Is “Openness” a Virtue?
Is “Openness” a Virtue?
By John Mallon
Have you been insulted lately for your Catholic beliefs? It is good exercise. Especially if it comes from another Catholic. What kind of insults? Oh, you know, being called “narrow” “small-minded” “fundamentalist,” or replied to with, “So, you think you’ve got all the answers, huh?” etc. The stereotype is that someone who believes what the Church teaches is somehow “sheltered” “repressed” a “blind follower” who is incapable of independent or critical thought, ...and so on. It is curious. If you put a believer in a room with an agnostic it is likely that our modern culture would judge the agnostic as the more “open” of the two.
And it may be true. But is that bad? I am familiar with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, and the cardinal virtues of prudence, temperence, chastity, justice, but I don’t recall seeing “openness” among them. When we exault “openness” what god are we bowing before?
“Openness” is a secular virtue. As the lay Catholic evangelist Ralph Martin once observed, there is a great nobility attatched to being a seeker of truth in our society, but an open hostility towards finding it. As Catholics, we believe there is such a thing as objective truth which exists independent of our feelings or inclinations. We believe that truth has been revealed to us. One cannot hold something to be true and also hold beliefs contradictory to that truth.
Contrary to the old anti-Catholic cliché that Catholics are expected to be spoon-fed their beliefs and accept them blindly, it has always been a duty for Catholics to know and understand their faith. But, to approach the question with an attitude of “I’m right, the Church is wrong” is sheer hubris. Do we really think we know “better” than twenty centuries of collected pastoral and theological wisdom and tradition? If so, that’s just plain arrogance.
If we don’t believe that the fullness of truth subsists in the Roman Catholic Church (as Vatican II teaches) why be a Roman Catholic? Is it even honest? But a Catholic knows (or ought to know) the Truth is a Person: Jesus Christ—and the Roman Catholic Church is Christ continued in time via the Holy Spirit.
Some people think the Catholic Church should be more conciliatory with the Zeitgeist—the spirit of the times. God forbid! Watch a half hour of prime time network TV and you’d see what a nightmare that would be! (Someone from outer space watching American TV would think all we do is murder and fornicate—I wonder what that says about our national subconscious...)
No, the Church cannot conform to the spirit of the times, because Christ didn’t. When a group of disciples dissented and left Jesus after He spoke prophetically about the Eucharist in Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, Jesus didn’t say, “Hey fellas! Wait up! You didn’t understand! Let’s dialogue and share and arrive at a concensus!” No, He let them go.
He merely looked at the twelve and said, “Are you leaving too?” And we see wisdom beginning to dawn on the otherwise rash St. Peter: “Where are we to go, Lord? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter knew the truth. He knew Jesus. And He knew Jesus was the Lord. “No mere man has revealed this to you Simon Peter, but My Father in Heaven.”
There lies the distinction. Peter knew the truth, because he knew Jesus. That doesn’t mean he understood the truth completely—God knows Jesus was (and still is) a constant source of bafflement to his disciples—they never knew what He would do next. Like any person, especially someone we love, Jesus is a knowable but unfathomable mystery, and through baptism we, the Church, are part of Him. As Jesus has said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father. The Father and I are one.” He also said to St. Paul, who was on his way to Damascus to persecute the Church, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? ” (Emphasis mine.)
So what is all this leading up to? Simply this: the next time someone smugly accuses you of being smug because you place your trust in the Teaching Office of the Church, and because you also happen to agree with the Church—perhaps from hard experience, prayer, study, and thought—especially on those questions on which our society deems itself “more compassionate” and “more just” than the Church—know that you are part of a tradition that goes all the way back to the hill of Calvary.
Jesus was not crucified because He was a nice guy, or fit in well with the prevailing viewpoints of His time, but because He spoke, was, and is the Truth to those more comfortable with “openness.” Certainly Pontius Pilate wished Jesus would be a little more “flexible.” Like modern culture, Pilate, half mockingly cried, “Truth? What is truth?” Jesus told him, in so many words, that it was Truth who stood before him. Jesus was not “politically correct.”
For a Catholic, the Faith is not a “viewpoint” but the Truth. Part and parcel of this faith of ours is that Jesus gave the Church the gift of His sure guidence through the Holy Spirit in giving Peter the Keys of the Kingdom. “He who hears you hears me” He told Peter and the twelve. Today, we Catholics believe this legacy subsists in the Pope and the bishops teaching in union with him. Again, if we don’t believe that, why bother being Catholic?
The heresy of indifferentism holds that all religions are equally good (or bad—depending on your “viewpoint”) and “it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re a good person.” Does this mean we don’t respect the beliefs of others? No, it means we believe our own. (Actually there are beliefs Catholics need not respect at all—such as the beliefs of satanists, or the beliefs of those who think it’s a woman’s right to kill the child in her womb—no, we don’t need to respect those beliefs at all. Our respect for persons does not require respect for their beliefs—in fact, it may require just the opposite. For example, we—the Church—are against abortion because we are for women—it is abortion that is against women—not to mention the child.)
“Openness” by itself means nothing. It is what we are open to that matters. For example, I ought not be open to the comeliness of my neighbor’s wife. I ought not be open to the impulse to shoot someone I don’t like, or to stick up a bank. If I am a Catholic I am not open to the sin of idolatry offered in “New Age” or occult practices. “Openness” is like that other missused word, “values”—a word used in modern parlance to avoid giving offence by referring to morality defined by a fixed reference point—namely God.
One does not have mere “values.” One values something or someone—an object or person. Hitler had “values.” And his values were certainly “clarified.” Too bad for the rest of the world they were bad values, deserving no respect whatsoever. This is what we end up with when we’re too “nice” to call a spade a spade, call good good and call evil evil: totalitarianism. Which is directly where our modern “openness” is taking us.
So, finally, who is more “open”? Those who hear the Lord knocking and let Him in, or those who decide not to decide? Who is more dogmatic? The one who places absolute faith in God, and trusts the guidance of the Church, or the one who claims that there are absolutely no absolutes?
G. K. Chesterton said an open mind is like an open mouth, good for only one thing: closing on something solid. Like the Real Food in the sixth chapter of John‘s Gospel. Consider what the rabbi said to the Senate hearing committee: “You guys are so open minded your brains fall out!”