Ramblings on Catholic moral teaching, racism, and other sins.
I have always had a hard time being clear about the parameters of exactly what was included in the Church’s “Catholic Social Teaching.” Mainly, I mean I understood at least as much as the average seminarian all the principles articulated in the social teachings and the social encyclicals. We did have a social teaching moral theology class, and our text was the Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching. There were those societal “themes,” yes. But really, it did not seem like we were covering any fundamentally new territory in this “separate” or “specialized” or “globalized” topic of moral theology.
For all I could understand, I still knew we were talking about Catholic morality; and I thought we would do well sometimes to speak of “Catholic moral principles” in various places where saying “Catholic social teaching” might leave the impression that the latter idea was so highly unique or specialized such that, while highlighting specialized claims, we might cease talking about the former. This impression has stayed with me, although I have not found my proposed dilemma (about the terminology) to play out all that often. Catholic moral teaching, Catholic social teaching, ToeMayToe-ToeMahToe.
But at this moment in history, here as I write, this impression seems to come back to me, in relation to the hot button issue of race; and the thought I had, about using more often, or less often, the term “Catholic moral teaching,” seems not only helpful at the moment, but in my view downright necessary. To me it does seem that without this reassertion of some Gospel principles, linking in a fundamental way our salvation from sin to our positive moral responsibilities, we are going to fail completely in the attempt to apply a social doctrine to our present time.
I have very plainly asserted that I believe racism is a sin that still exists today. (See my post here distinguishing the religious language that might affirm in what religious outlook black lives ought to “matter,” from social movements or organizations using the “BLM” slogan.) People may very well, in our day and age, cultivate and perpetuate a prejudice against a race or ethnicity, following no other sentiment than a kind of xenophobia. But how great is this problem in relation to other problems? I have never opined in detail as to the current extent of this sin, or the relative seriousness of this evil, compared to possibly deeper, broader, and more pernicious evils which breed in the hearts of men. But I shall say immediately that whatever its extent I don’t think racism is the worst or the most fundamental or the most widespread of sins currently in American society.
These moral ramblings should be good for those who would disagree with me on this particular claim, or at least who say they don’t know yet if they agree. For my intention is simply to start speaking with some traditional terminology, in broader categories sins and virtues from the Catholic moral tradition. This may still prove our best current yardstick for comparing social evils, as worse or more urgent in the light of “the big picture.” The Church’s social teaching does not supersede these traditional, individualized moral terms, but relies upon them and incorporates them: virtues and vices, commissions and omissions, mortal and venial. Below are my comments and free-flowing thoughts. A more systematic review of Catholic moral teaching could be found in places like the catechism, or, here.
Let’s jump in with a discussion of vices. Specifically let’s talk about a subtle vice among the Capital Sins. I call this one subtle, although I guess it can be rather aggressive and consuming for some. In my view the subtlety of envy is precisely what makes it so insidious. Envy makes me want something that I do not need, a covetousness elicited by the observation or knowledge that the thing is enjoyed by someone else. And let us hear cut to the chase and put forward the moral message of the Gospel. It is a vicious situation when envy is stirred concerning the very materialistic pleasures which will drag a soul to hell, when coveted like idols. Yes, it is very common to antagonize the poor so as to build envy towards the rich. This is not a call to justice, although sometimes it is couched in those terms. It is what it is, a stirring of envy that in no way helps justice in society. On the contrary it can only lead to more injustices. And it is the Catholic moral principle of humility, and detachment from material goods (“blessed are the poor in spirit”) which alone can save us from that scenario.
We are not talking about food and basic shelter here. If someone has something that is essential for life and I begrudge the fact, if I find it difficult to accept that their life is satisfied with this necessity while mine is not, then this is not so much envy as a temptation to impatience. I need long-suffering and courage be an advocate, myself being poor while speaking for myself and for all the poor. We need patient endurance, and long-suffering, to endure the privation of something that we really need but do not have. However, in America when we are talking about food and material things, envy is not the problem. The much greater problem is a swirl of envy concerning those material things that absolutely none of us need but which we all desire inordinately.
A just moral condemnation can be made against the materialistic persons of society without envying their goods. Indeed, I myself would describe it this way, the same way as Saint Peter did; if you will not repent from your materialistic presumptuous lifestyle, “then may your money die with you!” When we look at the super-rich of society, at those who have every comfort, who have their millions of dollars saved up, who have their many cars and the nice houses and a life that has been freed from the inconveniences of seeing poverty, let alone having to deal with poverty, these are not the enviable people; they are quite pitiable. Their fame and fortune will go down to hell with them quite swiftly. For “what good does it gain a man to win the whole world yet lose his soul.” (I did say this would be a moral rambling, no?)
