Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Preach the Gospel With Your Strife

This is our glory: the witness of our conscience. There are men who rashly judge, who slander, who whisper and murmur, who are eager to suspect what they do not see, and eager to spread abroad things they have not even a suspicion of. Against men of this sort, what defense is there save the witness of our own conscience?

My brothers, we do not seek, nor should we seek, our own glory even among those whose approval we desire. What we should seek is their salvation, so that if we walk as we should they will not go astray in following us. They should imitate us if we are imitators of Christ; and if we are not, they should still imitate him… And so we seek no advantage for ourselves when we aim to please men. We want to take our joy in men—and we rejoice when they take pleasure in what is good, not because this exalts us, but because it benefits them…

And so my brothers, our concern should be not only to live as we ought, but also to do so in the sight of men; not only to have a good conscience but also, so far as we can in our weakness, to do nothing which might lead our weak brother into thinking evil of us. Otherwise, as we feed on the good pasture and drink the pure water, we may trample on God’s meadow, and weaker sheep will have to feed on trampled grass and drink from troubled waters.

St. Augustine, Office of Readings, Tuesday, 13th Week of Ordinary Time

Reflection – I have been pondering a great deal this past week the challenges of proclaiming the Gospel in a hostile and contentious environment. I guess having this little social media apostolate is bound to raise the question. The first paragraph of this sermon from St. Augustine is a fairly good description of an awful lot of what flies around on the Internet these days, don’t you think? Rash judgment, slander (not in the strict legal definition, mind you), leaping to unfounded conclusions, impugning of base motivations to opponents, eagerness to spread abroad every bad report and suggestion of impropriety among them—if everything that fell under that description was removed from the Internet, the whole thing could probably fit on my laptop!

So, for example, in the current recharged debate about same-sex marriage, accusations and counter-accusations fly freely. ‘You’re all hate-filled bigots! You want gay people to die!’ ‘You’re all anti-Christian zealots! It’s all a plot to destroy the Catholic Church’ ‘You’re haters!’ ‘You’re persecutors! ‘Boo!’ ‘Hiss!’

And so it goes. I won’t dignify the above with the word ‘debate’. This is not a debate, but a mud-slinging match. There is no effort to understand, to meet the other, to hear the other, to find that necessary common ground without which conversation is impossible. I don’t mean to suggest that there has been no effort whatsoever at rational ordered argument on this matter, just that the ‘conversation’ has overwhelmingly tended to degrade into a shouting match of slogans and postures.

And so we have this wonderful exhortation from St. Augustine, who himself lived in a pretty darned contentious environment, and who had his own opponents galore, right at his doorstep in Hippo. North Africa was a hotbed of the Donatist schism, which was deep and very emotional in the 4th and 5th centuries, touching as it did upon the proper way to preserve the Church’s integrity in view of public sinners and apostates, and in particular in view of the Christians who had cracked under persecution and torture in the age of the martyrs.

The Catholic position was that our integrity lay in the path of mercy and compassion for sinners; the Donatist position was one of rigid exclusion of those who didn’t make the cut. The Catholic position also was that Christ remained faithful to his Church and acted in his sacraments regardless of our merits or failures; the Donatists held that Christ would only be faithful if we were faithful.

It was emotional and divisive and very painful in that time period. I personally am so very glad to be a Catholic, and not a Donatist! But meanwhile, here we are in 2013 trying to find a way to present the Gospel call to purity and sexual integrity in an atmosphere of intense anger and (frankly) a concerted effort to get us to just shut up about the whole thing. And meanwhile we have our own sins, our own struggles, our own far from perfect charity and purity to contend with.

Augustine calls us here to a great spiritual and emotional maturity. We are to have no concern, really, but to love our brothers and sisters and to seek their salvation. We are to not care, really, if they hate us and hurl abuse and invectives at us. We are to be very humble about our own failings and strive to be really good in our lives, both because that’s how we should be, but also for their sake, to not have our own lack of love and harshness be a stumbling block for anyone else.

And so, I think I’m going to depart from my usual blog format this week. I want to just write, for a few days, about this whole painful contentious issue, to express clearly what I understand to be the Catholic position (which is my own), and to try, at least, to bring it under the mantle of love and compassion (which I believe it genuinely is). I realize, doing this, that I will probably fail, and will probably hurt some feelings - it seems that strife is unavoidable in this particular task of preaching the Gospel. But we have to try to talk to one another about this, not simply scream at one another. So these next few days will be my effort at talking, and I would like to listen, too, to anyone else’s views on the subject. God bless.

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