Hardened sinners? Perhaps more than you think.
In last week’s commentary (Church in crisis: The scourge of a sycophantic society), I called a significant portion of the nominally Catholic laity “hardened sinners”. As I explained it:
A “sycophant” is a “servile flatterer”. So a sycophantic community would be a community in which leaders and followers tell each other what they want to hear. In a Catholic sycophantic community, we call such leaders “false prophets”. And we call their followers “hardened sinners”.
A few readers found “hardened sinners” to be an unfairly harsh description of those misled by clergy and religious who no longer adhere to the Catholic faith—and for those who are honestly duped, this is true. But by my definition—and I think most often in reality—it is not too harsh, for leaders and followers “tell each other what they want to hear”. Followers really do want to be in tune with the dominant culture, to the point of openly mocking those who are faithful to Christ. Leaders, of course, want the worldly adulation which goes with conformity to the dominant culture, expect it as their due, and are seldom disappointed.
We cannot hope for authentic renewal in the Church if we close our eyes to this evil symbiosis. While some have adopted an objectively evil way of life unwittingly, because they have been led astray, a great many more have simply looked for a justification for doing what they already really wanted to do. We cannot claim always to know the difference, but in our contemporary case of “symbiotic sycophancy”, we are not talking in the main about people who have first and foremost fallen into specific doctrinal errors. Doctrinal errors are more likely to be an after-thought.
Differences over specific doctrines were more likely to be primary in an earlier period, for Protestants who had been carefully taught to reject the claims of the Church’s doctrinal authority while still committing themselves to the teachings they discerned in Scripture. But today we are talking about a massive rejection of the natural law, which all men and women sense to some extent “in their bones”. Therefore, they feel uneasy about it at least occasionally. Even if we grant a major role to leaders in clouding the judgment of the “rank and file”, this rejection is occasioned primarily by sexual temptation and pride.
People really are looking for rationalizations. Worse still, their comfort in error demands the constant ridicule and condemnation of those who buck the trend and try to uphold the Good. Many such persons really are hardened sinners, striving mightily to avoid any possible contradiction to the choices they have made—that is, deliberately avoiding the light. Or, as John the Evangelist put it:
And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God. (Jn 3:19-21)
Think about it. When persons are open to moral wisdom, to grace and truth, they are willing to consider seriously moral claims made against them; they wish to make sure the course they have set is justified. But that is not what we find in those who are both in and of the world. Instead, we find hidden deeds, constant lies, deliberate distortions in order to dismiss what is good, covered ears, and constant ridicule (at best) of the messenger. This is not what it means to be confused, but closed. This is the behavior of those who are hardened sinners.
I grant, of course, that many people behave foolishly and without due consideration. They may have fallen into bad moral habits somewhat haphazardly, as it were, lacking not only proper instruction but even reasonable reflection. As people mature, they may begin to ask the right questions. But in those who are not hardened, ridicule of the good quickly gives way at least to a kind of secret sympathy—a sympathy which fosters silence in the raucous crowd, and deeper consideration.
A long history of dangerous attitudes
In reading the new definitive biography of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, I was somewhat surprised to learn that as a newly minted parish priest, Joseph Ratzinger began to see that the Catholics of the 1950s had already fallen into paganism, being Catholic largely in name only. At the age of 31, he published an article entitled “The New Pagans and the Church”, in which he wrote:
[The Catholic community] is in an entirely new way a Church of pagans. No longer, as once long ago, a Church of pagans who have become Christians, but a Church of pagans who still call themselves Christians but in reality have become pagans. [quoted in Elio Guerriero, Benedict XVI: His Life and Thought, p. 87]
As his biographer summarizes the problem, the people still participated in the rites of the Church but, following social conventions, their thoughts and hearts were immersed in lifestyles that “were certainly not informed by the Gospel”. This was well before the 1960s swept even more of the natural law away. Catholics had been sowing the wind for a long time, and were beginning already to reap the whirlwind (Hos 8:7). But after a lifetime of perceptive teaching on Ratzinger’s part, who will argue that the spiritual state of the members of the body of Christ has improved?
Has there not been an ever more concerted effort by hardened sinners, at every level, to control the Church?
In the Old Testament, we find a long period of time in which the LORD attempted to win the wayward by taking into account some minor good that they did and so postponing the punishments He threatened. Very often the only result was that this or that worldly leader was glad in his heart, because the wrath would fall not on himself but on his descendants! But in later prophets we see a change. One example comes from Ezekiel, to whom the LORD says:
What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sins shall die. [Ez 18:2-4]
The passage goes on to specify that the one who either does good always or repents from his sin and turns to good will be saved, but the one who does evil always or turns away from the good into sin, without turning back before he dies, will be lost. This, as we know, is the Christian view. Each of us bears responsibility for accepting and acting on the grace made so abundant through Jesus Christ. The appropriate caveat is simply that more is expected from those who have been given more. Consider the parables of the Sower (Mt 13:1-23; Lk 8:4-15) and of the Talents (Mt 25:14-30; Lk 19:11-27).
It is certainly true that we are all guilty, inasmuch we have all sinned (Rm 3:23). It is also true that Christ’s mercy is on continuous offer. There is never any room for self-righteousness. But we need to be realistic about that hardening of the heart which results in the rejection of mercy. This must not be taken lightly.
In any case, leaders are nothing without a willing rank and file. It is extraordinarily perilous to assume that all will be well for those who are only followers in the rebellion against Christ which marks the Church today.
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Posted by: feedback -
Nov. 28, 2018 6:56 AM ET USA
Thank you for the two articles. Perhaps the Divine plan for the papacy of Francis is to challenge and correct the widespread attitudes of “sycophants” and “servile flatterers”?
Posted by: joy -
Nov. 27, 2018 9:58 PM ET USA
Right on! People scoff when I say the 50s were not a golden age. It was a false time, a time of pretending all was good. It was only after I ran down the crowded path but was saved by my awesome God that I was able to look back and see the reality. How far can we go to maximize pleasure, power, wealth, etc without going to hell? Of course we looked for the answers we wanted to hear. Yes, hardened sinners is valid. Today many don’t really believe in hell.
Posted by: gbrisebois1656 -
Nov. 27, 2018 6:49 PM ET USA
Spot on as usual, Dr Jeff.