Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Forest And The Trees

     Like many of my fellow Catholics, I tend to focus on particular issues (in my case life and family issues) as an expression of my faith and as a means of evangelizing.  There is always the danger of losing sight of the “big picture” when we commit ourselves to specific causes which are necessarily finite and subordinate to Eternal Truths.  For instance, one criticism of the “Abortion Myths” series that I have been posting is that we are in danger (or I am in danger) of reducing Catholicism to nothing more than an anti-abortion crusade.  One commenter suggested that we should instead simply preach the Gospel, and once we have converted the world the abortion problem will solve itself.

Raphael's St. Paul Preaching in Athens

     There is a degree of truth in such criticism: there is always a possibility that we will be governed more by our own limited enthusiasms than by the will of God.  On the other hand, it is God’s will that we act against wrongs being committed in our own time and place.  This is stated over and over again in Holy Scripture, as in this Old Testament passage:

"So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked man, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.  But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way; he shall die in his iniquity, but you will have saved your life.  (Ezekial 33:7-9)

And here we see the same principle in the New Testament:

My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)

     Saint Peter gives us some guidance on how we can address particular situations without neglecting the Full Gospel:

But even if you do suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.  Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord.  Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:14-16)

By exemplifying in our manner and mode of address respect for the dignity of our adversary, we are preaching by example the Gospel of Christ’s love.
     We very often see wonderful examples of this approach in some of the Church’s teaching documents, and in a special way those addressed to correcting a particular wrong.  These magisterial correctives take advantage of the interest generated by a particular “hot topic” as a teachable moment both to gently but firmly invite back those who have strayed, and also to give a positive lesson on how the Church’s teaching in a particular area is grounded in the greater principle of God’s all-embracing love.
     One such document is Pope Paul VI’s 1968 Encyclical Humanae Vitae [here], to which I will be returning in the near future.  Another less well-known one is the 1984 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith document called Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation” [here], signed by the CDF’s then prefect Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.   The main purpose of the document is to correct errors in the Liberation Theology movement similar to those described above, specifically that it tends to give worldly “liberation” from material want and suffering precedence over the Liberation from Sin that is the true core of Christian belief, and also that it associates itself too closely with the anti-Christian political philosophy of Marxism.  At the same time, the document acknowledges the areas where Liberation Theology is right, particularly its focus on very real problems of poverty, suffering and injustice in many parts of the world.  Finally, the document takes the opportunity to present a wonderfully concise mini-lesson in the Catholic understanding of poverty and our responsibility as Christians to work actively on behalf of the poor and oppressed.
     This document is but one of many examples of the fact that the Big Picture and finite issues are inextricably intertwined.  If our attempts to address and correct particular wrongs are not first grounded in Christ’s Love, then we are no better than “a noisy gong or clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1), or worse than that if our lack of charity actually drives people away from the Gospel.  On the other hand, if we simply preach the Love of God without applying it to concrete situations, it becomes an insubstantial abstraction, and our Faith is as good as dead (see James, chapter 2).  Our role as Catholics is to be both/and, body and soul, and to witness to the Word made Flesh.  In no other way can we, as Saint Paul says (1 Timothy 6:12), “Fight the Good Fight”.