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Human respect: Not only a sin in our time, but a theology

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 17, 2017

Not long ago I described the Book of Jonah as a cautionary tale against “human respect”. I did not consider at the time how confusing this term can be today. I intended “human respect” to be recognized as a grave sin, yet many assume it to be a fundamental good. I need to sort this out.

It may be easier to understand the Catholic moral understanding of the term “human respect” if we recall another common expression of the same type. What, then, does it mean to be “a respecter of persons”? Or what does it mean to affirm that this or that saint was “no respecter of persons”? This expression has nothing to do with the fundamental respect owed to everyone. The vice envisioned in these expressions is the tendency to behave as if wealthy, powerful, famous or otherwise culturally iconic persons deserve greater attention and even deference than do those who are poor, weak, or of no (fashionable) account.

To be a “respecter of persons” means we act one way with those whom our culture generally recognizes as elites, and another way altogether with those whom our culture generally repudiates as possessing little worth. If we ask ourselves how often Our Lord made a point of doing the exact opposite, we begin to see the sort of self-serving and even toadying viciousness that is implied in the term “respecter of persons.” The exact same stigma is properly attached, in Catholic moral parlance, to the concept of “human respect”.

The rhetoric of marginalization

A good deal of the confusion in our time arises from a curious twist of history. The old world of nobility, class and station had largely passed away by the early twentieth-century, and so it became a source of pride in the West to reach across class barriers, to assert that all were equal, to champion human rights, and to advocate public care for the poor. Gradually the rhetoric of what we now call “marginalization” became a cultural priority. But note that I am discussing rhetoric, for true engagement with the marginalized in anything like a Christian sense is exceedingly rare. Symbolic actions and political advocacy take the place of love in a cruel world. Yet in secular culture, the rhetoric of marginalization, including a rhetorical commitment to “demarginalization”, has emerged as a kind of identifying mark of our cultural elites.

One can question whether this shift was good or bad. Surely it is good that the rich and famous no longer openly insist, by virtue of their very heredity, that they merit the highest and most influential positions in society—that their superiority is biologically-determined, that their very blood is a different color. But is it more truthful for our cultural elites to regard themselves as a meritocracy deeply committed to the common good? The mask slips now and then (think of Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”). But it turns out that sympathy with “the marginalized” is very carefully apportioned in accordance with key prejudices which are systematically inculcated as principles both through public education and in all the right universities. Only God can know the extent to which the rhetoric of marginalization has been anything more than a moral cover for personal selfishness, or even for a thorough-going hedonism.

Whatever the case, one must master a specific sort of rhetoric nowadays, along with a certain measure of mainstream marketability, in order to be recognized as one of the cultural in-crowd—much as two hundred years ago it was possible to enter the aristocracy by mastering the proper accent, wearing specified clothing, and carefully cultivating a certain affable indolence. As with the self-serving protestations of the upper classes in previous eras, it is the purpose of this required rhetoric—of this constant emphasis on deep concern for the “marginalized”—to enable the elites, and the elites alone, to continously occupy the moral high ground.

It also throws the traditional concept of human respect not so much into a cocked hat as into a dumpster. The inverted rhetoric of today’s upper crust makes it more difficult to see the truth. The result? Such rhetoric provides remarkably effective cover for the sin of human respect, as so many people—even so many Catholic leaders—learn to speak, act and even think in ways that win them the approval of the group of which they so strongly aspire to be a part.

Relevance

In the preceding paragraph I suggested that many Catholics take advantage of the moral cover provided by the “new rhetoric” to learn even how “to think” differently. To see how this has come about, we need to take a close look at the concept of relevance as it has evolved over the past few generations. For the concept of relevance has undergone a transformation from applicability to the issue at hand to applicability to the question of who should be heard on any issue at all.

Let me begin with some pointed questions: Am I the only one old enough to remember the general cry of the last third of the twentieth century, the loud lament that the moral and theological reasoning of the previous two millennia was no longer “relevant”, and that the key task before the truly great thinkers in the Catholic Church was to make the Gospel (and their own theology) “relevant” again?

