How to Tell if You’re Rightfully Zealous for Souls or Just Plain Angry
COMMENTARY: The challenge is how to confront attacks against the Church without losing our souls or those of others.
As an ordained minister of the Church, I have a very straightforward purpose of my life: adoring God and saving souls. Nothing else matters. I proclaim and defend the doctrines and the disciplines of the Catholic faith because they have been entrusted to the Church as the means by which souls attain their supernatural destiny of sharing in “the good things of God that utterly surpasse the understanding of the human mind” (Vatican I, Dei Filius). It’s rare to hear nowadays, but I seek to cultivate in myself and others a “passionate zeal for souls.” Of course, zeal for souls involves zeal to save man in his totality, body and soul, as expressed in the practice of the corporal acts of mercy, combined with spiritual acts of mercy.
Pope Francis said earlier this year that the salus animarum (salvation of souls) is the highest law of the Church, which he describes as helping people hear and live the universal call to holiness.
It is from this zeal for souls that I want to share with you my growing concern about attitudes, behaviors and arguments that I have observed among some Catholics whom I consider my friends and collaborators during this time of battle in the Church, and especially during the recently concluded Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family.
I don’t write from some detached perspective, but as someone who struggles against the same temptations. Ultimately, I write this because I want to see us all standing before the throne of Almighty God and hear his glorious words of recognition and welcome, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (Matthew 25:34).
Temptation to Rage
There is a lot of rage out there in the blogosphere, social media and online Catholic media among Catholics who clearly love the Church and take seriously the obedience of faith. I’ve even read comments wishing ill towards other Catholics, including physical harm. The most shocking example I’ve come across was a Catholic tweeting the hope that Pope Francis’ refusal of security during his U.S. trip would result in a successful attack on him! One of the dangers of social media is that anonymity often encourages some individuals to gravely sinful thoughts and expressions.
I understand why faithful Catholics feel anger and even hatred suddenly flare up in their hearts on hearing yet more examples of bishops, priests and lay activists betraying the faith and potentially leading souls into moral danger. Moral theology tells us that anger and hatred are passions that are natural movements of the psyche in reaction to injustice and evil. It is good to hate our own sins and natural to feel anger at the murder of unborn babies through abortion. The Catechism states:
“In themselves, passions are neither good nor evil. They are morally qualified only to the extent that they effectively engage reason and will. … Strong feelings are not decisive for the morality or the holiness of persons; they are simply the inexhaustible reservoir of images and affections in which the moral life is expressed. Passions are morally good when they contribute to a good action, evil in the opposite case” (1767-1768).
In the rage I see expressed in some Catholic blogs, there is not a spontaneous or passing passion. Instead, given the constant expressions of anger and hate, the activity of the deadly sin of wrath must be considered. The seven deadly, or capital, sins are vices that impair conscience, corrupt judgement and entrap the person in a vicious cycle of sin. Wrath, like lust or envy, is rightly called deadly because it eats a person up so that rage comes to dominate his or her response to life. How can we tell the difference between rightful anger and deadly rage? Apart from duration, there is a spitefulness and vindictiveness in wrath, as if the person takes gleeful delight in expressing anger. The antidote to wrath is the virtue of mercy and forgiveness, which should not be confused with laxity or indifference in the face of sin and betrayal of the faith.
I feel I must make one qualification about the question of anger and Catholic blogs, based on my personal experience of running Protect the Pope.com. Dissenters, and those who don’t want to face reality in the Church, often make accusations of anger, ad hominem attacks and “lack of charity” against faithful Catholic bloggers when their dissenting and erroneous arguments and dubious decisions are critiqued from the perspective of faith and reason. By so doing, they seek to portray robust argument and rational challenge as “sinful” in order to avoid answering just criticisms. Criticism that is fair and reasoned cannot really be mistaken for rage.
Temptation to Disrespect Towards Pope Francis
During the pontificates of Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, it was common to read and hear dissenting Catholics express disdain and crude disrespect towards these two great popes. Signs of disrespect included omitting the titles “Pope” and “Holy Father” or their chosen name as pontiff by referring to them as “Wojtyła” and “Ratzinger.” In this way, dissenting Catholics signaled a number of attitudes and decisions, including their refusal to acknowledge Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI’s authority or role as successors to St. Peter and their dissent from the doctrine and discipline of the Church proclaimed and defended by them. But more than this, I think these expressions of disrespect towards John Paul and Benedict manifested the dissenters’ rejection of authority in the Church in favor of autonomous freedom and their rejection of the “obedience of faith” in favor of so-called “pick and mix” or “à la carte” Catholicism.
