The Universal Call to Holiness: Part Three. The non-heroic Church and the False Accusation that Holiness is a Sectarian Perfectionism

May 3, 2021
Ressourcement Theology
“To live together as brother and sister? Of course, I have high respect for those who are doing this. But it is a heroic act, and heroism is not for the average Christian.”
Cardinal Walter Kasper
(Commonweal, May 7, 2014)

In the quote above Cardinal Kasper is trying to develop a better pastoral response to the thorny question of how best to minister to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.  I have zero issue with this attempt since it is a very real pastoral problem that was even noted by Pope Benedict as a problem in need of better solutions. However, Cardinal Kasper’s statement about needing to find more merciful pastoral models works against itself since it premises its call for mercy to those in difficult situations on the questionable foundation of a Church that does not expect heroic holiness from its followers.  It is certainly Christian to be deeply forgiving, compassionate, and merciful towards those who are attempting the path of holiness but who repeatedly fail.  That is the mercy of the Gospel and is the sine qua non of any regimen of holiness attempted by deeply wounded and sinful people. However, Kasper’s version of “mercy” is more akin to a kind of secular and avuncular “kindness,” good in its own way, but when elevated as an all-encompassing principle of pastoral care easily becomes an infantilizing and paternalistic condescension that lowers the bar so that every child can get a ribbon.  And as C.S. Lewis notes in “The Problem of Pain,” when one conflates kindness and goodness, the latter is eventually swallowed up and digested by the former, opening the door wide to a mere sentimentalism that is easily co-opted by whatever is au courant.  Finally, such kindness is often a species of dismissive cynicism or even of a veiled elitist contempt since it really doesn’t care about the “good” of those to whom kindness is extended and seeks instead to merely make “comfortable” the lives of those “ordinary people” from whom not much is expected.

In other words, it is easy to be kind to those you really don’t think much of, whereas a genuine Christian love of the other is far more expectant and demanding.  Just ask any parent.  If I love someone I will the good for them and will sacrifice for them so that they can achieve the good. And in a Christian scheme, that means I will them to be saints, and that I will do all in my power to help them, and they to me, to achieve that.  Kasper’s assertion is that holiness, if it demands heroism, is not something I should really expect of others and, therefore, is not something I will help them to achieve or they for me.  And thus do we end up with a non-heroic and a non-holy Church, made up of a collective of boring mediocrities where eucharistic communion is treated as a participation trophy at best, or a party favor at worst.  Jesus said, “to whom much is given much is expected.” But we have now corrected Jesus: “for most average people little is given and little is expected.”  Stop now and think for a second what an inversion of the Gospel this represents.  It amounts to nothing more than a profound denial of the reality of grace and calls into question whether or not Christ really did alter the wellsprings of human nature. It is, as I have said repeatedly ad nauseum, a de facto atheism.

It is indeed hard to be heroic – – that is why it is heroic to be heroic – – but it is of such heroism that true holiness is born. Indeed, it is impossible to be holy without being heroic therefore the claim that heroism is not to be expected of the average Christian is tantamount to saying that holiness is not expected either. Therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that the Church should be in the business of creating an ecclesial culture where those attempting such heroism can find a welcoming home rather than cold shouldered resentment towards them as so many “fundamentalist” stylites perched on their pillars of scrupulosity.  And a Church that does not seek to engender such saints is just an anti-liturgy of celebratory secularism.  Cardinal Kasper means well I think, and I have profited greatly from his many fine theological works, but his approach to this matter of holiness is reactionary and not evangelical.  It is reactionary because rather than challenging modern divorce culture with a true call to launch into deeper waters, it instead chooses a path of rear guard retreat in the face of overwhelming cultural forces.

The German Catholic Church of which Cardinal Kasper is a member is in a free-fall decline, despite its great wealth, as an ever increasing number of Catholics in Germany are voting with their feet and walking away, and taking their Church tax with them.  And the mainline Protestant churches – – you know, the churches that have already implemented now for decades everything that the “binding synodal way” views as the solution to the Church’s growing irrelevance – – are in even worse shape and give every appearance of being a sinking ship just inches away from slipping beneath the dark waters of modern secularity and into oblivion.  Cardinal Kasper’s words, therefore, far from being a prophetic insight into pastoral mercy, are instead far more apt as the epitaph on the tombstone of German Christianity: “Here lies a once great Church, killed by the crushing weightlessness of its self-plucked feathers: heroism is not for the average Christian.”

