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On the Spiritual Growth of Larry and Carl and...Us

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 28, 2014

I have a friend named Larry who is as secular and as liberal as they come. He thinks religious dogma divides people, preventing them from reaching out to each other in their common humanity. He is convinced that science is the key to human progress. I have another friend named Carl who is about as severely Christian as Larry is secular (at least without being an old-fashioned Calvinist). He is instinctively drawn to both liturgical solemnity and the intellectual precision of scholastic theology, and he sets a very high standard for what it means to be a proper Catholic. Let’s take a slightly closer look at Larry and Carl.

Larry the Secular Liberal

Larry is an interesting case because, without his knowing it, so many of his ideas are still influenced by the worldview developed in the Western world through the influence of Christianity. He believes, for example, that the notion of an ordered universe comes from science, when it is really a precondition for the development of science, and he has not yet twigged to the fact that our modern materialist view of man—which reduces him to accidental chemical reactions and processes—is just the first step toward the elimination of any sense of order at all, including a common sense of humanity.

But Larry was permitted to choose any religion or no religion as he was growing up, and he quickly concluded that religious dogma is annoying, demanding and divisive. He also sensed that there is something right and even wonderful about a commitment to what we would call, in a more Patriarchal age, the brotherhood of man. Larry really is concerned about human equality; he wants to make the world a better place for everybody. He seems to possess a natural appreciation for the common good, at least at the social level. He sees the value of pure air and pure water, for example. It has to be said, however, that he is predictably blind to the value of pure people, by which I mean especially chastity. For example, he doesn’t connect traditional sexual morality, life-long fidelity in marriage, and the importance of strong families with the common good at all.

Although those goods which Larry recognizes are important to him, he has little interest in how one might learn more about what is good. Also, no matter how his perceptions change over time, he is not likely to entertain doubts about whether they are correct. He does not ask why these perceptions are what they are; they are simply obvious—he takes them for granted. He certainly has no sense that the human person was created by God and might therefore come with a set of instructions from the maker which are the key to the proper operation of the person. So oblivious is Larry to the notion that some human behavior might be prescribed by authority that he even ignores the owner’s manual for his car. For example, at one point when he was out of oil, he became convinced through his own natural perceptions that molasses would work just as well as the prescribed lubricant.

Larry is very happy as a self-made man. He is absolutely free to do as he pleases, and quite proud of the fact. He takes considerable satisfaction in possessing a view of the world so complete and unbiased as his own. Perhaps the only thing that can be said against Larry’s happiness is that when things go wrong, Larry does not seem to recognize why they go wrong. To continue the previous example, Larry is a pedestrian. He blames the auto maker (in whom he apparently still believes) for making a bad car.

Carl the Catholic

Carl presents a very different picture. He takes to religious authority like a duck takes to water. He delights in the traditions of his Catholic ancestors, accepts the teachings of the Church, keeps the commandments, and knows he is on the path to salvation. Carl has also found a parish that fulfills his own appreciation for reverent liturgy and meaty theological sermons; it is a magnet for like-minded strong Catholics throughout the local area. The priest thinks much as he does, extraneous parish programs are kept to a minimum, and at least he does not have to deal with constant misunderstandings and conflicts in the pews. Life is good.

In fact, Carl enjoys a Catholic life free of tension and complexity. When he sees problems in the world around him, he recognizes immediately that if only everyone would accept his own fortunate understanding of the “Catholic way”, these problems would disappear. He knows that it is sin that leads to suffering, and he shakes his head in wonder that so many people refuse to follow the simple rules that will make things right. He is ready and even eager to explain in considerable detail not only the ideal form of Catholic worship and parish organization, but the specifically Catholic political, social and economic forms society must adopt to form a world in which all is as it should be.

Sometimes Carl is startled by news of Catholic friends who have fallen into depression, or of apparently good Catholic families whose children have problems, or of marriages breaking apart among couples whom he thought had the same values as himself. Most often, he dismisses these issues as the inevitable result of some lack of orthodoxy or mistaken emphasis which he has taken pains to avoid. When he marries, he intends to ensure that his wife too is an orthodox Catholic, and that she grasps the full implications of Catholicism as he has so successfully worked them out in his own life. He will instruct his children in the very same way, down to each detail.

As it turns out, Carl also treats his automobile very differently from Larry. He performs routine maintenance precisely according to the manual. When it needs repair, he takes it to a qualified mechanic. When he trades up, he sticks to the same ideal brand and model. Like Larry, Carl is very satisfied with his life. He is proud of his sensible and systematic approach to things and, looking back, he finds his past decisions very good. Therefore, not unmindful of his Creator, Carl gives regular thanks that he is not like other men.

