Catholicism in a Rancorous Age
Periodically America, like all other nations, goes through a convulsion of public rancor. That word, too little heard in our public discourse, means bitterness or resentment (and, interestingly, comes from the Latin for smelly).
There was rancor in the country at the time of George Washington, during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and so on. There has never been a fully quiet period since, though some times are more obviously rancorous than others. The media have always played a role in magnifying this phenomenon, and it has become singularly sharp in our own day.
But the larger problem is that many people, including many Catholics, are so caught up in the current frenzy of rancor that it consumes almost all their time and energy.
Social and political matters are not the be-all and end-all of life. The be-all and end-all is that we share in the “mind of Christ.” (I Corinthians 2:16) That is what is worth the bulk of our attention. In the New Testament, Saint Paul spoke of the “mind” frequently. To the Philippians he wrote: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mind as Christ Jesus.” (2:5)
So for a baptized person’s mind, social and political thinking are secondary to using one’s mind to plumb the mind of Christ, something that takes great humility and often takes us far away from the social hullabaloo.
This focus opens up the stupendous spiritual world that Christ came to bring us. There is real serenity in reflecting on what Christ teaches, a welcome alternative to the angry hostility of the national conversation. Moreover, plunging into the mind of Christ gives us the proper tools to enter into that national conversation – if and when we actually have to.
This is not a flight into mere passivity. It is taking up the true Christian task. By Baptism, the thinking Christian is presented with various urgent and immediate projects.
First of all, (s)he has to continue the process of his own conversion. It does not just happen without our efforts. Paul explained to the Romans: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2) Who does not need to spend more time carefully and deliberately going through conversion, regardless of age?
God starts the process: In the language of the Letter to the Hebrews, God says: “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts.” (8:10) The laws of family, friendship, politics, and every other area of human endeavor come to be written in our hearts, through the work of the Spirit and our own efforts to cooperate with the working of the Spirit in the Church.
The reference to minds and hearts means you have to know what God’s law is before you can apply it reliably. Plunging into the mind of Christ does not mean only praying. It also means reading the Scriptures and what the Church has written – not merely in order to get an advanced degree – but to taste how we should understand family, or friendship, or – God help us – politics. Reading in the tradition brings us face to face with the full promise towards all such matters as they are illuminated by Christ. Which also helps us to pray better so that we are not just having a private conversation with ourselves or being “spiritual” freelancers, but rather genuinely listening to God.
There is a fly in the ointment, however, something that St. Paul lamented: “I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.” (Romans 7:23) The distraction of participating in rancorous conversation diverts us from the far more urgent work of escaping from the law of sin, particularly when the conversation may be sinful in itself. This is no small task and will take a lot of authentic effort –and shrewdness.
Paul understood that we have to live with love in the world and to communicate with one another lovingly: “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”(I Corinthians 13: 4-7)
This is perhaps the greatest hymn on love in the whole of Scripture. It is noteworthy that every one of these behaviors has to be learned. Again and again, we have to review how we are doing—hence the daily examen of conscience that so many Christians practice.
When we are constantly working on our conversion, we become Christian islands of calm in the firestorm of rancor around us, rather than pouring additional gasoline on the world’s fire. A lesson much worth learning these days.
*Image: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer, 1655 [Scottish National Museum, Edinburgh]. This is the largest of the extant painting of Vermeer.