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Couragio! A brief refutation of our cultural fear of being against things

September 24, 2014

092414One of the critiques that many make of the Church is that we are sometimes known more for what we are against than what we are for. This critique, and fear, exists even within the Church. A similar critique is made of God’s law, wherein some wonder, “Why are the Ten Commandments generally worded as negatives: ‘Thou Shalt not …’ ?”

It is a fact that, at least in modern culture, many prefer to say what they are for rather than what they are against. Somehow, being “positive” is valued over being “negative.” Thus, even in the tragic conflict over abortion, both sides declare that they are “pro” something, either life or “choice.” I am certainly “pro-life,” but as to the matter in question, I am anti-abortion. But most of us who do any media work are strongly cautioned to avoid the prefix “anti-” altogether.

In fact, even when a group gathers to denounce something (e.g., war, poverty, or taxes) the participants are called “protesters” (a word that refers to those who stand up for or witness to something) rather than “contesters” (a word that refers to those who stand or witness against something). Frankly, “contester” more accurately describes what is going on in a “protest.” If I am protesting higher taxes, I am against the idea, not for (“pro-“)  it.  But we are funny this way, and very sensitive about it. We don’t like to be perceived as being against things.

And of course this is problematic for a preacher of the Gospel, who needs to engage a culture that is increasingly heading to some very dark and sinful places. At some point we simply have to be willing to say that we are foursquare against many things and endure the “terrible” charges that we are “negative,” even if our overall goal is to affirm something that is better than the practice we are against. Thus we are against abortion because we are for life and the potential and dignity of the unborn. We are against fornication, pornography, adultery, and homosexual acts because we are for chastity and God’s vision for sexuality. We are against euthanasia because we are for the wisdom of the Cross and the glory that our life brings to God. We are against greed because we love the poor and think our excess should be shared with them in appropriate ways.

But at the end of the day, we DO have to be willing to say that we are against certain things. We will not always have the luxury of being able to give elaborate speeches that attempt to show how we are really “for” something else and therefore are not bad people or sour-faced “downers.” Our ego needs to be a little stronger so that we do not feel the need to always seem nice, pleasant, positive, and affirming. These all have their place, but they can also be pernicious enemies of the truth.

And this leads us back to the Ten Commandments, wherein eight of the ten unapologetically use the formulation “You shall not …” God is not all that worried that He might be perceived as being “against” something—and neither should we be.

But there is another reason for the negative formulation that is worth exploring as well. Simply put, it is often easier to say what something is not, than to describe what it is. The commandments are depicting love, but if I ask you to wholly and completely define love you’re going to have a difficult time, since love is so comprehensive and multifaceted.

Thus, if you ask me, “What does it mean to love God?” I could go on for pages and pages trying to describe it and its implications and I would barely scratch the surface. Alternatively, however, I could say, “Well, to love God is to stay faithful to Him by not sleeping with other gods or giving them my love and worship. To love God means that I will not disrespect His precious name, but will honor it for its precious dignity and for the sign of intimacy it is. To love God means that I will not fail to spend time with Him on Sunday and enjoy His blessings.

If you ask me “What does it mean to love my neighbor?” I am going to have a hard time saying all that it means. But surely I can say that if I love my neighbor I will not kill him; I won’t use her sexually; I won’t steal from or lie to him; I won’t covet her; I won’t greedily seek to possess what he has.

And thus God begins by telling us essentially what love is not, and then enriches the “shall nots” with examples that help to fulfill the vision. Thus “not killing” is more than merely not taking a life. It is letting go of all the things that lead to murder such as hatred, bitterness, mercilessness, ridicule, extreme competitiveness, and so forth. The “shall nots” lead to positive implications and a summons to freedom wherein one is set free from anger, hatred, bitterness, fear, and so forth.

This is essentially what Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount, His great moral treatise in which He speaks of fulfilling the law. To fulfill the law means to fill it full, to consider all the implications of the commandments and precepts.