Close to the Kingdom of God?

The question inevitably arises. Which man—Larry or Carl—is closer to God? I am not asking which has the greater opportunities for spiritual growth, but which has responded more fully to the grace he has received. Which one is further along the path of union with God?

In doing these two character sketches, I have made it fairly obvious that Larry passes his days with no appreciation for formal religion, but with at least some commitment to the natural goods he has come to perceive. And I have made it fairly obvious that Carl really does recognize that Catholicism offers a superior basis for a full life, but he has a rather naïve and self-satisfied approach to it. Carl seems to embrace Catholic life primarily as a natural attachment, missing the dynamism, the drama and the suffering that ought to purify both his motives and his faith.

I have painted both men, though in very different ways, as far too self-satisfied, and even pharisaical in a certain smugness (the reference to Luke 18:11 is explicit, of course, in the second vignette). I hope that the reader saw in Carl the classic Pharisee as captured in the brilliant seventeenth-century poem by Richard Crashaw; but Larry also got his poetic comeuppance from the equally perceptive Alice Meynell in the twentieth century (see both little poems in my brief City Gates piece from 2012, The Modern Pharisee). So I repeat the question: Which one of these men is closer to God? To which might Our Lord have said, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God” (Mk 12:34)?

Now, if you see a cheap Catholic trick at work here, and so you want to choose Carl because he has a greater intellectual possession of the truth, then I think you are wrong. But if you see in all this a kind of double-blind, and have decided that the purpose of my question is to expose a certain sort of Catholic, which leads you to choose Larry, well then I think you are wrong as well. Because the answer is that we simply do not know. It is impossible to tell. As depicted, neither can claim the insight of the scribe who won Our Lord’s praise in the twelfth chapter of Mark’s gospel (cited above). You will recall that Our Lord had just answered the question about the greatest commandment, and a scribe in the crowd exclaimed over how wonderful that answer was:

And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and there is no other but he; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” [Mk 12:32-33]

But neither Larry nor Carl give any evidence of such wholehearted love, either of God or of man, though the interest in man seems greater for Larry, and the interest in God seems greater for Carl.

Are We There Yet?

Indeed, the point of my portrayal of these two personalities was to indicate that both have thus far done little more than follow their own natural inclinations, by whatever combination of heredity and environment those inclinations were formed. And the deeper point is that to be superficially attached to the right things (that is, to find them pleasant, to be untempted to forsake them for something else) says little or nothing about our personal holiness. It is, in fact, something of a cottage industry among the spiritually shallow even in Catholic circles to confuse tastes with virtue, and consolations with holiness. Moreover, even advanced souls must work continually to overcome varying manifestations of spiritual obtuseness and pride.

Those who would go deeper simply must go by way of the Garden of Gethsemane, where our tastes are forsaken, and our consolations withdrawn. One way to do this, of course, is through obedience to the Church, and this is especially effective for all those who are tempted to ignore the Church, who do not find themselves attracted to the Church, who do not wish to submit themselves to any spiritual authority—especially one so deeply uncongenial to prevailing fashions as the Church. A careful exploration of the claims of the Church is just what Larry needs, and that exploration could begin with almost any self-exploration, including the question of how he really knows anything that he thinks he knows, or loves anything that he thinks he loves. To love his neighbors, Larry needs to begin to love God.

But what of Carl? For those who are easily attracted to Catholic piety, proud of Catholic doctrine, fascinated by Catholic theology, or consoled by whatever beauties they happen to find in this or that form of Catholic worship—for them, the case is not so simple. Paradoxically, those who are most comfortable within the Church will actually need to turn outward to others. They must listen carefully to the foolishness of others, to their complaints, their joys, their sorrows, and also to whatever wisdom they have attained. In this way, they can begin to see what it is like to approach the Church when that does not come easily. They must learn to differentiate their easy personal attachments, which have made them feel superior, from the perfection of the cross. To love God, Carl must learn to love his neighbors—in all their obvious deficiencies and unexpected strengths.

The next time we Catholics listen to the strange and frequently unsettling words of Pope Francis, especially his recommendations for evangelization, we should probably think of Carl. But in any case, “to love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” This is true, and it is precisely this that puts us “not far” from the Kingdom of God. The rest, as we ought to know by now, is supplied by Christ. But it is a grave presumption to seek the Resurrection without the cross of love.

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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