And are there any others still living who remember that this passion for “relevance” was in most cases an excuse for changing essential Catholic ideas so that Catholic academicians could be “relevant” again to the moral and spiritual discussions of the larger, richer and more influential secular culture? Or an excuse for changing the Church’s moral image so that bishops and priests could remain “players” in the socio-political circles which were so rapidly moving beyond their grasp?

As even the poorest sociologist ought to be able to recognize, faithful Catholics were rapidly becoming marginalized by the rising tide of secularism after about 1965 (the process had begun years earlier in academic circles). To this phenomenon, the response of a great many members of what we might call the Catholic elite was to sell (or should I say adapt and update) their birthright in order to maintain their favorable recognition by a Western culture that no longer really accepted Christianity at all. Too often the Church was led, as she still is in some quarters today, by the brigade of human respect.

Indeed, the entire history of the Church over the past several generations can be very accurately summarized as a protracted battle between those who are respecters of persons, and those who have the moral character to resist and condemn that corrosive vice. One of the patently obvious strategies in this battle has been the cleverness with which “respecters of persons” have been able to rise higher and higher in the estimation of our secular cultural elites. But one of the obvious drawbacks to this strategy is that this rise has been possible only insofar as such Catholics were perceived as undermining the Catholic Church from within.

Whenever such Catholics admitted they had lost their faith and so decided to leave the Church (or in rare cases were forcibly removed), they were able to retain only a residual and rapidly-vanishing “relevance”. Since they were docile to the high culture of the decadent West, they did not have to be decisively purged from the ranks of the relevant. But neither were they of much use any longer to the great modern publicity machine.

Modernism

The story becomes even more interesting when we see that an entire new mode of theological thinking was developed and used by Catholics who wished to place the Gospel at the service of the reigning secular culture. The need of Catholic intellectuals to remain relevant to their cultural masters led directly to the development of what we now call theological Modernism. It really is quite astonishing, for Modernism is unconditionally based on only one firm principle: The ever-changing prejudices of the dominant culture determine the meaning of the Christian faith.

Modernism does contain a legitimate insight, namely that the culture of which we are a part does condition our perceptions, our reflections, our ideas and our conclusions in various ways. Those who used this insight in a Catholic way grasped the importance of returning again and again to the sources of the Faith, particularly to Scripture and the Fathers of the Church, and of constant prayer under the tutelage of the Magisterium, in order to avoid becoming entrapped in purely human interpretive systems. In so doing, they could seek fresh insight and apply themselves to those legitimate developments in our understanding that might enable us to communicate the Faith more effectively to the men and women of each time and place.

But those who became Modernists ended by affirming (to the delight of a secular culture) that the fundamental claim of Jesus Christ to transcend history was necessarily false, and that the only possibility for Christian thought was to constantly reshape the actual content of the Faith in accordance with the dominant ideas of each culture. The underlying maxim is that the “truth”—the manner in which goodness is perceived and judged—is completely determined by human culture, placing us under the sole tutelage of the “signs of the times”. But what this really means is that each generation is entirely at the mercy of its own cultural prejudices.

Perhaps to soften this blow against transcendence, though more likely to provide a spiritual justification for so radical a departure from the Faith, Modernists over-emphasize attentiveness to the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit, they assure us, Who alone can lead us to the closest approximation of the truth in our ever-changing culture.

But the Holy Spirit must get along with Modernism very well indeed, for as soon as they claim His inspiration, Modernists invariably conclude that the values and purposes of Christianity, so unfortunately misunderstood by the absolutists of the past, are actually the values and purposes we see coming to the fore today. Thus has Modernist theology provided the great hermeneutical key to espousing whatever the dominant culture wishes to hear.

Under the alleged guidance of the Holy Spirit, relying almost exclusively on the alleged signs of the times, and in defiance of the Magisterium of the Church, Modernism became a path to cultural relevance that could be travelled at need, again and again and again. It became the theological embodiment of the sin of human respect.

