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Fanning the Flames of Decency


Russell Shaw - published on 03/09/15

Christians should nurture signs of hope in our secularized world

A man I know was walking his dog when a neighbor woman approached him and inquired about his wife. Not having seen her out and about in quite some time, the lady wondered: Was she well?

“Not really,” the man said, going on to explain what that meant.

“I’m sorry,” the woman said when he finished. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Not really,” the man said again. “Except—say a prayer.”

The woman hesitated a split second, and he could see she was calculating. Then she said: “I’ll send a card. Would she like that?”

“I’m sure she would,” he answered. And he thought to himself: All things considered, I guess that sending a card will earn her as much merit in God’s eyes as actually saying a prayer would do.

As the woman promised, the man tells me, the card—a stylized Christmas tree—arrived a few days later.

In telling this story, I don’t mean to equate greeting cards with prayer. But this little encounter was one of those signs of the times that bears reflection. As faith declines in our increasingly secularized society, religious believers need to make adjustments in how they think about the non-believers all around them — not to place non-belief on the same level with belief, but to factor in God’s immense generosity and try to share in it just a little.

This is in line with the thesis lately advanced by Joseph Bottum in an interesting essay in The Weekly Standard. With the collapse of the mainline Protestant churches in America, Bottum argues, something he calls — borrowing from author Flannery O’Connor — the Church of Christ Without Christ has taken their place.

One consequence, in his view, is that America is “awash in unconsciously held Christian ideas broken from the theology that gave them meaning” and now finding expression in appropriately secularized ways. Sending sick, bereaved, or otherwise troubled people sympathy cards instead of praying for them is, I believe, one fairly common instance of that. The substance — compassion for someone else in pain—remains, but it’s externalized in a very different form.

If that is so, it’s good news. It means that human decency stubbornly persists alongside the all too evident human tendency to cruelty. And this small flame of decency  burning in secularized hearts itself has merit in the eyes of God.

But let’s not leave it at that. Perhaps the stubborn residue of decency could serve as the starting point for making some progress in the great project of new evangelization for which popes and other Church leaders have been calling for years.

Maybe that’s what the controversial interim ratio or report on discussions at last October’s world Synod of Bishops was trying to say—but said in a muddled way—in speaking of “gradualism” as an element in the  pastoral approach to people in so-called irregular unions. These include divorced Catholics without annulments who’ve entered into second marriages, same-sex couples, and the like.

Like the woman who can’t manage a prayer for a sick neighbor but can send a sympathy card, if people in such situations can find it in their hearts to take some first small step toward conversion, it’s possible other steps will follow.

Supposing Bottum is right, there’s no way now at hand to reverse the secularist tide  sweeping America. But instead of going back, there could be a way of moving ahead. Don’t be too quick to knock sympathy cards. The human decency they express may point to something better.

Russell Shawis the author or coauthor of 21 books and numerous articles, columns, and reviews. He is a member of the faculty of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, and former Secretary for Public Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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