Many are familiar with the various statistics that suggest we are exposed to more information in a week, month, and year than our ancestors encountered in a lifetime. Whatever the exact amount is doesn’t matter—we are utterly swamped with data. Even those of us who guard our eyes from the sordidness of the secular media fight an avalanche of Pious Material. We see more articles, prayers, devotions, and good books in a week than we could possibly read or pray in a year—and our very best year, at that! It takes sobriety and maturity to say: “I have the prayers I need for now, my novena meter is pegged, and I’m going to chew on one topic for a few weeks until I make some sense of it.”
But the more important point is that sometimes our primary locus of love and action is quite close to home. We have our families, our parishes, our communities, and maybe a little outreach. And in each of those circles, we ponder deeply how to act, when to respond, what to say, and how best to love. Especially the last. We want to love sincerely, and we want the extension of ourselves—whether spiritual or material—to be channels of grace. That means each action must be worthy.
Last month, I found myself mulling one particular papal press conference with great discomfort. In the aftermath, many Catholic commentators hashed out what, exactly, was meant by his comments about Catholic “fundamentalists” —and with good reason. The language was imprecise and the point was dangerously myopic. But it was the answer to the question he was asked about condom use that really bothered me. I know many called it a “gotcha” question, and said that the pope outmaneuvered the press. Maybe. But he may have been too clever, because the takeaway that I’ve been contemplating overruns the risk of undermining all the tired, harassed, or well-meaning people of limited influence—those who are just hoping to get the little details right.
Here’s the part that could be so very easily misunderstood:
This question [about whether those who have AIDS may use condoms], “is doing this lawful,” … but malnutrition, the development of the person, slave labor, the lack of drinking water, these are the problems.
Let’s not talk about if one can use this type of patch or that for a small wound, the serious wound is social injustice, environmental injustice, injustice that…I don’t like to go down to reflections on such case studies when people die due to a lack of water, hunger, environment…when all are cured, when there aren’t these illnesses, tragedies, that man makes, whether for social injustice or to earn more money, I think of the trafficking of arms, when these problems are no longer there, I think we can ask the question “is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”
Because, if the trafficking of arms continues, wars are the biggest cause of mortality…I would say not to think about whether it’s lawful or not to heal on the Sabbath, I would say to humanity: “make justice,” and when all are cured, when there is no more injustice, we can talk about the Sabbath.
It was a “stream of consciousness” answer, which doesn’t lend itself to coherency. That said, it is entirely possible — and even likely — that a person could only come away after reading it with the very last point. Just as the context of a previous interview left us with the quip, “Who am I to judge?”, we may just encounter any number of versions that boil down to, “Don’t sweat the details, there are bigger fish to fry.”
Yes, there are staggering numbers of refugees, a plethora of addictions, and an explosion of homelessness. There’s domestic violence, sex trafficking, and honor killings. There are starving children all over the world. We could find enough intentions to keep us on our knees for days—but ultimately each of us is called to love and act in a very small sphere.
Christ has redeemed this enormous broken world, and left us a particular task within it. The beautiful thing is that our small actions united to the Blood of Christ become infinite. As Therese of Lisieux put it, “I can pick up a pin for love of Jesus and save souls.” Therein is our peace. We don’t have to do those big things beyond our strength and influence. We simply need to do our own tasks well, but they need to be worthy.
The Holy Father’s answer could so easily be understood in strictly material terms, because no matter what he intended, the bulk of his audience thinks that way. To presume that injustice on a grand scale and right action on small scale are at odds is to gravely misunderstand God. And to imagine that the Church thinks that sin (or our response to it) is materially calibrated to statistics is monstrously wrong. Despite Jesus’ clear teaching that a shepherd ought to leave the ninety-nine sheep to find the one that was lost, his adversary responded with the chilling proposal that it’s better that one man die than a whole nation perish. Statistics are tricky things.
Not only can overwhelming problems tempt us to ignore essential details, but many quiet sins are defended in the name of public peace—and economy. The scales of divine justice are not commensurate with those of the world, and our society is crumbling under the weight of such calculations.
The value of a just action is beyond measure. Saint Paul wrote “Even as I write, I am glad of my sufferings on your behalf, as, in this mortal frame of mine, I help to pay off the debt which the afflictions of Christ still leave to be paid, for the sake of his body, the Church” (Col 1:24). The Apostle knew how small those sufferings were compared to the misery of the world, but he also knew that every little choice mattered. Our faith teaches us that proportionally, it’s the love of God in our prayers and the devotion attached to our works that matter, and that means they have to be worthy.
Heaven forfend that anyone would misconstrue this important truth for the sake of material priorities and expedient ends. We must attend to the corporal works of mercy, despite realizing that “you have the poor among you always” (Jn 12:8). For if anyone took the Pope’s words to heart, it would effectively silence all discussion of difficult ethics—forever. Quel désastre!