The Courage To Stand Alone

This summer I was involved in a major boating accident on the Columbia River while on a fishing trip. One of the cervical vertebrae in my neck was fractured (C2) and I was forced to wear a neck-brace for several weeks while recovering. I had a large laceration on my forehead that received 22 stitches.

I couldn’t work or drive and found myself somewhat house-bound with more time on my hands than usual. A good friend lent me some of her DVDs. In recent weeks I watched two I had already seen before (High Noon and A Man For All Seasons) and another movie for the first time: A Hidden Life, which was written and directed by Terrence Malick, and came out in 2019.

All three movies were excellent in their own way and shared a common theme: rooted in spiritual and moral courage, the main character took a lonely stand against some evil or injustice, and, except for Will Kane in High Noon, lost their lives for it. Art imitates life: though they probably won’t find themselves in a life-or-death situation, orthodox Catholics shouldn’t be surprised if they find themselves alone or in a small contingent standing against false narratives and unrighteousness.

Unlike six or seven decades ago, we don’t live in a time in America where a high percentage of self-identified Catholics attend Mass, Fulton J. Sheen has a popular television show, and the cultural ethos isn’t working so hard against those who hold biblical values. As cultural critic and author Mary Eberstadt has shown, the West has, in recent years, gone from post-Christian to anti-Christian.

Many orthodox Catholics find themselves very alone within their families, at their workplace, and in the larger culture that surrounds them. No surprise here: Jesus said that few would walk the straight and narrow path that leads to eternal life (Mt. 7:14) and that “many are called but few are chosen”(Mt. 22:14). All the Church Fathers (save Origen), including Augustine and Aquinas, and many other saints, asserted that few would be saved.

Unfortunately, Catholics who stand alone sometimes don’t find refuge in their local parish. The following is based on a true story though many of the details have been changed to protect the anonymity of the people involved:

A young man and orthodox Catholic named “Bob” who attends a small parish in the Midwest was alarmed to learn that his first-cousin, “Dale”, had begun an affair with another parishioner. Both parties continued to be actively involved in the church and receive Communion on a weekly basis.

Bob confronted his first-cousin on three separate occasions about his mortal sin but Dale said that “it wasn’t that big a deal” and that “Communion wasn’t just for the perfect but for the imperfect too.” On several occasions the young man asked his priest, who has a reputation for avoiding conflict, to intervene in this situation in this small parish where everybody knows everybody.

The priest balked because he said it “isn’t a public scandal” and he doesn’t “have incontrovertible evidence” that it’s really going on. He said the latter despite the fact that Dale had confirmed in his conversations with Bob that the relationship had become sexually intimate.

As the drama unfolded the priest made Bob feel like he was the problem for broaching the topic and told him that “it was unfortunate that you confronted Dale about this relationship.” Father also added that “involving yourself in these matters rarely does any good anyway.”

About a half-dozen other parishioners, including a good friend of Bob’s, knew about the illicit relationship but either didn’t say anything in order to avoid conflict or kept silent because they were “cafeteria Catholics” and didn’t see anything wrong with it. Bob eventually left the parish and is currently working on a letter to his bishop about his priest’s failure to intervene.

Though this story continues to unfold, much can be gleaned for Catholics who stand alone in listening to the heart and mind of Bob as he conversed with me over several months during his trial. Several motivations within him converged that helped him take his stand.

For one, it was obvious to me that he was living his life in the light of eternity. He truly believed that he would have to give an account before God at both the Particular and General Judgments for how he handled this situation. Looking the other way concerning his cousin’s mortal sin was not an option.

Over the years I’ve rubbed shoulders with too many Catholics who believed that there was “a reasonable hope that all men would be saved” and such matters that Bob wrestled with were almost inconsequential to them. The idea of mortal sin is emptied of all moral, spiritual, and eschatological content if almost everybody, save Hitler, Stalin, Mao, et al, is granted eternal life.

In answering Cain’s question to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, this young man would answer resoundingly “Yes!” Charity means willing the good of another.

Bob understood that mortal sin was the road to perdition for his cousin and his girlfriend and responded accordingly. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Prov. 27:8).

He knew that looking the other way and not confronting his cousin was the most uncharitable thing he could do. There was no guarantee that Dale would repent, but, at least in confronting him, he wasn’t enabling him to continue in mortal sin.

Bob was deeply grieved in his spirit to see Dale and his girlfriend, with no opposition from their priest, continue to desecrate the Eucharist week after week and month after month. Dale also served occasionally as a lector and his girlfriend helped out with the high school youth group now and then.

Over the years I’ve heard more than one person say, “Good people are not hard to find but good people who also have courage are.” What separated Bob from the other people in his parish?

One thing that stands out about this young man is charity. He cared about his first-cousin and wanted to help lead him away from the path that leads to destruction.

He loved the glory of God and was deeply grieved to see that glory besmirched when the liturgy and Eucharist were desecrated by grave sin. He loved his local church and knew that looking the other way would allow poisons to be injected into its ecclesial bloodstream.

He loved the glory of God and knew he would be detracting greatly from that glory by not doing the right thing. He knew that he may get away with this sin of omission in this life but not in the next.

Bob’s fortitude was rooted in charity: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love” (I Jn. 4:18).

Bob’s love for Dale, the liturgy, the Eucharist, the health of his local church, and the glory of God crowded out any fear he might have had related to his conflict with Dale or his priest or coming off as “uptight” and “rigid” with the cafeteria Catholics in the parish. We see this dynamic at work with many “cancelled” priests today who loved their sheep, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and the Mystical Body of Christ more than the fear of the backlash they eventually received from those who had the authority over them.

This love is the life-blood of the martyrs, and is, as Tertullian said, the seed of the Church. Martyrdom, whether red or white, provides a witness for on-lookers who in turn ask why such a sacrifice is taking place. Some find a Reality behind the sacrifice and convert.

May the ranks of Catholics who have the courage to stand alone increase as many believers add fortitude to their list of virtues and make the journey from business-as-usual to becoming active soldiers in the Church Militant.

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Jonathan B. Coe is a graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska, and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He is a contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of "Letters from Fawn Creek," a volume of spiritual direction. He lives in the Pacific Northwest. A self-confessed “mediocre fisherman,” he is known to wet a line now and then in the creeks, rivers, and lakes of northeast Washington.

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