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A reader struggles with despair over quarrelsome Catholics

06/22/2014 Comments (146)
Long time reader. Maybe you've addressed the issue, but I was wondering if you had any insight on a potential source of despair - infighting between groups of Catholics on forums and blogs.

I see lots of references to folks thinking Satan worked his way into the church and that only a small remnant will end up being saved. That seems counter to the gospel message to me, and it seems difficult for me to believe that God would want to make it difficult and obscure (e.g, knowing that you had to somehow be more like a FSSP/SSPX type of Catholic to truly be saved.

I came back to the faith when I was 17 (I'm now 34) and I feel like in the good old days, when I was really only aware of blogs like yours, that I never had these kinds of concerns. I just went to Mass, assisted in the parish where folks wanted me to help out and felt pretty good about the faith.

Just wondering if you had any thoughts on this.

God Bless ( and keep up the fantastic work )

Thank you for your kind words. Everything that follows should be read in the spirit of "One patient in the cancer ward to another" not "doctor to patient".

I hear you. And I am, I think, often part of the problem. So mea culpa for that.

It's a struggle, and one I often lose, to find some other way to reply to nasty people with something besides more nastiness. There are lots of easy justifications for it: "I am standing tall for the TRVTH!" is a popular one. Also, particularly emotionally rewarding to me personally is "I'm defending the defenseless!" Lets me land all sorts of retaliatory punches while casting admiring glances in the mirror at my Knight in Shining Armor self. And, of course, "I'm part of the Faithful Remnant fighting the invading horde of sinners" is also emotionally gratifying to certain personalities. We all have our poison we enjoy and different personalities like different ones. I'm no exception.

And yet, "See how these Catholics hate one another" remains an obvious scandal and "He started it" a lousy excuse for continuing it. "I'm a sinner too" followed closely by "Lord, have mercy on me a sinner" is an excellent way to start breaking the cycle (and start again every day since repenting, like quitting smoking, is done not once but thousands of times). Indeed, it is the only way to start.

The thing is, we have to get past just starting.

Part of the problem lies right there: getting past starting. In situations of conflict, our attempts at repentance will seldom be met with prayerful support from our enemies. Rather, in the world (and, alas, among many Catholics) the slightest failure after attempted repentance--not to mention multiple failures--will be greeted not with the mercy of Jesus, picking us up and encouraging us on our way, but with a gleeful, "I told you he was lying with that whole mea culpa thing! He'll never change. He has no intention of changing."

Of course, the reality is that change is hard and takes a long time. Hence the whole "70X7" command from Jesus. The norm, not the exception, is that habits of sin will take years, decades, a lifetime, and perhaps a good hitch in Purgatory before they are extirpated or redeemed. One's enemies are seldom interested in that fact and are all too eager to see the glass half empty rather than half full when we attempt virtue and fail.

If we look to our enemies to tell us who we are, we will never find Christ. It is hate, not love, that is blind. That's why Jesus tells us we have to forgive even our worst enemies perpetually: not only for their sake, but for ours. The moment we start to want our enemies to be as bad as possible so that we can feel good about hating them is the moment we have started saying that our own sins, not Jesus, are what name us.

I am, like everybody, one who finds certain people repellent. Indeed, there are any number of such people I run across on the Web. But it need not be those people we are talking about. It could be anybody depending on what we are passionate about. There are people who would kill over a favorite soccer team, or because of some political cause, or for any other thing in which they are emotionally invested. Some are landmine personalities who will find any excuse to act out their psychodramas. Heck, here is a group of people who fell into the online equivalent of cannibalism, street-to-street urban warfare, and nuclear combat over how to bake and decorate a rainbow cake. We fallen people look for reasons to fight, and some of us will grab at almost anything as a sword and shield for our weird and fragile egos.

(Funny story: A Brit friend happened on a fundamentalist website with an "Ask the Webmaster" feature. Some poor soul visiting the site made the mistake of mentioning that they heard the Book of Daniel was composed not long after the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes. It's a reasonable conjecture and one many scholars share, though there's room for give and take on the question. The webmaster shot back "THAT IS A LIE FROM THE PIT OF HELL!!!" My British friend was amused by that in a way that only a massively understated Brit can be. I think he may even have smiled.)

Anyway, we love to press Important Things into the service of ego. And God, money, power, pleasure and honor are the Big Five idols. Yes, God can be an idol when our egos get hold of him. Merely because God is the proper object of worship while the other four are idols does not in the slightest mean that God and the things of God can't be, paradoxically, idols too. People press gang God (or rather a fictional dummy they've labeled "God") into the service of the other four idols every day. That's why Paul had to gripe at the Corinthians, "Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?" (1 Co 1:13). These days, we might just as easily ask some Catholics (in the fine words of reader Tony Layne), "Was the Latin Mass crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Vatican II?"  The thing is, God (unlike real idols) tends to strongly resist being reduced to an idol and an accessory to the ego.  He fights back by, among other things, inspiring righteous anger in our hearts when we see such a perversion.  Sometimes, he turns up in the form of an angry up-country rabbi flipping over tables and shouting "Woe to you!"

When we see people do unjust things, we therefore get very angry--and rightly so. Indeed, the first secret of understanding forgiveness is that it presumes anything between annoyance and skull-splitting rage at injustice. Somebody has done something wrong, blast it! And they deserve to get kicked down the stairs as the royal jerks they are. They didn't "mean well" and they knew exactly what they were doing.

