On Our Dangerous Need for Enemies
Give me a good whipping boy, and I’ll give you a popular article. Even our own readership numbers bear this out. When we write about, say, the nature of the New Evangelization, numbers go down; if we identify and critique those who stand in the way of the New Evangelization, the numbers soar. Explaining positively what the Church teaches causes readership to plunge. But attacking someone who distorts Catholic teaching will always pump the numbers right back up again.
There are a number of reasons for this. Some of them are even good reasons. For example, concrete writing is almost always more interesting than abstract writing; and a good story is typically more enjoyable than a philosophical treatise. When one’s stock in trade is ideas, as mine certainly is, the easiest way to make one’s work at once more concrete and more dramatic is to pick an enemy and go after him. This element of confrontation, this hint of battle, contributes both characters and plot. The resulting conflict captures the attention and holds it, right through to the end.
But there are bad reasons for the journalistic appeal of conflict, too, especially in Catholic circles. We know that many things are wrong in the Church and the world, and when something is wrong we instinctively attempt to identify the cause. In a highly polarized Church and society such as ours—a Church and society caught up in the narrative convenience of “the culture wars”—we tend to start off on one side or the other, and we tend to ascribe responsibility for anything wrong to those on the opposite side. But this tendency goes even deeper. Whenever anything goes wrong, it best suits all of our subconscious motivations to find a cause outside ourselves. We want either a clearly-defined enemy, or a scapegoat.
Once the enemy is defined, every account which includes the enemy becomes more interesting. We can follow essays, articles and the news itself with much of the enjoyment associated with sports. We acquire a rooting interest; we want to know who has scored points, and under what circumstances, and whether our team has been robbed by the Officials—the editors of a major newspaper, for example, or some judge or politician, or our local bishop, or perhaps even the Pope. Now our own lives become invested with both characters and plot. The categories of opposition keep things neat and simple, and the struggle provides a kind of framework for assessing our own self-worth. This way of interacting with the Church and the world has motivational value and adds significant zest to life.
But it is a bad paradigm for a Christian.
The Real Roaring Lion
I find this topic awkward because, as I’ve argued elsewhere (see The New Evangelization: What Does It Look Like?), I believe the warfare paradigm which has dominated even the Church in recent decades needs to be rather deliberately set aside. This is a matter of wanting to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem as the Church continues to strengthen. Even spiritually shallow souls have no trouble exacerbating divisions and playing the blame game. It takes greater maturity to remain focused on the mission of the Church without making facile distinctions between friends and enemies. We need to avoid getting lost in old judgments about past situations, and instead promote for everyone a fresh engagement with Jesus Christ as He communicates Himself through His Church.
This shift is not about acquiescing in a fear to express the truth, for Christ remains the Truth. Rather, it is about overcoming a fear to love. In a sense, we must simply remember who the enemy is. The drama of our lives is not really played out between heresy and orthodoxy, still less between liberal and conservative, but between Jesus Christ and Satan. The bedrock reality is that we do not approach enemies and those we love in the same way, and so if we love our “enemies” (as Our Lord commands), we can no longer deal with them as enemies, set apart by denunciation and vituperation, but only with a love strong enough to make us vulnerable.
We must remember, in fact, that the same enemy seeks all of our souls together. This is the basis for St. Peter’s advice:
Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”…Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. [1 Pet 5:5-11]
There are characters here, and drama—all those highly interesting things! But where in this do we find the facile divisions on which we have come to depend? Where are the familiar battle lines? Where the means to measure our status? Where the security of belonging to the right group? Where the self-righteousness? Where the triumphalism?
Truly must God help us, for we do so love these things.
But for us at CatholicCulture.org, I think this presents a special kind of problem. Even as we are pilloried by some for writing “ignorant and sappy” columns like this one, we must increasingly learn to write helpful and engaging articles that do not depend so heavily on the old divisions that have so long marred our beloved Church. We Catholics are hovering on the edge, I think, not of a final disintegration, but of a long and sacrificial ascent toward renewed Catholic unity. If this is true, then we need to be very careful about our old enmities. If we wish to bear fruit for Christ, then now more than ever we must put off not the old enemies but the old man.
We will certainly still have arguments to make and positions to advance. But might we not be well-advised to consider once again the words of St. Paul to the Ephesians?
Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore, putting away falsehood, let everyone speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. [Eph 4:22-27]
I know it sounds bland. That’s my problem. All of us, together, need to prove that it is not.
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Posted by: jg23753479 -
Nov. 26, 2013 7:17 AM ET USA
Actually, CC.org can provide real satisfaction, that of finding the right path, but we often realize this only after the fact. A case in point: When the controversy surrounding the pope's interviews started, I got all wound up in the "Is he a conservative/liberal?" controversies (mostly on the Internet). Thanks to your site and its ''bland'' essays, I discovered a pope who is, first of all, a person with his own style and tastes. I dumped all the political mumbo-jumbo, and I'm happier for that.
Posted by: bkmajer3729 -
Nov. 26, 2013 12:30 AM ET USA
Thanks Dr. Jeff! This is a very good piece. Great courage is required to look inside and see the weakness might just be within my own heart. We can always so easily see the "problem" out there but forget we live in this world inside the very arena of the struggle. Our perspective must be skewed because we can't get outside or above it...yet. But we can look inside our heart to see how our love compares with the model Christ gives us. The challenge is my making the effort to change.