What’s wrong with popular causes (and with clerics who ride them)?
Let me speak frankly. It is a symptom of flabby, secularized Christianity to witness primarily in favor of popular and prudential causes. Yet from Pope Francis on down, this symptom is widespread among Catholic leaders today. Five significant mistakes are made by Christians whose witness in favor of popular and prudential causes substantially exceeds their witness to unpopular and absolute truths.
1. Striving for cheap grace: When anyone singles out as a significant indicator of his or her Christian commitment a goal already embraced by the dominant culture, that person is very likely motivated by the desire to “score points”—that is, to appear righteous in the eyes of the world rather than in the eyes of Christ. Such causes are already portrayed in the mass media as good, supported through education in the public schools, and/or massively funded by taxes and grants. Although Catholic leaders who support them may be saying or doing nothing wrong, the sincerity of their Christian witness is called into serious question by their common refusal to advocate unpopular viewpoints with the same frequency, fervor, and finality:
Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. [Mt 6:1-2]
2. Absolutizing the relative: There are a great many controversial issues in the world, but most of them are not matters of absolute good and evil. I will illustrate with just one example: It is good to care for the environment, a good already thoroughly recognized by our dominant culture, but each particular effort to balance such care against human convenience and productivity is a matter of prudence, allowing room for legitimate disagreement. In contrast, caring for the family has at its core absolute goods which are rejected by our dominant culture, goods which may not be sacrificed without grave and immediate harm. It is both immoral and self-defeating to advocate for the physical purity of the environment while ignoring or even supporting the spiritual impurity which strikes a far deeper blow against the family and the common good:
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. [Mt 6:31-33]
3. Reversing priorities: Christianity enjoins us to love our neighbor, but teaches us that we must love our neighbor with God’s understanding of what it means to love. Jesus Christ understood that there will always be substantial suffering here on earth but that the most important thing is to do the Father’s will in order to gain treasure in heaven. There is no future with God for those who concentrate primarily on popular public causes with promised material outcomes, without working seriously toward the more essential transformation of spiritual and moral outlook which is always required for lasting improvement:
For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?... For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. [Mk 8:36-38]
4. Fearing rejection: Sometimes failure with respect to the previous three points begins with excessive concern about how to present oneself so as to be accepted by those who need to hear the message of Christ. Out of this concern can grow a habitual strategy of spending most of one’s time and energy establishing one’s “bona fides” in the eyes of the world. But beyond the occasional necessary and pragmatic seeking of common ground, the better to communicate saving truths, this typically mutes or disguises the message of Christ. Moreover, it is not the goal recommended by Jesus Christ:
Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven.” [Lk 6:22-23]
5. Losing perspective: Finally, it is not at all uncommon to become so caught up in the issues “everybody” is talking about that one ends up flitting to and fro, striving to take the socially-expected position on every issue. But this is not at all to see as Christ sees. In this we must strengthen and sharpen our commitments by adopting the attitudes and priorities expressed throughout the books of the New Testament—the Revelation of Jesus Christ, entrusted to His Church. It is impossible there to find any significant concern about the so-called major issues of the day, as the world sees them. Rather, life begins with God’s commandments and ends in that love which brings true peace:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid…. I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us go hence. [Jn 14:27-31]
I have been considering primarily the risks attendant upon engaging in popular and prudential causes. But there is a great deal more to be said about ecclesiastical engagement in sociopolitical causes generally. For you will search the New Testament in vain for any example of apostolic commitment to such causes. The apostles clearly and emphatically regarded it as their first priority to preach the gospel and initiate the persons they converted into a new way of life in Christ. To keep themselves properly focused, they even appointed deacons to take charge of the Church’s material charities:
And the Twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you...men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” [Acts 6:2-4]
The apostles were intent upon replacing personal sin with personal grace, replacing evil attitudes and behaviors with engraced attitudes and behaviors, as befits the children of God. This is a matter not of public posturing or governmental policy but of personal life within the Christian community. The apostles understood that if the members of the Church would only put on Christ, the sociopolitical problems of the day would take care of themselves. Again: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness....”
The citation above from The Acts of the Apostles refers to the ecclesiastical ordering of something important, the need within the Catholic community for the poor to have enough to eat. Yet the Apostles themselves knew that even this was a distraction for them. We can look at slavery with the same result; it is impossible to find an apostle who took it up as a sociopolitical cause. Instead, as the souls in their charge learned to treat others as brothers and sisters—as children of God like themselves—slavery simply disappeared.
This does not mean that broader sociopolitical commitments are wrong even when they are not tainted in some way (as nearly all popular causes are). But it is a strong indication that such commitments should have a demonstrably low priority for bishops and priests...and popes.
There are many reasons to speak harshly of the contemporary focus of too many high-ranking clerics on popular prudential causes. But motive is hard to prove; some may merely be sadly distracted by incessant demands for a kind of verbal “moral leadership”. In a spirit of charity, then, perhaps it is best to cite Our Lord’s own words to those who confuse their priorities—words He spoke fairly gently to one whom He deeply loved:
But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” [Lk 10:40-42]
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Posted by: brenda22890 -
Oct. 04, 2019 6:07 AM ET USA
Wise words for Popes, Bishops, Priest, but also for the laity. It's so easy to become distracted by secular causes - - most of which have problematic elements - - and to forget to "seek first the Kingdom...".
Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 -
Oct. 01, 2019 11:44 PM ET USA
Well said Jeff.
Posted by: fenton1015153 -
Oct. 01, 2019 4:54 PM ET USA
Bishops and priests should be the most zealous for Christ because they have received the most. However some seem to act as though they will be the final judge not Christ. Sadly when they behave like that the faithful are not fed properly and they become more worldly. We desperately need holy men and women to set good examples for the people to follow not cheerleaders for secular causes.