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  • Edward R. Benet

Being Catholic goes beyond conservatism or liberalism

Part of the Christian Third Way series


Edward R Benet



In last Sunday’s Gospel passage, Jesus says, “Whoever loves me will keep my word . .” (John 14,23).

Does he mean that we must make our love concrete by being obedient to what he has told us?

Or does he mean that, if we love him, then obedience to his word will flow naturally as a consequence?

This is not a trivial issue. These two interpretations are often the basis of a major ideological conflict within the Church. Sometimes, adherents of the so-called Catholic “right” tend towards the first interpretation, while adherents of the so-called “left” tend towards the second. There is a third way, however, that is deeper and more profound and more Catholic than either.

Once there were three good and sincere Christians whose names were Clericus, Liberalis and Catholicus. Clericus liked order and discipline. He knew that the Christian faith brought certain responsibilities with it, and he liked these responsibilities to be set down in the form of clear rules. He had no patience with those who claimed to love Jesus but failed to show their love in solid acts of self-discipline and obedience to norms. “Love is not a feeling”, he would often say. “It is made concrete by actions, some of which involve a certain amount of drudgery and blind obedience”. For Clericus, Jesus’ saying, “Whoever loves me will keep my word” was an admonition. It was a definite challenge from the Lord: if you claim to love me, then let me see this love in your actions.

Liberalis spoke a lot about freedom and the heart. He was suspicious of blind acts of obedience. The Lord was calling us to follow him intentionally. This required that we have a desire to follow him and that we do it freely and willingly. To force oneself against one’s will seemed a betrayal of the kind of discipleship that Christ was looking for. For Liberalis, Jesus’ saying, “Whoever loves me will keep my word” was not an admonition but a simple description of true discipleship. If our love for Jesus is true, then we will naturally keep his word. Jesus is not admonishing us to be obedient, but is asking us to concentrate on loving him first.

Clericus led a good and ordered life, but at times people felt that he occasionally failed to see past the rules to the people that the rules were intended to serve. For example, there was a rule in the parish that sports organisations shouldn’t carry out fundraising collections at the church gates on Sunday. One Sunday, however, the parish priest decided to waive the rule for the junior rowing club that was in some financial difficulty. Clericus was furious when he arrived at the church, even though he was aware of the waiver. He confronted the fundraisers and let them know that the rules were there for a very good reason. It was most embarrassing for everyone.

Liberalis had no difficulties in seeing the spirit behind the rules, but he was sometimes accused of not having sufficient regard for norms of a fairly fundamental sort. For example, he believed that I must follow the Lord with my heart. If I wake up in the morning and my heart feels repulsed by the idea of getting up and doing my daily prayer routine, then I should turn over, sleep some more, and pray later when my heart feels ready for it.

On the question of sin, Clericus had very clear ideas. Biblical passages and Papal encyclicals had set down in unambiguous terms lists of actions that were gravely wrong. A person who had committed such actions could not be in a state of grace and would not be fit to receive communion. Such a person was manifestly not keeping Jesus’s word, so he evidently didn’t love the Lord.

Liberalis did not agree that the material fact of committing certain acts necessarily excluded a person from receiving communion. It was the heart that counted. A person could be living in an objective state of “sin” but still have a heart that was fundamentally oriented to the Lord. Such a person loved the Lord, and was doing his best to keep his word, even if the material conditions of his live did not facilitate conformity to that word in every respect.

Catholicus was frustratingly difficult to categorize for both Clericus and Liberalis. He was sometimes accused by Liberalis of being too like Clericus for paying untoward attention towards certain moral norms. At other times, Clericus dismissed him as being no better than Liberalis because he was so ready to set aside norms in cases where he claimed to see a “higher good”. In reality, Catholicus was quite a different fish to both of his friends.

“Whoever loves me will keep my word”. In these words, Catholicus saw both a statement about the primacy of love and an admonition to obedience. The objective of the spiritual life was to become an intentional disciple of Jesus, to follow him spontaneously from the heart, as Liberalis was aware. But such discipleship was not possible without the discipline and self-denial of Clericus. For Catholicus, the saying of Jesus is actually a sort of acid-test for true discipleship. If my concrete daily acts involve sins of a grave sort, then this is an indication that my love for Jesus is lacking in fundamental ways. Such acts must be rooted out by appropriate means. Liberalis might object to this. He would say, “No! Do not violently try to modify your behaviour with acts of the will. Work on your heart instead. Good actions will follow once you learn to love the Lord”.