So now when it comes to racism I am aware that there are some black people, black families, black ghettos, where even the bare material necessities of life are in question. But we commit a great injustice ourselves when we look at the poor, when we look at people of color, when we look at the lowly, the neglected, and the verily oft-shafted folks of this world, and say to them rally to the cause that money and success ought to be envied. The sermon on the Mount is the most just message that we can deliver to the poor; And we deliver it by living it. Those who have the material necessities of this life must shame the rich by following through on all holy desires. Envy in myself, or envy as a mere tool to evoke anger as a motivation to action, is a pernicious, and misguided if not dishonest strategy for obtaining social justice.
Now let us take another, not altogether separate, example. A much more “juicy” capital sin to talk about is greed. Regarding this I say, straight away, that often when we are condemning injustices we should be condemning greed in an explicit fashion (a condemnation which contains within itself the condemnation of envy). In the situation of the United States now, I think a cultural, hedonistic materialism is a sin that, more often rather than racial prejudice, sustains situations of economic disparity. The economic disparities very often resulted from a mixture of vices which had as much racism as greed in the culture. But it is a great mistake at the present moment to go around condemning the economic situation as if it were the primary vice to be condemned, when indeed it is partly an objective disparity indicative of other vices.
If we criticize the economic situation impacting on black people, and say it is “one injustice among many injustices,” it is not letting anyone off the hook. For if we are implying that other sins are more condemnable than racism at this time, it is a spiritual condemnation which is much greater than an economic criticism. The point is, no criticism is going to hit the nail on the head so long as it looks solely at the material prosperity of races and ethnicities. Indeed, in our current materialistic society it is a refusal to let go of the subtle vice of envy, which keeps us from condemning the true vices of greed and pride, that ends up in a spiritual roadblock to making an objective situation more just. If we keep on going and talking about injustices, about the mere virtue of justice on this single matter of economic disparity, we will never get to the heart of the matter and we will never fix the problems.
To reject greed totally is hard to do in the age of the cell phone and the flat screen TV. Truly we must reject greed in ourselves, and be adamant supporters of virtue, by being promoters of material simplicity. In this process we will also find the need, I’m sure, to overcome the vice of sloth, with a healthy amount of temperance and fortitude. And this should almost be synonymous with the Catholic social teachings about solidarity and the universal destination of material goods.
The heart of the matter is summed up in that saying of our Lord that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” and that “if we seek to save our life we will lose it but he who loses his life shall find it” (Luke 9:24). This is to say the heart of the matter is that without charity we are the most poor and most condemnable of people. No true restoration of justice can be done without charity in the truth. There are spiritual economics which are just as real and significant as material economics. These are almost supernatural paradoxes, as we have learned from the Gospels. But they are intuited by the natural light of all virtuous men and women who see that the first place to decry selfishness is in themselves. Therefore we ought to press forward with this message of “dying to self” in a Christian way, or at least “limiting the self” in a virtuous way.
This brings us to my last consideration of the seven capital sins in Catholic moral theology. In the traditional articulation of the “deadly” sins, pride has always been called the most grievous. Pride entangles itself not only in envy and greed but also in anger, in gluttony, on lust, and in sloth. Regarding the last two sins on that list, I make just quick comments on the common dangers of selfishness.
We might say much of how the sin of sloth hurts the poor and the marginalized populations of any country. There can be a genuine intellectual assent that we, or I myself, have an obligation to work for the social benefit of my neighbor; I just never feel like doing it; I so “busy” myself with other things that I keep my own lazy conscience preoccupied with distractions. That is a kind of sloth. The same kinds of selfish rationalizations are often behind the self indulgence of sins of promiscuity (as I began to grapple with, here). These vices are more attractive to us not merely on the basis of pleasure, but also in their element of pride. For the sake of finishing these examples however we must directly condemn the vice of pride, and right away.
When we talk about racism as a sin – that brute prejudice against another person without any pretext other than aversion to their skin color and/or of cultural background (frequently associated with another language or accent, etc.) – it truly does have at its core a presumption of pride. I consciously or subconsciously elevate myself, and those objective ethnic or even biological qualities of myself, which I should never claim as meritorious, to a place of existential superiority, such that I feel justified in waging a presumptuous battle of offensive and defensive practical predications against those who are different from me. The more simple and brutish those mental accusations and rationalizations are, the more powerful they shall be, and the more they will be denied by the person guilty of racism.
