Human Respect in a Barbaric Age
Donna Steichen on the Sin of Tolerance
What killed our capacity for resistance? Most mainstream American Christians seem too apathetic today to denounce outrage, degradation, or even sacrilege. Little outcry was heard against the predawn capture of six-year-old Elián González by an armed SWAT team on Holy Saturday, the countless presidential scandals, or the desecration of Montreal’s cathedral on International Women’s Day.
Consider the public silence about the ominous April 25th arrest, outside the Supreme Court building, of 22 pro-life demonstrators whose approved posters were outlawed overnight by an ordinance composed especially for the occasion. Note the absence of raised voices when actor Michael Caine was awarded an Oscar for playing a complaisant abortionist as a hero in the blatant propaganda film, Cider House Rules.
Doesn’t anyone care? Faced with such passivity, one marvels that there was once an American Revolution.
What has made us so inordinately tolerant?
One explanation might be that our sources of news—television, radio, or print—tend also to be our primary sources of entertainment. We may have come to view both news and entertainment from the same emotional distance, as if they were all stories invented for our diversion. Unless we deny the reality of what we see, how can we continue to watch channels like CNN, where the same alternating glimpses of wars and murders and human triviality are repeated throughout the day?
Another credible explanation is our sense of helplessness. We can do nothing to prevent the horrors reported, since they have already occurred, a fact that does not escape those who plan such acts. Why get outraged when you can’t do anything about it?
Are contemporary citizens too submissive to defend their liberties? Seeing that the course of events is out of our hands, we can most easily tolerate our political impotence by putting it out of our minds and focusing on matters that touch our lives more immediately. Leaders of activist social movements know that most people so detest confrontation that they can only be stung into public action—briefly—by intense organizing efforts that appeal to their private interests.
There are those, too, who think our society is so good that it can tolerate a little evil. A virtuous civilization is strong enough to endure the transitory assaults of the new barbarians without lasting harm, they say. After all, Western civilization has survived for thousands of years; it will not be undone by abortion, or a corrupt political regime. But they don’t know how rare a feat it is to build a free and noble civilization, or how costly it is, or how fragile.
All these encourage our indifference, but I think it is chiefly human respect that has made cowards of us all.
When I was eleven, I spent a week visiting my aunt, Sister Clarita. Her small-town convent stood on three leafy green acres, but the apprehensive nuns insisted I stay indoors, lest I drown in the rivulet at the edge of the grounds.
To pass the long days, I spent unaccustomed hours in the quiet chapel. In one pew there was a marvelous prayer book with an intricate gold clasp and, inside the front cover, in a recess lined with watered silk, an ivory crucifix bearing a tiny gold corpus.
Thumbing through the book, I came on an examination of conscience. My interest spiked: what sins could nuns possibly find to confess? The failings reviewed seemed quite ordinary, until I spotted an unknown phrase: “Have I sinned out of human respect?”
Human respect a sin? But isn’t human respect a good thing? Aren’t we supposed to treat all men with respect, because we see Christ in them? Perhaps it meant, “Have I failed to show human respect?” No, that was not the sense of it. I was baffled, but human respect made me unwilling to expose my ignorance. I kept my confusion to myself.
Soon enough, I encountered human respect in the form of adolescent social pressure, though I didn’t learn its proper name until later, when I met it as an adult. Since then I have come to understand it as one of the most universal of human failings. Human respect does not mean treating others with proper courtesy. It means embracing their point of view for fear of their disapproval, changing one’s standards to “fit in,” even when that involves abandoning the standards of Christ.
In the susceptible young, we call it “succumbing to peer pressure.” In the media, we call it political correctness, and it mirrors our social corruption.
The effects of human respect need not be evil. Pressure to conform is what makes Weight Watchers work. But even when conformist behavior is objectively good, an action based on human respect is not that of a free adult. Taxes may eventually buy food for the poor, but the taxpayer is not practicing the virtue of charity. He is avoiding the dreaded consequences of not paying his taxes.
Among the traditional sources of temptation—the world, the flesh, and the devil—human respect represents the world. It is the origin of the conformity from which we ask to be preserved when we pray for fortitude.
