Less Holy Than Thou

January 15, 2014 | 5 comments

Some religious objections are universal, it seems. Apologists for religion, whether they are Catholic, non-Catholic, or non-Christian, face similar challenges in their work to explain and defend the faith they profess. I was struck by this problem the other day when an Orthodox Jewish rabbi whose page I follow on Facebook publicly issued a cri de coeur to his readers. He had more than one concern he wanted to air, but one of his gripes especially resonated with me because it is quite similar to what I have occasionally been told in my work as an apologist:

Yes, I am an adult. And yes, I try to be brave and tough and strong. And I really don't get insulted or angry at commenters. Two things do hurt though: . . . That thing where people say I make them less frum [Yiddish, "observant of Jewish law"]. I will be substantively addressing [this objection] soon.

While waiting for the rabbi's response, I got to thinking about my own experience. One case in particular from years ago leaped to mind. Let's look at my failures first, then we can consider who else might be at fault in what occurred.

Holier Than Thou

A recent convert to the Church was frustrated because she was planning to marry and had just found out her fiancé's petition for an annulment of his previous marriage had been denied. The date was set, families were ready to fly in, and they seemed to have the priest's blessing for their plan to marry civilly and then "fix" the canonical irregularity once the annulment was granted. Now that they had been told by the marriage tribunal "No can do," this convert was not just angry at the disruption to her plans but was certain that the Church was acting unfairly to her fiancé, who had been left by a faithless wife years before and was now being thwarted in a second chance at happiness with her.

When I just now re-read the answer I gave all those years ago, I remembered how frustrated I was then. The frustration was not just with the inquirer, who inserted into her presentation of her case a number of presumptions (e.g., that there are rights to remarriage and to happiness, that God himself wants people to marry, that the Church was acting unfairly); the frustration was also with a priest, who was reported to have illegitimately raised this couple's hopes that they could get married in the Church before a necessary annulment had been granted.

In retrospect, I should have shelved the question for a while and cooled off, but I did not. I more or less fisked her question in the response I gave—not cruelly, in my opinion, but neither was my answer an especially sensitive response. And, not surprisingly, the inquirer turned hostile. She followed up in an email exchange with me. When I realized just how upset she was with me, I tried to soften my tone, but it was too late. Much to my dismay, the exchange ended with her vowing to repudiate her own conversion and hoping that her fiancé would follow her out. I sometimes have wondered in the years since that incident what happened to those two, and have prayed for their reconciliation with the Church.

In this case, I made some serious errors in judgment that were a result of my own inexperience in counseling. Time, a willingness to self-evaluate one's failures, and a willingness to learn from past mistakes can help an apologist to negotiate the pitfalls in situations like this. And, without exception, apologists make mistakes in their presentations of their faith. An apologist who claims never to have made mistakes in his or her work is an apologist you should run from.

Yes, there are apologists out there who refuse to acknowledge mistakes. I know of one non-Catholic apologist who apparently has never lost a debate. His unbroken record does not stand as a testament to his prowess as a debater, but to his inability to admit obvious errors, even when pointed out. When I once explained to this apologist how he failed to use the sources he had agreed to use in a debate with a Catholic apologist—as evidenced by the very title of the debate on the cover of the debate program, which I had a copy of because I was in the audience that night—his apostolate changed the title of the debate when it marketed a recording of the debate to its constituents.

In short, yes, religious apologists, whether for Christian or for non-Christian religions, do bear some responsibility for how their actions affect others. We have a responsibility to present our arguments fairly, accurately, and with real consideration for the plight of individuals. When we do not, we can add to the burden that suffering people already carry. As Jesus said about the scribes and the Pharisees:

They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger.

Not only that, but . . .

They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men (Matt. 23:4–7).

But now that we have gone step by step through my failures in the case I recounted, let's look at the other side. Is it possible that I was not alone in making a mess of the situation?

Less Holy Than Thou

When people complain that someone is acting "holier than thou," they mean that the person is acting in a way that is obnoxiously pious or sanctimonious. But could it also be true that people can act obnoxiously while professing their lack of piety? Could they be behaving inappropriately by rubbing the noses of the religious in their mistakes, and refusing to take responsibility for their own actions?

Remember how my inquirer reacted. She became hostile. When I realized my mistake, she did not accept a softened tone. She did not accept responsibility on her own part, or on the part of her fiancé, for the situation in which they were embroiled. She told me that because of this exchange with me that she was going to leave the Church. I do not deny that she had reason to become upset. But the question has become whether or not she had justification to remain hostile and to threaten to leave the Church.

If we have the use of reason, we remain responsible for our own actions. Moral culpability may be mitigated by the actions of others, but it is rare for a person who is in possession of his or her reason to be entirely free from guilt for an objectively immoral act. The sin may become venial if knowledge and the ability to consent are sufficiently compromised, but a venial sin is still a sin. And, ultimately, we are responsible for our own sins. The choices we freely make are our own, and those choices can shape us into the persons we are now and will become.

Jimmy Akin once wrote an article on keeping your peace when encountering problems with people in the Church. I have often turned to this article myself over the years when I have to deal with problematic situations in the Church that I have encountered in my own life:

As I deal with people who are in [difficult] situations . . . I find myself telling them over and over . . . Look, don't do it! Don't make the mistake of turning over your happiness before God to someone else. You don't have to do that. You may tell yourself, "I just can't stand the way this Mass is being celebrated," but you're wrong. People say that they can't stand something when they know full well that they can. They're simply trying to rationalize a decision they want to make by telling themselves that they don't have any choice.