Yes this kind of racism does exist. But how shall it ever be condemned unless a great movement against pride can be wrought by the grace of God in society? In order for the condemnation against it to be just, and to be effective in converting the sinner, it must be objectively right. To the very degree to which a just condemnation seeks the truth in beauty, in precision, in rational dialogue, it ought to reject any kind of self-serving superiority: “love rejoices not in wrong but rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor. 13:6).
Again, if we are using the language of Catholic morality then we must insist “he who exults himself will be humbled but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11), for the great moral lesson of the Gospel is that “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). It is at this juncture – the true “crux” of the matter indicating a Christian cross – that will make one final comparison of the “moral” terminology and the “social” terminology of the Church. It should be as clear as day that when the Church says in its social teachings we ought to adopt the “preferential option for the poor,” in social matters, it is intrinsically linked to Christ’s commandment for charity, and also meaningless without that commandment. The second greatest commandment “is like the first.”
In this way, love yourself and your neighbor, both. Scripture does not does not say we are to “hate ourselves” in an unqualified sense, except insofar as our self-love would begin to subvert our love for God (Luke 14:26). The very antidote to that subversion is to love my neighbor “as myself.” Hence the Catholic social teaching lays out for us a “call to family, community, and participation.”
Family and community and charity: It should drive me crazy, it should be the most profound and unsettling of realizations, to see that others suffer more than me, that they are deprived of the necessities that I possess. This other theme of Catholic social teaching (“option for the poor”) prefers to “go without” so that the poor might have what I have. Yes, if I can and if I must, I shall make the scales tip unequally in their direction, not mine.
Yet this preferential option for the poor is indeed meaningless without charity. If we were to manufacture some kind of practical option for the poor without thinking that there is any kind of divine reward there for us we would be throwing away half of the Gospel and losing our bearings completely. It is our conviction that “true riches” and “what matters to God” comes to us personally when we effect that social equality of charity. That we are truly loving our neighbor as our self for the love of God. “This is how we know what love is. Not that we loved God but that he loved us.” And “if God is so loved us we also must love one another” (1 John 4:10, 11).
So then we are back to the fundamentals of Catholic morality here. And I will add this brief word about sin and virtue. A key section of the Catechism on the moral tradition, coming from the Scriptures and from the faith, would certainly be on sins of omission and sins of commission, and mortal sin. The greatest virtues are opposed to the greatest sins. The greatest virtues are in fact the theological virtues. They are not like the cardinal virtues, or the other virtues we have been talking about here (generosity, humility, self-control, etc.). The theological virtues are not merely associated with human habits of good behavior. They are divine habits, which are either present in a person’s mind and heart (through the grace of God), or they are not.
It is really hard to nail down the circumstances in which a “sin of omission” becomes a mortal sin. To what extent does a person have to “perform” or “omit” those actions of Matthew 25, such as feeding, clothing, and sheltering the least of the brothers and sisters of Christ (Matt. 25:31ff.), to move beyond or fall behind the line of mortal sin? If I fail to do a work of mercy daily, will I receive the condemnation “depart from me you accursed” (Mt. 25:41)? What about monthly? We are still left with the question “what must I do to be saved?”
But in the grand scheme of things, we do have this fundamental affirmation about sins of omission and commission. As hard as it is to judge any particular circumstances of whether a person has practiced enough virtue to be the “good and faithful servant,” the failure to practice the theological virtues is a sin of omission practically synonymous with the definition of mortal sin. (Review here for Catholic moral teaching on Mortal Sin if you don’t remember three elements which define it).
This then is the fulfillment of all Catholic social and moral teaching, the answer to every question about social responsibility, about making a just condemnation of the pride within racism. The examination of conscience must go on, and be proposed again and again and again. Do we know the true God by faith? Do we hope in the true Gospel proclaimed by His Son? Do we love our neighbor as ourself?
With this most fundamental review of the virtues complete, these are the exhortations on which I conclude.
- Believe! Believe the Gospel and the Christian Tradition (Capital “T”) of morality.
- Do not be envious, but defeat evil being “graceful,” confident, persistent in the good.
- Be a good steward of all the material blessings you have (money, property, opportunity, even social influence) especially when you are tempted to think they were not “received from God” (1 Cor. 4:7)
- Prefer to help the poor. Participate in community.
- “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… But store up treasures in heaven” (Matt. 6:19-20).
- Teach by gentile words, and even more so by example.
- When it is time to show “tough love” (as should happen every now and then, both in private matters and in social/public matters), do it with prayer: more fervent than usual prayer.