Mistakes vs. Sin, Teachable Moments vs. Culture War

People often said dumb things to Jesus. Sometimes it was strangers, demanding dumb stuff like “Tell my brother to share the inheritance with me”. Sometimes it was disciples, asking whether now would be a good time to call down lightning on some enemies. Indeed, Jesus’ disciples were often amazingly dumb, driving mothers and kids away because who would bless these brats? Certainly not them, so surely Jesus wouldn’t either. Or asking, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Or commenting on Jesus’ warning to “Beware the leaven of the Pharisees” that “It is because we have no bread.”

Jesus’ patience with the ignorant and the dumb seems to be limitless, just so long as they mean well. Because he really does love us. His anger (and even that is ordered toward redemption) is reserved only for the wilfully malignant.

I mention this because last week somebody who clearly tries to do a great deal of what Jesus commends in terms of loving the least of these, said something dumb. And the responses to her mark the difference between a Catholic and a Qatholic outlook.

The person making the dumb remark was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In brief, she wandered around the Hall of Statues in the Capitol and remarked that statuary was dominated by whites. Her point–a perfectly reasonable one–was that the capitol of of a representative democracy should have statuary that represents all its people, not just the white ones.

Everything would have gone fine except that she made a critical mistake–mistake, mind you, not sin. For while she was remarking on the racism and colonialism the statuary represented, she pointed her camera at a statue of St. Damian of Molokai, one of the greatest saints to ever ornament the Church, the state of Hawaii, and the United States of America. He served the lepers of Molokai in the 19th century, living among one of the most forsaken people on earth and eventually becoming a leper himself.

There is zero evidence AOC bore the slightest hostility toward–or knowledge of–St. Damien. It was, at the very worst, an inept and awkward blunder made in the course of a legitimate and noble argument. A Catholic actually interested in catechesis and in building bridges would have leapt at this moment as a chance to tell St. Damien’s story to AOC–what with her being a Catholic who is clearly passionate about mercy and compassion for the least of these–and (as Priscilla and Aquila did with the partly ignorant but fully passionate Apollos) to “explain the way of God more adequately” so that she would both learn her faith a bit better and also do her honest and legitimate work of fighting racism better without laying herself open to attack.

Alas, almost no Catholic (with the exception of Simcha Fisher and a few others) thought to take that charitable approach.

Instead, as is nearly always the case, conservative media was filled with the cries of Qatholics who smelled blood in the water and massed for the attack.

It reminded me of the remark of Talleyrand, a man once described as “dung in a silk stocking” whose moral assessment of a situation was “It was worse than a sin: it was a mistake.”

In other words, the Qatholic response has not the slightest interest in AOC’s education or redemption or the common good she so clearly was seeking with her little Instagram. What they saw–the only thing they saw–was a chance to destroy a hated enemy. So the cry went up and the hounds spent a few days screaming the falsehood that AOC hates a great saint and is making war on the Church and all the rest of the BS the right wing lie machine is skilled at pumping out with its daily diet of Panics du Jour.

Catholics seek ways to bear witness to Christ even when they are sitting in a Philippian jail washing their bleeding wounds or nearly getting killed by a mob.

Qatholics seek ways to destroy people who are open to the teaching of the gospel if they pose any threat at all to the real object of their devotion, Donald Trump and his crime syndicate.

24 Responses

  1. First of all, I fully agree with your post. It seems to me that AOC wanted to avoid doubts about her sincerity. If she pointed at a non-Catholic, she would have been accused of partisanship. By pointing at a Catholic saint, she hoped to avoid that, only to be attacked by her own… Disgraceful.

    I didn’t hear about this incident, but I was wondering how to tackle the anger directed at protesters (or straight up hooligans) vandalizing statues of decent people who deserve to be commemorated, while at the same time agreeing that a lot of statues need to come down.

    I’m not going to defend Columbus, indeed I have pointed out that, in a way, he served his purpose, and perhaps doesn’t need to be honored with statues. But when statues of St. Junipero Serra are torn down, people tie themselves up in knots over this and buy into the narrative that the iconoclasts are a neo-Marxist revolution sweeping across the US.

    Every situation where a monument of an honorable person is torn down, it’s a good occasion to sit down and discuss what they did and why they deserve to have a statue in their honor. Some statues will stay down as they serve no purpose (whether good, like Columbus, or malignant, like Confederates), some will be re-erected as it is better understood why they’re honored.

    And I fully accept the possibility that some of these acts of vandalism were false flag operations or instigated by double agents. One of the very first statues to be vandalized with BLM slogans was of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who certainly did not deserve it. Another statue vandalized in the first week or two was that of 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, which is completely absurd.
    These attacks missed their target so much that they really felt like calculated actions to destroy the credibility of the BLM movement.

