A Judgmental Pendulum
A mid-August column by Fr. John Kiley has been swinging in the background of my mind:
In spite of this legacy of warnings about the gravity of the end times, the prospect of final judgment and any thought of ultimate justice have almost disappeared from the modern Christian mind. Saturday afternoon lines at the confessional are a vague memory. Funeral liturgies have devolved into celebrations of life during which the deceased’s flairs are praised, flaws are ignored and faith is immaterial. A good number of Catholics unashamedly deny the existence of hell, citing the seeming incompatibility of God’s infinite mercy with eternal damnation. This contemporary indifference to the moral nature of the universe contrasts greatly with the liturgical, devotional and catechetical experience that most of our ancestors in the faith endured. Death, judgment, heaven and hell were very real prospects for most, perhaps all, previous generations of believers.
The accusations of Christian hypocrisy by William Lobdell that I addressed a couple of weeks ago are surely related:
… many people who call themselves Christian don’t really believe, deep down, in the tenets of their faith. In other words, their actions reveal their true beliefs.
To the extent that Lobdell’s observations are accurate, I wonder whether it mightn’t be more correct to suggest, per Fr. Kiley, that Christians don’t really believe, deep down, in the consequences of failing to follow tenets in which they actually do believe. Their faith still encompasses the Christian structure of reality, and they still believe that what the Church says to do is best to do, but it’s the “or else” with which they have difficulty.
It can hardly be denied that our time and place, in history, are very challenging for those who would live a moral life without withdrawing from human society entirely. Not that anybody should prefer such an existence, but one suspects that adultery was somewhat less of a temptation in a frigid, heavy-clothes environment of rotting teeth, body odor, and disease and a very real risk of illegitimate childbirth with every sexual encounter than in our current times of easy contraception and cleanliness, in which the images of sex and mandate of indulged liberty are in every cultural message and small girls wear clothes marked “Boy Toy” and talk of fellatio while waiting for the grammar school bus.
We can hope that God’s mercy will take into account the sinful poison with which the air of our particular context is laced, just as we can hope that He took into account the specific failings to which our ancestors were more prone. Still, as the pendulum swings from excessive strictness and imposition of rigid rules, enforced by human beings with their own faults and tendency to over-instruct, to the ill advised mandate that human beings should never express strong disapproval of any behavior except the expression of strong disapproval, we should, indeed, fear that we will not accurately identify the thread of Truth and follow that needle-threading line that divine mercy draws between impossible perfection and callous disregard for the order of the universe.