Thursday, August 16, 2007

Criticism and Self-Boasting

A Protestant church we pass on our way to Mass always has a new message on its sign. I suppose the messages have to do with the weekly sermon, but unlike similar signs I've seen this church's sign doesn't usually have a Scripture quote on it; instead, the messages seem more general, such as words of hope or encouragement, words about faith and trust, or words designed to cause reflection or to promote conversation.

Recently, the sign's message was "Criticism is just another form of self-boasting." I have to admit it; that one caught my attention.

My first impulse was to reject it altogether. Criticism, like judgment, gets a bad rap some of the time. I can't even count the times the quote "Judge not, lest ye be judged," has been used as a weapon to end all discussion of the world's ills, or to stifle the truth about the quoter's own moral situation or desire for liturgical experimentation, or, in some cases, to disguise the quoter's unabashed hostility toward ancient and traditional understandings of these sorts of things.

The kind of judgment which is forbidden to Christians is rash judgment. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks about rash judgment this way:

"He becomes guilty:

- of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor... (CCC 2477)

"To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor's thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another's statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.279 (CCC 2478)

While the Catechism makes it clear that we are not to jump to conclusions about the morality of our neighbors' deeds, actions, words, living situations and the like, it is equally clear that it is not being judgmental to speak the truth in charity, especially when we actually know the situation. Thus, if a close friend or relative were to be living with another person without the benefit of marriage, but clearly living as a married couple and being quite open about this, it is not "judgment," rash or otherwise, to speak of our concern for their souls in this state. What would be rash judgment would be to assume that a single man whom we don't know well is living in sin simply because we've seen a woman enter his home or apartment; it is our positive duty to think the best unless we know otherwise (and how embarrassing for us would it be if we were to speak ill of him only to discover that the woman in question is his sister?).

So in thinking about the words on the sign, my first impulse was to consider whether all criticism is self-boasting, or whether only some is. It seems clear that there are forms of criticism which are perfectly legitimate and which have little to do with the self; I like to write, for instance, but it would be silly to say that any of the literary criticism I did as part of my college coursework was marked by an underlying desire to do better than the great authors whose works were being analyzed by the class. Similarly, an art critic who can't paint a simple triangle isn't forbidden from studying the great works of art and criticizing them according to the criteria he has learned for the proper judging of artistic merit. And even outside the realm of scholarly criticism, people may quite legitimately be critical of any number of things. Sending one's plate back at a restaurant is at least an implied criticism, but only very rarely, I suspect, is the customer insinuating that his or her cooking is superior to the restaurants'; he or she merely wishes the food to be prepared according to some minimal standard of acceptability, which may include actually cooking the food so that it has reached the proper temperature to achieve food safety.

Another area where legitimate criticism comes up quite frequently these days among Catholics is criticism of the Mass--not the Holy Sacrifice itself, of course, which is beyond our criticism, but the way in which the liturgy is conducted, the level of reverence shown by the priest and others, the attention to the details of the rubrics, the care with which things are done, and the strict adherence to the words of the prayers as they are written. I think that many of these things may properly be criticized, if the focus is on improving things in order that Our Lord will be better pleased with the worship we offer to Him, and for the good of the souls of those who attend the Mass. It's important to be careful, here, though. I once became annoyed with what I thought was an abuse, but research soon showed me that the "new innovation" was actually the correct way of doing things, and what I'd thought was correct has always been wrong!

In addition, sometimes a criticism isn't invalid, just impatient. When I wrote this post criticizing the way Confession was being done at my parish, I thought that our new pastor had had plenty of time to address the problem and solve it, so I was impatient that such a short time for Confession still remained the norm. In the past month, though, quietly and with no fanfare, Father changed the time of Confession to allow for a full hour of Confession before he has to leave to prepare for the 5 pm Saturday evening vigil Mass. A little more patience and understanding on my part was in order then, instead of my rush to criticism.

So what kind of criticism was the sign talking about, then?

I think we're all familiar with it. It's the kind that, if you're really trying to avoid it, will cause you to clamp a mental hand over your mouth before you can say, "Well, that's not the way I do things..."

It's the reflexive attitude we can develop that makes us believe that the way we live our daily lives is the absolute best way that anyone can. It's the desire to impose our non-essential standards on everyone around us, and to insist that only this way, and no other, is Christian living really possible. It's the tendency we all have to play spiritual oneupmanship with other Catholic families, an attitude I once heard spoken of as, "I'll see you that daily Mass, and raise you one decade of the Rosary!" "I'll see you that decade, and raise you four more!" "Ha! I'll match the daily Mass and Rosary, and raise you a Divine Mercy Chaplet and an hour of Perpetual Adoration!" "I'll see all of that, and raise you evening prayers sung in the chapel addition we just finished building on to our house!" etc.

That kind of criticism, the kind that sets ourselves up as a kind of private Magisterium and looks down on the sincere efforts toward holy Christian living as practiced by others really is a kind of self-boasting. While there is nothing wrong with offering kind advice and suggestions to those who ask for them, there is danger in believing that we, and only we, know the right path to Heaven as that applies to daily living. The person who humbly and gratefully prays a single decade of the rosary each day may be closer to holiness than the person who prides himself on saying all twenty decades daily, the operative words, of course, being "prides himself."


Anonymous said...

Well said Red! (You'd think I could get more creative than that in my comments huh?)

Truly I liked what you wrote and it really makes sense. I see this a lot in catholic circles and I am sure I have been guilty of it myself. As I have gotten older it seems i have found it easier to avoid this kind of thinking and I guess that just part of having experience and realizing what is and isn't essential. Still, it can be a temptation.

There - that was better wasn't it?

Like I wrote above - well said Red. ;-)

freddy said...

Ahh, the good old "Magesterium of the Family!" (love the way you put that, Red!) Yup, a snare I've fallen into myself a time or two. The attitude of, "Thank you God, that I'm not like that poor tax collector" always seems to creep in when persuing more of a "spiritual resume" rather than thinking of what will please God.