Thursday, December 14, 2006

To die rather than sin

This was a rallying slogan for Pope John Paul II, a man whose upbringing in a Communist country meant many temptations to compromise the Faith. It also meant many opportunities for martyrdom. The pithy phrase, "To die rather than sin," were we all to live it, would bring about a flourishing of holiness.

I thought of the phrase today because in a sectarian situation such as we find for ourselves as Christians in the post-Christian West, the goal needs to be phrased in a slightly different way. "To die rather than sin," can easily be misrepresented as "To die rather than be wrong," say, in terms of doctrine and Church discipline, and finally, this can lead to a very dangerous spiritual situation of "To die rather than admit I might be wrong." In fact, I see this quite a bit: reconciliation is difficult because many (both on the liberal and conservative ends of the spectrum) equate unbudging doctrinal correctness with spiritual purity. Doctrinal correctness is not to be blown off, of course; but this goal is a quick path to a kind of practical schism: individuals shutting one another out of their lives because they can't agree and think it dangerous to entertain new ideas.

Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict are both tremendous models in this regard: truly courageous yet truly faithful men of letters. JPII was very different in temperament, of course, the charistmatic radical thinker who routinely was 'outside the box' at least in terms of his unique presentation of sexual morality, ecumenism and social teaching. Pope Benedict is perhaps less original a thinker, but his deep learning gives him a tranquil ability to engage non-Christian thinking in a most charitable manner, without ever wavering on his own belief or responsibility for the Faith.

Here, 'in the trenches', few of us have the intellectual tools of these great men (do any?). When our belief is buffeted by the slippery ideas of our cultural currency, it is tempting to retreat and retrench, and to become suspicious of others. In many cases, a healthy caution is necessary. However, a living faith is not the same as an unshakable intellectual certainty. In fact, faith by its nature involves trusting in situations where the truth is not entirely clear. When we have the humility to say, "I don't have all the answers, and so I must listen and trust," we can be more docile to the Holy Spirit's lead and encounter those with differing ideas from a stance of love. This does not mean accepting in the end what they have to say as true; but having listened carefully, we are better able to point others to the truth as well. And sometimes we may learn that we were actually wrong.

1 comment:

Edith OSB said...

Thank you for this posting, which is just what I needed to hear today.

One important difference between "To die rather than admit I might be wrong" and the models you hold up is that of thinking alone or thinking with the Church. Even as originators of ideas, both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI develop their works in active dialogue with others, with the documents of the Church and writings of the saints.

The chasm that can open up when one party has encountered the doctrinal rigidity of another too often - and so become closed herself - is a difficult one to bridge. Shifting to the stance of love rather than fear of another negative encounter may make all the difference.

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This blog is published with ecclesiastical approval.


If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.


Origen of Alexandria
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