Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Honey or Vinegar?

On Saturday, January 21, I posted the following as my Facebook status: "Confession is available today for any Catholic who voted for Obama. You are the ones who permitted any protection of our consciences to be trod upon by this administration."* One might say I was a bit indignant when writing it. After fifty-eight comments, the eruption of opinion ended. Several days later, J. Thorp posted a review of the Church History Primer, Triumph: The Power and Glory of the Catholic Church. Therein he criticized the caustic tone of the author. That same evening I received a message from a former seminary colleague with a reputation (and a talent really) for his acid tongue and acerbic wit. He rightfully chided me for the imprudence of my remark.

The combination of these three events brings me to a serious point of reflection. First, given my role and the impact of my words, to what extent must I curb my tongue so as to avoid unduly influencing my people in areas beyond realms of my own as well as the Church's competence? Second, even though honey seems to attract more flies than vinegar, is there a time for vinegar? Third, is there a value in knowingly and intentionally angering a certain segment of people if one will simultaneously bolster another segment?

As to the first question, I simply concede that in the majority of cases, I do not speak where I do not think I have the competence to do so. Likewise, I generally do not publicly delve into the specifics of issues where the Church does not do so. For instance, while it seems clear that a Catholic cannot, given his outspoken positions in contradiction to clear and consistent Catholic teaching, cast a vote for Obama in good conscience, I would not venture to suggest who someone should vote for instead (at least not from the pulpit). I do not know what car Jesus would have driven, and I am not sure of the best means for overcoming poverty. These are within the competence of others.

As regards the second, the answer is easy. Sometimes I have to say things that fall harshly on the ears of those who disagree. Abortion is a sin. Artificial contraception and sterilization are sins. Sex outside of mariage is a sin. Living with a person of the opposite sex to whom you are not married or with whom you have no familial relationship is a sin. These are vinegary things to say, and to my mind, need to be said with clarity so as to ensure than no confusion can surround the issue.

The third issue is a harder one.

It is certainly no secret that there are a great many Catholics who seem to believe that they get to decide for themselves what it means to be Catholic. This opinion is, of course, patently false, and opposed to the very idea of what it means to be Catholic. The issue relates to the question at hand in this way, though: Should one try to gently shepherd them back toward the truth, or should they be cut off, cast out, or handed over to Satan as St. Paul admonishes from time to time?

To my mind, this is not an either or sort of question. St. Paul and the Church both see excommunication as a way of demonstrating to the sinner the error of his ways. Finding themselves cut off from the community, they realize that they have done this to themselves by their words and actions. Likewise, they are thereby limited in their capacity to do damage to the faith of others, to give scandal, to foment confusion, and to open the Church to charges of hypocrisy. While the question at hand is not directly about excommunication, it is about whether or not those who sow the seeds of discontent within the Church ought to be coddled, or rather, should they be shaken? Should they be offended? Should it be suggested with great passion that they do not think with the mind of the Church? In shaking them, is it possible to awaken their awareness that they stand apart from other Catholics, and that, like sheep, a man apart is likely to be taken by the wolves? Does shaking them kindle their desire to be in the center of the flock?

The issue is complicated further by the fact that many faithful Catholics feel as though their voice has been silent for a long time. They wonder when they will find a leader who will lead them into battle for what is True, and Good, and Beautiful, and Right, and Just. Should they languish for fear of offending those who disagree with them?

The question here is not one of Charity. One should speak even hard things with charity. It is not necessarily uncharitable to say, though, "If you don't like it you are free to leave."

This is not about politics. It is not about simple differences of opinion. I think the question I am circling here strikes at the very heart of Catholic identity. Who are we? Who are we to be? And honestly, I am not quite sure where to stand. I know where my passions lead me. Because my passions lead me there, I am suspicious of that direction. I know where my own experience of being on the outside has taken me. I also know the experience of feeling muzzled. I know the feeling of righteous indignation.

So, I guess this is ultimately something of an open forum. Thoughts?

