The other day I went to the staff mailboxes to see if I had any mail. Standing there looking through some papers was Catholic Answers’ Director of Apologetics Tim Staples. I made a joke about Tim’s statue-like stance; he laughed and said he had received something weird. Then, glancing at the mailboxes, he said, “Hey, you got one, too! We all did.”
What each of the apologists had received was an article titled Why Catholics Don’t Circumcise. Tim was amused that our correspondent had sent a copy separately to each of us. I merely sighed. Although this gentleman did not sign his name or include his address this time, I recognized the city on the postmark. It was the same gentleman who has been pinging me for years with letters and articles on his favorite subject: the horror of male circumcision. He started sending me these missives after I had answered a question on the subject in This Rock, now Catholic Answers Magazine:
Since paragraph 2297 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church forbids deliberate mutilation, why is non-therapeutic circumcision allowed?
Mutilation involves altering the body for non-therapeutic reasons in ways that interfere with the body’s ability to function. Circumcision was established by God as a sign of the Old Covenant (Gen. 17:10–14) and practiced by God’s people in obedience to him for thousands of years until it was superseded by baptism (Col. 2:11–14). Therefore, we must assume that God would not establish a ritual for his people that can be considered deliberate mutilation and thus intrinsically immoral. Even so, parents who object to non-therapeutic circumcision have the right to refuse to circumcise their sons as a matter of conscience. They should, however, take care not to make their arguments against circumcision in such ways that it casts aspersion on the legitimate choice of other parents to circumcise.
This gentleman was unsatisfied with this answer, because he disagreed with the assertion that circumcision is not mutilation and with the idea that parents have the freedom to choose to circumcise their sons. And so he started his campaign to inform me of his passionate objections to this practice. Over the years he has sent not just letters but articles on the subject he has had published in Catholic periodicals. Evidently, perhaps realizing that I have chosen not to respond, he has expanded his efforts and is now sending his material to all Catholic Answers apologists.
The amusing thing about this situation—well, amusing to me, anyway—is that I am mostly sympathetic to his concerns. In my own opinion, the circumcision of infant boys is entirely unnecessary for Christians for religious reasons and is generally unnecessary for medical reasons. And, if unnecessary, in my opinion it should not be done. Circumcision for aesthetic or cultural reasons reminds me of the practice of docking the tail or cropping the ears of a dog, something I consider to be repulsive when done to animals, and even more so when done to human babies without sufficiently grave reason.
But, and here is the thing, that is my personal opinion. I cannot offer my personal opinion on circumcision as Church teaching and bind other Catholics’ consciences on the matter when the Church does not. I have to allow for the freedom of opinion that the Church permits. I am an apologist, someone who explains and defends the Catholic Faith. I am not a guru.
There is a larger reason why I told this story though, and that is because it is illustrative of the problem of agendas. Over the years I have worked for Catholic Answers, I have learned that many Catholics have one issue they ride like a hobbyhorse through any and all discussions of Catholic matters. Whether it is Communion in the hand, the Tridentine Latin Mass, women’s clothing, headcovering for women, female altar servers, the role of women in the Church, priestly celibacy, or circumcision, there is one issue around which their faith life seems to revolve.
Why is it problematic to fixate on just one issue? After all, isn’t it natural for humans to think about and discuss that which interests them, even to the exclusion of other matters?
Well, yes and no. Yes, we tend toward those things that interest us. But no, it is not a good idea to focus on any one issue to the exclusion of all others. Here are some of the problems:
Losing perspective. The Catholic Faith is not a single-issue faith. It is like a great tapestry. While a detail of that tapestry might be fascinating to you, you need to step back to appreciate the whole. That way you see how the detail fits into the larger picture. For example, if all you think about is whether or not Communion should be distributed in the hand, you lose perspective on the whole that is occurring at each and every Mass. Rather than see the reception of Communion as the culmination of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, as it is sacramentally re-presented before you, you instead zero in on whether or not people are receiving Communion “correctly.”
Judging others. When you are hyper-focused on one issue, you tend to judge other people in relation to whether or not they demonstrate sufficient devotion to your cause. Remember the gentleman who read that question and answer on circumcision, and then disagreed to the point of disagreeableness? Because I left room for different opinions on the subject, he deemed me insufficiently strident on his issue and in need of re-education. And so he has been bent on sending me (and now all Catholic Answers apologists) materials that promote his view.