Catholicus appreciated the spirit behind Liberalis’ reasoning here, but he knew that the movements of the heart by themselves are not sufficient. The fact is that our hearts are contaminated by the effects of sin and laziness. Since the very beginning of the ministry of Jesus, which began after he spent forty days in the desert, through the experiences of the fathers of the early Church and the foundations of eastern and western monasticism, it is a simple truth that discipline and self-denial have been found to be essential elements in the spiritual life. If it was true for Jesus who had no sin then how much more it is true for each one of us. When Jesus says, “Whoever loves me will keep my word”, he is asking us to measure our love against our actions. If we see that our actions do not conform to his word, then we can be sure that our love is lacking and our actions need to be changed. But - and this is the real difference between Catholicus and Clericus – our actions need to be changed primarily by deepening our love. If I have the habit of viewing online pornography, then this is a sign that my love for Jesus is lacking. Eliminating pornography by cancelling my internet connection might indeed be a good thing, but this is not at all sufficient if it were to remain at that. What is also needed is to deepen my love for Jesus by improving my prayer life, by spiritual reading, by conversations with my spiritual director, by performing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Then, eventually, when that conversion of the heart has taken place, I will be able to keep Jesus’ word (i.e. not look at pornography) even if my internet connection is restored. The conformity of my actions with the word of the Lord will be something that originates in my heart.

In unison with Liberalis, Catholicus would be able to affirm the following statement: the elimination of sinful behaviour for the sake of eliminating sinful behaviour is misguided. If I see that I am engaging in behaviour that the Church tells me is sinful, then this is an indication that my love of Jesus is lacking. I must act to eliminate that behaviour, but not for the sake of eliminating the behaviour! The priority of changing my lifestyle is that I get closer to Jesus, that I develop my relationship with him, that my love and adherence to him deepen. Any determined acts of the will, sacrifices or self-disciplines that I engage in must be directed towards learning to love Jesus more. Otherwise they can be damaging to my person and may lead to eventual negative consequences for my spiritual life.

In union with Clericus, Catholicus would affirm: the following of Jesus is not just a matter of spontaneous desire; it involves reason and the will working to educate the desires of the heart. If I were Adam or Eve in the state of natural perfection before the Fall, then my heart might well be filled with all the right desires. In that case I would already love the Lord genuinely and would spontaneously tend to keep his word. But the fact is that we all suffer from the effects of original sin. My heart is disobedient and turned in on myself. It tends after sinful things. The Holy Spirit, however, is active in our consciences. Using reason and through reflection on revelation, strengthened by grace, I can overcome the selfish desires of the heart and act in ways that my conscience tells me are just. When I act in this way, the Holy Spirit is orienting me towards the Christ who had loved me and died for me. I may not be aware of it, but being true to my conscience is an act, inspired by the Holy Spirit, of love for Jesus – “Whoever loves me will keep my word”.

Catholicus is aware that there is a tendency in the world to label people, to put them in boxes, to confine them to a certain set of limited expectations. If you are concerned about the ontology of salvation, if you demand conformity to certain truths about the nature of humanity and the nature of God, then you are called “conservative”, “right-wing”. Some people, like Clericus, might well be at home in such a box. On the other hand, if you are worried about social justice, if you burn so that everyone will have the exercise of freedom, if you are concerned for human rights, then you are called “liberal”, “left-wing”, and Liberalis might be quite content to be attributed such august concerns! But the real Catholic way is not one or the other. Mother Teresa of Calcutta and John Paul II should be eternal reminders that true discipleship goes beyond these particular tendencies. We must seek to know God by looking to Christ, and we must seek to know ourselves by looking to Christ. Grounded in this truth and focussed on the Lord (remember that Mother Teresa began every day with extended time in front of the Blessed Sacrament before going out on the streets), we can then seek in freedom to conform our actions accordingly. The real Catholic is not just grounded in truth (like Clericus) or radically oriented to the other (like Liberalis). His grounding in the truth of his relationship with God is the foundation of his radical orientation to others.

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