The culpable ignorance involved here is either the result of an unbelievable naivete or of a mendacious and desperate strategy to keep the mammon flowing.  Because the fact is that the Church in Germany isn’t failing because it is “wrong” on a variety of moral “issues,” but rather because people just don’t believe in its core doctrines anymore.  They simply do not believe the Christian evangel and are not, therefore, disaffected from the Church because of this or that issue and will return to the Church if it would but change on those issues, but because they are highly secularized agnostics and atheists who really just don’t see the relevance of any of it anymore.  And as they see the German Church running after modern secularity like a dog with its salivating tongue on the ground they just smile even as their deepest suspicions are confirmed: “You see, even you guys don’t believe this medieval crap anymore.” Cultural appeasement does not work because its internal logic is the logic of unbelief and therefore there is no fire in its equations and provides no rationale as to why I should spend an hour every Sunday morning celebrating the philanthropy of a dead first century rabbi.

I highlight the foibles of the German Church not because I think it is uniquely wicked, but precisely because it isn’t.  The Germans are just the canary in the ecclesial coal mine and the labored death-rattle of that Prussian bird should be a warning to us all.  All of Catholicism in the West has been on some version of the binding synodal path for decades now, in largely informal but very real ways. It points to a deep crisis of credibility wherein the modern Church has forfeited the right to speak about any darn thing at all, but which keeps prattling on like an auctioneer trying to sell the gallows on which he stands with a noose around his neck.  And I am not referring here simply to the sexual abuse crisis or the endless Vatican financial scandals, as horrific as those are, since these are mere symptoms of a much deeper disease. And that deeper disease is the Church’s unbelief in the constitutively supernatural nature of the Gospel, which has caused, as Agamben points out, a loss of eschatological nerve.

And it is precisely this loss of the sense of a supernatural eschatology that calls into question the assertion of many American traditionalists that the answer to this decline is to double down on a message of hell fire.  This assertion utterly misses the point that the cause of the decline is rather a loss of faith in the existential reality of God, the shocking particularity of his Incarnation, death and resurrection and, therefore, of the reality of heaven and hell in any construal.  If you were to tell the average German or American that they are most likely going to hell because they have abandoned the faith they will tell you that that message is exactly why they have abandoned the faith.  They simply do not buy such eschatological census taking in the first place and deem it to be an expression of a highly sadistic version of God that they find morally repulsive in the extreme.  What is required is a different evangel, one that emphasizes the truth, beauty and goodness of the Gospel as something deeply compelling as an antidote to the dreary and despairing ugliness and banality of modern bourgeois secularity.

But to return to the main contention of this post, the loss of eschatological nerve is what has caused the Church to stop challenging people anymore and to speak of “average Christians” whom we cannot expect much of.  This is why we are losing the young since youth is a time for idealism and heroism. Wisdom and prudence come in due course as the idealism of youth meets the limitations of sin. But let’s not mistake cynicism for such prudence or a tired worldliness for wisdom.  Because to make the entropy of sin the all-encompassing message of our narrative as both its beginning and end is a betrayal of both the Gospel and common sense. People are thirsty for transcendence and do indeed still desire to give themselves to a project bigger than themselves and which calls them out of the petty consumerism of our time with its sad and truncated world of digital happiness and sexual license. The story we possess is far more compelling if we would just preach it and live it as if we actually believed it. The story we possess is that of the paschal Christ which is a raw and gripping cosmic drama made more dramatic since it is both mythic and historically real. It is a narrative of epic courage and heroism where the hero image of antiquity is uplifted and transformed into the valor of Christ’s unshielded heart.  And in the resurrection account we are presented with the ultimate counter narrative to that of Satan’s sting which governs the world’s narrative. Thus did the paschal Christ flip the script of antiquity in favor of a radical revolution of the soul the thunder of which still shakes the world’s foundations.

This narrative still has the power to inspire even as it challenges.  But a Church of appeasement which has long since abandoned the path of holiness in its settlement with bourgeois modernity cannot tell this story with deep, existential, authenticity: nemo dat quod non habet. (You cannot give that which you do not possess). And so it becomes a Church that does not challenge the masses even if it still holds up “saints” for emulation. Sanctity is for the elites but not for Kasper’s “average Christians.”  And just what does he mean by an “average Christian” anyway?  One suspects that he means a Church tax paying modern German Christian.  Because he certainly can’t mean the millions and millions of average Christians around the world who are attempting to live the life of supernatural grace with great heroism and who do so with the joy of the Gospel.  And it is precisely in those countries that still preach and believe in the script flipping power of the narrative of the paschal Christ which are thriving.  Go figure.  But this is the same Walter Kasper who said of the growing African Church and of its criticisms of his synodal proposals: “They should not tell us so much what to do.”  This is both damning and telling, but at least Kasper had the nerve to articulate in a paradigmatic way what is wrong with the modern Church which is why I dwell on it.