Winning the World
Human respect is so normal a temptation that giving into it might not strike us as a serious moral problem. Does it really belong in an examination of conscience?
“He who wants to win the world for Christ must have the courage to come into conflict with it,” observed Carmelite Titus Brandsma, whose courage took him to Dachau and, in 1985, to beatification. Human respect is fatal to such courage, because it arises from fear of what other people might do if they knew we disagreed with them.
They might kill us, of course, as the Romans killed the early martyrs, as the English crown under Henry VIII killed Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher, as the Nazis killed Father Brandsma. Most often, however, those we fear will merely exclude us. But fear of exclusion can be paralyzing. As parents know, schoolchildren would rather die than be shunned by their peers.
Human respect can be devastating to our courage and our freedom at any age. We all find it agonizing to stand alone. To be comfortable is what we crave. We are social animals, and a hunger to be accepted as part of the group is built into our nature. That longing can become a powerful temptation.
A textbook example of surrender to such temptation is on record in the case of Mary Jo Weaver, a professor of Religious Studies and Women’s Studies at Indiana University. Dr. Weaver’s report of why and how she overcame the orthodox Catholicism of her youth is so egregious that one is embarrassed for her, and I would not call attention to it if she had not done so herself, in public speeches and in print, citing it as an example of the way Catholics ought to behave.
Weaver says she grew up in a traditional Catholic family, graduated from a small Catholic college, and plunged into the world of commerce (a chemistry lab) before Vatican II, convinced she knew the answers to life’s ultimate questions. Shocked and uneasy to encounter secular skepticism in her colleagues, she felt “as if I had somehow landed on another planet. I had no way to participate in conversations.”
“If I had had the language for it then, I would have called them secular humanists. And had I been able to use the language of my past, I would have worried that my environment was a ‘near occasion of sin,’ i.e., a seductive danger to my soul. As I began to adjust to this new world, however, I found it congenial,” she continues.
First she stopped talking to them about her own convictions—“an implicit recognition that religious belief was a private matter, usually not interesting to others”—and then she embraced theirs—“agnostic, pluralistic, confident”—and, she says, “tolerant,” though apparently not tolerant of believing Catholicism. “In relation to the world I grew up in,” said Weaver, “I was now somewhere else.”
So completely did she assimilate the perspective of modernist skepticism that she eventually became an associate of WomanChurch, an alliance of feminist ideologues who have been working for more than 25 years to undermine the Magisterium from within Catholic institutions. In 1984, Weaver signed a signature ad placed in the New York Times by the abortion lobby, Catholics for a Free Choice. In 1986, she helped coordinate their second ad.
It is surely unnecessary to observe that she was thus advocating positions incompatible with Catholic morality. Yet she continues to identify herself as a Catholic.
Lilly Endowment grants funded Weaver’s research for two books. The first, New Catholic Women: A Contemporary Challenge to Traditional Religious Authority (1985), is a sympathetic report on the emergence of Catholic feminist dissenters. The second, written with Scott Appleby of Notre Dame, is Being Right: Conservative Catholics in America (1995). It is a less sympathetic, though generally factual, study of those they call “Catholic fundamentalists,” a category in which Weaver includes pro-lifers, homeschoolers, members of Women for Faith and Family, Catholics United for the Faith, and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, and Pope John Paul II.
When the book was published, Weaver set out on a lecture tour that included an appearance at the annual Call to Action conference. In her address, titled “What’s Wrong with Being Right?” and distributed in transcript, she explained that conservative Catholics are incapable of useful dialogue because of their absolute certitude about the truth of their first principles. Because they know they are right, Weaver said, they cannot compromise.
Weaver rejects, as “narrow,” “right-wing,” and inimical to useful dialogue, their “set of presuppositions including a belief in God and in absolute truth; an assumption that God’s will can be known from Scripture and the teaching of the church; and a desire to be faithful to God by following church teaching.”
To hold these beliefs as truth she calls “maladaptive in the modern world,” tagging those who hold them as alienated, intellectually narrow, smug, fearful, eccentric, isolated, and boring, hence incapable of making “a contribution to a future that requires innovative solutions to enormous pastoral and theological problems.” Besides, she grumbles, they lack civility.
