Holiness, always personal and over against the world
On almost any day of the year, we will hear reports that religious leaders have urged political leaders to recognize the moral imperative to take particular positions on contested prudential issues. (Urgent appeals to oppose intrinsic evils are actually far less common, but that is not my topic today.) In today’s news, a classic example is found in this headline: Faith leaders call for urgent climate change action.
Another example came in an email from a woman religious who supports CatholicCulture.org. She wrote that in her community there is considerable pressure right now to take a position against bombing in Syria:
I always cringe, in religious life, when it comes to the need our sisters feel that all of us should be involved (and speak out, in fact) in the political venue. Case in point today: our leader/sisters are now “united” in questioning the use of force against the Syrian chemical gas attacks….
As I wrote earlier this week in Political holiness?, “While we must not intend or promote political evil, and while we must be good in everything we do, holiness not only can but must be separated from politics. It must not be conceived in political terms.”
There are two reasons for this. The one I attempted to express in my previous essay is that most of the issues brought up in the political order are at once large, complex and legitimately controversial (as all prudential questions are)—so much so, in fact, that only three things about them are certain: (a) We do not have reliable and complete sources of information about them; (b) Even if we did we could not possibly fully understand their causes and solutions; and, (c) We cannot accurately predict the side-effects of whatever policies we implement. (Again, please note that I am priscinding from addressing intrinsic moral evils in this essay.)
The result of the politicization of holiness, then, is that false moral imperatives are constantly in play. We are told that we absolutely must advocate X or protest Y. And since we do not fully understand the nature, circumstances, and causes of either X or Y, nor the full impact of our proposed solutions, we latch on to one or more of the false certainties we find floating around in a malformed culture. More often than not, we take the positions we have been told to take by whatever public opinion is most fashionable. In one respect or another, then, we are nearly always at least partially wrong.
Personal, not political
I have said that we must always be good, even when acting politically. But political decisions are nearly always prudential judgments based on incomplete information. Moreover, their purpose is only ostensibly to promote the common good. There may be any number of nationally, politically or personally selfish interest in play which are cleverly masked beneath the rhetoric and data supporting one position or another. It is hard enough to differentiate these things in small communities, even in families—indeed, even within ourselves. It is all but impossible to do so with certainty within large systems, in which almost nobody has either first-hand experience or comprehensive knowledge.
Finally, politics embraces the “art of the possible” for whole societies. We must assess the capacity for both goodness and sacrifice on the part of the larger community. Politics imposes change, restriction and sacrifice not primarily on ourselves, but upon those for whom we presume to decide.
This brings us to the second reason for not conceiving holiness in political terms. Holiness is a personal characteristic not a political posture. The work of holiness must be done quietly within ourselves, and it is already hard enough to assess our own capacity for goodness and sacrifice in giving direction to our own lives. This is why one of the best parts of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate is the section in Chapter 1 (“The Call to Holines”) entitled “For You Too”. Here are some brief excerpts:
15. Let the grace of your baptism bear fruit in a path of holiness. Let everything be open to God; turn to him in every situation. Do not be dismayed, for the power of the Holy Spirit enables you to do this, and holiness, in the end, is the fruit of the Holy Spirit in your life (cf. Gal 5:22-23).
16. This holiness to which the Lord calls you will grow through small gestures. Here is an example: a woman goes shopping, she meets a neighbour and they begin to speak, and the gossip starts. But she says in her heart: “No, I will not speak badly of anyone”. This is a step forward in holiness.
17. At times, life presents great challenges. Through them, the Lord calls us anew to a conversion that can make his grace more evident in our lives, “in order that we may share his holiness” (Heb 12:10). At other times, we need only find a more perfect way of doing what we are already doing: “There are inspirations that tend solely to perfect in an extraordinary way the ordinary things we do in life”.
18. In this way, led by God’s grace, we shape by many small gestures the holiness God has willed for us, not as men and women sufficient unto ourselves but rather “as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Pet 4:10).
On the same personal level, there is the following from the subsection entitled “Activity that Sanctifies”:
28. Needless to say, anything done out of anxiety, pride or the need to impress others will not lead to holiness. We are challenged to show our commitment in such a way that everything we do has evangelical meaning and identifies us all the more with Jesus Christ.
And finally, from Chapter 3 (“In the Light of the Master”, on the Beatitudes), Pope Francis emphasizes the following in the section on “The Great Criterion”:
98. If I encounter a person sleeping outdoors on a cold night, I can view him or her as an annoyance, an idler, an obstacle in my path, a troubling sight, a problem for politicians to sort out, or even a piece of refuse cluttering a public space. Or I can respond with faith and charity, and see in this person a human being with a dignity identical to my own, a creature infinitely loved by the Father, an image of God, a brother or sister redeemed by Jesus Christ. That is what it is to be a Christian! Can holiness somehow be understood apart from this lively recognition of the dignity of each human being?
Holiness is tested not through our political response to statistical problems, but through our personal response to the people we actually encounter in our daily life.
We need to meditate on the fundamentally personal and even private dimensions of holiness—the battles we fight within our own hearts, the results of which directly impact our personal relationships. Most of us will have very few opportunities to grow in holiness through political advocacy. Moreover, whenever our advocacy is merely an echo of a position approved by our culture of reference—to which we are drawn by our desire to see and be seen—the impact will be just the opposite. We should leave that for the moments when we can bear the kind of witness that leads to worldly derision and condemnation.
Instead, we must capture the spirit of the Pope’s closing paragraph:
177. It is my hope that these pages will prove helpful by enabling the whole Church to devote herself anew to promoting the desire for holiness. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us a fervent longing to be saints for God’s greater glory, and let us encourage one another in this effort. In this way, we will share a happiness that the world will not be able to take from us.
Note that the Pope speaks of happiness, not satisfaction. Holiness is always personally costly and always over against the world. This must be grasped in the Biblical sense, that is, in contrast to the dominant worldly opinions from which we derive so much reassurance and pride—and through which we are seduced into distancing ourselves ever further from the Kingdom of God.
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