One of the great Catholic writers of the last century, G.K. Chesterton, poured out ink (by pen and typewriter and secretary) at a level hardly matched before or since. He wrote novels, biographies, essays, editorials, non-fiction books on philosophy and apologetics, and so much more. Some people get exasperated trying to read Chesterton, wishing he’d come to the point already, rather than whirl around in circles (for pages on end), dancing around and sometimes never definitively coming to his point.
But one day he wrote something very short.
As the story goes, Chesterton wrote an uncharacteristically brief response to The Times of London newspaper’s editorial inquiry, “what is wrong with the world today?”.
Dear Sir: Regarding your article ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’
Yours truly, G.K. Chesterton
Chesterton was a jolly, good-humored and very witty man, but he was FULL of criticism for the myriad contemporary errors he saw all around him. But the point is, Chesterton’s jest tells a profound truth. This mountainous man with heaps of criticism and judgment for the world admitted that the problems of the world originated in his own heart.
I think non-Catholics and – in particular “nones,” atheists and even agnostics get especially agitated with judgmental Catholics because they don’t realize what’s at the heart of the Catholic worldview:
Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.
1. The fundamental and necessary hinge of “Catholic Judgmentalism” is self-criticism.
Are there arrogant, blow-hard Catholics who never admit they’re wrong? Who never acknowledge their own brokenness? Yes, of course. But “bad Catholics” hardly dispel the point. The Catholic Faith is built upon the obviousness of man’s wounded, sinful inclinations due to the Fall and Original Sin. This personal honesty becomes the critical lens through which a mature, thinking man or woman can and should – subsequently and concurrently – gaze upon the world.
One could summarize Christianity as a profoundly realistic (albeit supernatural) system of healing. But this never even gets off the ground without the a priori admission (of reality!) that I am broken / wounded / sinful / sick, and therefore I need healing.
I’m not suggesting we suddenly all despise ourselves, become scrupulous, and despair at our depravity. That’s also a grave error, and – if you know Chesterton – you know he was jolly and still managed to enjoy life. It is very important not to become heaped down with guilt and self-loathing.
No, I joyfully admit that I am what’s wrong with the world, with Chesterton. I am not proud of my sins, but I do rejoice in the Church Jesus gave me as a means of daily self-correction, with the primary and necessary aid of His grace.
2. Just because we are broken does not mean we’re not allowed to recognize and call out brokenness beyond ourselves.
God gave us critical faculties – the unfathomable human mind – so that we would use them! Is the Math teacher mean when he puts a red X through his pupil’s incorrect equation? Is the mother mean when she yanks her child back from onrushing traffic?
We never accuse them of being rigid judgmentalists. But sin is so much more primordial – it strikes at the heart. It is harder to talk about, and very dangerous to diagnose, objectively, beyond our own hearts. Error, on the other hand? Error is different from sin, and it can objectively be labeled and combated.
Yes, you are a hypocrite if you throw stones from your glass house, in other words, if you claim to be perfect whilst criticizing everything and everyone around you, which is why Jesus repeatedly chastises the Pharisees. But He never asks us not to think.
It is not hypocrisy that Catholics are called to admonish the sinner whilst at the same time, admonishing themselves (sinners). The public and scandalous sinner is obviously not the one to be lecturing others… the “splinter and the log” analogy always applies, but the logical extension from that is not silence in the public sphere until one is perfect. Only Jesus was innocent. His Mother, uniquely preserved from sin.
3. We extrapolate broader or external brokenness from our own errors, and vice-versa.
In fact, it is the very acknowledgment of our own brokenness that gives us a basis to say “this other thing is broken, too” – and to analyze how it either directly influences our own brokenness, or to see how it wounds others around us, whom we love.
I am what’s wrong with the world, but I am, naturally and necessarily, in a world, not in a vacuum. Looking out, seeing the reality of things in my environment, I make choices daily to conform to realities of my environment (insofar as they are good), or I choose to reject them (insofar as they are bad). This requires judgment.
So just as I train my lens to see what is good and what is bad in my own heart, I am able to do the same in my outward gaze as well – assessing the world, and assessing myself based upon my judgment of the world. A feedback loop, with God as my standard of reference for the good.
4. True discernment and healing is an inward-to-outward movement.
From the very beginning, Christians who best and most fully grasped Christ’s message undertook a radical pursuit of holiness, diagnosing and uprooting their own sins whilst – in some cases – seeking to heal and educate those around them of the nature of sin. Our heroes in the faith are the best and biggest former sinners: St. Paul, St. Mary Magdalene, St. Augustine… we don’t call them hypocrites, we call them saints. They allowed themselves to be healed by Jesus, and they cooperated with His saving grace.
5. But clarity and healing are self-diffusive – they seek to go beyond the self.
It is dangerous out there! But if we love – if we are animated by Christ’s love – we can’t stop at our own healing. For one thing, it’s impossible to do in a vacuum, as I mentioned above… I cannot be truly and perfectly well as long as my ecosystem and the other people occupying it are wounded. But, furthermore, if our healing is authentic, it can’t be contained. It desires to share. When we have encountered Christ, we cannot be indifferent to the suffering around us.
Jesus sent His apostles out to heal, to save, to convert, to liberate. They had an active task assigned to them. Were they perfect from the start? Far from it! But the one task purified the other: they were healed and formed in Christ as they brought Christ’s healing and formation out into the world to others.
6. And yet we are always on a journey – a personal continuum between darkness and light.
Because there is evil in the world… evil that would corrupt and devour us, we must be discerning enough to see it and differentiate it from the good. But part of the ability to see it is the cultivation of discipline, i.e. the virtues.
If I am steeped in a particular vice, I will justify that vice in others. If I have begun to root out and reject a particular vice, I am actually – if I’m honest at all – more likely to be empathetic to those still steeped in it… but my truth-seeing will extend to them, as well. Not out of pride or a holier-than-thou attitude, no… but out of a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I – a longing and a loving that wants my brother, my neighbor, to see truth too… to extract himself from the same sin that once wounded me, that same sin that now I see for what it is.
7. Which brings me to the Sacraments…
The two-fold nature – healing and fortifying – of the Holy Mass and of the Eucharist is a daily medicine and vitamin for the wounded, disoriented, malnourished soul. The Mass is laden with the language and postures of contrition, the supplication for forgiveness. It is exactly what we need to continue to try to be good and to try to see right in a broken world. And we need it over and over and over again.
But it comes alongside a necessary partner: the Sacrament of Reconciliation is the “hinge of hinges,” to return to the analogy I used at the beginning. Go. Be forgiven.
Allow Him to heal you so that you can go back out into the world a little better off – for your own sake, but even more so for the people around you who don’t know Jesus, who have forgotten how to think critically and who end up getting hurt, and hurting others due to their reluctance to “judge.” Clarity is charity, and Catholics have daily recourse to the One who is both – Claritas et Caritas – and who gives us Himself.
So, stop feeling so embarrassed by that “judgmental Catholic” slur. What are you waiting for? Go out there and be judgmental!
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