To avoid the biggest charge against me when I say the sorts of things I'm about to say, the things that anger people, let me admit that I am a sinner. I am not judging others. I am not saying I get this right and you don't. In fact, were I not guilty myself of the very things I see and write about in you, dear reader, and in others, I would not have the insight about these things that I do.
But salvation is not by technique. Salvation is not by gimmick. Salvation is not by getting your time card punched. I need to learn that lesson as much as you do, but perhaps you do indeed need to learn it.
In my last post I quoted a priest who made the ridiculous assertion that the technique of NFP (Natural Family Planning) is, in effect, a sacramental - but more than a sacramental. Fr. Hogan claims that "NFP then builds a respect for human life." This is very surprising, as NFP consists of an awkward and elaborate system of taking basal temperature, analyzing vaginal mucus, and examining the thickness of the cervix. If he means, however, that periodic continence builds respect for human life, it has been my experience that periodic continence can be used as a kind of penance, and that it certainly builds a desire for sex, but that it is hardly the sort of thing that builds respect for human life, simply by virtue of its being practiced - magically, as it were. With God's grace, prayer and mortification, over the long haul, and with the proper interior disposition periodic continence may in fact build respect for human life, or build chastity or any other virtue, but it no more does that automatically than abstaining from meat on Fridays builds compassion for the poor - or does anything other than make you hungry for meat on Fridays. The only automatic and guaranteed result that goes with practicing any kind of technique is the initial one of frustration in trying to practice it. Beyond that, technique alone does not have any automatic consequences, for all techniques, helpful though they may be, are mere externals.
But the error is not Fr. Hogan's, even though he insists that those who pay to take NFP classes and who practice the thermometer-mucus-cervix technique are blessed with the charism of infallible discernment on matters of family planning - they always judge properly the question of whether or not they should take the chance of having more children, and they always answer the question, "Should we separate sex from babies this month?" with a correct answer (whether that answer is yes or no) by definition as NFP practitioners - they always do this, simply because the technique itself transfers the grace of infallible discernment to them automatically. Bad as this error is (or, more correctly, shameful as this sales pitch is), the real error is with Devout Catholics who believe that any external act is a substitute for internal transformation.
As an actor I've learned that the externals - mimicry and stage technique - only go so far. They sometimes help you to portray a character more genuinely from the inside out, but often they don't; often they can be mere substitutes for that. With living the Faith, which is a serious business as opposed to acting on stage, which is trivial business, externals or sacramentals are only helpful in so far as they facilitate a new life in the believer; it is from that new life that virtue springs. Even the sacraments themselves (which do automatically convey grace) can be abused by us sinners who tend to use them superficially as mere externals, not allowing the grace to operate in our hearts. Thus, going to Mass will no more automatically make you a better Catholic than watching the game on Sunday will make you a better football player. Going to Mass will indeed convey grace, but that grace becomes operant only when we cooperate with it, in our muddled, imperfect and hesitant way; only when we die to self and live to Christ.
The great and insidious threat, the primary threat, to our dying to self and living to Christ is this pride, this notion that since we're Devout Catholics, since we march under the banner and avail ourselves of the externals, we are therefore holy. This is the great lie, and I see it everywhere I look in Super Catholic circles. Thus ...
- Christopher West is able to tell his followers that if they buy into his program, they need not practice custody of the eyes. If you follow the Pop-Theology of the Body you have thereby achieved mature purity, and you are henceforth unable to look at a naked body lustfully, even (apparently) if you gape at them regularly on your smart phone.
- Some Catholics who are vehemently anti-abortion begin to feel that they can ignore Church teaching on Torture, Lying, Just War and the Poor, since the proof of their sanctity is the baby feet pin on their lapels. God bless them for being pro life, God have mercy on them for using that as a means of blocking the further conveyance of His grace.
- Some Devout Catholics are contemptuous of those outside the subculture and pride themselves in their ability to shut out real life with various walls and barriers - as with the Barrier Method of contraception, so with many Devout Catholics; nothing seminal gets in and they become smug in their faux-sanctity. In the same way that Hipsters and others believe that fashion and externals like music playlists and brand name products define a person's character, so many Devout Catholics believe that the trappings of the Super Catholic Club validate you as an individual: Latin, various devotions (most from the 19th century), going to one of the dozen seriously Catholic U.S. colleges (whether or not the college is any good), a lifetime devotion to NFP (even if used as a de facto substitute for contraception), and sometimes things as bizarre as whole foods, multi-level marketing programs and even yoga - all these are for some mistaken people the trappings that prove that you're a Good Catholic and the rest of the world is headed for hell. Of course we pity them, those outside our incestuous little club, we pity them with a benign smile and a supercilious nod, but they don't have the fashion sense that we do - just look at these mantillas.
Well, a friend of mine keeps telling me to "leave these people alone", but most bishops and many priests and deacons have given up on attempting any kind of fraternal correction, leaving it to miserable sinners like myself to write on blogs and hope some good comes out of it, while many of our readers keep telling us we're judgmental Pharisees and we need to go to confession. So be it.
I'm not getting this stuff right myself. But I repent that I'm not and pray that I might. What I try not to do is become smug and certain that everything I do is good because I'm holy, or at least holier than thou.