Conclusion

The sheer convenience of all this has led huge numbers of Catholic academics, too many bishops, and at least some in Rome to suggest than an insistence on past truths denies the continuing influence of the Holy Spirit. Typically this takes one of three forms: The persons in question openly deny past Catholic teachings; or they reinterpret them in ways that invalidate the previous understanding of the Church herself; or they avoid a painful witness to Christ by choosing only to emphasize whatever Catholic insights are culturally acceptable.

Unfortunately, after a period of decline, the number of such theologians and Catholic leaders is rising once again, as if it were even theoretically possible for the Holy Spirit (as it is for the Modernist) to contradict Himself over time. But the Modernist makes God Himself a victim of human culture, denying even to Him the ability to transcend what those He has created have wrought. Accordingly, evil is declared good, and good evil—the one unforgivable sin, the sin against the very Holy Spirit Modernists pretend to honor (cf. Mt 12:32; Mk 3:29).

This discussion has been a far-ranging one. But the point is that a powerful current of modern thought, including allegedly Catholic thought, is not only dependent on the prejudices of the dominant culture but, according to its own theoretical principles, also deeply and securely rooted in the old and even forgotten sin of human respect. The sin itself is nothing new, nor are the many rationalizations for it. We see both at work again and again in the figures of the Old Testament, just as we see it in Judas Iscariot as he betrays Our Lord to the Jewish elites for 30 pieces of silver. Leave it to our own perverse age, though, to justify human respect as an intellectual theory, a technique for acquiring truth.

I hope it will give us pause to see how this quest for human respect—this subconscious and even sometimes fully-conscious quest for personal relevance among “those who matter”—is treated in the Gospels. We are indebted to St. Matthew and St. Luke (and, by the way, to the Holy Spirit) for taking the trouble to record the treacherous argument by which the very first Modernist, Satan, has captured many a lesser person than Jesus Christ:

  • Luke is clear enough in 4:6-7: “To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours.”
  • But Matthew is even more chilling in 4:9: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

My dear, dear friends: You would be amazed—yes, you would be amazed, had you never thought of it before—how so much that passes for thought, and even so much that passes for goodness, is little more than a reflex conditioned by those whom we are at every moment so seriously tempted to please. This is the sin of human respect. This is what it means to be a respecter of persons. It is what we do—and what we always do—when we seek to resolve the problem of our personal emptiness by turning to anyone other than God.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Oct. 18, 2017 4:19 PM ET USA

    A closely related idea is avoiding contempt like the plague & seeking the applause of men with all one's mind, heart strength & soul. What we are to avoid is grasping for approval, strictly for the sake of ego. Thus, this "respect" is not what one shows others, but instead what one wrongly covets for himself. You approached this topic at the end when you referred to being "seriously tempted to please". It is God alone that we should strive to please & that strictly out of love for Him.

  • Posted by: nix898049 - Oct. 18, 2017 3:26 PM ET USA

    Oh my. On a typical day I will read a number of essays at Catholic websites hoping to gain some increased insight into the practice/truth of the Faith. Yours is the first site I visited today and now I'm going to stop, get my dog, and take a walk to ponder what you and Phil have written. Food for the day. Thank you.

  • Posted by: Dennis Olden - Oct. 17, 2017 7:36 PM ET USA

    This piece mentions 1965, but I refer you to Cambridge MA in 1945-50, and the man who saw all this coming, did his best to stop it, and was persecuted by exalted "respecters of persons": the much-maligned and misunderstood Fr. Feeney.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 17, 2017 7:34 PM ET USA

    We, the baptized must know. Our faith, the gift we ask first of the Church at baptism must be a confident faith. It transcends and it endures. If it doesn't transcend, it (we) will not endure. This enduring knowledge of our faith has always contested with the wisdom of the world. The world and human respect are alluring; they offer immediate and tangible rewards. "Fair is foul and foul is fair" the witches say in Act 1. The phrase is echoed today in the Church- the fruit of human respect.