church Loves.

The first level represents a catechumen's first lesson in Catholic morality. It's terrifying.

The second level represents a slightly deeper understanding based on some of the complexities of moral theology. Its highs and lows may vary from person to person, as we all try to speculate about how serious our sins really are, erring on the side of mercy or condemnation, as our personalities are inclined.

This is still lacking any sense of pastoral theology. It is only accurate on the most superficial level--a little bit like the pictures of atoms we saw in our 5th grade science textbooks. If followed rigorously and exclusively, it can become misleading and spiritually dangerous. This is, ultimately, only the dark side of the moon. It is time to start looking at the other side.

Breaking Apart the Charts: Sin and Judgment

The Doctrine of Original Sin: (Of Ourselves) We Can't Not Sin.

One of my most inspirational professors was C. Colt Anderson, Ph.D. He is a specialist of medieval church history, and has written about the theology of St. Bonaventure and St. Gregory the Great. He is now a professor at Washington Theological Union.

Dr. Anderson made a point often in his lectures that some of the gloomier aspects of Catholic theology--Original Sin, the Fall, the corruption of the world and humanity--serve to generate an atmosphere of gentleness, not judgement.*

Anderson stressed that the doctrine of Original Sin yields not misanthropy, but humility. To be an understanding Catholic is to be wretched among the wretched. Per Augustine, it is to know that, of ourselves, we do not have the "power not to sin" (posse non peccare). The worldwide Church is groaning in pain. It is true that sanctifying grace gives us the posse non peccare. Nevertheless, the question of future sins for any newborn on this planet is not a possibility; it is a certainty (Romans 3:23).

The misery of the human condition is a fact that Catholicism will not allow attentive listeners to forget. In the high middle ages, it took shape as a celebrated genre of literature, contemptu mundi, "Contempt of the world," the most famous example being Pope Innocent III's "De Miseria Humanae Conditionis".** In it, the Pope describes the suffering and depravity of men with such detail and grit that human accomplishments appears only as so much scum. "Therefore, worm, why art thou proud?"

But the cumulative psychological effect of all of this negativity may be unexpectedly positive. If "there is no one just; not one" (Romans 3:10), then we are all co-conspirators in the world's crime. That fact ought to rob us of the passion to condemn. But how much more strikingly do we feel it, when again and again we run to the confessionals (or the lesser consolations we provide ourselves). There is a camaraderie of the wretched. It is as though a bride and groom, both dressed in white, stood in the middle of a demolition derby on a rainy day. And the drivers all have paint guns. Who will point the finger at who?

Judgment Belongs to God Alone

The Bible is unequivocal about judgement. There is no excuse to judge, not ever. However, some points bear mentioning.

First, we must make a distinction. Judging is not the same thing as discerning moral truths, nor is it the same thing as observing moral realities. If this were the case, the New Testament would invalidate itself, and life would be incoherent. If judgment includes defining moral laws, and there is a moral law against judgment, then the law is illegal (therefore, to judge against judging is also wrong, and we can judge with abandon!)

On the contrary, the sin of judgment involves chiefly two errors. The first is a self-deception: that I know your heart. The second is a blasphemy: that I know your sentence. We can observe actions, but not hearts. And we can provide solutions, but not eternal sentences.

Now, here is the second (and most critical) point: there is no reason why the commandment ought not apply to judging oneself any less than it applies to judging others. At first this might not be clear. After all, I know my own heart in a way nobody else does. I know my intentions, and I know how good/wretched I actually am.

But do I?

As Augustine wrote, addressing God, "You are closer to me than I am to myself."

One does not need to be religious to understand that the human capacity for self-deception is enormous. Ordinarily, we might imagine that self-deception most errs on the side of self- forgiveness and laxity. However, for perhaps just as many people, it errs on the side of self-loathing and spite.

When I sin, the last person I want to be in charge of deciding a just punishment for my crimes is myself. I know. I've imagined the things I thought I deserved. They haven't invented the machines required to carry them out.

And so, the commandment not to judge represents a doorway, not only out of condemning others, but self-loathing as well. Understanding and absorbing this great teaching of Jesus immediately changes the Catholic's understanding of the moral life. Let's chart it.

