My thoughts and reflections on my Catholic Faith, Fulton Sheen, the problem of suffering, and books

Thursday, July 26, 2012

On Being Catholic, Part II: "The Law of Love"

What do I mean when I call myself "Catholic"?  Am I a "good Catholic," or a "bad Catholic"?  Does being a "good Catholic" require me to consciously think about the infallibility of the Pope, or the Immaculate Conception, or the evil of contraception, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week?  Does being Catholic give me a masochistic idea of the value of suffering, an idea that leads me to just passively accept suffering?

I would argue that the minimal definition of a "good Catholic," (what some people refer to as a "practicing Catholic") is someone who follows the Precepts of the Church: he goes to Mass on Sundays and holydays of obligation (58 times a year), abstains on the days required (the 7 Fridays of Lent), fasts on the days required (2 days a year: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday), goes to confession at least once a year if conscious of grave sin (and how many are conscious of "grave sin" these days?), receives Holy Communion during the Easter Season, contributes (grudgingly or not-so grudgingly) to the collection basket on the days that he does go to Mass, and observes the laws of the Church concerning marriage.   In addition, I don't see how you can call yourself "Catholic" and support abortion, euthanasia, homosexual "marriage," etc.

The minimal definition of a "bad Catholic" is what people refer to as a "non-practicing" or "fallen-away" Catholic: someone who goes to Mass only on Easter Sunday and Christmas Day, with maybe Ash Wednesday thrown in there so he can show off his Catholicism, or Mother's Day to make his mother happy.  (I found that last fun tidbit about Mother's Day in Wikipedia's article Lapsed Catholic).

But these minimal definitions are not enough.  If you're only following the minimum, if you're always trying to see how much you can get away with, how far you can go before committing a mortal sin, then you are not a "good Catholic."

Fulton Sheen brings this out in his talk "The Law of Love: Total Commitment."  (The transcript of the talk was published in "Your Life is Worth Living" and can be found online at Scribd, but it is not a literal transcript, therefore the following quotes are from Hurt-ey who is listening to the talk.)  Sheen says:
This is another way of putting the difference between commandments and love. “Commandments only restrain me.”  We see them as hurdles and obstacles in the way of life. Those who live by the Commandments ask, “How far can I go?”   “What is the limit?”  “How close can I get to the abyss without tumbling in?”  “Is it a mortal sin?”     This is not the way of love; it is not the way of peace.   It is the old Adam that is within me that talks this way about commands.  So when I merely obey commands I am never there as a whole person, but perhaps at most only with the better half of myself, and the other half remains in opposition.   That’s the psychological state of everyone who obeys a command: never the whole heart.   But when I love, I am a whole person, for love is a movement of my whole self; it’s an overflowing limitless giving of oneself; therefore, it can never be commanded; it can only happen. 
If I'm only doing the minimum, if I'm constantly asking "How far can I go before XYZ becomes a mortal sin?" then I am not a "good Catholic."  If I'm viewing my Faith only as a set of rules and restrictions that I have to follow because otherwise I'll go to Hell, then I am not a "good Catholic.   I may call myself Catholic, but I'm not truly living my Faith.

If I am really living my Faith, if I want to deserve the epithet "good Catholic" (although in a sense it's something you can never "deserve" because the Faith is a grace, a gift from God), then I have to go beyond the minimum that I tried to outline above.  But I won't see going beyond that minimum as an imposition or a pain, because if I'm really living the Faith, I'm living it in love.

So, how am I really going to live up to the name "Catholic" that I claim for myself, how am I going to live my Faith not just as a set of rules and restrictions but as an act of love?

Well, I have to love.  This is not the time or place for a discussion of what "love" means or the idea put forward by some that "willing the good for another" seems to be too vague a definition of love (although Joseph Pieper explains that well in his book On Love); so instead I shall look at whom I need to love and how I need to love them.

Whom do I have to love?   Well, what did Our Blessed Lord say?
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind.  This is the greatest and the first commandment.  And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.  On these two commandments dependeth the whole law and the prophets. (Mt. 22:37-40, Douay-Rheims version.)
How can I live this love of God and of neighbor concretely, right now, in my current situation as a jobless college graduate with nothing to do and entirely too much time on her hands?

Love of God.  Obeying the Commandments not because I "have to," but because I love Him, because I know that obeying His Will is the only thing that will make me truly happy.  Loving Him not just abstractly and theoretically, but--and this makes Hurt-ey's practical-minded self very happy--concretely, "practically," in concrete words and deeds and thoughts.  Right now, that's going to mean being faithful to my morning and evening prayers.   Setting aside some time each day to read the Word of God, in the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: New Testament that my Theology Professor gave me as a Graduation present.  Reminding myself that I am in His presence all the time, that I can turn to Him and tell Him I love Him and tell Him I need His grace to love Him more, any hour of the day or night.

Love of neighbor.  Listening to my friends when they need to vent, not gossiping, giving a backrub to a friend who's stressed after a long day of job-hunting, praying for my friends.

The next post from the Theological-Librarian will discuss love of neighbor as being a "sin-bearer," again through the lens of the Venerable Fulton Sheen's talk.

God Love you!

Yours in all things Theological and in love of VENERABLE Fulton Sheen,


  1. I think the "good/bad" disctinction can often be a harmful way to talk about the faith. "Practicing/non-practicing" makes more sense to me. There are very few truly good Catholics. When they appear, we laud them from the pulpits and chair them through the streets (a prime example being Sheen). The rest of us are all "bad Catholics" in some way or another, aren't we? The Catholic Church is unique insofar as it's designed *for* sinners, it does not boot people for being sinful. I'm put in mind of a quote from Oscar Wilde: "The Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone. For respectable people, the Anglican Church will do."

    1. Very good point! Thanks for reminding me of the fact (which Sheen also makes) of the Church being designed *for* sinners.