Weaver is not unusual in having yielded to human respect. What makes her tale noteworthy is that she boasts of her capitulation as evidence of her wisdom and virtue, which she insists other Catholics ought to emulate. In today’s world, where scholars disapprove of Christian certitude and a majority of Catholics refuse to obey Humanae Vitae, those who do not compromise will not be heard, she says.
That statement implies that those who do compromise can engage the world, somehow maintaining their principles but couching their arguments in the world’s language. But Dr. Weaver’s own record indicates that she compromised her principles until she had nothing left to argue with the world about.
Engaging the Culture
Weaver’s case establishes that it is not only the ignorant who succumb to human respect. Even catechized and committed Catholics can find their faith eroded by the culture. Some people who set out to “engage the culture” end by marrying it, sometimes without realizing they have crossed that fateful line.
One contributing factor is a misunderstanding of what engaging the culture means. A believer need not seek out opportunities to do so. As Margaret Clitherow discovered, even unsought engagement may be impossible to avoid. Simply living by Christian principles is apt to bring engagement to you, and the outcome may be harrowing.
Margaret Clitherow never lost her capacity for resistance. She lived in York during the reign of Elizabeth I, when the penalty for practicing Catholicism was greater than social isolation. Though her father had been Sheriff of York, her stepfather was later Lord Mayor, and her dutiful Protestant husband became a chamberlain, middle-class social position gave Margaret no protection.
She was arrested for sheltering priests, for allowing them to say Mass in her home, and for educating her three children in the faith. (Some homeschoolers today regard her as a patron saint.) In court she refused to recant, but would not enter a plea, lest her children and servants be obliged to testify against her.
When the Council of the North prepared their case, they found that she was so loved for her kindness that witnesses were hard to find. Up to the end, the sheriff begged her to deny her faith, but still she would not compromise. “No, no, Mr. Sheriff,” she answered, “I die for the love of my Lord Jesu.”
Margaret was sentenced to death by pressing, that is, by being laid on the stone floor beneath a door, on which weights were piled until she was crushed to death. The sergeants who were supposed to carry out that sentence couldn’t bring themselves to do it, so four beggars were hired in their place. She walked to her execution barefoot, having sent her shoes to her daughter Anne to signal that she should follow in her mother’s steps. She died with Jesus’ name on her lips.
Dr. Weaver might well argue that Margaret’s behavior was maladaptive in the Elizabethan world (not to mention alienated, intellectually narrow, smug, fearful, eccentric, isolated, and boring), but such a judgment depends on what one considers to be life’s ultimate goal. Her daughter Anne became a nun in Belgium, and her brothers Henry and William became priests. In 1970, the Catholic Church declared Margaret a saint. To those who believe our ultimate goal is heaven, her life will be seen as a triumph.
Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski said, “Real barbarism begins when no one can any longer judge or know that what he does is barbaric.” Many nominal Christians today base their decisions on human respect because they never learned Christianity’s moral teachings. Having no other guide, they are swept along by the currents of opinion prevailing in the surrounding culture.
They might feel doubtful about certain planks in the platform of political correctness, but if they do not know the truth, they probably silence their consciences by substituting politically approved causes like environmentalism or vegetarianism for the socially despised pro-life movement.
Constantly exposed to moral horrors, we can grow so numb to sin that we glance unseeing past obscene magazine covers while waiting in line at supermarket checkouts. Numbly, we take casual fornication, contraception, abortion, divorce, and remarriage for granted. The teachings of the Church, always a scandal to the world, begin to sound unpersuasive even to our own ears, and if we try to defend them we may have to appeal to bare authority, against our own instincts.
That disparity between God’s law and our sympathies can explain but not excuse our indifference. Christians cannot expect to be comfortable with society’s values; we are not supposed to “fit in.”
Christ brought us not peace, but a sword, and he said, “He who is not with me is against me.” Indifference to evil is not an option for us: we can only choose between resistance and complicity.
Donna Steichen is the author of UnGodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism (Ignatius Press) and Prodigal Daughters: Catholic Women Come Home to the Church (Ignatius Press).
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“Human Respect in a Barbaric Age” first appeared in the October 2000 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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