If we concluded at this point, It might feel a little like we are playing a game in which God is hiding the scoreboard. Our ignorance of the mind of God is little consolation to our guilty consciences. In the end, the temptation remains to operate by to a dangerously incomplete model, even if we acknowledge its being hypothetical.

That is because, up to now, we have operated only on the level of What the Church Teaches. Nothing of what we have said so far has integrated How the Church Loves, or pastoral theology.

Thus, in the immortal words of Leonardo DiCaprio, we have to go deeper.

Replacing the Charts: Pastoral theology, Jesus and the Church

Jesus: The Model of Pastoral Theology

When I was in the seminary, "pastoral theology" was largely synonymous with "breaking rules in order to be nice." It wasn't until after I left, sadly, that the nature and importance of pastoral theology made itself known to me.

Part of the problem was that some of my instructors had developed faulty models of pastoral theology. Either they had grossly sentimentalized Jesus into a milquetoast, feel-good, self-help author; or else they had no model at all save for a mushy, inoffensive, cynical filter for decision-making.

Part of the problem was that my perception was colored by my own, myopic, ahistorical, mechanical, "What the Church Teaches" approach, which was as harsh to me as it was against the people I judged.

Now, Christians are always using Jesus as the model for something. "Jesus this" and "Jesus that". But that is not only because we confess Him as "my Lord, and my God." There is real content here. While our Lord was on earth, he did not only teach--he lived. And so his bullet-points of Dos and Don'ts, while serious business, are not the whole content of the Gospel.

Some highlights from the Life and Times of the Almighty:
  • Jesus taught a hard law. His sexual morality was conservative, condemning divorce, and even advocating celibate chastity for those who could. He demanded severing ties to personal property, families, and even sacred duties such as burying the dead. He rewrote the thinking on fairness, setting the principle of sacrifice above the principle of proportionality. And he expected urgent, concrete results and had little respect for his disciples' wishes for personal safety or security.

  • Jesus spent time with sinners, doing things that sinners enjoy. He drank and ate. Sometimes he even supplied the booze. His enemies accused him of being a drunkard and a glutton (Luke 7:34). For Jesus, the presence of sin (even not-yet-repentant sin) was not an obstacle to delight, whether his own or that of his company.

  • Jesus was sparing in his use of harshness. The wrath of Jesus can be seen as having primarily three targets: first, the lazy, cowardly, or fruitless; second, the malicious exploiters of religious authority; and third, communities that definitively rejected his signs and teachings.

    The first group includes Peter when he begged Jesus not to go to Jerusalem; the disciples who wanted to bury their dead before following Jesus; and disciples represented in parables (the fig tree; the man who buried his talent; the foolish virgins; the improperly dressed wedding guest, etc.) With regard to the first group, Jesus had a practical license to use harsh words, because their intended audience was already loyal to him. It makes no sense to rib someone for laziness unless they are already oriented in the right direction. In De Doctrina Cristiana, St. Augustine describes the "grand style" of preaching, which can be usefully employed only when one's audience is already loyal (and thus thick skinned).

    Concerning the second group, the corrupt authorities, here Jesus reveals a divine intolerance for malice. Showing gentleness toward the malicious would ultimately cause more spiritual harm than confrontation. Malice--especially premeditated, calculating malice--does not call for gentleness.*** Forgiveness, yes, but not a cheap forgiveness.

    The third group are the communities that rejected the Gospel. At no point in Jesus's earthly mission did he entertain hopes of universal acceptance. He was pragmatic in his approach. He encouraged his disciples to economize their efforts--do not waste time where it will do no good. Modeling this principle, Jesus did not lay attractive words at their feet. Where his message (and signs) were definitively rejected, he foretold wrath (Matthew 11:21-24) and implied that their obstinateness had fewer excuses than that of previous smitten cities. Yet it is worth noting that even here, Jesus is measured in his language. He does not call them names. He is not indulging in a personal vendetta.

  • At no time did Jesus employ harshness or shame as a response to people bound by sins of weakness. Even his reproaches against the lazy/fruitless can be interpreted as signalling a passionate and frightful urgency--something like this--rather than a "how dare you". This is where the great medical analogy comes into play: "Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do" (Matthew 9:12). Sins are crimes, yes, but they are also wounds.

