“Judge yourself as seems right to you between yourself and your God, and let other men alone.”
– The Cloud of Unknowing
When we are children, discipline is often imposed upon us without explanation, for we are not yet of an age to understand why we should behave in a particular way. It is the hope of those who love us and correct us that a day will arrive when we will possess the moral clarity that will allow us to see the right course of action and follow it, not by outer compulsion, but by inner desire.
This transference of the impetus to act from external force to internal conviction defines the process of spiritual maturity. Without it, we remain uncomprehending children, moved by fear. When fear is no longer present, we will likely behave in a way that reflects our failure to see why we should treat others decently and respect our own integrity.
The crude and vicious nature of public dialogue these days demonstrates a general failure of spiritual maturity among our public figures in the media and entertainment worlds. They speak and act in a manner we would not tolerate in children. They also illustrate an almost comic failure to appreciate irony. How anyone, in the name of compassion, can engage in a hate-filled rant against another whom they accuse of lacking compassion would be humorous were it not so repugnant. Add obscene invective to the denunciations of those considered less virtuous than oneself, and the picture of an absurd absence of self-awareness and inherent contradiction is complete.
What allows some people to imagine they are demonstrating moral superiority by engaging in profanity- laced insults is symptomatic of a tendency to make virtue something external to us rather than an integral part of our self. If we genuinely care about other people, if we respect others as creations of Divine love, despite their presumed failings, we cannot be selective. We must include everyone in our consideration, even those toward whom we may feel great personal revulsion. Charity is rooted in love of God, Who makes the sun to shine on the just and unjust. We, to the extent that we have light to shine on anyone, must also make it shine on the just and unjust, observing the further caution that our judgments are fallible and our prejudices can deceive us. The unjust man in our sight may be a saint in God’s, or perhaps, a saint in the making, as it is hoped that you and I are.
Making goodness something that we love and embody is the work of a lifetime. In fact, it is why we are here: to become perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. It is intensely personal work and, even with the help of grace and heartfelt prayer, not always easy, to say the least. There is something in us which the mystical treatise, “The Cloud of Unknowing,” calls the “stinking lump of sin.” It is difficult to define this lump, and difficult to be rid of it. It comes between us and our love of God and neighbor. It refers everything and everyone to our own judgment, as though we were the standard of good and evil. It is our seeming self, our worldly personality. It causes us to level accusations against others; to proclaim our superiority; to stand in our own eyes as righteous.
We are tempted to believe that in condemning others, we justify ourselves. We want to think that virtue is a question of assuming the proper posture, making the correct statement, following a particular course of action. In other words, that virtue can be externalized. But it is not so. This stubborn lump of sin can only be dissolved by radical internal action. We have to look to the beam in our own eye before we presume to see the mote in another’s. When our charity is perfect, perhaps then we can criticize another’s imperfections, but it is precisely then that we will not be drawn to do so.
Our Lord sometimes spoke harshly to the Jewish leaders: to the pharisees and lawyers who were wont to judge others. But we should never imagine that He spoke without love. He was not venting His anger but offering His children an opportunity to learn and grow in virtue. And we can’t know how many of those who were subjected to His criticism later found in themselves the stirring of conscience that was the first step on the road to their reclamation. It seems right to think that such must have been the case, at least for some, for Our Lord cared not for righteousness as an abstract principle, but for His children. He never spoke or acted without our welfare as His motive and end. We sometimes speak abruptly and, it would seem, harshly to our own children when we see them in danger of hurting themselves in some way. But our words arise from love, no matter how they may sound superficially.
Unless we can speak with the same sort of fraternal love that moved Our Lord, we should be wary of offering any correction to others, especially if we are not charged with the care of their souls, as in the case of a parent or a pastor. St. Augustine said, “Love, and do what you will.” This was not a license to behave in any way we choose, but an acknowledgement that if we act from love, out of God-founded charity, we can have confidence that we will act rightly, that is, for another’s good and for our own.
There is much of what is called “virtue-signaling” taking place now in the media. Politicians and entertainers appear to find it irresistible. Sadly, so do many bishops and priests. The Catholic bishops in the United States have made public statements to the effect that they are considering “canonical penalties” for those who have a hand in implementing immigration laws which they consider “immoral.” In that they have never made such a strong public statement about canonical penalties for the scores of “Catholic” politicians who support abortion, one might be excused for doubting their sincerity. It would seem more likely the bishops are once again underscoring their support for the political Left.
Why should the bishops be aligned with the Left? This is a rather large question and it goes to the heart of the crisis in the Church. A short answer would be that the Left – despite its endorsement of homosexual marriage, fornication, divorce, contraception, pornography and the murder of the unborn – is rhetorically on the side of compassion, which is its presumed justification for all of the positions just named. The Left also controls the media and influences public opinion. And the bishops appear to be concerned about garnering a modicum of social acceptance by keeping quiet about abortion and homosexuality while vociferously declaring the supposed Christian obligation to support open borders. For this, they will get a polite nod from Hollywood and the media.
But what if the purpose of being a bishop is not to opine publicly about U.S. immigration policy, but to help us remove the “stinking lump of sin” that keeps us from loving God with all our heart? What if the bishops were to be more concerned with real evil than with facile rhetoric? What if they were to speak out of genuine fraternal love about the hideous murder of innocent babies in the womb? What if they were to say, “My dear people, stop killing children; stop debasing human sexuality; stop watching pornographic films and television. Stop destroying the innocence of the young. Turn away from the dubious ‘news.’ Don’t listen to the filthy language of the self-righteous who are full of hatred. Turn inward. Seek Christ in your own hearts. Pray for and forgive others. Condemn no one.”
Such counsel would not be well-received by the media. It would likely be ignored by the Left, for whom spirituality, when not supportive of its causes, is considered the fantasy of the stupid. But we who know that we are created not only by Christ, but in Christ; that we are here to become the perfect image of the Divine in our unique way – we would welcome, as a breath of spring after a weary winter, such words of true charity. May we hear them soon. And failing that, may we hear them in our hearts from the source of all goodness.