* For the full context prompting my remark, go here.


  1. Well stated, Father. I'd like to raise the issue of "excommunication" of a lesser kind, in order to look at another side of the honey-versus-vinegar debate -- Facebook excommunication, or "unfriending." I have acquaintances who, when someone from their past or present spouts off on Facebook regarding a topic about which they disagree, are prone to quickly cut them off -- unfriend them immediately and have nothing more to do with them. I myself have done this once, but it wasn't immediate -- only after several civil-but-intense "go-rounds" with the individual did I realize that he was content to make off-hand, offensive comments and was not emotionally invested in the dialogue. I was wasting my breath.

    However, the last two days I've been having a running conversation about the religious freedom/protection of conscience issues on Facebook with a couple of Catholics you know, as well as an agnostic/atheist and a non-Catholic Christian. I don't know if I've changed any minds or tweaked any thinking, but it's felt worthwhile to take the time it takes to respond to the comments. So I have. But so many times I've typed something caustic, then deleted it; asked myself, "Are you wimping out?" then thought "Why even bother? You're not changing anyone's mind."

    I believe that both of us are sons of grounded men who are comfortable with themselves and their views, and have a healthy dose of "don't-give-a-damn" that enables them to state their views without caring whether they offend anyone. While that is commendable -- and to an extent, something I aspire to (one caveat: I'm not *afraid* to offend, but I don't *want* to offend) -- I do wonder if that leathery, curmudgeonly exterior is an armor of sorts, to protect themselves, their time, and their peace. Might it not be easier to say, "This is the way it is, and that's that -- now get off my lawn!" than to engage in a give-and-take? An exchange of views takes time and patience, and it raises the possibility that someone might tweak our thinking and take us out of our comfort zone -- that we may be forced to dig deeper, if only to find the counterpoint to an argument we haven't heard before.

    I now work in a very liberal environment, and have more than once had strongly worded conversations in my head: "If they so much as whisper about issue X, I'm gonna say Y and Z!" The result of these imaginary conflicts is always bloody and decisive -- I may not change minds, but at least they know where I stand and keep quiet around me. So I guess the question I'm raising is this: once a person has committed to speaking the Truth, is vinegar simply easier?

  2. First off its nice to hear a priest confess that he doesn't know where to stand. I feel you are correct in not telling people who to vote for. and though at times i feel that it can be difficult to awaken truth of the church in peoples hearts. That job is not for the church leaders. That responcibility lays in the hands of the person. I think you hit it right on the head when you talked about clarity. Personally I think part of the problem is that people have been allowed to venture to far from Cathlic views without, as you put it some vinegary words. So to sum up this jumbled mess please continue to correct and guide. For as you know sometimes it requires a "hard" hand to bring the lost sheep back


  3. Jim I feel as though you are not giving enough emphasis to the priest side. When a father, either on the pulpit or not, speaks of social issues they are still in fact speaking as Christ and the church. As the voice of Christ they must be willing to defend vigourously. If that means using vinegar then so be it. That is not to say that the clique of "fire and brimstone" is always the best way in my oppinion. However to use a child annalogy. when you see a child chasing a ball into oncoming traffic you don't just call there name and hope for the best. you grab their arm and drag them back to safe place. If a man of God sees a person in "danger" they have the responsibility to say or do somthing. Also on that note what may be honey to you may be the opposite for me. Whose is to say that a mans faith it brought about by words anyway. Actions speak much louder and without honest and challenging leadership how are laymen suppose to progress. Anyway, thanks for reading.

  4. Very good. Never doubt your ability to doubt. Even yourself!

    Second guessing is one of my weakness/strengths. I usually try to put myself in the other person's shoes. Try to feel what they are feeling, and why. But so many ask a question or make a statement for false reasons. so when you deduce that in them, there is really no reason to coat it with honey. Even Jesus took to the money changers. I am sure he was angry. And made a point. You can only be patient with a person to a point and then I think you need to just let them have it with both barrels! But only after you have tried other means. As a man who taught me much about training horses said, "You don't start by using a 2x4 upside their head". But many forget that, with some, a 2x4 upside the head, so to speak, is the only way they will truly see the light.

