If you’ve ever spent any time in the woods—camping, or hiking or running from an ax murderer for example—you know that it can be easy to get lost in the woods; even in daylight. Sometimes even if you’re careful. At a point every tree and branch and stone looks the same as every other, and you can become disoriented and begin walking in circles, for hours.
To be able to navigate your way, it’s important to be conscious of your surroundings, and remain mindful that while everything around you may look the same, it’s not the same. Every tree is unique and every rock or fallen branch is distinct. If you’re attentive enough, you’ll see it; the trees and rocks, and other things along your way will look unique and distinct, and they’ll serve to guide you, rather than to confuse you. When you recognize that, you no longer question whether or not you’ve passed this tree before, or whether or not you’re walking in circles. You recognize the distinctiveness of the natural elements around you, and you maintain your orientation, and you’re able to navigate onward to your destination.
We hear very similar terms and sometimes similar arguments from very different sources
Modern discourse and rhetoric is like a dense forest. We hear very similar terms and sometimes similar arguments from very different sources and it all begins to sound the same. We begin to treat them the same. We approach them the same. We navigate them the same. We become disoriented, lost, and we just keep walking in circles, getting nowhere.
The secular mind is a large part of the problem because they’ve appropriated and disfigured so much of what the western world has been given by Christianity; removing words from their true meaning, and applying them erroneous and destructive ways. The Church is also part of the problem, because the Church these days doesn’t do well in communicating clearly what the Church teaches and why. The Church also seems to not be aware that these distinctions must be made; because the faithful, and the world in general, have grown so confused.
“…the Church’s understanding of Love is God’s understanding of love”
For example, some in the laity understand “Love” according to the secular understanding of the word. It’s attached to emotion, and is ordered ultimately toward the self. But the Church’s understanding of Love is God’s understanding of love. It’s ordered ultimately toward God, not the self. It results in joy, not fleeting moments of gladness. And above all it’s attached to Truth, not emotion.
But many laypeople don’t know that. Because they hear little or nothing from the clergy that elevates their understanding of the word Love. So they adopt the secular understanding of it, since it sounds so identical to how the Church appears to apply it. Love from the Church and Love from the secular world seem to be the same, and so they are treated the same. People don’t understand the distinctions. Many faithful, and certainly many in the secular world hold the Church to the standard of the world’s understanding of Love, because Love, as they understand it, is about niceness, not goodness. It’s about contentment, not accountability. And that is how so many of them apply “Love” (or their idea of it) in their lives and in the world. They are disoriented, and lost. They’ll walk in circles, and never find their way.
Pray that the clergy begin to understand that the world needs for them to elevate the word “Love” from its secular application, and teach the world its true meaning. The faithful in the pews especially need to hear it so that they can learn and grow from that knowledge, and subsequently take that message out into the world with them. If clerics continue to sound like secular moralists, Catholics will will grow more widely secularized, and the secular world itself will never know the light of Christ.
“Tolerance” is a disfigurement of the Church’s understanding of “Mercy”
Another example is the word Tolerance; or perhaps the idea behind it. This is where we in the laity really need to tighten up and focus. Just as the secular application of “love” is a disfigurement of the Church’s understanding of “Love”, “Tolerance” is a disfigurement of the Church’s understanding of “Mercy”. Now, the words may be different, but they behave very similarly enough that they can confuse and disorient people.
Mercy is not detachable from Justice. Justice proceeds from an adherence to Truth, and Mercy proceeds from an adherence of Love. Seeing a patter here? Love and Truth are spouses, as Mercy and Justice are. And they are all intrinsically connected to one another. There is no such thing as Truth without Mercy because there is no such thing as Love without Justice. That has been the Church’s foundational understanding since the Early Fathers.
A failure to understand this has lead to a misuse of “mercy” in the secular world, where it’s called “Tolerance”. It has also lead to mass-confusion, and angst in the pews. Let me explain.
When we listen a very appropriate application of mercy spoken by a priest, bishop, or cardinal—or even the Pope—we often get frustrated, and even defensive or angry. Because to us it sounds like what the secular world calls “tolerance”. A sort of moral indifference to real moral problems. That’s what tolerance is in the secular world. But in the Church it’s called mercy. And while, on the surface, it may appear to look identical to “tolerance”, the truth is they’re very different things.
Tolerance is moral indifference. Mercy is not
The articulation of Mercy can often sound like moral indifference, because we’re so polluted by the secular world’s adaptation of it. They call it Tolerance”, which is moral indifference. And when we feel like we’re hearing that from the Church, it really frustrates us, because we feel deep down that something seems wrong with that. And so, hearing messages of mercy can often strike a bad chord with faithful Catholics. We feel like the messenger is betraying doctrine. But in most cases he may not be.
This is where we have to be very patient, very calculated, very considerate, and very faithful. But we also have to be very smart. Love, Mercy, Truth, and Justice are not in conflict with each other. One can never ultimately trump the others. Ever. They are, however, considerate of each other. Mankind deserves hell, because of sin. But God’s mercy acts in consideration of His love. That’s why he sent his Son to redeem us. His mercy does not overrule his justice here, but is considerate of his love. His justice still remains; because His Mercy is also not in conflict with His Truth, which is why his justice remains. It’s a very fine balance, proceeding from the very nature of the Divine. And we, fallen man, with intellects darkened by sin, have to try to establish some reflection of this perfect balance here on earth. You can imagine what a complicated undertaking that must be.
So when we hear these messages of Mercy from the Church, we have to be attentive to exactly what we’re hearing before we allow ourselves to become frustrated. It’s true, some clergy do overplay Mercy. Which is maddening! For some, their application of mercy is in conflict with Truth. If you have any love for the Gospel at all, that should frustrate you. But it isn’t always the case. Often when Priests and Bishops or the Pope talk about mercy, it isn’t in conflict with Truth. And those two trees may look exactly identical at first glance, but if you look carefully you’ll see they’re different. So look carefully. And think. Don’t become disoriented or confused.