    1. Yesterday, I had a little exchange with a hyper conservative Christian who insisted that BLM was anti family. Thoughtfully provided me with a link to the website so that I could see it for myself. Unfortunately, he probably didn’t read it. What was really clear from the previous paragraph and the context of the comment he was pointing that was that BLM is very much pro family, not anti-family.

      I am very suspicious of anyone who tells me how pro family they are, since I can’t imagine anyone who is actually anti-family. I’ve certainly never met anyone in the last 50 years that I would describe as anti-family. Even I am not anti-family, just anti my family, becuase they are all crazy, and not in a lovable way.

      As Mark says, accusation is projection, and accusation is confession.

  2. Mark Shea, on dissenting pro-abortion Catholic AOC: be charitable because she “tries her best”

    Mark Shea on Calvinists, “I fled Calvinism when I first encounter Calvinists. Terrifying, cold, appalling people whose lived witness sickened and repelling me. Having vomited the first spoonful of rat poison, one does not beg to taste the rest of the banquet. Since that time, I have met Calvinists whose personal goodness overcame their loathsome theology. But Calvinism remains for me what it has always been: repellent.”

    1. Your comment is hilarious because I am pretty sure that it’s intended to somehow embarrass or shame Mark; however, all it actually does is state two positions he’s taken on topics which most decent people would find perfectly reasonable and commendable (Calvinism is a loathsome theology to most people who encounter it AND we should be charitable to people when they try their best).

      Re-read your comment without your ideological blinders on, and maybe you’ll grok how unintentionally complementary it actually is! LOL!!

      1. Mark, by his comments, shows that he doesn’t understand what Calvinism teaches. He also admits that he has never read Calvin or any major Calvinist thinker. Therefore he is no position to criticize Calvinism, much less consider it a loathsome theology.

        Since he doesn’t know what Calvinism teaches, he is likewise is no position to judge the “Calvinists” that he’s met. He can’t make an informed opinion on whether their alleged “appallingness” (so bad it made him want to vomit) has anything to do with their allegedly being Calvinists.

      2. BTW SteveG are you Deacon Steve? Does the Diocese of Newark believe that Calvinism is a “loathsome theology” and millions of your brothers in Christ are on a personal level comparable to vomit?

      3. You should really work on that reading comprehension. Nowhere does Mark (or SteveG agreeing with Mark) put people on the same level as vomit. And yes, i’m pretty sure that the Catholic Diocese of Newark would find Calvinism to be a loathsome theology seeing as it directly contradicts Catholic theology.

      4. Not Deacon Steve and no idea who that refers to.

        As for Calvinism and Calvinists, one doesn’t have to really understand something deeply to make the point that when one first encounters it, and people who profess to believe it, that they find it repellant. And while you may not agree with the assessment, he indeed has every right to make that judgement. It may be ill-informed on theological grounds (or not…I don’t pretend to speak for Mark), but it’s the impression that was made.

        I had a similar experience with traditionalist Catholics. They professed to believe certain things about Catholicism, and then most of the trads I encountered proceeded to behave like abominable people to the point that the taint of traditionalism became repellant to me.

        And none of what I write above means that were I to encounter either a traditionalist or a Calvinist (or anyone else), who I thought was trying their best to work towards a good, that I wouldn’t still think it right to be charitable to them were they to make a mistake in the process.

    2. I am curious as to why one must be ignorant of Calvinism to find it repellant: by contrast the more I learn if it, the worse it gets.

      1. Amen on this!

        I remember MANY years ago, being recommended some essays by RC Sproul. I honestly don’t remember much of the details now, but I do remember an impression of him as man of good will who wrote really well.

        The other memory was that no matter how much he sugar coated it, Calvinism seemed to me to get worse and worse the more I learned of it..

    3. @ joe

      So what you’re really saying is that there are some real a holes that are Christian, and some christians who are real a holes, despite what the Bible tells them in either case.

      In short, religion really doesn’t have much to do with the kind of person that you are. Quite the contrary. How people read the Bible depends on the kind of people they are.

      1. It was basically the realization of this when I was in college (during a time when I was most tempted to become nonreligious) that ended up keeping me Catholic.

    4. My experience with practicing Calvinists is that they are ardently cold and blocked to practicing Catholics. So much so that it is palpable.

  3. Did you know AOC is a science nerd? In 2007, as a high school senior, she won 2nd prize microbiology at the Intel ISEF.
    She has flaws, but neither ignorance nor stupidity are among them.

