Contentious Spirits, Beware!

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 30, 2014

For many years, as a much younger man, I far too frequently interpreted my tendency to criticize and complain about others as evidence of my great zeal for the truth. I am well aware of the huge shock this admission will produce in those who read my work now. All right-thinking readers today surely recognize my incredible restraint and reluctance to find fault! More seriously, let me just say that we strive for balance, fairness and generosity in disagreements here at CatholicCulture.org, even though our example is imperfect. Or at least mine is.

Moreover, I would be false to the purposes of our work if I did not also admit that a great many of our Sound Off! comments, not to mention the private emails we receive, tend to reflect our own worst example. It sometimes seems as if those most likely to comment share two common convictions: (a) There is nothing good to be said for either the ideas or the persons with whom they disagree; and (b) They can immeasurably enrich the lives of other readers by uttering the same complaint or condemnation on every possible occasion.

Worse still, whenever we tend to view everything through the lens of our own disgruntlement, we find ourselves repeating the same criticism or complaint, regardless of its strict relevance to the topic at hand. This reminds me of Cato the Elder, who ended every speech to the Roman Senate with the pronouncement: “Carthago delenda est” (Carthage must be destroyed). Cato may have had good reason to be a man of one idea. But for most of us, it is a grave spiritual risk.

Three Dangers

The first danger is that a preoccupation with our own discontents warps our judgment. As I hinted above, it causes us to approach everything with one central question in mind: Where does this person, in a given presentation, stand with respect to my own special concern? Does he: (1) directly contradict the validity of my concern; (2) treat a topic without acknowledging my concern; (3) emphasize something positive on a subject where my own concern might apply; or (4) discuss an issue that has nothing whatsoever to do with my special concern?

The resulting conclusions run as follows. In the first case, my concern is important enough to consider the person to be morally bankrupt. In the second, he has demonstrated abysmal ignorance. In the third, he is actively blinding people to the real nature of things. And in the fourth, he is a veritable Nero, irrationally fiddling while Rome burns. Conveniently, I can cut and paste my comment with only minor syntactical changes. But all I have really proved is that my preoccupations have warped my judgment.

The second danger, and one that applies particularly among Catholics who are disgruntled with ecclesiastical leadership, is that of scandal. It amazes me that some people can comment again and again that the Church is faulty in one way or another, that the bishops are typically woefully deficient, that the Pope is either a knave or a fool, or that anyone who disagrees with such characterizations is blind to impending disaster—and they do this without any apparent concern that it may give others a very bad impression of Catholicism.

Reasoned discussion of difficulties is, of course, unobjectionable. In fact it is generally both good and necessary. But invective, a tone of disgust, rash judgments, and frequent carping have one of four effects on others, especially if not yet serene in their faith. Thus those who see or hear these comments might judge the Church unworthy of further consideration because even Catholics say it is a mess. Or they may be put off by a Church which is incapable of fostering greater peace and charity in its members. Or, if they have exactly the right personality, they may adopt a fundamentally rotten perspective as the full truth.

Finally, many struggling souls have been quenched like smoldering wicks or crushed like bruised reeds, having received abuse for their efforts at spiritual reflection. It is tough to begin to forge spiritual understanding and to seek greater depth, only to feel summarily dismissed for a misplaced modifier, or a false step.

The third danger of habitual criticism and condemnation is that it represents an unchecked spiritual deficiency in ourselves—a vice all the more difficult to recognize because it masquerades as a virtue. As I suggested earlier, I am well able to draw this lesson from my own life. But it will be more fruitful to turn to Scripture.

What Scripture Says

There are some wonderful proverbs which suggest the negative impact of this deficiency on others. Several of them use quarrelsome wives to make their point, mostly in variations on this theme: “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a contentious woman” (cf., Prv 21:9, 21:19, 25:24). But my favorite in this genre is: “A continual dripping on a rainy day and a contentious woman are alike; to restrain her is to restrain the wind or to grasp oil in his right hand” (Prv 27:15-16).

If the Church is the house of God, or if the Church is fruitfully considered as feminine, we had all better be on our guard! But perhaps the following proverb expresses the dangers best: “For lack of wood the fire goes out; and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases. As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife” (26:20-21).

St. Paul told Titus, an early bishop, to remind the faithful “to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for any honest work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy to all” (Tit 3:1-2). He also insisted in his letter to Timothy that bishops must be “not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome” (1 Tm 3:3). And to the Romans he advised:

love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor…be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer…. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty…never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. [Rom 12:9-18]

Paul also told the Romans that those who are patient in well-doing will receive eternal life, “but for those who are factious…there will be wrath and fury” (Rom 2:6-8). There is also his famous passage in Philippians, which in some translations begins with “Avoid a contentious spirit” (Phil 2:14). This gave me my title, but the RSV-CE renders it as follows:

Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. [Phil 2:14-16]

Perhaps this is sufficient. But if anyone is not convinced of the grave spiritual dangers in habits of criticism, complaint, detraction, calumny and every form of gossip, let him read the letter of St. James. One single sentence seems pointed enough: “If anyone thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man's religion is vain” (Jam 1:26).

Yet it is not all. Beware especially the entire third chapter, the one which likens the tongue to the rudder of a great ship. We must read it as if in the dock, under indictment. Its verdict is as harsh as it is inescapable. For, to tell the whole truth, we are all guilty as charged.

