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What to do about imperfect faith
In the time you read these thoughts, I am hopeful we can agree on a few things. The first is that none of us have perfect faith or any other virtue for that matter. Furthermore, none of us speaks for the entire Catholic Church (unless by some strange turn of events this article finds itself on the pope’s desk). Consequently, it follows that we have to be careful about coming to decisions about the state of any particular person’s faith and making public comments about it. We all share a sinful human nature, and thus all of us need improvement. Agreed? Good. Now into deeper waters.
Catholics in the public spotlight who hold views that contradict the Faith are giving a counterwitness to the Faith. This rightly upsets many Catholics, because those who are ill-informed or ignorant about what the Catholic Church really teaches may believe it permits them to hold the same views — for instance, a Catholic politician who says he or she is “personally against abortion” but that he doesn’t want to “impose his faith on others” and so he advances pro-abortion policies and funding. What are we to do with such a thought process? How does the average Catholic react to these kinds of errors and sins?
In another vein of thought, the Church teaches it is a work of mercy to rebuke a sinner and to correct the error. If we desire to spread the truth of Catholicism far and wide, we have to start with what is true. Prominent Catholics, especially those in leadership positions, who publicly undercut doctrine are hurting this effort. Furthermore, they cause scandal and may commit a grave sin by supporting immoral political policies. Yet, the average Catholic has little or no sway to change the mind of a national politician or prominent leader. So, how are we to work through these principles to bear witness to the Gospel, love others and yet advance what is true and good?
The answer is found in being true disciples, by making decisions that glorify God.
Judgment is the act of forming an opinion. When we believe an act to be sinful, we judge the act, not the person who performed the act. When we believe a person is on the road to hell, we judge a person’s soul. Notice the clear distinction — to judge an act correctly is a good thing to do. It is an application of our moral sensibility and understanding of right and wrong. Yet to judge the state of another person’s soul is sinful and placing ourselves in the role of God, who alone can judge a soul. In Scripture, the former judgment is acceptable (and obligatory in some circumstances) but the latter form is never an acceptable form of judgment for individuals to make.
Here are examples of applying this to our Catholic politicians who support evil policies. We should say, “Politician X is wrong in supporting abortion, because it is an evil, which is never appropriate to support in any situation.” We should not say, “Politician X himself is evil because he supports abortion.”
Another way we can err in our judgment is by going too far in judging someone’s standing within the Church. Too often have Catholics said that a politician is “not a Catholic” because they support an evil policy, especially life issues. This simply isn’t the case and is not helpful to them or an accurate representation of what the Church teaches.
Like it or not, what makes one Catholic is baptism, and to leave the Catholic Church after baptism takes a formal act of renouncing the Faith. President Joe Biden, for example, is baptized and has not formally renounced the Faith, so he is a Catholic. Still, the question of any particular politician’s state in the Church may be in question due to their support of one or more numerous evils, including abortion, transgenderism, gay marriage, euthanasia, etc. This is a sure recipe for spiritual calamity and would put a big question mark on anyone’s communion with the Church and God. But the answer to that question is not for you or me to answer.
It behooves us to know and be careful about these things. How we think about others. How we talk about others. How we post on social media about others. We control the decisions we make, not the decisions of others. God asks us to examine every thought and deed. Are they true? Are they obedient? Are they loving? This is what we have authority over and responsibility for, not the decisions of others.
But what about the bishops?
I once asked a prominent archbishop why the U.S. bishops didn’t budget and staff an area of the Church I thought they ought to put more resources into. His reply was illuminating. He told me he only had the power to decide how to apply Church law, principles and doctrine in his own archdiocese. He couldn’t control the other bishops, the USCCB or any other person for that matter. He has to answer for his own decisions and that is it. He agreed with me that he wanted more of his brother bishops to support what I thought they ought to support, and the best way to go about that wasn’t by publicly denouncing them but by being a charitable witness with his own decisions, doing what he thought was most prudent and building trust through friendship with others, so he could influence them more.
This is the heart of the strategy we, too, must employ. We need to charitably correct errors when we can, as kindly as we can. Think of a younger family member or friend who has left the active practice of their faith. No doubt you are very sad about this and want them to have the life of a disciple in the Church. What strategy would be more likely to achieve this outcome? 1) Tell them why their lifestyle displeases you every chance you get; or 2) Love them enough right where they are, build trust, speak the truth in love periodically, try to lead them to a better place spiritually and continue to invite them to think through things with you.
I think it is evident that the second strategy is more likely to be effective. This is similar thinking to what the bishops must employ when coming up with a strategy of reaching Catholic politicians who support immoral practices. Their job, like every disciple, is to get themselves to heaven and bring as many others with them as they can. So, to treat their flock as children they love and to try to woo them back to the truth of the Church, even while correcting their errors, is generally more effective than trying to scold them and punish them every chance they get. Families may need to be clear about boundaries, but we don’t stop being a family.
This does not mean the bishops shouldn’t speak boldly against error, sin, evil and immorality. They should, and most bishops do just that, even if they don’t get enough credit for doing so. Still, the bad news of denouncing evil needs to remain less prominent than the proclamation of the Good News of the Gospel. Because good news changes more hearts than bad news does. I certainly am glad I don’t have to try and balance all the difficult decisions a bishop needs to make on how to try and save souls, give a good public witness, correct error, rebuke the sinner, and more. We should all stop trying to be armchair bishops and pray for them and the politicians they must try to evangelize.
What you control
Back to the heart of the matter. You control your own decisions and that is all. Angry social media rants generally don’t change people’s minds but entrench those who disagree in their camp. They also reinforce the notion that Christians are all judgmental and unkind toward those they disagree with. I am not arguing that there is no place for disagreement; rather, how we disagree with another person is just as important as what we disagree about. As Jesus tells us: “How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove that splinter in your eye,’ when you do not even notice the wooden beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye.” (Lk 6:42).
Note that Jesus is telling us to point out sin to the other person. But we must do so only after repenting of our own sin and amending our own lives. Then when we do try to help the other, we must do it out of love, with gentleness and kindness.
Since you are the kind of Catholic who wants to do something, I recommend you pray more fervently for our leaders (bishops and politicians), fight even harder against injustice and evil, and then leave the rest to God, who is most effective at changing hearts and minds.
Marcel LeJeune is the president and founder of Catholic Missionary Disciples (CatholicMissionaryDisciples.com).