Sunday, August 28, 2011

Bearing Contempt: How the avoidance of it is leading to religious intolerance

St. Thomas More “speaks critically of certain clerics who deliberately refrain from warning a rich and powerful man of the peril his soul is in out of fear of angering him and on the false premise that admonitions will do him no good.”

-James Monti, The King’s Good Servant But God’s First

“The saints have not been made saints by applause and honor, but by injuries and insults.”

St. Alphonsus Liguori, The Spouse of Christ

Leading up to the problem:

Recently, in the news, Christians are learning, a little bit every day, that Secular-liberalism is becoming increasingly intolerant of religious expression and practice. We have learned, for instance, that New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has no intention of including clergy in the tenth anniversary ceremony of 9/11 at Ground Zero. He said, “Everybody would like to participate, and the bottom line is everybody cannot participate. There isn't room. There isn't time. And in some cases, it's just not appropriate.” It’s those last four words that are the key: “…it’s just not appropriate.” Patrick Quinn, Governor of Illinois, also considered it inappropriate to allow Catholic Charities to continue with its adoption agency. Since America’s founding, the Catholic Church has had a policy of serving heterosexual couples only. The Church is the same as it always has been, but the State of Illinois, as with New York City, is changing; or should I say hardening. And who can forget the State of New York legalizing same-sex marriage this past June? It was the sixth largest state to depart from the Christian – others might say, traditional –position that marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman.

These recent developments are nothing new, of course. But what is relatively new in America is that supporters of Secular-liberalism, that is, those who hold and advance values diametrically opposed to the Gospel, are more decisive, unapologetic and bold than ever before! They seem to be coming out of the closet; using less pretense and fewer excuses when they target the Christian religion. Interestingly enough, these three characteristics (i.e. decisive, unapologetic and bold) once defined Christians not too long ago. It certainly describes the early Christians who, at times, appeared to be absolutely fearless of offending the majority of pagans and powerful men who ruled over them. Indeed, they even faced the prospects of death with a smile!

Today, however, there is a spirit of timidity among Catholics. An overemphasis on harmony and being overly concerned with offending people has led to a paralysis of action among clergy and laity. If we, as Catholics, do an honest examination of conscience, perhaps we can come to terms with the following truths: We, as Catholics, have become soft; the other side, that is, the worldly or secularists, have hardened in their ways; we are indecisive, the other side is determined; we count the cost, they put everything on the line; we preach virtue with trepidation, they boast of vice unapologetically; we flinch and wince, they don’t even bat an eye! It would seem we have forgotten who we are: sons and daughters of God, Christ-bearers, the light of the world and the salt of the earth. As Pope Leo the Great said, "Christians, remember your dignity."

How is it, then, that we got to this point? The Holy Spirit does not breed cowardice among the people of God. In fact, St. Paul said, “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control.” (II Timothy 1:7) Yet here we are! The circle of religious liberty is getting narrower by the day.

The problem:

Part of the problem is that we are unwilling to pay the price. Christians today have not sufficiently considered the words of our Lord: that the disciple is not greater than the master; that if the world hated him, the world will also hate us. The bottom line is that we are unwilling to bear the contempt of the world. We even count it a sign of God’s displeasure or consider it a setback when we anger and offend those who advance values diametrically opposed to the Gospel. On the contrary, opposition and persecution is what Christ and the Saints "promised" us. St. Alphonsus reminds Christians that, “The saints have not been made saints by applause and honor, but by injuries and insults.” Every prophet had to learn, sometimes the hard way, the following inevitability: “My son, when you come to serve the LORD, prepare yourself for trials.” (Sirach 2:1)

Festering this timidity and anxiety is a kind of selective reading of Scripture among Christians. We read, for instance, one passage from the writing of St. Paul which emphasizes gentleness and tolerance: “A slave of the Lord should not quarrel, but should be gentle with everyone, able to teach, tolerant, correcting opponents with kindness.” (II Timothy 2:24-25) Or we talk about the teaching of our Lord about not judging or about how the meek will inherit the land or the duty to turn the other cheek. Yet, we forget that the same Apostle also said, “…exhort with sound doctrine and to refute opponents…It is imperative to silence them, as they are upsetting whole families by teaching for sordid gain what they should not.” (Titus 1:9, 11) In his first letter to St. Timothy, St. Paul even admonished him to reprimand sinners publicly. (5:20) And as for Jesus, he was tough on his own disciples as well as the Pharisees. When St. Peter was trying to counsel him to avoid the Cross, taking the easier road, our Lord said to him: "Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do." He also frequently called the Pharisees “whitewashed tombs” and “hypocrites.” These passages which call for gentleness on the one hand and severity on the other are not contradictions; rather, they complement each other and are to be applied when circumstances warrant their use.