    This connection was deeply understood by the populace of Jesus' day, who, after all, correlated congenital defects with inherited guilt. But in Jesus it represents a genius innovation. If sins are crimes, crimes call for punishment, and criminals will flee. If sins, however, are wounds; wounds call for treatment, and the wounded will gather. Christ the physician transforms the response of his followers to the phenomenon of sin.

  • For Jesus and his followers, the foundation of every interaction was peace and comfort--not anxiety. The words, "Do not be afraid," occur 15 times in the Gospels. The Resurrected Christ introduces himself with the words "Peace be with you." Jesus reasons, "Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?" Paul writes to the Philippians, "Have no anxiety at all." Throughout the New Testament, there is a veritable commandment to relax.

    How do we reconcile Jesus' repeated calls to "chill out" with his equally repeated calls to drop everything, take risks, and get results?

    A dancing analogy. Laura and I are teaching ourselves how to dance. We watched several instruction videos, and tried a few things, but it was all a jumbled (and hilarious) mess. Then, one video she brought home from the library changed things. It was The Wedding Dance with Paul Overton and Sharon Ashe. This video gave more instructions on standing still than any of the others we looked at. Don't lock knees. Loosen the shoulders. Lean slightly into each other. Feel, don't think. Listen to the movements of your partner.

    Relax. Relax. Relax.

    Now go.

    There is no greater enemy in the spiritual life than anxiety and discouragement. Jesus and the apostles understood this. Peace is the foundation. Journey, effort, and even struggle must all have a bedrock of peace. Urgency is built on peace.

    For Christians, peace is both the prerequisite for holiness and its final reward. And it must constantly be renewed.
These are the foundations of pastoral theology, which is ultimately the imitation of Christ the Good Shepherd. At no point does Jesus provide any excuse for doctrinal or moral laxity, nor for brutality.

In spite of his doctrinal rigor, Jesus' approach to ministry appears oblivious to the realities presented in my introduction to Catholic morality. Where are the emergency confessions? Where is the "Confession" iPhone app? I speak, a little bit, in jest (although I hear the iPad 2 has a time machine app).

But I gesture in earnest to the example of Christ the Physician, whose message was serious even while his ministry to his patients was joyful, celebratory, and anxiety free. Jesus does not want you to be anxious.

The Catholic Church: For the Saints, a Gymnasium; For the Sinners, a Hospital

The Catholic Church is the spiritual equivalent of Gesundheit! Institute and the U.S. Olympic Training Center combined and writ large. It is a hospital for sinners and a gymnasium for saints.**** It is critical to remember that the patients and the athletes are one and the same. They are also, always, the nurses and doctors, spotters and trainers. Every single one has a debilitating handicap; most have several. And the paraplegic's first toe wiggle is absolutely as momentous as the first nine-second hundred meter dash.

In this model of the Church, it makes no more sense to rally against a moral doctrine than it does to rally against the desire of the paralyzed to walk. It makes no more sense to berate a sinner than for a smoking lung cancer patient to mock their room-mate recovering from a triple bypass.

But pastoral theology is not just an extended analogy of a hospital. It is a realistic and faith-filled encounter of moral theology with life. Some points:

First: All sin, even venial sin, is serious. Nothing in this article is intended to persuade anybody otherwise. A single drop of ink blackens a whole cup of water. Our whole being comes from God, and a tiny peccadillo contradicts the whole God. Be this as it may, Jesus assured us, God's love and forgiveness extends far beyond our imagining. Our meager hearts can forgive great wrongs (with a little effort). Would we dare insinuate that God is stingier than ourselves? So the perspective of faith works both ways: God perceives sin's horror infinitely more than we; and he forgives infinitely more generously.

Second: Sin, even mortal sin, is not a reason to be anxious, for three reasons:

(1) Jesus does not want you to be anxious. We have covered this, but it bears repeating. It's a commandment from God himself. Thou Shalt Chill Out. This is not just a command; it's an invitation to trust. Do not be afraid. Peace be with you. Jesus even appeals to your sense of efficiency! What good does worrying do? What has your furrowed brow accomplished? If God tells you to relax, please, rest assured, it's ok.