And please do not confuse what I am saying here about the call to holiness and of the need for the Church to preach its narrative with valor and vigor as a form of perfectionist rigorism.  I am in no way speaking here of the necessary tolerance shown to the very real struggle that those who are pursuing holiness encounter, with multiple missteps and sinful failures marking a life of fitful progress in the faith.  Such struggles are expected in a Church devoted to holiness which is why, precisely because of the call to holiness, the Church must always be home to sinners of all kinds, endlessly and profligately extending mercy, compassion, and forgiveness to all who are on the path.  Rigorism in all its forms is an execrable pharisaism that actually works against the path to holiness insofar as it stigmatizes the sins of some, but not of others, all the while, usually, exempting itself from its own prescriptive tortures.  It is an ideological deformation of the Gospel mandate to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” and weaponizes that admonition in the service of a Jansenist understanding of orthodoxy.  Thus in no way is the universal call to holiness to be construed as a perfectionist and sectarian call to transform the Church into some absurd and impossible club for the already perfected who shun “those others” who are tainted with worldly imperfection. Indeed, the internal theological logic of the very pursuit of holiness by the manifestly imperfect (such as myself) demands a Church that forgives.  This is why the Gospel presents us at first glance with the bizarre paradox of a call to high and heroic holiness all the while demanding endless forgiveness and mercy.  Which is also why those who do not perceive the internal logic to which I am referring will try and resolve the tension between the two sides of the paradox by sacrificing one to the other.

I will use myself as an example.  I deeply desire to be holy and yet I am about as far from being holy as a person can get.  In fact, I can be quite an annoying jerk filled with the wriggling maggots of self-justifying putrescence.  My chief vice, which has been with me since I was an embryo apparently, is the sin of impatience and annoyance with others over very trivial matters.  Big things are fine. I can handle that.  Rear-end my car and I will buy you a coffee as we exchange insurance info.  But eat the last of my Salt and Vinegar Kettle chips and you will hear from me with great prejudice.  Sadly, in such moments I have a tongue like a razor blade that can leave the mark of Zoro in an instant on anyone who vexes me.  If after my death my body were to be exhumed and found to be incorrupt, I can assure you that my tongue will have rotted decades earlier.  It is a sin I confess to my pastor with the regularity of a nuclear powered metronome.  And all jokes aside it is a sin that weighs on me. A sin I hate.  It hurts those I love and it eats away at me from within.

At times I am thus tempted to give up on grace.  I am tempted to say, “hey, God made me this way and he gave me this vice so let’s just wave the white flag.” Simul justus et peccator damn it.  And I think this is the way most people are with regard to their deepest habitual vices.  Therefore, the last thing in the world we need is a Church that says it doesn’t matter and that God loves me “just as I am” and that we should “celebrate” my vices and turn them into identity marking virtues of the glory that is me.  The last thing we need is a Church that preaches against scrupulosity at a convention of sociopaths.  We don’t need or want either a rigorist or a laxist Church since they are both just two sides of the same legalistic and forensic coin.  We need a holy Church that preaches holiness and lays down a challenge.  I don’t want to be told that God loves me as I am with the implication that repentance is unnecessary if it proves a bit nettlesome.  I want God to dislike my sins.  And I want God to make me dislike them as much as He does.  And I want a Church that thinks and acts the same. I don’t want to be told that being an impatient jerk is who I indelibly am, so just roll with it.  And it is a false and brutalizing “kindness” that would leave me in my sins without challenge and devoid of grace.

This is why I have little time for the modern form of Catholicism that rejects the call to holiness as merely code for ecclesial repression and which seeks instead a form of the faith completely conformed to modern neo-Liberal culture and its canons of morality, reason, and the purely natural ends of life.  It is a Catholicism without an eschatological edge perfectly at home in this world and which treats the supernatural ends of life as a purely futuristic reality involving “stuff that happens to you after you die” when God rewards you with an endless Disney World in the sky.

Ironically, this is also a Church that is less forgiving and compassionate than a Church committed to heroic holiness as the coin of the realm. It is also a less honest Church.  It will be less forgiving since, in this view, there are really no sins in need of forgiveness which is a horrible burden inflicted on those who need the path of repentance desperately in order to avoid self-destruction. Desperate people seeking relief from the devastation of their weaknesses ask for the bread of life but we give them instead the stones of a therapeutic naturalism. A Church of sentimentalized “kindness” is a qualitatively different kind of Church from a Church of forgiveness and often, ironically, becomes a Church of harsh and judgmental exclusions since in a regime of secularized kindness there will be transgressions that do not merit such tender mercies since they run afoul of the moral canons of suburban “nice” and bourgeois conformity.

