|First light, Grand Canyon|
I have been a faithful Roman Catholic since birth. During those 80 years, a lot has changed in the world, in Christianity, in Roman Catholicism, and in me. In fact, so much has changed that it is difficult to remember exactly what I was like at different points in my life let alone remember what the Church or the world was like. But recently I have come to realize that for much of that time, I labored under at least three misconceptions about Christianity. And these are not minor or trivial issues but ran right to the heart of what it means to be a Christian. This post will focus on the first of these three.
First, I understood Christianity as fundamentally about my relationship with God. On the surface that doesn't seem so wrong-headed. What else could religion be other than how I related to a Supreme Being? As a child, adolescent, and then young adult, I was taught and came to believe that my religious faith was about my individual relationship with God. Sin disrupted that relationship. So my goal was to avoid sin, especially mortal sins which would lead straight to hell. There were a whole set of rules, mostly based on the Ten Commandments as well as Commandments of the Church. As long as I obeyed these and restricted my failures to minor sins, I would get to heaven and eternal happiness.
This seemed a reasonable approach and actually quite doable until I hit puberty and SEX. The first six months weren't bad--actually pleasurable--until that retreat during my freshman year at my Jesuit High School. That's when I got the depressing news that with SEX there was no such thing as a venial sin. They were all MORTAL! My life became a series of danger zones between masturbation and the next available confession. I lived in dread that between Saturday confession and the obligatory Sunday Mass--see Commandments of the Church above--I would indulge and then be forced to go to Communion rather than have to explain to my parents why I stayed in the pew when the rest of the family along with 99 percent of the congregation got up to receive. My scarlet letter would be midway in the alphabet but still. Oh, and by the way, if I did receive communion with that mortal sin festering in my soul, I would earn a second mortal sin. Would I go to two hells? Simultaneously? Sequentially? Just one but twice as hot? At least, it would only take one confession to erase everything and get back in God's good graces. Until the next time.
My Catholicism and thus my Christianity became more and more focused on keeping my relationship with God righteous. My relationships with other people were involved only to the extent that I avoided behaviors listed in the various commandments: no lying, no cheating, no stealing, no adultery, and no coveting--as though coveting would be a big problem. You could covet but as long as you didn't do anything you could wiggle your way out of any sinning. And even if you ran afoul of these, there was always confession. Oh, and no killing.
While all this seems a bit silly in retrospect, it was a serious business. Quite apart from the specific sins and infractions, there was a meta lesson. All I needed to do was focus on my relationship with God and stay in the state of grace by following the rules. If I added the right prayers and attended the required religious services, I would get into heaven. None of this had anything to do with my relationships with other people, other than the generally negative prescriptions of the Ten Commandments. I don't remember anything about healthy relationships with family members and friends. And I don't remember anything about my relationship with the poor, the marginalized, the different, the stranger, or the migrant. In short nothing or almost nothing from what I would later come to learn was called Catholic Social Teaching. So it was basically up to me and God. If I kept that relationship in good shape, things would end well for me. And the key was reining in and controlling my urges and desires. If I could just keep my thoughts pure, everything would be fine. So my religious struggle was an intensely individual one. The focus was on me and my interior thoughts and desires.
In retrospect, it seems strange that all those Gospel stories about concern for other people never had much of an impact. I just recently read the story of the Good Samaritan in Pope Francis' latest encyclical, "On Fraternity and Social Friendship." You have to be pretty dense, or just not interested, to hear that teaching of Jesus and not realize that his concern was with how we treat each other rather than any sexual sins. Maybe it was because I grew up before Vatican II and its emphasis on scripture for Catholics. The Sunday readings were proclaimed, so to speak, in Latin and the sermons were rarely treatments of the scripture readings. Homilies, which by definition begin and stay with the scripture readings, became more prevalent, but hardly universal, after the liturgical reforms of the Council.
To be fair, however, there were a lot of mixed signals in the scripture, especially from Paul and his epistles. What was I to make of the following from the Epistle to the Galatians?
Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires.
It takes a lot of theology and anthropology to get to the full sense of that tantalizing and dangerous sentence. Left to my own devices, I understood it to mean that I needed to crucify my human nature with its desires and urges to belong to Christ Jesus. Paul didn't mean that exactly. In fact, he meant quite the opposite. If you belonged to Christ Jesus, your human nature was transformed by faith. "If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit." For Paul it was never a question of disciplining one's physical body to avoid sexual sins, but rather to live in the freedom of the Spirit. As with so many other things, it is both/and not either/or.
However it happened, this emphasis on my individual relationship with God had disastrous results. I could consider myself to be righteous as long as my personal prayer and behavior were righteous regardless of what difficulties or challenges other people faced. Some of my ancestors owned enslaved people and built their livelihood and well being on the foundation of chattel slavery. Some of them fought in the Civil War to preserve this odious practice. But at the very same time, they were active Christians. Some of them were leaders in their local congregations. Their highly personal and individual Christian faith allowed them to feel righteous even as they perpetuating evil. I have often achieved a certain level of prayerful calm that exists only because I have looked away from the injustice in the world around me.
The teaching of Jesus was clear. "Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me." We are called to do only two things. We recognize the existence of God, the source of all life and the incarnation of God as Jesus Christ. Then we are to take care of one another. Either one without the other falls far short of what Jesus proclaimed. I try to overcome this misunderstanding by opening myself to my brothers and sisters who do not have such an affluent life as I do. I try to focus on the abiding truth that Pope Francis proclaimed in his encyclical, "The Joy of the Gospel."
99. Our world is being torn apart by wars and violence, and wounded by a widespread individualism which divides human beings, setting them against one another as they pursue their own well-being. In various countries, conflicts and old divisions from the past are re-emerging. I especially ask Christians in communities throughout the world to offer a radiant and attractive witness of fraternal communion. Let everyone admire how you care for one another, and how you encourage and accompany one another: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). This was Jesus’ heartfelt prayer to the Father: “That they may all be one... in us... so that the world may believe” (Jn 17:21). Beware of the temptation of jealousy! We are all in the same boat and headed to the same port! Let us ask for the grace to rejoice in the gifts of each, which belong to all.
Let us set this first misconception aside, finally and firmly. Justice and mercy are the heart of Christianity, not piety and purity.