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: skall391825 - Nov. 04, 2014 1:49 PM ET USA

    Jeff, we are loyal to Francis and we thank God that you and Phil are here for us. But, most of us no longer suffer from clericalism and will no longer stand by silently and watch our Church successfully attacked, mocked and destroyed by Socialists and militant homosexuals, as has been the case for 50 years! I believe that is why Francis told us to make a "mess". Get used to it, my friend, and, OK, we will try and tone it down when we throw the money changers out of God's House.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 02, 2014 1:28 AM ET USA

    Why do you get all the space to elaborate, Jeff? In dealing with certain young folks I have learned that I often repeat simple principles and receive an inevitably hostile reply. "THAT has nothing to do with..." or "Stop repeating the same thing..." But without fail more problems follow and the cycle continues. Recently I heard one child's statement that caused me to think: "That sounds familiar." After all the repetition and all the unrelated exhortations a smile crept across my face.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Nov. 01, 2014 8:17 PM ET USA

    I think all understand your point about the difference between a critic and a curmudgeon; the latter is home on a range where never a discouraging word is...curbed. Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems criticism aimed at the Vatican has increased exponentially due to the Synod. That indicates what happened there, and not preexisting sour dispositions, is the genesis of the malaise. Cato was perhaps a gadfly, but admit that when Scipio Aemilianus finally did as he said, Carthage ceased to be a problem.

  • Posted by: Defender - Nov. 01, 2014 1:12 PM ET USA

    I have read and re-read this numerous times and I would offer this. I have lived over 60 years now and have seen the Church change so dramatically that it causes so much angst within me when I remember how things used to be. Part of the problem is the changing world, but our Church has existed for some 2000 years and the rapid changes since VII have not been its best interest, I feel. I react because I fear what we are leaving our children and their children and I know it shouldn't be this way.

  • Posted by: till8774 - Nov. 01, 2014 12:41 PM ET USA

    I think the point Jeff is trying to make is to examine our own actions to see if we are being disgruntled, or are truly helpful in our words & speech. Reading the Scriptures that he presents, & examining our own actions, may help us to be truly "light" & not just a lot of "heat", & then to confess our sins, if necessary. The need to build one another up & not tear down, especially the weak of faith & those poorly catechized, is very important. Thanks for the thoughtful & honest article, Jeff.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Nov. 01, 2014 10:40 AM ET USA

    Some of the comments clearly miss the point. I had indicated that "reasoned discussion of difficulties is, of course, unobjectionable." So clearly, I have no bone to pick with those who approach topics calmly yet firmly, with a thorough awareness of their own tendencies to be upset and accusatory. Moreover, it should be obvious that we at CatholicCulture.org are no strangers to discussing the problems and deficiencies facing the Church. But this is far different from having a contentious spirit. A pattern of negativity without recognition of what is good, a tendency to be in a panic rather than proceeding with a calm faith, the constant repetition of the supposed faults of Church leaders to those who cannot possibly do anything about it, lack of serious self-examination or concern about the impact of one's remarks on others, and being a Johnny-One-Note -- these are hints that a disgruntled, contentious spirit is at work.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Nov. 01, 2014 8:04 AM ET USA

    Would it have been "quarrelsome" to criticize JP II's attitude over decades toward Maciel and the Legion? Even if said criticism was repeated and insistent? How about criticism of Cards. Law, Mahoney, and many others around the globe in recent decades? Was Solzhenitsyn an habitual carper in Russia? And France's DeGaulle in the early 40s? In fact, aren't there many situations where silence is the real scandal, even in the Church? Isn't the ideal to avoid both temerity AND timorousness?

  • Posted by: dowd9585 - Nov. 01, 2014 3:06 AM ET USA

    Thank you. Excellent reminder. But we cannot be silent in the face of evil. How should we proceed?

  • Posted by: Bernadette - Oct. 31, 2014 6:53 PM ET USA

    I'd like to make multiple copies of this to give and send to a great many of the disgruntled. Myself included. :) Good reminder, Dr. Jeff.

  • Posted by: skall391825 - Oct. 31, 2014 5:40 PM ET USA

    Your truism,"be nice", misses the point made by (and unfortunately can be construed as a complaint against) Burke, Tobin, Pell et al. No more clericalism and hijacking of Vatican Councils or Synods. Christ, my model, was not gentle and did not bridle His tongue against money changers and Jewish leaders who, knowingly or unknowingly, led people astray. Francis likewise stirs the pot and makes a PUBLIC "mess", I believe, to gage the sensus fidelium.

  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - Oct. 31, 2014 5:40 PM ET USA

    "It amazes me that some people can comment again and again that the Church is faulty in one way or another, that the bishops are typically woefully deficient, that the Pope is either a knave or a fool, or that anyone who disagrees with such characterizations is blind to impending disaster...." Yes, there are people who do all that, but as long as we're "striving for balance, fairness and generosity in disagreements", shouldn't we also consider the possibility that such people may be right?

  • Posted by: - Oct. 31, 2014 3:02 PM ET USA

    This is the same spiel that the Legionaries used to pound into their priests and brothers - and look what happened. BXVI said that the transparency and sense of justice in the secular media helped him to clear out the "filth" of the Church. It was not a pretty sight but was long ignored because of your argument. People see critics as bad apples - no matter what their motives. It is insulting that you should doubt the motives of the ones who care.

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Oct. 31, 2014 11:59 AM ET USA

    That is sound spiritual advice. Unlike the one I received last Sunday.... just kidding!

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Oct. 30, 2014 9:28 PM ET USA

    Thank you, Dr. Mirus.

  • Posted by: lak321 - Oct. 30, 2014 7:36 PM ET USA

    Well said! Thank you!