To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbour's thoughts, words, and deeds in a favourable way.
Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favourable interpretation to another's statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 478
Reflection – This little snippet from the CCC popped up somewhere on my Facebook news feed the other day, and I jumped on it immediately as blog fodder. I’ve been toying with the idea of periodically having some basic catechetical stuff on the blog from time to time—not as a regular feature, but once in a while.
This paragraph should be required reading for everyone before going on the Internet. One of the most harmful, toxic patterns of discourse I have seen on the ‘net over the years is the strong tendency to assume the worst of people, to interpret every thought, word, and deed of another, especially another that you do not like, in the most negative terms possible.
This is a sin against charity, it is widespread in our online discourse, and it is poisonous. It derails the most innocuous and positive discussions into cycles of random hostile accusations and counter-accusations and defenses, and renders it impossible to actually discuss an issue, because everyone gets worked up discussing the inner hearts and minds (about which we can know nothing) of the people putting the issue forward.
Cynicism, in other words, is deeply anti-Christian and deeply evil. It is destructive of community, of the search for truth and goodness, and undermines the hard work of forging a genuinely good and beautiful path of life in the world, of restoring the world to Christ, as we put it in Madonna House.
Cynicism is also a cheap cop-out. It is true that sometimes people have base motives for their words and deeds—of course! But the cynic who makes a blanket judgment that everyone has base motives for his or her words and deeds, or at least everyone that the cynic himself disagrees with or dislikes is taking the easy path indeed.
The truth is, people are complicated, and life is complicated, and there is such a tangled mess of good and evil, virtue and sin, honesty and hypocrisy in almost every human heart. But the goodness, the virtue, and the honesty are no less real than the evil, sin, and hypocrisy. And that is the fundamental mistake of the cynic—an unwarranted and illogical assumption that the good in a person is just window dressing, just exterior practice, and that the ‘real person’ is only shown when their moral failures and perfidy is exposed.
I think cynicism, while it is among the basic stances of the human person, is exacerbated by certain forms of Calvinist theology. The doctrine of total corruption of the human person, the idea that it is our sins that name us, define us, and that only God’s grace is any good whatsoever, and his grace is merely an external application of forgiveness on (essentially) a rotten putrid corpse of sinful corruption—all of this will of course engender a deeply jaundiced and cynical view of reality.
This is not Catholic theology. We never have believed in total corruption, but have always held that there was some capacity for natural goodness in the human person. And we believe that God’s grace is actually transformative, working on the interior of the person to actually make them good and loving. And so in our dealings with one another we must be charitable, not because it is ‘nice’, but because otherwise we may inadvertently but very seriously sin against the Holy Spirit and commit a most profound act of blasphemy—that of denying the possibility of grace acting in a person to truly make this person good.
Cynicism is, as I have said is a cheap cop-out, a childish refusal to engage in the real complexity of life and its nuances. And so, as we engage with one another on-line and off-line, let us try to remember:
“Everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbour's thoughts, words, and deeds in a favourable way. Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favourable interpretation to another's statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.”