(2) God does not desire your condemnation (Ezekiel 33:11). There, see? God is on your side. He is your judge, yes, but he is also your defense attorney. Yes, you sinned... nobody needs to present any evidence. And you really couldn't survive a genuinely proportional punishment. So let's work something out instead.

Consider this small fact: when you sin, even if you rape and murder, you don't vanish and go straight to Hell. Have you ever considered that God would be entirely in his rights and ability to do make it happen? However he does not. Even if you utterly sever your connection to I AM WHO AM, even if you reject the origin of being itself: nothing happens. You can curse God for hours, burn churches, do unspeakable things to the Consecrated Host, and still, air repeatedly fills your lungs, nourishing your silly hairless chimp body for another few minutes of life.

Even when we cut ourselves from the source of life, we live. Our bodies are that amazing. They are not just our interface with the world. They are not just a Temple of the Spirit. They double as the life-raft on the wrecked Titanic of our failed self-projects. As long as my heart beats there is hope. It carries me from Eucharist to Penance and back. As long as the sacraments are there, there is hope. That is how I know that God does not desire my condemnation.

(3) God knows your heart. To illustrate, here is a last bit of doctrine for you. Maybe you've lost the state of grace. And maybe you can't make it to Sacramental Penance. All right. If you're truly sorry, then say yourself an Act of Contrition and make a mental, concrete, sincere plan to go. Don't feel sorry enough? Just let God know, and ask him for the necessary sorrow. Got it? Good. You're covered. Stay sincere, and no Hell for you, even if you died right now. Even if you died halfway through saying the Act. Seriously. It's the truth. Ask any bishop.

This is not magic. It's just the built-in mercy of Catholic faith. Yes, repentance must happen in community because sin is a break with community. But just because Catholicism is not individualistic does not mean that our salvation hangs on an unpredictable thread.

The external observances keep us honest and sincere--they prevent us from paying half-hearted lip service and going our merry (corrupt) way. The externals are necessary and good. God became physical, so why shouldn't our salvation also be physical? But although we depend on the externals, God in himself does not. Therefore, at no point--not during a single minute--of a sincere Catholic's life does he need to expect Hellfire. Pray for salvation from it, yes. Expect it, no.

Last point. Sanctification is gradual. Pastoral theology, in a way, is the practical art of serving God's process of sanctification, both in oneself and in others. And that is the word of the day: process. Time, which is God's creation, is also his instrument of salvation. Sanctification is gradual. This may be frustrating to the moral theologian, for whom "error has no rights." And to be sure, one must never cite the gradual nature of sanctification as an excuse for past (or present) sins.

But I think we should frequently remind ourselves that genius should not be rushed--especially Divine Genius. God is the agent of sanctification, not us. No, we won't be lax in calling for goodness and justice; but also, no, we won't fret or worry. There's no use in it.

After all. God isn't worried. So why should we be?

"All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." --St. Julian of Norwich


End Notes!

* - Dr. Anderson recounted that his own spiritual journey was enhanced, not by coming to accept an easy doctrine, but a hard one: the existence of Hell. When he was a young universalist ("everybody goes to Heaven,") he was filled with intense anger at the injustices of the world. There was no equilibrium. He had absorbed a sense that it falls to us humans to exact the vengeance that the universalist God did not. By learning a new trust in God's justice, Anderson literally disabused himself of the burden.

** - Innocent always intended to write a corresponding, cheerful tract, but he never got around to it.

*** - A note on malice. In Catholic moral theology, I believe not enough emphasis is placed on the distinction between sins of malice and sins of weakness. The line dividing them is blurry, of course, but there is something tangibly present in the Gospel that is vital for Catholic understanding. It is not that sins of malice are necessarily more grave (although I presume they usually are). It is that their remedies are so different.

**** - I first heard this phrase from another professor, Fr. Robert Barron of Mundelein Seminary. Research shows that it seems adapted from a quote from Abigail Van Buren, “A church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” David True uses similar verbiage in his article, Rethinking Church.


Paperback Writer said...

I hope you'll come back to this post, and incorporate it into one of your future books.

Matt of CG said...

You've earned this one alright. Thanks for reminding me that I need to practice what I preach.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the kind words Jeff.

Dr. A.