Saturday, July 24, 2010

Our tolerance for truth

My very dear friend, Kim, over her blog, Faith, Fiction, and Flannery, for her Friday Flannery O'Connor quote-of-the-day, posted this yesterday: "The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it."

While O'Connor is certainly correct and her observation cuts across the broad range of human experience, my mind went to moral truth. Of course, all truth is ultimately one, united as it is in the person of Jesus Christ. The reaction of many to reading this would be to concur, to give it the ol' Facebook thumbs up, but I suspect not many would allow themselves to be personally challenged by it. In my pastoral experience the issues many people "dissent" from are those that really challenge their lazy assumptions, those things that would necessitate a major change in their lives, those things that hit them where they leave, so to speak, whether it is an aspect of the Church's social teaching, or the Church's teaching on sexuality, etc. As Catholics we too easily try to distinguish between Christ and the Church, which means effectively setting up our demonstrably fallible selves as the sole tribunes and arbiters of truth.

While I certainly agree with the moral theologians who comprise the so-called revisionist school that human experience has to be factored into morality, we have to be careful not to mistake our fallen-ness for holiness, to dumb holiness down, to reduce Christ to our measure. In other words, just because some teaching of the Church proves a genuine challenge to a person or a group of persons, does not mean that truth needs to be re-thought and/or renounced, maybe re-formulated, which is to say nothing other than our understanding of truth is always in need of being deepened and purified, always in need of being more truthfully (lovingly) expressed.

It is distinctive of Catholicism that Christ teaches us through the Church. While there is a deep and abiding coherency to following Christ, it looks somewhat incoherent to others, who live according to a wholly different and oftentimes hostile criteria, which is why Flannery, who, along with Dorothy Day, was an obedient daughter of the Church, once averred: "You shall know the truth and truth will make you odd." It was none other than Fr. Andrew Greeley, not known for mindless and docile adherence to Church authority, who observed, in Rod Dreher's paraphrase, "that even if the Catholic church was run by psychopathic tyrants, that has nothing whatever to do with whether or not the Catholic faith is true."

What many don't realize is that what I am trying to describe above is a form of Pelagianism, which denies original sin and tells us that we become holy through our exercise of free will, that is, through our own efforts. On this view, if we prove incapable of observing something, it must not be meant to be observed. If you think this way, you don't need a Savior, you save yourself, becoming perfect through your own efforts, denying your need, the need that constitutes you as a human being, which takes the form of desire.

As he does so often the apostle comes to our aid in this quandary: "Though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:6-10).

Yesterday, for completely unrelated reasons, I went back and re-read Rod Dreher's apologia of sorts for becoming Orthodox, in which he wrote something relevant to the point I am trying to make:
"Basically, though -- and this is as blunt as I can be -- I'm in a church [an Orthodox Church] where I can trust the spiritual headship of the clergy, and where most people want to know more about the faith, and how we can conform our lives to it, rather than wanting to run away from it or hide it so nobody has to be offended." As one who would really be hard-pressed to think of a significant Church teaching from which I dissent (being wholly separate from my demonstrated and routine failure to live what I confess) being both Catholic and a member of the clergy, I find Dreher's words very challenging, indeed.

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