It is incredible now to see the same spiteful expressions of disrespect being written and spoken by some “faithful” Catholics against Pope Francis. It is common to read on Catholic blogs that Pope Francis is referred to as “Bergoglio,” “Frank” or “Frankie.” And like the dissenting opponents of Pope Francis’ predecessors, such Catholics are signaling that they reject Pope Francis’ authority and role in the Church as the Successor of St. Peter.
This is a totally bizarre attitude for Catholics who seek to be faithful to Scripture, Tradition and the magisterium to adopt towards the 266th leader of the Catholic Church and Successor to St. Peter. The basic attitude expected of faithful Catholics towards Pope Francis is first and foremost one of respect and reverence. The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, explains this fundamental disposition:
“This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence; the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine or from his manner of speaking” (25).
It is clear from the Catholic understanding of the primacy of the successor of St. Peter that it is contrary to the faith handed down to us from the apostles to express disrespect towards the pope. Having said this, showing respect and reverence towards the office of the Roman pontiff does not exclude critical engagement with Pope Francis’ teachings and judgments. In fact, Pope Francis has gone out of his way to signal that much of his teaching, such as his daily homilies during Mass at the St. Martha guesthouse and even some of his apostolic documents, are not to be treated as magisterial.
Temptation to Schism
The latest eruption of heresy among some bishops, such as proposals to allow divorced and remarried to receive holy Communion and unqualified affirmations of homosexuality and fornication, is breaking the hearts of faithful Catholics. But instead of taking our concerns seriously, we’re often dismissed by some as “fundamentalists,” “rigorists” and “hardliners” because we think the Church should proclaim the revealed truths entrusted to us by Our Lord to save us from sin and attain eternal life.
I get a sense that some faithful Catholics, worn out after decades of enduring either dissenting bishops and priests or ineffectual bishops and priests, long for freedom from the cruelty of heresy and the indifference of some of our shepherds. I’ve noticed that sometimes this longing for freedom expresses itself in talk of schism as a solution. It seems to me that some faithful Catholics are discussing the possibility of schism for two reasons.
First, on a general level, talk of schism is an articulation of the hope that if only we could be free of all the dissenting and heretical Catholics we could live in the Church as God intended. Often, schism is the desperate action of Christians who seek to purify the Church because they’ve lost hope that things can be different. We can see the consequence of this type of thinking in the hundreds of thousands of Protestant ecclesial communities that have fractured from the heresy and schism of the Reformation.
Secondly, on a specific level, some faithful Catholics were talking about the possibility of schism as a “what-if” scenario: What if the Synod of Bishops in October recommended to Pope Francis, and the Holy Father accepted, some formula of words that allows the divorced and remarried to receive holy Communion after observing some form of Cardinal Walter Kasper’s “penitential way” novelty? Such a decision on the part of the Holy Father and synod fathers would represent an unprecedented, many would say unimaginable, action — the betrayal of the categorical doctrines of Our Lord and apostles on the indissolubility of marriage, the immorality of adultery, abandonment of children and offenses against the sanctity of the Blessed Sacrament. Concerns about schism are heightened by the fact that the instrumentum laboris — the working document for the 2015 synod — includes Cardinal Kasper’s proposal (Paragraphs 122-123), even though it failed to gain the necessary two-thirds majority vote during the 2014 extraordinary synod.
But to contemplate schism as an acceptable option is to forget that it is a grave sin against the faith that deserves the severest penalty of excommunication. The prospect of inflicting “a wound to the unity of the Body of Christ” (Catechism 817) should fill us all with a sense of horror. It’s painful enough knowing that our personal sins inflict wounds on Our Lord’s crucified body, but to even contemplate the hypothetical scenario of another wound to the Mystical Body of Christ is heartbreaking.
Salvation of Souls — Nothing Else Matters
As faithful Catholics, we are living through difficult times during which the faith is not only under constant attack from without, but also from within. The challenge is how to confront these attacks without losing our souls or those of others. If we succumb to habits of thought and expression that are sinful, then we do more harm than good, not only to ourselves and others, but to the Church we love. I have the following sentence from St. Paul posted on my kitchen wall to remind me of the truly Catholic approach to take in the current conflict within the Church: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
Salvation of souls — nothing else matters.
Deacon Nick Donnelly is a contributor to EWTN Radio’s Celtic Connections
program and a columnist with Catholic Voice Ireland.
This article originally appeared in Catholic Voice Ireland and is
republished with permission. It has been edited for style.