Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Advice that cuts both ways (or Ecclesiastical Gamesmanship)

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 02, 2021

I am hoping the time will come soon when those bishops and theologians who prefer to think with the dominant culture will be ignored as fundamentally duplicitous and even abusive. Consider two news stories which illustrate a seemingly deliberate inversion of the truth to produce results that are manifestly opposed to the Gospel.

First, take this apparently innocuous story: Pope-emeritus Benedict warns against ‘flight into pure doctrine,’ Vatican spokesman emphasizes. It seems that the editorial director of the Vatican Dicastery for Communication wanted to put into a particular context Benedict’s rather striking public expression of concern that the German “synodal path” is essentially off the rails, suffering from what for Catholics must be an “inner contradiction”. In other words, the goals of many Catholics in Germany are incompatible with the Catholic Faith.

But Andrea Tornielli’s remarks actually seem to twist Benedict’s intentions, perhaps seeking to bring the Pope Emeritus into line with the likely thinking of Pope Francis—in other words, suggesting that Catholic practice must not reflect “pure doctrine” so much as the lived experience and values of the community which, in effect, deny that doctrine. To the contrary, everything we know about the prior statements and writings of the Pope Emeritus suggest that his whole point was that we cannot have “pure doctrine” on the one hand and a living faith on the other, as if the two can coexist happily in contradiction: “Yes, yes, the Church teaches X, but real human persons in real human situations look to that only as a kind of ideal.”

This would be a specious flight into pure doctrine—the artificial separation of doctrinal formulations from lived Catholicism, the separation of what we might call an ideal orthodoxy from the complexities of a real “orthopraxis”. But we know from long experience that this is a theological-sociological game, the goal of which is to embrace within the Church those culturally accepted sins which, in shameful reality, too many Catholic voices actually portray as goods. In other words, this shifts the proper goal from loving the sinner to protecting and encouraging the sin.

It is an example of advice which cuts both ways, if we will but allow it to do so. We can pretend that a “flight into pure doctrine” is an artificial clinging to Catholic truth without any sympathy for human weakness, and it is very convenient to maintain such a pretense. This creates a straw man, very easy to knock down. But the real “cut” of Benedict’s advice, of course, is that we cannot separate doctrine from life precisely because we must strive to have our faith in Christ’s teachings inform our behavior, and not the other way around.

Divisions over the Eucharist

Or take another equally common example from another apparently innocuous news story: US bishops’ Eucharist document should unite, not divide, the Church, panelists advise. This is something picked up from the Catholic News Service. But what does it mean for a document to “unite”—a concept which, once again, cuts two ways?

We live today within an ecclesiastical culture in which the “unite” argument is always trotted out precisely to justify the failure to bear effective witness to Catholic faith and morals. It is considered divisive to insist on the actual deliberate implementation of Catholic truth, because we cannot expect people to go along with it. Would not such insistence be, again, a misconstrued flight into pure doctrine? But there is no unity when statements are formulated to ignore divisions. The whole point of being a Catholic is to bear witness to the truths revealed by Christ and taught by the Church precisely so there can be true unity of mind and heart. There is no value to a witness that seeks unity by ensuring that Catholics will avail themselves of a false freedom to believe whatever they want and to act on whatever set of beliefs they choose.

No, the only thing this accomplishes—and we have had plenty of it over the past two generations or so—is the paralysis of the Church while she is bleeding souls into the secularist pool. A Church which refuses to unite around Christ as a sign of contradiction is a Church with a truly diabolical wish for death. By promoting a false culture-based unity, by once again separating orthodoxy from orthopraxis, she signs her own death warrant. We usually call the lust for social acceptance “relevance”, when what we are really talking about is the approval of those who matter in this world.

Siding with the winner

The enormously popular mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner, who created Perry Mason, told fairly good stories in fairly bad prose. Nonetheless, in his 1933 Case of the Sulky Girl he managed to pen the following:

In many there is implanted a sporting instinct to side with the underdog, but this is in man, the individual. Mob psychology is different from individual psychology, and the psychology of the pack is to tear down the weaker and devour the wounded. Man may sympathize with the underdog, but he wants to side with the winner.

The whole problem of the Catholic Church is that, one way or another, it is her lot to side with the ultimate underdog—the Crucified—against the constant tantrums of worldly people who will not be associated with Him unless He approves and encourages their desires. Accordingly, these same worldly people criticize witness to Christian Faith as a “flight into pure doctrine” and any witness to Christian Morals as (all together, on 3) DIVISIVE.

But Catholics are not supposed to flee into pure doctrine; they are supposed to live that doctrine in a continuing act of love. Nor are they to seek a unity rooted in opposition to what is true: “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Lk 12:51). It is easy for the insincere to take the Gospel out of context, so that it can cut either way. Our job is to know which way Our Lord is seeking to cut.

So one final example: When our Lord explains that His followers are like salt, which, if it loses its savor, is fit only to be trampled under foot (Mt 5:13), we may think we can do very well in this world as Christians. But that is not at all the direction of His cut, for He is not speaking of what the worldly will do to us in this life, which is to honor us not when we are as faithful as savory salt but rather when we lose that savor by abandoning the Faith. Instead, He is explaining how His Father will judge us for life eternal.

The key to the puzzle is Our Lord’s injunction which begins, “I will warn you whom to fear” (Luke 12). This is the key to spotting which way the truth really cuts, whenever it is used to cut the other way.

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 See full bio.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: ILM - Aug. 09, 2021 4:32 PM ET USA

    If abortion were suddenly to disappear from earth, it would be a good bet that COVID and global warming would follow them out the door. The Old Testament prophets warned the world to change their ways to no avail. The Church must be a modern day prophet and bluntly warn the world.

  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - Aug. 03, 2021 10:37 PM ET USA

    “A Church which refuses to unite around Christ as a sign of contradiction is a Church with a truly diabolical wish for death.” Well put.

  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - Aug. 03, 2021 10:02 AM ET USA

    This is masterfully clear and concise language stating the problem that certain bishops are loathe to admit. The shameful and, frankly, ghastly repudiation of the faith they would ask us to swallow is beyond belief. Unfortunately the world is dominated by those who want to act on whatever beliefs they choose.