Is Holy Mother Church spoiling her children?
One of my earliest memories is of breaking something that belonged to my father. I don’t remember what I broke, but I remember the “teaching moment” that followed like it was yesterday.
In an effort to forestall what I had coming, I pleaded incompetence. “It was an accident!” I bellowed. I never did intend to break the thing. At the time, I wasn’t thinking of anything other than keeping myself out of trouble—you’re only guilty if you get caught. I hurried to Mom and hid behind her skirt. It didn’t work. Mom explained to me that, while she was perfectly willing to do "her job,” and comfort me, she would never stop Dad from doing his. Mom understood that Dad wasn’t being cruel, after all. He just didn’t spare the rod any more than God does.
For a Christian, the haphazard moral life won’t do. It’s not enough to treat our sins as nothing more than “falling” (try “leaping”) and consider it good works to show up at social events that we happen into almost as “accidentally” as we fall into sin. Most of us have heard the fawning homily: “I know you’re all good people because you’ve come to Church today.” Most of us have also been reprimanded if we’ve ever implied that our faith has some distinctive good qualities that aren’t possessed by, say, Satanism.
I’ve known plenty of working-poor Catholics whose orthodoxy is crowded out at parishes that are dominated by well-heeled but heterodox lay leaders whose large donations cow timid young priests into silence on fundamental matters of faith and morals. One endangers one’s career in many public Catholic forums if one stands with the Vatican against local bishops when they proclaim, say, that pro-abortion leaders like Andrew Cuomo are “Catholics in good standing,” or that Nancy Pelosi is just as worthy to receive the Eucharist as she is to receive the Margaret Sanger Award.
We shouldn’t lose sight of the Christian belief that we are all called to repentance, not murmurs of “oops, pard’n me.” Our God is a forgiving God, not an excusing one. The intentional effort to please Him is one of the things that sets the righteous apart from the rest, and we should at least try to hone our ability to recognize righteousness when we see it, while hating and fearing its opposite, both in ourselves and in others.
Here are a couple easy examples to get us warmed up: When the Little Sisters of the Poor stand their ground against powers and principalities, crying out, “[w]e cannot violate our vows by participating in the government’s program to provide access to abortion-inducing drugs,” we ought to recognize that these women are practicing the cardinal virtue of courage. They are acting "righteously." They are "good." When our president wages war on religious liberty by means of curtailing the economic liberty of Christian employers, while at the same time claiming to care about those who are persecuted for their “life-style choices” and economically oppressed by haters, we needn’t hesitate to call him an “unrighteous” or a “wicked” man.
Many Christians have lost their taste for this kind of terminology. But if we can’t speak in these moral terms, what good are we to each other or to God? The immorality that makes for an unjust society is best addressed by true, fatherly and motherly rebukes—first and most properly applied within the Church and in the family. The alternative of adjusting our private interactions, our public discourse, and (inevitably) our state to prop up immoral behaviors is fundamentally incompatible with a Christian culture.
Had my mother been a bad mother, she would have harbored me behind her skirt, and reprimanded her husband’s effort to discipline me. But the good mother should have enough faith in the father that she can trust that his discipline is will be edifying to the child. Similarly, when wickedness crops up, the Church should have enough faith in God to apply His Commandments to His people, trusting that we will benefit from them.
Indeed, God’s Word condemns injustices against the vulnerable with all the firmness of a Father-God. We shouldn’t forget that when King David wrote “The Lord hears the cry of the poor,” he was addressing the oppressor, and he meant it as a threat. But we should also remember that “the poor” David favored were “righteous.” After all, he was well-aware that not many people are pleased by those who please God, and “[m]any are the afflictions of the righteous”—whatever their social rank or income bracket. When David addresses himself directly to the downtrodden, he doesn’t simply soothe their present condition. Rather, he “teaches” them that the Lord’s favor has some conditions: “Depart from evil, and do good … The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry,” whereas “[t]he face of the LORD is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.” Being a man after the Lord’s own heart, David had it right. Precisely because he cared about the poor, he didn’t coddle them.
