When speaking about the hypocritical actions of the Pharisees, our Lord reminded us that words were just as important as other actions. He told us “for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:37) Over the years, this might be one of the toughest warnings from Our Lord, especially from those of us who use our words as part of a profession.
What makes the Gospel so special? This should be a simple question, but I don’t think we ponder it enough. At its core, I think the uniqueness of the Gospel is that it offers not just salvation, but transformation. The Gospel doesn’t dull the pain, but heals it. It doesn’t paper over our faults; it washes them away and replaces them with virtues. The strongest proofs of the Gospel are not in doctrinal formulas or creeds, important though they are. The strongest proofs are in the lives of saints.
Think about that for a second: your conduct is a sign to the world. What will your sign say? Is it a sign of hope, that we are different from the world? Or is your sign that we are more or less like everyone else, just our religion has cool pointy hats and incense? Whether offline or online, what will people think about the way we deal with others? The world today always assumes the worst in people, and treats them accordingly.
I fear we do the same. If someone has a differing set of political beliefs, or a different set of priorities than we do, we are quick to assume the worst about that individual. This person votes this way because he hates the poor. This person votes this way because aborted babies aren’t very important to them. This person has blood on thousands of innocent victims on their hands because they support owning a firearm, or their desire to unarm people will lead to having blood on their hands, etc. Today’s discourse, even among Catholics, is so visceral, so intensely personal. Someone being wrong, especially on the internet, shakes us to our very core. How could this person be so wicked so as to believe in priorities other than my own?
Though he lived over a century before social media, Pope St. Pius X had a lot to say about how we should interact with others. For the sainted pope, charity was the first and most important principle to abide in:
But in order that the desired fruit may be derived from this apostolate and this zeal for teaching, and that Christ may be formed in all, be it remembered, Venerable Brethren, that no means is more efficacious than charity. “For the Lord is not in the earthquake” (III Kings xix., II) — it is vain to hope to attract souls to God by a bitter zeal. On the contrary, harm is done more often than good by taunting men harshly with their faults, and reproving their vices with asperity… They perhaps seem to be worse than they really are. Their associations with others, prejudice, the counsel, advice and example of others, and finally an ill-advised shame have dragged them to the side of the impious; but their wills are not so depraved as they themselves would seek to make people believe. Who will prevent us from hoping that the flame of Christian charity may dispel the darkness from their minds and bring to them light and the peace of God? (emphasis added).
Note well what the sainted pope is saying. He isn’t telling you to always look for the good in someone, which this approach is often mistaken as. Read some of his other writings. He knew what evil looked like, and he was never afraid to condemn it out in the open. Instead, this approach was deeply rooted in the reality of sin. We are all fallen people. Very few knowingly choose evil; most are dragged to it through the pull of concupiscence, not realizing what they did. Even the greatest sin (man killing the Creator) was done through ignorance. (1 Cor 2:8) When we look at the perceived (or real) faults of our brother, do we believe that “their wills are not so depraved as they themselves would seek to make people believe”?
Notice also the remedy to these ills. St. Pius X does not think berating them in the strongest way possible is very effective. Quite the contrary, it often leads to grave damage. When we sit down to broadcast all of our thoughts, is our zeal bitter? Are we reproving vices with asperity? He wants us to practice charity not only in seeing the faults of others, but in using charity to help them overcome those faults. We’re not being charitable just because we are good people. We’re being charitable because that charity is a weapon. It drives away the darkness that clouds the minds of us all.
All of us often fall short of this ideal. We are sinners, and nothing we can do will change that fact. Yet what we can change is how we deal with that. I think we Catholics like to tell ourselves a lot of lies in our social media discourse. We tell ourselves that we mean well, and those times we fall short, hey, we got carried away! It’s not a big deal, everyone gets carried away! In the end, we’re on the side of the angels, just trying to convert the world. Nothing wrong with that, right?
Unfortunately, there is a lot wrong with that. The greatest spiritual masters knew this attitude well, and they condemned it. Dom Lorenzo Scupoli wrote the following in his classic The Spiritual Combat (a book St. Frances de Sales would advise penitents to read from nightly):
For whoever has the courage to conquer his passions, to subdue his appetites, and repulse even the least motions of his own will, performs an action more meritorious in the sight of God than if, without this, he should tear his flesh with the sharpest disciplines, fast with greater austerity than the ancient Fathers of the Desert, or convert multitudes of sinners. It is true, considering things in themselves, that the conversion of a soul is, without doubt, infinitely more acceptable to the Divine Majesty than the mortification of a disorderly affection. Yet, every person, in his own particular sphere, should begin with what is immediately required of him. Now what god expects of us, above all else, is a serious application to conquering our passions; and this is more properly the accomplishment of our duty than if, with uncontrolled appetite, we should do him a greater service. (Chapter 1)
In the eyes of Fr. Scupoli, our primary mission is not to win over souls, but to master our own. It doesn’t matter how many great things you have done, or how many laudable positions you hold. All these things are for nothing if we try to do a service for God with an uncontrolled appetite. It isn’t just spiritually dangerous for us, its counterproductive as a sign to the world. The world sees this kind of behavior and concludes that our belief in the Gospel is all talk. We aren’t about encountering sinners and accompanying them, we’re there to wag our finger at them as we pass by on the road to Mass.
I’d like to close with an appeal. Right now, we are living in a Year of Mercy proclaimed by our Holy Father Pope Francis. In a world that often lacks mercy, Francis wants us to go out of our way to showing mercy to others, whether they be sinners, people who have wronged us, and to always show compassion to the fallen, even if we must show judgment. Is our discourse on social media reflective of that desire for mercy? For writers, our critics, and everyone else, should be merciful. These are tough times to be a Catholic, especially in the United States. We must offer the struggling a hand to help them up and a shoulder to lean on, not a fist or a weapon pointed at them. We can only solve this problem together, and we can only solve it through charity. Let us use these last months of this year of mercy to spend time seeking God’s mercy, for ourselves and others.