Thursday, February 1, 2018

Is Optimism the Main Issue of Contention in the Catholic Church?

A recently published criticism of Amoris Laetitia contains a line that captures the essence of the objections that have been made against Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia and the development of the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council:
AL expresses an unreasonable optimism about the individual’s ability to navigate his own way through morally complex circumstances.
This, in a nutshell, is the primary complaint that has been voiced against Vatican II for the past 50 years:  "Just what the heck are you so optimistic about?  Don't you know that human beings are rotten scoundrels who need a strict regimen of harsh penances to stay in line?  And don't even mention the possibility that non-Catholics might make it to Heaven!!!"

Pope Francis, in contrast is the personification of the optimism of the Second Vatican Council.  His warm smile, tireless energy, and radiant joy are nothing short of infuriating for the pessimistic personality that yearns for an Anathema! against the slightest deviation from the straight and narrow path.

Lest we judge persons rather than actions, let's remember that there is a pessimist in all of us.  On my bad days (most days) I roll my eyes at the watery platitudes of Vatican II and embrace with relish the authoritarian triumphalism of Unam Sanctam, but deep inside me there's a little voice telling me that there is good reason to be hopeful.


Amoris Laetitia has brought conscience to the forefront of Catholic moral teaching.  Nothing infuriated our inner pessimist more than the Malta guidelines which dared to trust the consciences of divorced and civilly remarried persons to decide whether they should receive the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion - until the Braga guidelines all but guaranteed that the process of discernment would end with the decision to receive the Eucharist.

Why are we so pessimistic about conscience?  The Bible itself promises that God will enlighten the conscience of every Christian:
"Behold the days shall come, saith the Lord, and I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Juda: Not according to the covenant which I made with their fathers, in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt: the covenant which they made void, and I had dominion over them, saith the Lord. But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel, after those days, saith the Lord: I will give my law in their bowels, and I will write it in their heart: and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying: Know the Lord: for all shall know me from the least of them even to the greatest, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more." (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
Do we not believe this passage?  Do we think Christians aren't ready yet?  It has been 2000 years since the Incarnation.  What are we waiting for until we trust each others' conscience?  Another 2000 years?

Be not afraid

Of course God knows our doubts about this promise.  That's why He told us over and over again when He walked among us:  "Be not afraid."  (Matthew 28:10).

What are we afraid of exactly?  That wicked men and women will use Amoris Laetitia as an opportunity to profane the sacraments of the Church?  They can already do that.  That the consciences of the faithful will be misled?  That is what the process of discernment is for.  Nowhere in Amoris Laetitia or any of the bishops' guidelines is the Church's perennial teaching on the indissolubility of marriage called into question.  A divorced and remarried person who goes through the process of discernment can only come out with a better formed conscience.

That leaves us with nothing but pessimism to explain our purported fears.

Why are we pessimistic?

Pessimism is certainly not a fruit of the Holy Spirit:
But the fruit of the Spirit is, charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, chastity. Against such there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)
Pessimism then, can only be born of vice, and it's the same vice that leads us to judge other persons:  envy.  Envy starts from pessimism about ourselves, that God loves us less than everyone else, and projects it onto everyone else:  we want them to fail so that God will love us more than everyone else.  Which is the worst of all sins:  pride.

When we are optimistic about others, when we believe that even atheists can go to Heaven, it comes from a place of love and humility.  We know we are loved by God in a way that surpasses every good we can imagine, and we know that this love is not what we deserve.  Filled with joy, we ourselves come to embody God's love for mankind, and have hope that no one is beyond His mercy - not even this sourpuss pessimist!

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