As Catholics it is understandable that we often find ourselves taking a defensive position. We’re the weirdos who pour water on our newborns, smear ashes on our foreheads, and worship a Jewish carpenter executed for sedition two thousand years ago. At times we’re handy for our aesthetic appeal when filmmakers want to capitalize on the numinosity of liturgy or the carnivalesque of festivals. At other times we are dangerous revolutionaries standing against the violence of earthly powers. (But often, to be honest, we’re rather a nuisance).
I don’t want to criticize defensiveness per se: it is a human instinct, probably neutral in itself, ethically noble when expressed in movements for peace and justice, ethically suspect when connected with tribalism or xenophobia. Refusal to use violence is part of our Christian code, but this need not entail refusal to defend ourselves: to assume this is to succumb to the dangerous radical altruism promoted by Auguste Comte and deconstructed by Max Scheler: “For the Christian conception of love, devotion to one’s fellow man merely because he is the ‘other’ is as false and misplaced as the liberal-individualistic idea that we best serve the whole and the community by perfecting ourselves” (Scheler, Ressentiment).
An utter negation of self-defense ends up being yet another form of nihilism.
But in our present political climate, we sometimes take it too far. Constantly on the alert for another way the media might misrepresent us, or corporate powers disrespect us, we forget that the necessary balancing pole of healthy self-love is the obligation of charity, especially when it comes to the preferential option for the poor. And the preferential option for the poor is not simply about movement of material goods; it’s about our moral focus.
In the present conversations about the health crisis in Brazil – whether associated with the Zika virus, or with chemical larvicides – we are being distracted from the pressing reality that calls to us, if we turn our focus towards our own desires about what Pope Francis may or may not have meant. I’m a relatively healthy woman in the developed world, with access to a relatively clean eco-system and relatively reliable medical care, in a culture which generally frowns on marital rape. Solutions to the difficulties faced by women in vastly different situations probably don’t have a lot to do with me. If our response to this situation is to fret about progressives manufacturing a crisis, or worry that our own righteousness is being dismissed, or anticipate a development in doctrine that will be convenient for us, we’re missing the point.
The opposite extreme of altruistic nihilism is spiritual narcissism.
Yet once we turn our gaze from ourselves, and look to the global situation – the needs of refugees, the rise of radical fundamentalism, the scourge of sex trafficking – we may experience a terrible helplessness. But this terrible helplessness should be a good starting point for asking: what can I do? This is the better way of making it about ourselves.
I’ve been trying to research how to help the women in Brazil, but much that I’ve found seems inconclusive, if there’s still uncertainty about the cause of the defects – but then, I’m not a health expert. We do know that we can help refugees – and here are some links to reliable charitable organizations.
If you are reading this, and decide to share it, please add any information you may have about reliable and immediate material ways we can help the women in Brazil.
Pax et bonum