It is also what I try to do in my new bookThe Ten Commandments, wherein each commandment, though precise in its formulation, is seen in its richer implications. Pardon the shameless plug, but this blog post has its origins in a radio interview I did today with Matt Swaim on the Sonrise Morning Show. I go on the show about every two weeks, but today Matt was kind enough to interview me about my book.

The bottom line though has to be this: we need to expose the lie (or at least the fear) in our culture that being against things is always a bad thing. We need to have the courage to admit and even to be bold in saying that we oppose things. This, of course, does ultimately mean that we are also for some other thing. But even if we cannot fully proclaim all that we are for, which admittedly is hard to do, it is necessary to say what we oppose.

Couragio!

As for this video, I happened upon it as I was looking for the song “Signs” (Sign, sign, everywhere a sign …), a “protest” song against rules that was so typical of the rebellious ’70s. I found it, but it also has this humorous collection of strange signs. So enjoy the funny signs even though the song is emblematic of today’s “be nice,” and “don’t have any rules” mentality.

Comments (27)

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  1. CU Weekly 276: Roughshod. - The Catholic Underground | September 29, 2014
  1. Faustina says:

    We all want to be nice. Or do we? “Nice” comes from the Latin, nescius, meaning ignorant, and from old French for stupid. But like the word “gay”, things aren’t always what they appear.

  2. Michael Brandon says:

    It is true that we are against certain sexual activity, and rightly so, but I have come up against a wall personally that is the conjunction of nice and sin.

    A young woman I know calls herself a lesbian, and plans to marry her partner, but they are not sexually active. So, no homosexual acts. So, as I have made it clear that I cannot support or attend any “marriage” ceremony, I am well past not nice, and into hateful, unkind etc.

    Due to the family connections, and my own history of sexual sin, I am of course labeled a hypocrite, which is true if I am my past, and not one who has sought God’s Mercy and forgiveness. But, it is my sinful history that makes me aware of how sexual and sexually related sins play on a person’s mind and lead them and others deeper into the black hole.

    I am standing firm against personal attack, but it gets pretty lonely at times.

    Thank you Monsignor for another thought provoking post.

    • C Beltz says:

      You are not alone. He is standing with you as you stand with Him. Keep going. It sounds like the people in your life need to see the light and you are holding the lamp.

      God Bless you and keep you.

    • JT says:

      To my mind, God is both the most humble, taking all manner of rejection from his creatures. He hides in the Holy Eucharist and allows himself to become subject to bad reception and black masses, all for love of all his creatures. He hides in every rain drop, in nature, in the small and the large, sustaining all things. He becomes visible in his creatures who love Him, acting in genuine charity, which is sometimes fraternal correction, tenderly delivered. Pope Francis recently remarked on his meeting Mother Theresa and how she said what needed to be said with true charity (fearlessly). I once met a monk who prayed for the grace to not be fearful of the opinions of others.

      We have a God who goes before us, and who goes after us. He leads the way. He has our back.

      St. Paul and Acts of the Apostles may be helpful here. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. It was precisely what the saints would suffer at the hands of their persecutors which opened them to the Grace of God. i.e.: How can one face this torture with joy? The Church is built on the blood of the martyrs. Christians used to pray for the grace to die as a martyr (persecuted) if asked by God, something I suspect we need to return to both to save our souls, and those of others.

      • JT says:

        Pardon me. Grammatical correction: “… opened them to the Grace of God, ” them meaning those who were doing the persecuting.

  3. Tom K. says:

    I’d say ours is a culture in which being against things *I’m not against* is a bad thing. If you’re against things I’m for, then you’re wicked and reprobate and all’s fair in attacking you to your destruction. If you’re against things I’m not particularly invested in, then you’re being mean to the people who are for it. If you’re against things I’m against, then friend me on Facebook and let’s exchange hilarious memes about Them.