And God didn’t change with the coming of the Christ who said “He who is not with me is against me” and “you are my friends if you do what I command you.” On the bright side, we’re all on equal footing in God’s eyes. Whether we’re poor, rich, influential or insignificant, God takes notice of us. He is pleased when we work hard to be righteous. And you don’t want to find out what happens when you make Him mad. When His children need hard lessons and discipline, He needs His Church to support Him, not to undermine His efforts by pampering us.
A great example of holy motherhood is Mother Angelica, who stands faithfully by our Father even when His Word says mean things in front of the children. (Many highly placed Christian officials could learn from her example. Indeed her battles with wrongheaded Bishops, many of which she won with God’s help, amount to a badge of her authenticity). She once observed that “the reigning sin of our time” is “misguided compassion.” Misguided compassion can be a lot like what CS Lewis called “smother love.” He depicts this kind of compassion in The Great Divorce, telling the story of a mother who prefers to spend eternity in hell, her heaven-bound son damned with her, rather than to give up his presence—and her control over him. As horrifying as that story is, it’s even worse when the most vulnerable among us become the objects of the smother love of an entire misguided culture and its government.
G.K. Chesterton wrote of the way in which moderns “tend to regard, or rather to disregard, the formal and legal rights of the citizen.” This lack of appreciation for the liberty of the least among us isn’t some easily caricatured cruelty. However harmful the effects of false mercy are, its intentions are gentle—even coddling. Chesterton warned of a future society in which “there shall be no more laws or liberties … than there are in a nursery.” In this society, the stat
e would “not really regard men as citizens but as children.” To the extent that this fawning mother state is “humanitarian,” she may “love all mankind; but she does not respect it.” His prediction? “[I]t is certain that under this softening influence government of the people, by the people, for the people, will most assuredly perish from the earth.”
It’s not too difficult for many Catholics to see misguided compassion as a part of the mindset of the modern Left. It’s less easy to admit that the same mindset has been close to the heart of Catholic culture for some time as well, characterized by an unwillingness to attend to the places where true, tough charity is most needed: wherever evil can be found. Thomas Sowell writes about this modern error: “At least as far back as the 18th century, the left has struggled to avoid facing the plain fact of evil… Every kind of excuse, from poverty to an unhappy childhood, is used by the left to explain and excuse evil.”
Many of us are so saturated with the false compassion that Sowell rightly condemns that we wouldn’t bother to read beyond the sentence in which he exposes it. Instead we might dismiss him as having a disdainful attitude toward the poor that is incompatible with our faith. But Sowell doesn’t match the caricature of the hateful right-wing fat cat. He’s simply more concerned about the cruel sins that people get away with than about superficial differences in income and status. In this regard, his attitude is no more demeaning of the poor than was King David’s. According to Sowell, not only is wickedness ignored in the ghettos and housing projects, “[s]o are the evils committed by people raised in wealth and privilege, including kings, conquerors and slaveowners.”
While we look for more and more ways to cut back on the consequences of fallen human behavior, the behavior just seems to get worse. There seems to be no human solution to the problems we make for ourselves. As much as we may think we’re more enlightened than our primitive, simplistic parents, perhaps it’s time to return to the morality we’ve been fleeing. Perhaps it’s time to remember the old folk wisdom that tells us that life just isn’t easy, that the path to Heaven is narrow and the road to perdition wide.
We spend a lot of effort on making our Churches feel more welcoming and "economic mobility" more accessible, but those efforts are mostly superficial and do little for our country’s aching soul. As Thomas Sowell puts it: "[W]hat if the problem is internal? What if the real problem is the cussedness of human beings?"
It’s time to stop hiding that cussedness behind the Church’s skirt. It’s time for a spanking.
Stephen Herreidis currently a Fellow at the John Jay Institute (Philadelphia) and the arts editor for Humane Pursuits. He has been a Contributing Editor to The Intercollegiate Review Online and has contributed several chapters to the latest edition of ISI’s Choosing the Right College.