It’s difficult to know how to have conviction about life. We live in an American culture where we walk on egg shells trying to make sure we don’t hurt anybody’s feelings. There are certain words we can’t say, certain views we need to express with a multitude of caveats, as well as certain opinions we are encouraged to essentially keep to ourselves – or maybe only speak in a hushed voice, in a corner somewhere, with another person who believes exactly as we do.
On the other extreme, though, it’s not hard to find people like our dear Westborough Baptist pastor (may he rest in peace) who seem to have no filter for anything they say and go out of their way to press their opinions about life in the most crass, showy, and infuriating way.
But it’s between these two extremes that Catholics often try to find their way. And honestly, I’ve had a hard time trying to figure out how to believe with great passion and conviction the teachings of the Catholic Church while at the same time being gentle and reverent with those who disagree. After my last post on schooling, for example, I kept wondering, “Did I say something wrong? Will people think I think I’m better than everyone else because I believe this? Will others think I look down on them, which I don’t?”
Looking to Jesus on this issue can be helpful, but still confusing. Have you ever wondered at how Jesus, in some parts of the Gospels seems to thunder like a Hell-fire and brimstone preacher at a big-tent revival and then, in other parts, shows incredible compassion to sinners and even says, “Do not judge, lest you be judged”? Is He schizophrenic?
Pope Francis tries to unknot the conundrum this way:
“…each person’s situation before God and their life in grace are mysteries which no one can fully know from without. The Gospel tells us to correct others and to help them to grow on the basis of a recognition of the objective evil of their actions (cf. Mt 18:15), but without making judgments about their responsibility and culpability (cf. Mt 7:1; Lk 6:37).” ~from Evangelii Gaudium, Article 172
In other words, if someone commits a sin that is objectively wrong, say the act is wrong, but don’t assume that because that person did something wrong, he is a horrible person – as though that act somehow defines him. If a woman commits an abortion, for example, the church rightly says, “That’s wrong.” We can judge the act, but we can’t judge the person. Was the abortion done because the woman was pressured by her boyfriend? Did she feel she literally had no other option? Did she have all the information at hand to make a good decision? Did she grow up in a home where abortion was about as significant as a hysterectomy or getting your appendix removed? The guilt and culpability of the person really isn’t for us to decide. The church has never had and probably will never have a list of people they know are in Hell. That’s for God, before whom all hearts are completely open, to decide. As Pope Francis said, each person’s life is a mystery “which no one can fully know from without.”
It may seem like a small distinction, but it changes everything. In comment boxes all over the internet, I see people attacking the character of other people and not their arguments all the time. They throw them out like grenades into enemy camp. How soon after 9/11 were we looking askance at middle-eastern men and hijab-wearing women? It’s so easy to make prejudicial, hurtful, and just downright mean assumptions about individuals or groups that ignore the fact that people are complex – that these people have families, have friends, probably have really wonderful qualities about them that speak to how redeemable and beautiful they are.
Even more so, as a Catholic, I know how sinful I am. I see my sin all the time. I know myself and the depth of my depravity like no one outside of me save God. But I don’t know how much of a sinner you are. I can’t peer into the depths of your heart. So for all I know (quite literally), I am the most horrible sinner in the world (1 Tim. 1:15).
All to say, in a world that seems to be getting more and more polarized with every passing day, I’m glad Pope Francis is reminding us that we would do well to separate in our minds the sinners from their sins.