    1. Everyone is ignorant about something regardless of how smart one is.

      I think a problem here is that AOC really should have known better than to pick a saint as an example in this regard, as she surely should have known there would be backlash. That doesn’t mean that she hates or is attacking the Church – it just means she didn’t think of how easily this could have been used against her by her detractors (who I agree were wrong to act in the way they did – but honestly what did anyone expect?) .

      For better or worse, Republicans in the United States have convinced many people they are the party sympathetic to religion while Democrats are the party openly hostile to it – and I know many liberals who see it this way as well (only they think it’s a good thing). As a result, conservatives can criticize religious figures and get away with it more easily than liberals can – the situation stinks but I’d say it’s the reality we live under.

      1. Sure she made a mistake nobody should have to hound her about that, but she made no mistake when she argues that Catholic hospitals should be compelled to provide mutilation of human organs contrary to their biological backgrounds or else be punished and shut down by the police power of the state,and that is in addition to the piecemeal destruction of unborn child as well, I am all for your efforts in prayers and petitions to purge these demons in all of us, but she is running around openly and celebrating all of these destructive sinful abominations, and the response she and her rank offer is that we must comply or be punished, and all of my efforts to agree with her on minimum wage and racial equality haven’t done anything to change that I guess we’ll keep trying, these demons only come out by prayer and fasting, one sows and another one harvests

      2. @ vince

        It appears that despite what AOC believes to be public goods, Things that help other people and which you agree with…

        you are far morE concerned about controlling the behavior of trans people— people you don’t know. Clearly know nothing about, and whose needs and choices are nevertheless of such great concern to you that you ignore those public goods and call those people’s concerns evil…

        All based upon ignorance of trans people and what it is all about.

        You should get out more. Or perhaps do the hokey pokey, on the off chance that that is what it is all about

  4. I think this is also a good example of the way certain narratives are simplified down in an era where quick remarks on short videos is such a common method of communicating about very important topics. She was talking about the way images of white people dominate our society (a real problem), saw that Hawaii was represented by an image of a white person and remarked critically on that. The situation is more nuanced than that and it turned out to be a dumb example. (Actually, I and probably some other people still wouldn’t know who St. Damian is if not for AOC’s mistake, so thanks for that I guess! He’s amazing!)

    Reminds me of a very similar situation in which some people (often non-Catholics) criticize white people’s use of images of Our Lady of Guadalupe as an example of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is a real issue that warrants discussion and analysis! && just like other examples of our society using the Church’s aesthetics without respecting what they mean (think: celebrities wearing rosaries as necklaces), there are lots of white non-Catholics who wear clothing with Guadalupe’s image or have votive candles of her just because they like the look of something cool and Mexican, without understanding anything behind it, in the same way they might casually dress up as “a Mexican” for a “Drinko de Mayo” party. Loving and grabbing up the aesthetic without loving or understanding or respecting the people. It’s not cool in a lot of ways.

    But you can’t take that and distill it down to, “White people should stay away from Our Lady of Guadalupe.” It’s probably clear to everybody here why that’s ludicrous. I’d also love somebody to explain to my Mexican Catholic grandparents-in-law why it’s bad, actually, that I wear a small pendant with an image of Lupita on it (something they loved about me early on).

    Meanwhile we also can & should talk about what it means when white people have a devotion to Guadalupe while still supporting this administrations evil immigration policy, for instance; or the importance of remembering that she appeared to an indigenous Mexican, in the appearance of an indigenous woman, and that when she said “Are you not under my protection?” she was speaking to all of us but she was speaking to the Mexican indigenous peoples in a special way. But that’s a difficult conversation to have in our soundbyte/tweet/tiktok communications world. Even well-intentioned people are bound to say dumb stuff and make mistakes while trying to make good points.

  5. For the record, I contacted a person responsible for ecumenical dialogue on a catholic diocese wide level and showed him Mark’s statement on Calvinism and Calvinists. While he did not want his name published, he said that Mark’s comments were contrary to respectful ecumenical dialogue urged by the church.

    He referred me to the 1993 church document (approved by JP II) Principles and Norms on Ecumenism.

  6. Mark,

    According to the document I referenced, every diocese has its own ecumenical director. Why don’t you contact that person and ask if your comments are consistent with church teaching?

    One think I’m struck with is the harshness of your tone. I don’t know of a single religious group (Christian or otherwise) that I feel that way about (well, maybe Ayn Rand’s followers who all rub me the wrong way). If this is your view of a substantial group of fellow Christians, I’d hate to hear your views of Jews and Muslims.

    Another thing is that you don’t know what Calvinists believe and why they believe it. Maybe if you made the effort to understand Calvinism you might change your opinion of them. My opinion of my Mormon friends changed the more I learned about LDS teaching, although I still think it’s rather eccentric and un-Christian.

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