Some things the Church warns about gets shunted aside in different eras. If we think of them at all, we think of them as something other people do and never scrutinize our own actions. I think one of these issues is the issue of self-righteousness—the belief in one’s own actions and motives are morally superior to their opponents. Those who did not share that position were considered morally wrong, not merely mistaken. Unfortunately, many confuse their own self-righteousness with seeking righteousness, which means seeking out what is right and carrying it out. If we assume our own actions are righteous, while those who disagree with us choose evil; if we never ask whether we are doing wrong, while being certain no good Catholic can think differently than us—those are signs of being self-righteous.
Before I go on, I want to make something clear. I am not speaking in support of moral relativism. Some things simply are incompatible with being a Catholic Christian, and we may never dismiss them or treat them lightly. If a fellow Catholic is in error, he or she does need to be led to the truth. But not all differences are based on the willful disregard of Catholic teaching. Moreover, it is not just “other people” who can be in error. We can be blind to our own faults as well.
A Political Example
What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side
(Buffalo Springfield, For What It’s Worth)
One of the sadder things I see on social media is the division that still exists among some Catholics over moral decisions made during the election. Since the 2016 elections were arguably the worst choices we’ve had in living memory, Catholics were faced with the unenviable decision of picking one of the unfit candidates from the major parties, or an unelectable candidate from a minor party. Catholics trying to act in good faith made their decision on how to prevent the most damage for the next four years. It’s the kind of thing where afterwards, you expected Catholics to say to each other, “That was a terrible election. I pray our options are better next time.”
But in many cases, that didn’t happen. Some Catholics focussed instead on others who made a different decision on how to best limit evil, assuming they were supporters of the worst evils that came from their choice. So, those who voted for our current president are accused of being responsible for every action he takes that runs counter to Church teaching, regardless of whether the Catholic voter supported it or not (the guilt by association fallacy). Meanwhile, those who voted against him are accused of favoring every evil his main opponent supported. So, every time President Trump does something, we get a flood of posts accusing those who disagreed with the poster of either supporting evils in his proposals as well as counter-posts accusing the first group of supporting evils that would have happened if he hadn’t been elected.
At the same time that this is going on, these factions are congratulating themselves for standing up for the Catholic faith because of the superficial links between their favored party and the Church teaching they happen to feel strongly about, ignoring the parts where their favored party runs against Catholic teaching. I’ve seen Catholics who voted, Democrat, Republican, and Third Party act this way, all castigating the others. In other words, these groups accuse each other of putting politics above the Catholic faith, never considering that both groups used the same arguments to reach different conclusions.
It’s not only in politics. We can see it in the “all we need to do to save the Church is…” attitudes. Some argue that we all need to return to ad orientem, reception of Communion on the tongue, etc., and if we don’t, we’re ignoring the problem, or even in cahoots with those who rebel. Others say the Church needs to change her attitude towards contraception, divorce/remarriage, woman priests, etc., to prevent the collapse of the Church, and those who disagree are against Christ. The problem is, these solutions are not based on the teaching of the Church, but on what we think the Church should be. Often we elevate a discipline to a doctrine. Often, we try to treat a doctrine like a discipline. But in both cases, we tend to attack the people who disagree with us as ignoring the problem or even being a part of it.
But like the political examples above, people are assuming that different views means being part of the problem, through not caring or about actively willing evil. I think the difference between this and the political examples is we are no longer arguing over the best way to apply Church teaching, but whether Church teaching is to be followed. In this case, we’re not only being self-righteous towards others, but towards the shepherds of the Church. Like so many other things, this isn’t done by a single faction. Whether it is a case of a rigorist Catholic saying the Church has no right to reach out in compassion to sinners, or a laxist Catholic saying the Church has no right to bar Catholics from the Eucharist, these are cases where the self-righteous Catholic is saying they are superior to those tasked with shepherding the Church. Whether it’s a case of accusing the Pope of heresy or of accusing a saint of heresy, this is (among other sins) self-righteousness.
The Risk To Ourselves
The problem is, when we fall into self-righteousness, we forget to consider three things:
- The fact that we might be wrong in assuming our opponent's error or bad will
- The fact that we might be wrong in the positions we hold.
- The fact that we are to show patience and charity to those actually in error.
Let’s face it. If we’re going to call a Catholic who viewed Trump as the least harmful choice, “Anti-abortion but not pro-life,” (or if we call the Catholic who could not vote for Trump in good conscience and voted for a Third Party, “pro-Hillary”), we’re being self-righteous. We overlook the fact the individual might have acted in good will. We overlook the possibility of making an error of our own. And, if the person actually did vote this way for reasons incompatible with Catholic teaching, we are not likely to win them back by behaving self-righteously. But bringing them back is part of the Great Commission.
Here’s a personal example on the third point: When I was in my early 20s, I began to consider the Catholic faith I was raised in seriously. But some of my positions were not compatible with the Catholic faith, and I was struggling with these issues, trying to understand how something I had always thought to be politically bad was morally good. If I had encountered the social media crowd of Catholics who insult and speak abusively towards those who thought differently, I would have probably equated the Catholic faith with their behavior and left it behind, thinking it wrong. I probably would have been morally culpable for the errors I clung to, thinking them right. But I think God would have had something to say, at the Final Judgment, to those who drove me away as well.
Pope Francis, in stressing mercy, remembers what many American Catholics seem to forget—we’re not goalies, trying to keep lesser Catholics out. Nor are we just throwing out the rules and saying, “Anything goes.” What we’re trying to do is reach out to those lost sheep and bringing them back into the fold. That means reconciling them with God. And how can we reconcile people who we drive away? How will we answer God when we, instead of rescuing the lost sheep, pitch it back in the brambles?
It Starts With Ourselves
As i said back in the beginning of the post, I’m not saying we should let people do whatever they want and not worry about it. IF they are in error, we need to guide them back. But if we’re self-righteous, how can we guide them? We need to be guided ourselves. This means we need to turn to God in prayer and study, seeking out how we are called to live, not confusing our preferences with what the Church actually teaches. We need to investigate the actual statements and motives of the person who disagrees with us—not presuming on either. We need to recognize that if we are actually not in error and another is, we are called to be Christlike in reaching out to them.
Escaping self-righteousness in favor of seeking righteousness is hard. For example, I’m constantly struggling with sarcasm when it comes to people I think are wrong and should know better. I struggle with it because I know there’s no spiritual growth, and a lot of spiritual harm there. But the temptation is always there to want to “put wrongdoers in their place” and seeking to do right in such cases is much harder.
But, if we fail to make the attempt, then we are like the Pharisees who opposed Our Lord and judged others, never showing mercy, and never considering our own need for it. Don’t think this is a Conservative problem or a Liberal problem. Don’t consider this a Traditionalist problem or a Modernist problem. This is a problem for any person who will neither consider the possibility of their own error, nor show mercy when they are right.