    A related aspect of the culture, I think, is that people are remarkably ill-equipped to be against things they see as personal choices. If I regard self-determination, autonomy, and individualism as among the highest goods, then on what basis am I going to oppose anything you are for if you see it as involving your self-determination, autonomy, and individualism? I can’t say you’re “wrong” to be for it, because the culture tells me nothing to do with self-determination is intrinsically wrong. I can’t even back up a step and say you’re wrong to think it has to do with self-determination, because the culture tells me making that determination is also a matter of self-determination.

    So I think part of the work of Christian evangelization of the culture is to teach people it could actually be true that, if I want you to be happy, then I have to be against you doing some things you may want to do.

  4. Z says:

    Great article — gives me courage to say — video at 2:12 is “not nice”

  5. Roland R. says:

    Truth sounds like hate, to those who hate the truth.

    • The image that comes to mind based is of people who have been sitting in a very dark room and then the lights are put on, and they complain that the light is harsh.

      • I Like The Church Fathers says:

        Good analogy.

        “the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” [Mt. 4:16]

  6. I wonder if you have been reading here long? I have been writing for five years on every topic under the sun. I think the problem may be on your side of the equation, though to be sure I am plain-spoken and as I state in the article am not afraid to say what I am against, any more it would appear than you.

  7. Jamie Capobres says:

    This is so true. How did we get here as a society? We call good evil and evil good by not being willing to be against things. I think its time to speak truth in love but that requires us to tell others why certain things are wrong. We Christians owe it to God and others to be truthful hard as that may be.

  8. C Beltz says:

    I love when I think a thought and then I find you have already written it out, Monsignor.

    8 little “no’s”. Just 8. And that makes us negative?

    Let’s be real here. God is limitless. God is Love. By my math that means love is limitless. How could any fallen creature comprehend that? But 8 is easy enough to remember, right? That will fit on a couple of stones.

    I shake my head at the seemingly limitless number of ways we find to limit ourselves.

  9. Repent and Believe the Gospel! says:

    Here is my suggestion for today don’t call the pro-choice group by that name, call them: The Anti-life group.
    They call us anti-abortion, which is fine with me. Beat them at their own game.

  10. Repent and Believe the Gospel! says:

    I pray that your book will become a best seller Msgr.!
    You are a true preacher of the word of God!
    We are behind you!

  11. Greg says:

    What an excellent reflection!

    Last week I presented a webinar in which I talked about the problem we face in conflict resolution of assessing when somebody feels they “have been made wrong.” We have such an obsession with “being right” that we quickly slip into conflict over being made wrong.

    In my presentation I talk about the unconscious roots of this phenomenon. We tend to equate being right with survival and being wrong with non-survival. So if we are “made wrong” our survival instincts kick in and we battle back. This is why so many minor incidents turn into huge conflict. We remark, “Sheesh, it was only a small thing, not a life and death matter,” but unconsciously “being made wrong” equates with a threat against our survival.

    So, the question, which you are taking up, is vital. How do we instruct or guide on matters of right and wrong when we encounter the angry response of someone who feels they have been made wrong? It seems your book (congratulations) may offer some insights. Looking forward to reading it.

  12. BXVI says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Since Pope Benedict retired, we have been constantly admonished, in very strong terms and from the highest level of the Church, to stop saying what we are “against” all the time. Pope Francis has been very critical of the approach that supposedly presents the faith as a series of “don’ts” and “doctrines” and “rules to follow”. He seems to believe that we need a “reset” where the Church stops railing against the secular world and instead becomes non-confrontational and simply welcomes “as they are” no matter what they believe or how they act. Anything else is “exclusion”! I just don’t think that strategy will work in the long run. In fact, I think it will end very poorly. I think the very last thing we need right now is to try to make nice with the world by “toning down” our rhetoric “against” the things the secular world wants to entice the people of God to accept and wants to force the Church to accept. The secular world is in all out assault on the Church and its members. Truth be told, many members of the Church itself have joined the assault. They are not going away or changing their minds just because we stop defending ourselves in the public square. In fact, they will smell blood and come in for the kill.