As Christians, we are called to juggle opposites; neither gravitating to one truth at the expense of the other. God’s mercy and justice; forgiveness and judgment; clemency and severity all need to be held together- juxtapose to one another –without losing sight of either one. In the 1950’s, during one of the Life is Worth Living episodes, Bishop Sheen said that Western Civilization had gravitated towards a Christ without a Cross. It is a version of Christ that speaks little about specific sins and the real possibility of going to hell. This kind of Christianity, he went on to say, leaves men cold…without passion and without zeal! As such, we find ourselves in our country less friendly to Christianity because the enemies of Christianity have been left unchecked. We have failed to appreciate that the “good fight” St. Paul refers to is really and truly a fight; not necessarily against people- we are to love them to the end –but against the advancement of sin, error and vice.

Fighting the good fight, however, will undoubtedly merit the displeasure and even the contempt of some people. But this burden of bearing hatred is necessary if we are to convert souls and restore our nation! Christians must see through the derision and even see the value in it. Our Lord had to bear the hatred of people and even instructed us to rejoice when we are persecuted in his name. Still, we count it the worst of evils to be rejected and despised; we then avoid such inconveniences at all cost. What naturally follows is that we water down the truth or avoid speaking all together of those doctrines which might offend people. Quite often we spare the feelings of a sinner but leave his soul as it was- in mortal sin and in jeopardy of being lost. Why? Because we fear his anger and rejection! Fifty years of this fear and silence on the part of Christians only has enabled anti-religious forces to implement their agenda. As such, we find ourselves less free and less confident about our future.

The solution to the problem:

The solution to the problem can be found in the Scripture readings from Sunday’s Liturgy on August 28, 2011. Consider the following passages:

• The first reading- from the book of Jeremiah: “…the word of the LORD has brought me derision and reproach all the day… I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.”

• The second reading- from the Letter to the Romans: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.”

• The Gospel reading- from the Gospel of Matthew: "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it…”

For the prophet Jeremiah, the burning desire to make God and his law known- a desire that was inspired by God himself –had necessarily led to, when acted upon, the derision and reproach from his people. He bitterly complained about it. Although Jeremiah was tempted to be silent as result of the persecution, the fire burning in his heart was too much for him to endure. He had to prophecy in God’s name even though it provoked anger from others. No doubt, Jeremiah's spiritual perfection depended, in part, in accepting persecution for God's sake and with a calm mind. St. Alphonsus said, “He who does not suffer contempt with a tranquil mind shall never attain the spirit of perfection.” Perhaps this is why the book of Acts states that, "It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God." (14:22)

Bearing contempt, enduring imprisonment and being subject to floggings was also the lot of the Apostles. We may have forgotten that out of the twelve, eleven Apostles died a martyrs death. And how did they prepare for such a trial? As St. Paul admonished the Roman Christians, they daily offered their bodies as a living sacrifice to God through self-denial and self-control. As St. Ambrose would say three centuries later: "By this kind of detachment our soul must learn to free itself from the desires of the body." "It must soar," Ambrose continued, "above earthly lusts to a place where they cannot come near..." With this kind of sacrificial love and detachment, the Christian does not feel compelled to conform to the age or times in which he lives; especially with all the biases and fashions that accompany it. Instead he is free to "discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect." What is more, he is equally free to act on it with self-abandon!

Finally, Christ told his disciples, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it…” The willingness to bear the contempt of others for God's sake and risk losing our life, our job, and our good name is the only kind of dedication that will reverse the narrowing or erosion of religious liberty. It is the only way the fullness of truth will be communicated. Not only that, it is the kind of dedication that will make us Saints and worthy of the mission God has for each one of us.