Years ago, I got into an intense theological exchange with a fellow student just before one of my graduate classes. I was more or less oblivious to the people around me, to the demands of the classroom, or to time. I was only focused on the discussion. Finally, the professor herself walked out of the room. “Let me know when you’re ready to begin class,” she said. In a flash, I came back to reality deeply embarrassed. How could I be such a jerk?
The experience got me thinking. What made me act this way? I could see that my behavior was rude and insensitive. However important my discussion, it was not as important as the people around me. But worse, I began to realize that I tolerated a degree of boorishness in religion that I would never tolerate in sports, politics, entertainment, or any other realm of human behavior. My faith (not yet a Catholic) was literally making me an obnoxious person. This bothered me a good deal. I asked myself, “Why?”
At the time, I was a non-Catholic Christian who believed firmly that salvation comes “by faith alone.” I worshiped in churches that placed a high value on evangelism, but for whom evangelism meant, in large measure, making people think like us. (A logical consequence of our doctrine of salvation.) We also emphasized a “personal relationship with Jesus.” But, again this basically meant having affecting and private experiences in prayer. It did not necessarily translate into kindness or love extended to others.
Gradually, I began to see how my almost exclusive interest in dogma-for-its-own-sake and on private religious experience could hardly fail to produce an inconsiderate, self-regarding boor. Hardly a model of love and holiness! So, I started to question the relationship (or lack thereof) between my theology and the life of virtue. I also noticed that many of my theological heroes (Martin Luther, John Calvin) suffered from my same vices. The original Protestant Reformers were known as great polemicists, debaters, and propagandists. They were not known for being deeply charitable.
These realizations began nudging me towards the Catholic Church. The Church teaches that faith is essential to salvation, but it is only the beginning of eternal life, not its consummation. To save, faith must be “working through charity.” This faith, which we receive from the Church, is not inert. In the encyclical Lumen Fidei, the Pope writes, “Faith in Christ brings salvation because in him our lives become radically open to a love that precedes us, a love that transforms us from within, acting in us and through us.” Likewise, the Church teaches that dogma is essential to our spiritual life. But dogma is not an end in itself. The Catechism says “Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure.”(CCC 89)
In my case, Protestant theology was a stumbling block to the life of charity. Thus, I turned to the Catholic Church hoping for more than new information. I needed a renewal of my moral and spiritual life through grace and the sacraments. But Catholics, too, can make many of my same mistakes. In his classic Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales warns about the kind of Catholic who makes the elements of devotion into ends in themselves. “All these people are conventionally called religious,” he writes, “but nevertheless they are in no true sense really devout.” “In order to be good,” he adds “a man must be filled with love, and to be devout, he must further be very ready and apt to perform the deeds of love. And forasmuch as devotion consists in a high degree of real love.”
As I read him, Pope Francis is also deeply concerned about this kind of faith. In his recent document Evangelii Gaudium, the Pope seemed to be writing directly to my past experience when he spoke of “a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings.” Such a life, the Pope says, “is nothing less than slow suicide.” Similarly, the Pope warns against an evangelism in which we make ourselves out to be “grandees who look down upon others.” The Pope writes, “we are told to give reasons for our hope, but not as an enemy who critiques and condemns. We are told quite clearly: ‘do so with gentleness and reverence.’” (1 Pet 3:15)
I can appreciate this warning. I remember one time I was in a religious argument with a non-believer. I felt that I had won the “debate,” but I lost moral victory. To all my fine reasoning, my friend said simply, “But, David, I just don’t like Christians.” Ouch!
Last Friday, we celebrated the Feast of St. Francis de Sales. He was one of the greatest missionaries in Catholic history. He wrote powerfully in defense of the Catholic faith and of the Council of Trent. He attacked false doctrine, and led literally thousands of Protestants back to the Church. But he was also the author of Introduction to the Devout Life and The Treatise of the Love of God. He knew that all the trappings of dogma and devotion are worthless if we fail in the most crucial thing: Love God, and Love People.