The gift of orthodoxy: A mercy and a challenge to mercy
It is said that even the Devil is orthodox. I have used this expression myself, and it can be very effective. It is a convenient way to emphasize that orthodoxy does not guarantee the love of God and neighbor which Our Lord identified as the very foundation of the Christian life. So it is a useful slogan. The only problem is that it isn’t true.
“Orthodoxy” means “right belief”. The orthodox person believes everything that God has revealed, as clarified by the teaching authority of the Church He established in Christ. But while the Devil may “know” the truth in a sense, he does not make it his own. He may know it in the same way as someone can know everything taught by the Catholic Church without accepting it as true. A person is actually orthodox only if he intellectually assents to Catholic doctrine, that is, only if he believes. Orthodoxy refers to the intellectual component of Faith.
As such, orthodoxy is not incompatible with pride, weakness, deficiencies of trust and obedience, or deficiencies of love. But it is some protection against these problems because it represents a fundamental subordination of one’s own judgment to Divine Revelation. The orthodox person recognizes that the only totally reliable source of truth is God Himself. This is an immense step forward, and while it does not guarantee that we will get everything else right, it is not possible to get everything else right without orthodoxy.
A Mercy Given, a Mercy Shared
Since orthodoxy is an intellectual assent to God’s self-revelation, it is above all an immense mercy. Revelation itself is an incomparable mercy from a God who does not wish us to be orphaned, but to live in the Divine family of the Trinity forever. To recognize and accept Revelation is an additional and very personal mercy, which comes about through no great merit on our part beyond a certain openness—and even that may come significantly later than it should!
To attempt to pass on our acceptance of Revelation to others—that is, to attempt to share our Faith—is to show mercy in our turn, as “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor 5:20). In contrast, to take pride in any aspect of our Faith, including our orthodoxy, or to refuse to share it with others, betrays a smug ingratitude. We are to share what we have received, to bear fruit that will last (Jn 15:16). It is no surprise, therefore, that the first three spiritual works of mercy press this very point. We are enjoined to:
- Instruct the ignorant
- Counsel the doubtful
- Admonish sinners
These are rich mercies which, when opportunities present themselves, may not be withheld without sin. Just as truth is the mind’s conformity with reality, so too is orthodoxy the mind’s conformity to the very real relationship between God and man. Orthodoxy, then, is mercy’s ideal precondition. It does not guarantee that we will be merciful, but it predisposes and prepares us for the optimum reception and deployment of mercy. In contrast, heterodoxy, like all intellectual errors, invariably causes us to exercise our merciful tendencies incorrectly, sometimes doing more harm than good. To be apt, charity always depends on truth.
Orthodox Failures of Mercy
Unfortunately, Satan works hard to induce us to sin against every Divine gift. One fruitful area of deception is found in the particular personality traits which may have disposed us to receive the gift of orthodoxy quite easily in the first place. If we are strongly attracted to intellectual cohesion, we will be tempted to embrace love primarily as a mental construct. If we enjoy taking contrarian positions, we will be tempted to self-satisfaction and argument. If we are highly conscious of our rightness, we will be tempted to denigrate those who are wrong. If we have dogmatic personalities, we will be tempted to take intransigent positions on many things that are not matters of faith.
This list of potential temptations goes on and on. Confident in our orthodoxy, we may assume that our every spiritual preference is superior, and so confuse tastes with virtues. This always causes division, especially in liturgical matters, as well as threatening spiritual progress in both ourselves and others. Again, sure of our doctrinal knowledge, we may tend to stretch our competence, assuming that we are in a superior position to pronounce on nearly everything under the sun. (Or maybe this is just a guy thing!) We may also have imbibed orthodoxy as part of a larger worldview. If so, we may find ourselves as certain of our political, social and economic positions as we are of our Faith—with the temptation to treat those who are spiritually ignorant as quasi-political enemies.
All of these distortions are both possible and common. We must be constantly on guard against them. Hopefully, everyone knows that the absolute prerequisite for being on guard is humility. But a good way to test our humility is to go beyond the first three spiritual works of mercy to the final four. We are also called to:
- Bear wrongs patiently
- Forgive offences willingly
- Comfort the afflicted
- Pray for the living and the dead
By no means are we to neglect the corporal works of mercy. A tendency to do so may reveal a penchant for abstraction which robs orthodoxy of its power and purpose. But the last four spiritual works of mercy are actually antidotes to the poisons which can seep into the first three. When we are touchy (4), indignant (5), unsympathetic (6), or spiritually self-reliant (7), we are guaranteed to alienate others spiritually precisely because we fail to embody Divine mercy.
It is relatively easy to instruct, counsel and admonish with a fundamentally selfish or self-righteous focus. But to bear wrongs, forgive others, comfort them and ask God’s help is almost impossible without being genuinely open to the action of grace. Mere orthodoxy obscures and tarnishes the Gospel, rendering our spiritual action self-contradictory and useless. But orthodoxy pulsing with gratitude, mercy and love forms a simple, clear and illuminated roadmap into the Kingdom of God.
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Posted by: koinonia -
Dec. 01, 2014 7:17 PM ET USA
Orthodoxy is the inheritance of the baptized. Orthodoxy is the praxis of the baptized. Orthodoxy is a thing to be enjoyed. It is a thing to be lived. It is a thing to be loved. It is to die for. Above all else it is charitable when rightfully understood and practiced. "But orthodoxy pulsing with gratitude, mercy and love forms a simple, clear and illuminated roadmap into the Kingdom of God." So seize it, live it, share it. But never disparage it.
Posted by: Jeff Mirus -
Nov. 28, 2014 10:10 AM ET USA
lak321: This sounds like an exaggeration, but if it is true, then you should ask for clarification. Two questions: Is there something about my attitude which suggests I would do damage in trying to counsel others? Is there a lack of charity in this advice which makes the priest prefer a comfortable "niceness" to a genuine concern for the sinner's union with God? In any case, while not everything is in the Catechism, this is. See paragraph 2447, which is appropriately included in the section on the 10 Commandments, Chapter 2: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
Posted by: lak321 -
Nov. 26, 2014 11:12 PM ET USA
Instruct the ignorant Counsel the doubtful Admonish sinners These are rich mercies which, when opportunities present themselves, may not be withheld without sin. Really? Where is that in the CCC? Because almost every time I consult with a priest about admonishing or instructing, I am told not to for some pastoral reason.
Posted by: -
Nov. 26, 2014 9:01 PM ET USA
Jeff, I'm an orthodox, Australian Catholic, and an ex-seminarian 4 years in, and your words here are nothing short of wonderful. Your last sentence is brilliant. I probably needed to read this article. It might profit some of my friends to do so as well. Please keep up the good work. Will pray for all of you.