Shooting the Messenger, Catholic Style

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 06, 2015

A minor brouhaha occasioned by our discussion of morally tainted vaccines is depressingly illustrative of a larger tendency in human nature to shoot the messenger, or perhaps throw the messenger under the bus. It is an almost paradigmatic example, in that some Catholics (though hopefully not most) who have decided to use these vaccines now feel they must condemn the moral position of those who choose not to use them.

Spiritually this kind of response arises from the devil’s manipulation of our pride. Psychologically, it arises from our inveterate desire to be seen as being in the right, especially when our consciences are actually sensitive on the disputed point. Now don’t get me wrong, it is perfectly fine to argue in favor of the decision, in this matter of vaccines, to choose remote material cooperation with the evil, which is morally permissible, and to stress the benefits of widespread vaccination.

But it is not perfectly fine—in fact, it is a serious error—to morally condemn those who elect not to cooperate remotely with evil in this case, based on the perceived consequences of their decision. It is important to remember that while remote material cooperation with evil is permissible, no cooperation with evil can ever be mandatory. Forgetting this causes people to slip into the faulty logic of consequentialism. Only the prudence of the decision is up for legitimate debate.

Symptomatic of Human Nature

What interests me here is not the debate over vaccination, which Phil Lawler and I have already beaten to a pulp (“Thinking morally about vaccinations: My turn!” contains links to all the material). No, what interests me is the pattern of accommodation-followed-by-condemnation which invariably enters into cases of this kind. This is “just human nature”, to be sure, but Christians need to guard against it.

We have seen this pattern again and again throughout history, whenever some Catholics convince themselves (rightly or wrongly) that a certain accommodation with particular evils present in the prevailing culture is morally acceptable. In sixteenth-century England, for example, those Catholics who accommodated themselves to Henry’s divorce or Elizabeth’s enforcement of Anglicanism often criticized those who would not go along as “trouble makers” or as “having no one to blame but themselves” for the suffering they incurred. Their “unnecessary rigorism” or “pious obstinacy,” it was often argued, “give the rest of us a bad name.”

In our own lifetimes we have heard, again and again, the same kind of thing from liberal bishops, theologians, religious, priests and laity who have accommodated themselves either to grave evils such as contraception and abortion or to dubious liturgical practices and weak or even demonstrably faulty religious education programs. Very quickly such people have shifted from lamenting their need to accommodate cultural realities to condemning those who object as troublemakers. Almost in a blink of an eye, those who are willing to suffer in order honor the demands of their consciences are portrayed as the real cause of the problem.

Almost always, those who may hold back more than necessary from the ways of the world are denounced far more vociferously than those who accommodate themselves too much to the ways of the world. This is how people justify their positions, especially when their consciences are at least a little troubled by their own decisions. For those in this position, it is often not enough that they have chosen an acceptable course (if indeed they have not gone too far). No, it is also necessary that those who have been unwilling to go along with them be blamed, usually not just for being “incorrect” but for somehow creating or exacerbating the problem in the first place.

This can work both ways, of course. It is perfectly possible for those who do not wish to “accommodate” themselves to legitimate change to condemn those who are willing to accept the changes or even see the changes as good. This can even lead to a condemnation of the Church by those who consider themselves “holier”, when really what is at work is a corrosive private judgment concerning what can legitimately be changed and what cannot.

But the practice of worldly accommodation (again, legitimate or otherwise), followed by the condemnation of those who choose not to accommodate, is far more pervasive.

Our Own Experience

To grasp this we do not need to look only at general history. We can look at our own experience. How many deeply committed Catholics have refused to participate in a second wedding of a Catholic relative following a secular divorce, only to be treated afterwards as the cause of division in the family because of their “angry, super-religious personalities”? How often has a Catholic woman who has chosen to bear many children been criticized for her “distorted priorities” or her “refusal to recognize” the things her Catholic relatives and friends regard as “essential to a balanced life”? We can almost hear the thought process at work: “She thinks she is better than we are. She gives Catholics a bad name.”

And don’t ask me about the psychological price of good Catholic education! Those who make serious sacrifices to place their children in the best (often independent) Catholic schools, or to home school their children, are constant sources of whispered and non-so-whispered comment. If we take the gossip seriously, these poor souls do not understand how important extra money is for their children’s happiness. They fail to grasp the necessity of key extra-curricular activities. They do not place enough value on “socialization”—horrors! They refuse to prepare their children for “the real world.”

They make the rest of us look bad.

Fruitful discussion or even spirited argument concerning some of these issues is certainly possible and sometimes desirable, and there is no problem with people being confident in their own choices, once they have carefully assessed their morality—as long as we all remember how much we need God’s continuous help! But so often—through insecurity, bad conscience, or temptation—we seem to focus on self-justification. We develop the habit of reassuring ourselves at the expense of others. To be perfectly frank, we make ourselves feel big by insisting that others are small.

The first rule of the Christian life is to know where the specks are, and where the logs. It is a rule too often observed only in the breach. No wonder a prophet is without honor in his own country, among his own kin, and even in his own house!

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: ForOthers8614 - Feb. 09, 2015 12:24 AM ET USA

    I often find myself choked up when reciting or singing, "Blest are you, who suffer hate, all because of me." I do not wrap myself in some mantle of righteousness nor think that I did nothing worthy of condemnation. I do rejoice and am glad that I can serve the Kingdom in some small way. My tears, nevertheless, are for the suffering that my family has endured at the hands my fellow Catholics who objected to my meager attempts to be faithful.