In such situations I. like you and anybody, face a straightforward temptation: I can't stand the people I can't stand. Emotionally, I cannot find a single thread of connection to them. And they, as a general rule, hate my living guts too--or at least they often act that way. That's why they did that jerk thing I'm so furious about. So being the garrulous Mick I am, I respond in kind (usually with words since this is the interwebz we're talking about) and tell myself I'm exacting "justice" or whatever by reaming them out, mocking them, and generally badmouthing them.

But as you note, to people outside the Bubble of the conflict, none of this does much beside act as a temptation to despair. It just looks like the argle bargle of egos and angers clashing, which it usually is and not the War of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness starring Me as Savior of the Internet.

So what do we do? Well, as one of the cancer patients and emphatically not one of the doctors on the ward, my own inspirations have come in two forms. First, was the realization (still very imperfectly lived) that people want butter a lot more than they want guns. So the command given to Peter was "Feed my sheep", not "defend my sheep". As somebody who is always a sucker for "I'm defending the defenseless" when I'm indulging my anger, that drew me up short when the Holy Spirit hit me between the eyes with it last Christmas. But it's been dripping into my bloodstream with each Eucharist for six months anyway and I'm becoming more aware of just how crummy I am at measuring up to it.

Second, I have been listening to and watching a lot of Fr. Robert Barron's videos and homilies of late and one theme he returns to again and again is Jesus' teaching on non-violence:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt 5:38–48)

That much-ignored and explained-away passage still constitutes a deadly ultimatum to a huge part of how all of us--and especially I--conduct ourselves in the world. Really responding with non-violence--including verbal non-violence and a blessing to vile, nasty people is tougher then getting off meth, particularly since meth doesn't follow you around trying to pick fights with you as you try to walk away, threatening people you love, and devising ways to suck you back into a fight you are itching to rejoin. But our enemies do that.

So merely avoiding conflict is not enough. We have to, as Fr. Barron says of Jesus, be willing to let the sins and abuses of others "wash over" us (note the baptismal image) and respond with love and not mere smoldering silence like a volcano approaching the explosion point. We have to be (somehow) willing to take all their insults and blows, deserved and undeserved, refer them to the One whose abuses were all undeserved (including, especially, the ones I rained down on him with my sins) and then return a blessing where we positively itch to return a devastating curse. It's not about pretending enemies are not enemies and jerks are not jerks and people in error are not in error. It's about clearly recognizing all that--and opting to bless and desire their good anyway. Doesn't mean we can't speak the truth in reply. Indeed, we are sometimes obliged to. But it does mean we have to speak it in love and not as a fig leaf for smashing them like bugs.

My own course in that cancer treatment has only barely begun and I still skip my meds far too often. But that is, in fact, the only treatment the New Testament offers, so we have the option of attempting it, or dying of the cancer of sinful unforgiveness. Nothing so wonderfully concentrates the mind as the prospect of a hanging.

So we wind up, all us cancer patients dying of sin, in the place where Christ wants us: forced to love, pray for, and bear with one another here in the ward since the most we can brag about is who is least terminal.

Unless, of course, a dope like me really gets the hang of things and starts providing more butter than guns to hungry lambs. Then we might--I might--discover a new way of being that radically transforms us and our relationship to both God and neighbor. We see glimpses that it is really possible in the saints. Now it's up to us to cooperate with grace like they do and see if we can pull it off too. Prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and the corporal and spiritual works of mercy--not endless barren rehearsals of what's wrong with your enemies, or the Church, or the Seattle Mariners or Obama or the GOP--are the recommended paths for anybody who has a mind to go that route. Astute readers will note that I'm lousy at remembering this. Welcome to the  Cancer Ward.

Another suggestion for avoiding despair: remember that the Church exists precisely as a hospital for sinners, so the fact that all us Catholics are inside it bickering and not outside it, cutting each other's throats is good. A Church that is big enough to include That Jerk Over There is, thank God, big enough to include slobs like me and you. Relatedly, recall that no small part of our anger over other people in the Church is that they fail to reflect to us the full image of Christ. In short, they let us down because they don't do what Christ would have done perfectly. We are expecting perfect love, mercy, courage, grace, generosity, etc. and instead find very imperfect reflections of this, so we get disappointed and angry. Yet no small part of what we get angry about is that others fail to see how hard we are trying to obey Christ and instead only tell us about our faults and failings. In short, we want others to judge us on our intentions while we judge them on their actions. The Golden Rule is "Do as would be done by". So instead, try giving thanks for the good intentions of your neighbor when he falls short. It can do wonders.

Finally, spend far more time in the real world than in cyberspace. The Church in cyberspace is an oddly disembodied thing, and therefore participates only partly in the fullness of the Church.  It is the Church of Word, not sacrament, since the closest it can get to the Eucharist is a picture and everybody on line is a sort of disincarnate ghost. It's a place where the gospel needs to be, but it is always the agora and never the sanctuary. Hug your local parish close and get to know the people there. They are your lifeline to the Church as Christ intended it in all its fleshy incarnate reality.

Hope this helps!  God be with you in the Lord Jesus Christ!

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About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.