September 23, 2018
A number of years ago, the theologian (and eventual cardinal) Avery Dulles ventured to compare Protestantism and Catholicism in this way: protestants are concerned about their salvation; catholics, about their sanctity. This may be a bit of an over-simplification (all the best summaries are!), but reflecting on it raises several issues that I think are critical to today’s situation.
First: despite the assertions of some famous ‘catholic’ authors, we are not caught up in a cosmic struggle between God and the Devil. The great sins that crowd our headlines and the great sinners who seem to crown our history did not chose the Devil rather than God; they did not become idolaters or atheists. That is why so many of the worst malefactors also accomplished so much good (let’s be fair); and why they knew that they had to keep their wrongdoing secret. But, at critical junctures, and with catastrophic results in the lives of others – and now of the whole Catholic Church – they chose for themselves something other than a life of sanctity.
Here we come to a second, even more critical realization: If sinners make the world a hell on earth, it is saints who save the world. The greatest tragedy – said a famous French author (L. Bloy?) -- is not to be a saint. Lo and behold! It is not just a tragedy for the non-saint; it is a tragedy for the world! There is a tradition in certain branches of Judaism that there are thirty-six righteous people (lamedvafchik) in the world at any given time. For their sake and because they are the portals of God’s goodness into the world, God does not destroy the world for its wickedness.
In this vein, a very young priest and I agreed a few days ago that we will not be saved from our present morass by those who wear fancy clothes and sit in high places and have power to change peoples’ lives. We will be saved by little guys like Francis of Assisi and Dominic de Guzman and Frere Andre and Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day who went poor and powerless throughout the world and changed history forever.
Speaking of these folks reminds me of another point: saints do not spend a lot of time worrying the sins of other people – not about nosing them out, or pointing them up, or condemning or punishing them. Saints are way too busy becoming saints for such prurience and schadenfreude (look that one up for yourself). But they did all get in trouble for flatly refusing to take part in the institutionalized forms of corruption that they found in their times; some were jailed, some were ridiculed, some were actively persecuted … for being saints!
Really and truly and (alas!) not saintly enough yours,
Lastly, for this week: it is a big step from sanctity to sinfulness. It is a much smaller step from mediocrity or compromise or laziness. We must become saints, we must become part of the solution/salvation of the world.