Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Spirituality Beneath This Synod's Agenda

C.S. Lewis 

The krazies are besides themselves in anxiety over this Synod on the Family and the direction in which it is going.  Michael Voris, the current dean of the self-appointed magisterium since Mother Angelica’s health crises forced her from the scene, has decided to head to Rome and join the various forces from LifeSite News and other neo-trad lobbies that are determined to resist any change in Church discipline.  Voris and others have gone so far as to oppose the baptism of children of same-sex couples or the “welcoming” of those in non-canonical unions in Catholic parishes. 
A theme proposed at the Synod for dealing with people in irregular family situations is “gradualism,” a solution based on what some moral theologians call “The law of graduality.”   This is a different approach than the somewhat clear-cut, right or wrong, black or white, approach with which most of us have long been familiar. 
Perhaps the clearest statement of which I am aware on the Law of Graduality or Gradualism is found in C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain.  Lewis (1898-1963) was an Irish born agnostic-turned-Anglican who was successively a Don at Oxford and then at Cambridge.  He was a novelist, an essayist, an academic, a poet, a literary critic, a noted public speaker, a theologian and an apologist. He wrote serious novels for both young and mature audiences, but his theological reflections, and especially The Screwtape Letters, are what has made him most famous.  Perhaps due to his own spiritual journey and its complexities he had an extraordinary understanding of the human soul and its relationship with God.  Let me offer the following quote in which Lewis foreshadows the tone Pope Francis has set for the Synod: 
Some modern theologians have, quite rightly, protested against an excessively moralistic interpretation of Christianity.  The Holiness of God is something more and other than moral perfection.  …God may be more than moral goodness, he is not less.  The road to the promised land runs past Sinai.  The moral law may exist to be transcended, but there is no transcending it for those who have not first admitted its claims upon them, and then tried with all their strength to meet that claim, and fairly and squarely faced the fact of their failure. —C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain.
 This paragraph is rich in ideas.
1.    …rightly protested against an excessively moralistic interpretation of Christianity.
2.    The Holiness of God is something more and other than moral perfection.
3.    God may be more than moral goodness, he is not less.
4.    The moral law may exist to be transcended,
5.    …but there is no transcending it (the moral law) for those who have not first admitted its claims upon them.
6.    … and then tried with all their strength to meet that claim,
7.    … and fairly and square face the fact of their failure.  

Each one of these ideas is worth frequent and long meditation.  Perhaps the final line is the crucial one—that we must fairly and square face the fact of our failure to  meet the claim of God’s moral law.   The sort of rigid moralistic “Christianity” offered by those who imagine themselves to be the truly religious in a world that has abandoned God’s Law is a false road to go down because it invariably leads to a denial of one’s own moral failures.  We may disguise those failures.  We may set up the straw men of lesser sins to distract ourselves from the greater ones.  We may even, like the Pharisee in the Gospel account about himself and the Publican,  design a moral schema which relativizes our particular sins to be less than those of others and thus not as worthy of our condemnation as the sins of our neighbor.  But in the end, if we are to be truthful with God and with ourselves, we must come to see ourselves in such a light that it eclipses any fault of any other person. 
In the end I must acknowledge that my “white lie” is far more grievous than my neighbor’s adultery.  I must acknowledge that my slightly off-color remark is a worse sin than my neighbor’s abortion.  I must acknowledge that my impatience with my spouse is a far more serious sin than my neighbor’s same-sex relationship.  I must do this because it is my sin and that is the only sin for which I am accountable before the Throne of Grace. 
In the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, the priest—immediately before receiving Holy Communion—prays, echoing 1 Timothy 1:15;
I believe and confess, Lord, that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first.  This is the attitude we must have as we come before God and we will be far less quick to judge others.  In fact, we might even mature to where we can say with another well-known voice in our Catholic family: “Who am I to judge?”  Then we will know that we have arrived at a certain level of spiritual and moral maturity. 
Ann and Barry Ulanov wrote in The Study of Spirituality (1986, Oxford University Press, edited by Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Edward Yarlold SJ)
For what one brings to prayer is either the true self or the lying self.  One prays, if one prays in all honesty, with as much knowledge of oneself as one can muster for the occasion and with as much charity. … Under every circumstance one must be honest with oneself.  That is the special scourging that is in prayer.
And this is precisely the problem with moral rigorists—they are not honest in their prayer, in their relationship with God.  They may admit their faults, granted, but always putting them in the context their sins are not as serious as the faults of others.  The sort of humility/honesty in prayer of which the Ulanovs wrote, on the other hand, makes us far less worried over who is receiving the Eucharist and what is the state of their soul as we come, through our own acknowledgement of the seriousness of our own sin, to comprehend that “worthiness” has nothing to do with receiving the Sacraments and that the Eucharist in particular is the table of sinners.  We know, from our own spiritual experience, that we are on a journey and that we have yet to arrive; and moreover, that the Eucharist is the food for our journey to the promised land and not the putative feast that awaits us once we are there.  But if one rejects the reality of moral gradualism in one’s own life, one simply cannot comprehend this idea. 


  1. I think your analysis is further borne out by the irony of how the Krazies are often among the most ardent devotees of devotion to the Divine Mercy as promulgated by St. Faustina. They love to say their chaplets, read her Diary, and fanatically show up for the Divine Mercy Sunday devotions -- which often eclipse the Paschal Triduum in enthusiasm -- and in the end show themselves to be anything but merciful except, as you point out, toward themselves.

  2. I agree with you that it is ironic that those supposedly devoted to the Divine Mercy so grossly misunderstand the richness of that concept. Part of the problem is that Saint Faustina's writings depart from the idea of God's Merciful love, especially as it is put forth in the writings of two Doctors of the Church, St Therese of Lisieux and Saint Teresa of Avila. For many of the devotees of the Divine Mercy it is "Mercy-at-a-price" rather than as a grace (a free and unconditional gift). But again, that is the difference between piety and spirituality. I am not opposed to the Divine Mercy piety--I sometimes pray the chaplet myself. Where I normally attend Sunday Mass keeps the focus on the Second Sunday of Easter when that rolls around and I do think that it has not been helpful to call it "Divine Mercy Sunday." But the more important factor is to place the Divine Mercy in the context of revealed Truth--scripture and apostolic tradition as well as in the ongoing theology of the Church and not take the teaching of Saint Faustina out of context