    We have both honey and vinegar. Use both judiciously, as the how much and how often is up to you. Let the Lord guide you.

    And also, remember to pick your fights. Some are not worth the effort, I don't think. Like advice, most will not heed it if it is unasked for.

    And Jim, I think you nailed it about your fathers! ;-) Well, that and just growing older and learning that most times the time out of your life to argue politely is just not worth it, in our professions and lives! :-)

  5. I agree with much of what you say here, Tate -- especially that priests speak as and for Christ and the Church in a more direct and important way. However, I think it is important to examine ourselves and our motives to be certain that we are using vinegar at the right times, for the right reasons. Are we trying to defend the faith, or protect ourselves? I know I've strayed into the latter numerous times...

    One of my favorite Bible passages is from the Letter to the Hebrews 4:12-13: "Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart. No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account."

    We have weapons enough to defend the Faith -- Truth is powerful -- but we must pay attention to hearts and motives, especially our own. Tough love is a beautiful thing -- I've been it's beneficiary at the hands of family, friends, and especially, two good priests who changed my marriage and my life. I was dumbfounded in one case; furious in the other -- but in retrospect, I could see that they were right, and that love and compassion were at the root of what they said and did to me. They weren't pushing me away; they were pulling me along. They weren't trying to win an argument; they were trying to win a soul.

    Especially with my own marriage, family, and friends, I know my own intentions are often less noble...

    1. Jim I don't think we disagree. Retrospect is a great thing. Yes the Church has many weapons to defend its self with and Truth is the strongest. However truth without clarity is much much weaker. It is the clarity of thought and action in conjunction with truth that opens eyes and changes hearts. We cannot convince ourselves that it is our self doing the changing. The Holy Spirit is at work through it all. You are correct that we need to be careful of our own motives while also allowing the truth to be moving. The word will light them on fire and if it doesn't then we should rest assured that it was not our doing but rather a direct turning away from God. As long as our actions and words are the truth.

  6. Ah, JB -- I miss you! We gotta sit and talk over beers or bourbon soon...

    Until then, a thought: When we say "it's just not worth it," to whom are we applying that sense of worth? To us? To the other person? Or to God?

    Someone dear to me may never move an inch closer to Faith and the Truth, no matter how much honey I use...but a hint of vinegar, and I have no doubt the door will close completely. So until I see some other way, it's honey and prayer, from now until doomsday. A relentless, polite argument that will last (God willing) for decades to come...

    It's hard to do, and it wears on me. Will it change anything? Perhaps not. But how can I quit?

  7. Worth it to me. Life is short. I have found that I am more choosy about lost souls. All I can do is put it out there for them. they have to want it or at least ask for it. Some will drown. We really can do nothing, it is God's Grace, isn't it? and yes we can be chosen to present it, but they still have to be willing to accept it. We save no one. God does. Sometimes we don't like that.

    I had a thought this morning while doing my chores. God does not chase us away. We choose to be away from him. By our actions and thoughts. So yes, I will do what I can to help those along the path, but when it comes down to it, it's up to them to choose God. He has already chosen them. Some just haven't realized it and won't allow him close. Sad, but we must live in hope and pray that at some point they will accept that and choose God.

    'Side, sometimes you can get them going if you just give them a jumpstart or a swift nudge with the point of your boot. ;-)

  8. "Living with a person of the opposite sex to whom you are not married or with whom you have no familial relationship is a sin."

    You should probably have chosen greater clarity when writing this statement.....

  9. Thank you for this post Father. I find myself becoming increasingly frustrated with my own Catholic community here, as it seems that the ones who should be speaking up about what the church teaches say nothing while the voices of those who call themselves catholic are deafening against what the church teaches--especially on issues such a birth control, abortion, gay marriage etc. It is so nice to hear a courageous voice rise up and speak truth. Really, thanks.


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