Furthermore, a Church committed to holiness, and truly so, will be a humble Church that is brutally honest about its failings.  It will be a poorer Church, committed to the poor, and will not therefore bless Moloch in the service of Mammon.  It is no accident that it is the Church of sentimentalized kindness that developed a culture of sub rosa secrets that sought to hide its rapists, sacrificing its children on the altar of pecuniary expediency.  It is no accident that such a Church of secrets sent its deviants off to clandestine centers of “therapy” rather than into the desert of penance and repentance, ending in an act of public accountability.  And only in the honesty of that latter option would true forgiveness have been found. To me, one of the saddest things about the many scandals that currently afflict the Church is the ease with which we just take it as a given that the Church often does not tell the truth.  That we just accept the fact that many prominent prelates are manifest liars, even under oath in a court of law.  Perhaps especially then.

In spite of all that I have said there will still be those who will accuse me of advocating for a pure Church of the elite and the perfected.  The paradox of the call to holiness in a regime of mercy will be seen by many as not a paradox at all but a contradiction.  But if that is so, then so too is the Gospel larded with such contradictions.  Dorothy Day suffered from just such misunderstandings as well as she was routinely criticized for what her critics called sectarian perfectionism.  A strange accusation against a woman who spent her life living with the flotsam and jetsam of humanity, calling for the Church to do the same, and thus could hardly be accused of wanting a Church populated only by the pure.  The true irritant in her message to her critics was her insistence that all Christians were called to live lives in the pursuit of radical and heroic holiness, no matter how much we might fail at it. She did indeed sometimes blur the distinction between commandments and counsels as she felt deeply that the latter had been overly clericalized, exonerating the average Christian from any serious pursuit of holiness. Her fear was a Church of clerical elites and of a bureaucratized and professionalized “holiness” that was nothing of the sort, leaving us with an infantilized laity and a false sense of the Church’s health. And for this her critics want to send her to bed without her supper for daring to think that Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, was not just talking to the desert Fathers, but to all of us.

Was Mother Teresa, a nun who also like Dorothy lived a life of radical voluntary poverty, a sectarian perfectionist? Was Francis of Assisi, a mendicant friar and also a devotee of voluntary poverty, the same?  Why don’t they come under the umbrella of perfectionist elitism? Is it perhaps because they were members of a religious order, and therefore thought of as sufficiently cordoned off into the realm of the professional “holy person,” while Dorothy was a lay woman who actually believed that lay people too can lead radical lives of holiness and who challenged her Church to give up its settlement with Americanist militarism and crony capitalism?  The accusation however is that she lived as if she were in a religious order and that no married lay person with a family can live like that.  But Dorothy never claimed that all lay people needed to live as she lived but should rather look at their own unique vocations in the world and to plumb the depths of that vocation for the manner in which it too can manifest the holiness of the counsels, just as Lumen Gentium called for.  My suspicion therefore is that the accusations of perfectionism leveled against her, and by implication all of us who are calling for an intensified call to holiness, are really about the annoying implication of her message that our bourgeois settlement is a deal with the devil. In other words, she was dangerous.

The link that ties Mother Teresa, Francis of Assisi, and Dorothy Day together was their emphasis on the sacrament of the “other” wherein Christ is truly present in everyone we meet.  That the mystical body of Christ includes everyone since Christ is united to the entire human race which means that we are all implicated in the sins of everyone and that our acts of holiness redound as well to the corporate health of the whole.  This is a corporate vision of humanity, and thus of salvation, which means that the pursuit of holiness is not an affair of white knuckled asceticism but of vicarious suffering for the life of the world. We are called to “put on Christ” and to live in the regime of the “new man” and not that of the old Adam which means we are to participate as well in his unique taking on of the sins of the world. Salvation is not an individualistic affair of “being saved” wherein I now “possess” Jesus like a magical totem of Gnostic entitlement, but rather a shocking and eviscerating command to turn ourselves inside out and to nest in the poverty of God’s wealth living in solidarity even with our “enemies” as we take into ourselves the guilt of the world of which we too are implicated.  And this is about as far away as you can get from the sectarian impulse to divide the world neatly between the holy few who possess salvation and who reside in the safe tent of exclusion as opposed to all of those “impure others” who live beyond the walls of our fortified sanctuary of a weaponized  “orthodoxy.”

The theologian William Cavanaugh devotes the final chapter in his excellent book “Field Hospital” to a defense of Dorothy Day on precisely this point.  I will give him the last word here on Dorothy’s vision since he says it far better than I could:

“In this erotic union with the other, the very distinction between self and other is effaced. The establishment of justice – – to give each his or her due – – becomes of secondary importance, at best. We move beyond the ethical into the ontological, where all assignment of due and blame is overcome by the sheer injustice of Christ’s redemption. It is not only the crucifixion of Christ that is unjust; injustice is overcome precisely by the doing away with justice in the redemption that Christ effects. No one gets what he or she deserves, and that is precisely what is meant by calling the gospel ‘good news.’  God’s redemption overcomes the sorting out of the pure from sinners, friends from enemies. Indeed, we can love our enemies because the enemy is us.  (William Cavanaugh, “Field Hospital” p. 261)

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

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