Creating scruples. Suppose you manage to obtain access to an audience, whether through teaching in your parish or pontificating in cyberspace. If you manage to convince others of the righteousness of your agenda, you can create scruples in other Catholics’ consciences. The woman whom you convince that she cannot go to Mass without something on her head will begin worrying about whether what she wears on her head is adequate. And this is no exaggeration. I have heard from women, newly convinced they must wear veils, who want to know whether or not the color of the veil must symbolize their marital status.
(Nota bene: Creating scruples in the vulnerable was something that evidently ticked off Christ himself. In his indictment of the scribes and the Pharisees, he said, “They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger.”)
Perhaps the greatest danger of agendas though is that they have the potential to warp you. Consider Gollum, a hobbit-like creature in J. R. R. Tolkien‘s The Lord of the Rings novels. From the first moment Gollum—then named Sméagol—set eyes on the Ring, he was obsessed with it. He killed his cousin Déagol, who found the Ring; he used the Ring for all sorts of nefarious purposes; he was banished by his family and took to living completely isolated from social contact.
After he lost the Ring to Bilbo Baggins, Gollum spent the remainder of his life in pursuit of it. Because of the Ring, he lost family and friends to death and ostracism; he lost the freedom of the world and the joy of a normal life, reduced to living alone; he even lost his very identity, having his name changed to the “horrible swallowing noise [he made] in his throat.” And all for a Ring that corrupted him, that he loved and loathed and called “my precious.”
The story of Gollum is a rather apt symbol for a man with an agenda. As the agenda takes over his life, he can lose the affection, understanding, and forbearance of friends and family; the respect and companionship of colleagues; and the freedom of the fullness of the Faith. He is reduced to a constant quest to prove he is right, seeking out justifications for his cause. He is blind to the fact that other people can be hurt in the process (if his agenda creates in them unnecessary scruples they must bear), or that other people may simply pity him for his inability to move on.
Freedom from agendas
Suppose you recognize in yourself a tendency to focus on one issue about the Faith and are worried about developing an agenda. What can you do?
Create distance. The first thing to do would seem to be the most obvious. Avoid the issue. If you find yourself reading every news item about the Church from a certain perspective—say, reading about the baptism of Martians and wondering why women can’t be ordained—resolve to avoid discussion of the matter for a while. Whenever the topic pops up in your thoughts, redirect yourself to another topic.
(I recently found that this works with difficult people in your life as well. If you find yourself constantly complaining about someone you consider to be “toxic,” avoid that person and avoid even mentioning that person’s name to others. If familiarity breeds contempt, sometimes distance breeds a healthy tolerance and sense of balance.)
Consider other perspectives. When I was a teenager, I had a friend with whom I had a significant disagreement. We ended up angry, each unable to see the other’s view. To try to understand her perspective, I gave myself a writing assignment. I wrote out a faux “diary entry” in her voice, relating the disagreement to the imaginary diary from her point of view. I was amazed at some of the words that flowed from my pen. When I later shared with her some of what was in the “diary entry,” she looked at me wide-eyed and said, “Yes, that’s exactly what I thought!”
You can do something similar when you find yourself riding a hobbyhorse. Research your opponents’ viewpoint and write a defense of it in their own voice. Keep in mind that this requires absolute honesty and unflinching fairness. You must not give into the temptation to put into the defense your own opinions on the matter or to make your opponents look foolish. They should be able to read what you wrote and say, “Yes, that’s exactly what I thought!” Undertaking this exercise does not necessarily mean that you must change your own viewpoint; it simply means that you can gain understanding of where others are coming from.
Find new interests. Finally, make a concerted effort not just to avoid your hobbyhorse but to seek out other interests. If you find yourself losing perspective on your Catholic Faith, try to find a new hobby. Take up bird-watching, or knitting, or parasailing. Read poetry, or literature, or about a nonreligious subject that piques your curiosity. The more well-rounded you are in how you spend your free time, the less likely you will be to singlemindedly pursue an agenda of any kind.
The edge of the Crack of Doom
At the end of The Return of the King (the third volume of The Lord of the Rings), Gollum finally regains his precious Ring, after having attacked and maimed one who spared his life. He is so overcome to have back the Ring that he dances around, not noticing that he is too close to the edge of the Crack of Doom. He falls over the side, Ring and all, his last word, “Precious!”
Eventually, all of us will have a choice to make: Let go of unhealthy agendas or follow those agendas to our ultimate destruction.