You do have a choice. You have a choice how you will react to what someone else is doing. You can choose to react in a way that mourns whatever offense has been committed yet leaves your spiritual peace intact. Or you may choose to react in a way that poisons your spiritual life and robs of you of the peace God wants you to have. But it's still your choice.

You can't control what another person is going to do. But you can control how you choose to react.

Perhaps you are unconvinced. Perhaps you are still certain that there simply must be some offenses committed by religious teachers that absolve a religious person from responsibility for a decision to become less observant (or entirely non-observant) of religious obligations. After all, didn't we already establish that Jesus absolved people from the need to obey their religious teachers when they were abused by those teachers?

No, actually, Jesus did not do that. In fact, Jesus gave an important preface to his denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees:

Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice" (Matt. 23:1–3).

Jesus did not dispute the authority of the teachers of his people. In fact he charged both the curious crowds and his own disciples with the responsibility to "practice and observe whatever they tell you." The teachers' preaching was sound, their authority was God-given. It was the teachers' practice of their obligations that was faulty—but that fact did not thereby free the students from their own practice of their obligations.

Teachers may only be able to pass on truth; they may not be able to demonstrate how to live that truth. But God did not leave us without a sure guide to follow in how to practice our religious obligations. Elsewhere in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus himself offers to be our example:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matt. 11:28–30).


Michelle Arnold is a staff apologist at Catholic Answers. You can visit her personal blog or contact her online through Facebook.
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Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Michael Murphy - San Carlos, California

I think this is an excellent and thoughtful article by Michelle.

My issue with apologists, especially when commenting on the faith and law as it applies to individuals and how they live their faith, is that they are too often the "letter of the law" without realizing the "spirit of the law." Every individual and every case is unique in many ways. Of course, Jesus never wrote anything down, was not a canon lawyer, never promised He had all the answers...other than that HE was the answer! So when I hear people answering religious questions with the confidence that this is THE answer and this is what GOD WANTS and what GOD THINKS, I tend to shake my head.

I think apologists do an excellent job of explaining the Church's position on things. However, God in His reality, His love, His very existence, is infinite and so far beyond us, that for us to feel like we have the "answers" to essential life questions is the height of hubris. For even the Church itself to act like it has captured this God in a catechism or code of canon law or anything else...well, I think that's a mistake. The Church is the best we have and is the truest path to God, but it's not God who wrote the Catechism, or sits in the Vatican and GOd is certainly not "Catholic"....God is way bigger than all of that, so completely "other"...and when people act (not necessarily apologists or certainly not Michelle) that they are representing what God wants or thinks or means with certainty....I have a hard time with that. So, I think, do those who encounter it, like the lady MIchelle wrote to, especially when their lives are so tightly intertwined with these Catholic "answers".

January 15, 2014 at 11:00 am PST
#2  Steven Way - Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio

Good article by Michelle about the appeal to emotion logical fallacy which, in this case, involved responsibility avoidance and scapegoating. It highlights a common problem that every Catholic apologist (even amateur unknowns like me) will inevitably encounter when sharing our faith with people.

From the article:

"She told me that because of this exchange with me that she was going to leave the Church. I do not deny that she had reason to become upset. But the question has become whether or not she had justification to remain hostile and to threaten to leave the Church."

I think it was very unfair for that person who left the Church to use Michelle as her excuse to leave the Church when that person most likely already had her mind made up to leave anyway. It sounds like she was just looking for a convenient scapegoat to blame for choosing to continue on with her sins, and she chose Michelle as her victim.

January 15, 2014 at 11:54 am PST
#3  Patrick DeCann - odessa, Missouri

In response to Michael Murphys comments. The church was given authority by jesus christ (god) himself thats how they can bind and loose things on earth. God gave us the laws and then he gave us jesus christ to teach us how to apply it to our lives. And jesus left the holy spirit to guide the church and its people.

January 16, 2014 at 2:58 pm PST
#4  Steven Way - Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio

In response to Michael Murphy's comment where he said, "God is certainly not "Catholic"....God is way bigger than all of that."

The word "catholic" means universal. I think universal is as big as it gets. How can the Catholic Church be as big as God? Because Jesus is God (the Son), and Jesus and the Church are one. In Acts 9:1-5, St. Paul, when he was called Saul before his conversion, was persecuting the Church. When confronting Saul, Jesus said, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute ME?" The Catholic Church is universal because She was founded by Jesus and because the Catholic Church is married to Jesus. With Him being the Head and the Church being His body, the Catholic Church is forever connected to God's eternally divine nature. The universal nature of the Catholic Church extends beyond this earth to include Purgatory and to include the eternal spiritual realm of Heaven.

January 16, 2014 at 7:01 pm PST
#5  Rosemary Eshghi - Chappaqua, New York

Re M. Murphy's comments: this site does not call itself "Catholics Have All The Answers". Those who are interested will find answers that are faithful to Catholicism. If you want Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, etc. answers, there are sites for those as well.

Re Michelle's situation with the convert: sometimes people need to vent their frustration but that couple was clearly misled by the priest, to whom her irritation should have been directed. When I have my apologist hat on, I often re-direct the query back to the source of the confusion.

I would not regret the exchange, however; sometimes we need to cogitate on what we don't want to hear. Often, no matter how charitable we try to be, if the hearer is hostile to the truth, at least we get the truth to them; that's what makes us "obnoxious" but it's a sign of respect to them.

Another valuable sign of respect is to affirm their frustration. Being truly sympathetic to their plight may be just what the angry person needs to hear. At the very worst we could be accused of being sincere in our conviction.

January 18, 2014 at 11:27 am PST

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