    • Bender says:

      Since Pope Benedict retired, we have been constantly admonished, in very strong terms and from the highest level of the Church, to stop saying what we are “against” all the time.
      ___________________

      “Christianity, Catholicism, is not a collection of prohibitions: it is a positive option. It is very important that we look at it again because this idea has almost completely disappeared today. We have heard so much about what is not allowed that now it is time to say: we have a positive idea to offer, that man and woman are made for each other, that the scale of sexuality, eros, agape, indicates the level of love and it is in this way that marriage develops, first of all as a joyful and blessing-filled encounter between a man and a woman, and then, the family, which guarantees continuity among generations and through which generations are reconciled to each other and even cultures can meet.”
      –Interview of Pope Benedict in Preparation for his Apostolic Journey to Bavaria, August 5, 2006

  13. Edward says:

    Msgr –

    Comments are closed on the actual blog post this belongs, but I wanted to express a heartfelt thanks for your recent blog entry on pre-marital relations. While me and my wife didn’t engage in pre-marital relations, we did live together after we were engaged for a period of around 6 months. I was probably guilty, among other things, of putting the blinders up. In any event, I took this to confession with the addition of potentially not receiving the sacrament of matrimony in a state of grace and I have to tell you, I feel more at peace than I have in a long time and am dealing with issues that we need to address (normal issues problems that come up) in a much more calm and relaxed manner.

    I had try to clear the deck of a lot sins of the past via a general confession, which helped, but something still seemed to be missing and I this blog post really hit home.

    I am very grateful for your clear articulation of moral theology. For me, the biggest thing will to be to convince myself of God’s mercy.

  14. mary travis says:

    If we only had a handshake or a banner underwhich we the ” un-nice” could gather ….to see the faces we
    need to know of …and depend on …for couragio…
    it is lonely here…

  15. kelso says:

    Great article Monsignor, as always. Beware of the anti-anti’s. Interesting is that the Church called the heretics Protestants. Who started calling the revolt the Reformation? Luther? I know the Church uses the term counter-Reformation.

  16. . . . all for Jesus says:

    +The above sharing of Monsignor’s reminded me of a quote posted online by the Trappist Our Lady Mississippi Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa here in the United States. Like all Cistercian monasteries . . . the Mississippi Abbey is dedicated to . . . Our Lady . . . Mary the Mother of Jesus . . . who . . . LISTENED . . . to the . . . WORD of GOD . . . and pondered it in her heart . . . “But Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart.” – Luke 2:19

    TRUE HOLY LOVE

    “Let LOVE enkindle your zeal,
    let KNOWLEDGE inform it,
    let CONSTANCY strengthen it.

    Keep it fervent, discreet,
    COURAGEOUS.
    See it is not tepid or timid.

    The love of the heart
    relates to a certain warmth of affection,
    the love of the soul
    to energy or judgment of reason,
    and the love of strength
    refers to constancy and vigor of spirit.

    So love the LORD your GOD
    with the full and deep affection
    of your heart,
    love him with your mind
    wholly awake and discreet,
    and love him with all your strength,
    so much so
    that you would not even fear
    to die for love of HIM.”

    – St. Bernard of Clairvaux
    (Holy Benedictine Abbot, Confessor and Doctor of the Church)

    . . . all for Jesus+

  17. MikefromED says:

    I was a bit surprised at the suggestion that ‘protest’ is seen in positive rather than negative terms. Here in the UK ‘protest’ is always put with ‘against’. For example, we would say that ‘people protested against nuclear weapons’ rather than (as the Americans appear to do) ‘people protested nuclear weapons’. People usually protest against something: nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War, the war in Iraq, climate change, whatever. Indeed, the Protestant Reformation is called the Protestant Reformation because the Protestants protested against the Catholic Church. What is the origin of the word ‘protest’? Has it got anything to do with ‘pro’, meaning ‘for’?

    • Same here, I am just talking about the etymological roots. Words change over time and protest has reversed its meaning like manufactured has. Originally manu (hand) + facere (make) meant hand made. Noww it means factory made.

  18. DJ says:

    Great post. Thanks dear Padre