What is Preeminent?

What is Preeminent? November 15, 2019

Sailko: Scultore fiorentino, martirio di pietro da verona/ Wikimedia Commons

Contrary to the way many people react, abortion is not one of the deadly sins. This does not make issues surrounding abortion unimportant, but it does mean we should recognize there are fundamental concerns which lead to abortion, concerns which transcend the issue of abortion itself. We must recognize the dignity of life, of all life, and not just one kind of life; we must likewise recognize and respect the whole moral teaching of the church, taking into consideration what Jesus himself said was the foundation of the moral law: love of God and love for our neighbor.  “Charity is at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine. Every responsibility and every commitment spelt out by that doctrine is derived from charity which, according to the teaching of Jesus, is the synthesis of the entire Law” (cf. Mt 22:36- 40).[1] Love is caritas, charity, and so when we speak spiritually of charity, we are speaking of such love. Love, and the lack of such love in society, is truly the preeminent issue which lies before us, for it is love which should form the center of all moral action, and it is the lack of such love which destroys and leads to ruin.

To limit ourselves to one aspect of love, or one aspect of where such love is lost, will lead to grave distortions of the faith, which in turn, will lead to great evil. This is why Pope Francis wanted to make it clear, we can’t pick and choose one such concern, and demand it to be the sole focus of all Christians, especially if what we focus on can be said to be the symptom of a greater problem:

The other harmful ideological error is found in those who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist. Or they relativize it, as if there are other more important matters, or the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend. Our defence of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection. We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.[2]

When we try to deal with social problems while ignoring the foundations for those problems, it is like we are building a structure upon sand. Obviously, what we will do will not last. We must always be wise in our actions, taking care to deal with those concerns which we have an ability to properly change for the better, but also to deal with those which are of the most pressing, most immediate concerns. Those with political authority, likewise, then must follow suit, doing what they can for the common good, making sure every person is capable of achieving their full potential: “To this end, a sane view of the common good must be present and operative in men invested with public authority. They must take account of all those social conditions which favor the full development of human personality.”[3]

Thus, if the whole world risks destruction, that affects everyone and should be considered a preeminent concern; if it is shown we can do something to ward off the doom which the word faces, that likewise shows it must not only be a concern but something which we must actively pursue. Other issues, which do not get in the way of that concern, can be worked on side by side with the prevention of the destruction of the earth itself. But if we want to center ourselves on issues which we can hardly change, and focus our work on them in ways which will not fix the problem, we truly are like fools going around in circles thinking we will finally end up at a new place.

Sadly, we often try to deal with issues which we cannot fix and use that to justify acting on those things which we can. We think we do not sin by doing this, but this is not the case. Christians should recognize all their sins, including and especially those sins which come from omission:

There are two kinds of injustice: one, whereby we inflict injuries; the other, whereby we neglect to avert those inflicted on others when we can. For in a certain sense we ourselves are oppressors when we scorn the downtrodden though we are able to defend them from oppression. Nor does it avail me anything that I do not circumvent or deceive a man if I permit him to be deceived or circumvented. [4]

When social justice, when charity, is lacking, or when avarice is on the rise, or when any other of the deadly sins becomes prevalent in society and approved by Christians, Christians have set the stage for their own destruction. They might act pious and go ask God to forgive them their sins, but they do so with a caveat: never looking to change their ways as they continue their sins of omission. “I don’t commit adultery,” doesn’t mean one has not helped the rape of many people by depriving them of their own needs (or considering their needs to be of secondary importance).[5]  St. Salvian warns us that we risk further evil if we treat the faith in this fashion:

It is a new kind of monstrous deed that men constantly do what they lament having done, and that they enter the house of God to weep for their old sins and then go out [and commit new ones]. Why do I say they go out? They are setting their crimes in motion in the midst of their prayers and supplications. While their lips do one thing, their hearts do another. While they bewail their past evils with words, they are meditating future evils, and thus their prayers are originators of crime rather than winners of pardon by entreaty.[6]

We, therefore, often harm ourselves, pretending piety, pleading to God for our own mercy while at the same time we think little about the needs of others and the mercy which we should be showing them. We justify ourselves by the way we classify sins, thinking that even if we sin by omission, it is not a terrible sin: but that is not what the Christian faith teaches. Jesus said that those who did not help the poor and needy will be told to depart from him (cf, Matt. 25:41-43).

It is imperative that we stop trying to divide morality, finding those elements which we label as “most important” so as to avoid dealing with those issues which we can and should work upon. It is a sleight of hand which tries to turn our focus away from the fullness of the good by focusing on a partial, and therefore, lesser good. It is founded upon a sliver of the truth, but it is not the fulness of the truth. And because the good has been lessened, and the fullness of the truth has been overshadowed, the Christian response must always be to fix the imbalance and return everyone to the fullness of the good and the truth which has been lost. Those who fight back against such a restoration of justice must be opposed lest they lead many people to ruin. If someone will fight against such justice in the name of Christianity, then, sadly, they give reasons for critics of Christianity to reject the Christian faith because such critics will not think Christianity is about the good and the truth but some superficial piety which does no one any good. Thus, not only is it necessary to act in accordance with the dictates of social justice found in Scripture and tradition, it is important to correct those who would denounce such activity in the name of Christ, if we want people to know truly what Christianity is about.

[1] Pope Benedict XVI. Caritas in veritate. Vatican translation. ¶2.

[2] Pope Francis, Gaudete et exsultate. Vatican translation. ¶101.

[3] St. John XXIII. Mater et Magistra. Vatican translation. ¶65.

[4] Julianus Pomerius, The Contemplative Life. Trans. Mary Josephine Suelzer, PhD (Westminster, MD: The Newman Bookshop, 1947), 149-50.

[5] “We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children. Can we not realize that this is exactly what Jesus demands of us, when he tells us that in welcoming the stranger we welcome him (cf. Mt 25:35)? Saint Benedict did so readily, and though it might have “complicated” the life of his monks, he ordered that all guests who knocked at the monastery door be welcomed ‘like Christ’, with a gesture of veneration; the poor and pilgrims were to be met with ‘the greatest care and solicitude.'”

— Pope Francis, Gaudete et exsultate,  ¶102.

[6] Salvian the Presbyter, “The Governance of God” in The Writings of Salvian the Presbyter. Trans. Jeremiah F. O’Sullivan (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1962), 85.


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