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Less Holy Than Thou

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).

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