March 30, 2011| The Long Island Catholic Vol. 49, No. 48 | BISHOP WILLIAM MURPHY
Following last week’s column in which we reflected on Lent and our language as a gauge of our witness to Christ in daily discourse, I had occasion to re-read a recent brief letter from Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, entitled “Civil and Christian Discourse.” It can be found on the website of the Archdiocese of Washington as well as in Origins, pp. 660-662. This is not a new topic for either one of us who have been friends from seminary days. In this letter, the Cardinal succinctly limns the pitfalls of the kind of discourse we both describe as harmful to civil society and especially harmful to us who belong to the community of communion, the Church. The discourse he rejects is filled with anger and with a desire to “win” while feeling free to demonize the opponent or attack another person’s character or intentions simply because we differ. This does a disservice to the truth and even destroys the context truth needs to be spoken and understood. Bad as that is in civil society, the cardinal points out, “We who follow Christ must not only speak the truth, but we must do so in love (Eph. 4:15).”
One of the challenges we face when we try to address this deficiency in our communities, be they the civil communities of state and neighborhood, or the Christian communities of parish and diocese, is that our language all too often is expressive of some deeper attitudes of mind and heart which become the seed ground for the unbridled and unchecked language that insults, ridicules, dismisses or disparages others. Chief among these is anger.
This, to some, may seem unimportant. Who doesn’t lose his/her temper? Who doesn’t get angry? Didn’t Jesus get angry at the moneylenders in the temple? Doesn’t everyone get angry some time? Doesn’t anger give me a release that helps me get through the day? All these and others try either to justify expressions of anger or reduce it to a harmless or universally accepted manner of treating one another. To some it may seem natural. To others, questioning anger may seem quaint or old-fashioned. For several weeks I wrote about the virtue of chastity in this column, only to be told by one of the media outlets that no one even thinks of chastity and certainly no one thinks it has any bearing on one’s life.
Yet that is not the truth. Chastity makes a difference. Witness what the opposite produces as exemplified in the Sunday N.Y. Times article about “sexting” a nude photo that went from a teenage girl to “my boyfriend because he’s different” to a wide array of teenagers. Were chastity part of their vocabulary or their lives, would there have been a suicide? Even without such a tragedy, would anyone deny that the lives of these teenagers would be more happy and wholesome if casual sex and glorification of irresponsible behavior were not so commonplace today?
Similarly with anger, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church counts as one of the capital sins and which “engenders other sins and vices.” We are not speaking here of the occasional loss of control that happens often in the lives of many. But we are conscious that the consistent and unchecked “loss of control” makes it easier to become involved in a downward spiral of anger and hatred that can ensnare a person and deform one’s outlook and attitude, one’s heart and one’s mind.
The only real antidote to anger is a commitment to seeking the truth and a love of one’s neighbor, especially the neighbor with whom you may disagree. Today we live in what can best be called a dictatorship of opinions. Truth doesn’t matter. In fact even the possibility of attaining truth is irrelevant. What matters is that my opinion prevail. Cardinal Wuerl talks about the ways the media “spin” stories. And he is right. What is equally true and valid is that “spin,” the very real re-creating of what has happened moving from the true to what one wants, is as widespread in our families, parishes and communities as it is in the press or on television. The media are not to be blamed although I would not necessarily applaud them. The media in a certain sense reflect all of us and we in turn learn from them. Again the downward spiral goes on.
There is a great responsibility we all share as members of the Body of Christ, the Church. We all have committed ourselves to be not only truthful but to be caretakers of the truth. That is incumbent on everyone as a human being. Without a commitment to truth, any and every society becomes savage and barbaric. But there is an even greater responsibility we have as members of the Church to be faithful to what the Church teaches because we are charged by God to pass on the message of Christ in its fullness and entirety so that the next generation and all the world may believe. And that means embracing the truth and passing it on with love and care.
Unfortunately all too many have decided that they have the right, if they so wish, to abandon the truth of the Gospel and re-cast the message of Christ and the teaching of the Church to fit in with their own world view or their own desires. This happens in the area of faith when even truths like the divinity of Christ and His real presence in the Blessed Sacrament is denied or relativized. It occurs as well in practice when we reject the authentic teaching of bishops and priests and even of the popes because we have reduced the Church to a sociological construct where my opinion is as authentic and good as the pope or an ecumenical council. It is found as well in the field of morals when we reject the moral teaching of the Church on marriage and family, on chastity and love, on justice and peace.
The triumph of the dictatorship of opinion in the Catholic Church has not yet occurred. And I have faith that the vast majority of Catholics seek to, and do, live lives faithful to Christ and his Church. But the very real presence of anger against the Church within the Church should be a cause of concern and self reflection in this holy season. One antidote to this is a common commitment to the truth and with it a desire to know the truth and to live by it.
Coupled to that is a growth in love, love of God and of one another. If God is love, then we can do no less than seek to imitate Him who “so loved the world that He sent His Son.” If we are a community of communion, then we must always seek and speak the truth even when it may be discomforting. But, as Paul tells us, we “do the truth in love,” “hating the sin but loving the sinner.” Ours it is to build up the Body with mutual respect for the roles and responsibilities we acknowledge in one another. This should always be accompanied by our prayer for one another and by our support of one another that the Church might reflect her divine origin by living His life in truth and love.