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Most readers of 4Marks can probably readily understand how great it
is to be a Catholic. That assumes we properly understand the Church —
her faith, her doctrines, and her traditions. Nevertheless, being an
active Catholic and trying to live out our Catholic faith is no Spring
picnic. But hey, no one ever said it would be easy. There is no simple
feel-good formula. It’s hard work on a narrow path.

The Faith affects every aspect of our lives, from love to money,
from vocation to vacation. Taken seriously it is, in effect, our
stairway to Heaven. But as we mount even those first few steps, we find
obstacles of one type or another. Those obstacles – also referred to as
temptations – owe their origins to three sources: the world, the flesh,
and the devil. These obstacles can and will present a fair amount of
discouragement throughout our lives. It is helpful then to recall that
no saint was without his or her moments of discouragement; many have
even been tempted to despair – the ultimate spiritual suicide. More
important than the spiritual discouragement, however, is how these
saints overcame it, how they refused to give in to despair.

Part and parcel of our struggle in living out our Christian lives is
the fact that there are going to be difficulties within the life of the
Church, not just with issues mainly external to the Church (e.g., war,
poverty, famine), but also with those things that are internal to the
life of the Church (e.g., the crisis of faith, ignorance, clerical
scandals, apostasy) – that which presents itself as “scandal.” We’d
often like to forget this, but the Church is made up of not only
saints, but of sinners. There’s a long history in the Church of those
who have not lived up to their call to holiness, and there always will
be. The easy path is a wide and crowded road.

When it comes to scandal in the Church, it is good to bear in mind
the important distinction between the Church herself and the
individuals who make up the Church. The Church is literally the
mystical body of Christ. It includes the Communion of Saints, and is
the manifestation of Jesus Christ in the world. So, it is not the
Church who errs, but individuals in the Church can and do fail in their
calling to be disciples of Christ. To be sure, when they fail, they
injure the Body of Christ. That doesn’t mean the Church is falling
apart or necessarily going in the wrong direction. It simply means that
we are being presented with scandal.

The word scandal,
by the way, literally means to place an obstacle in one’s path. It’s an
attitude or action that fosters the fall of another into sin. “Giving
scandal” is when one is guilty of such an attitude or action. “Taking
scandal,” on the other hand, is when one falls in response to an
offensive attitude or action by another. One avoids taking scandal by
not sinning regardless of what another person does or fails to do,
whether that person be parent, spouse, friend, religious, priest,
bishop, or (Heaven forbid) a pope. St. Francis de Sales spoke of
“giving scandal” as a form of spiritual murder and “taking scandal” as
a form of spiritual suicide. Christians obviously should avoid either.

So how do we avoid taking scandal? Again, it’s not easy. But here’s
a simple formula: We should realize that any scandal, however big,
doesn't change the foundation of our life as a Christian. The fact is
that the truth of the Catholic faith is that Jesus Christ is the same
today, yesterday, and forever. Nothing that we’ve seen or experienced
changes that. What we are seeing is merely what already exists. The
only thing that has happened — for us — is that we are now seeing
things that we did not see before. But, of course, they were already
there. We need to face these evils, acknowledge them for what they are,
and seek an ever deeper union with Christ in His Church. That’s how the
saints handled scandals—and believe me they’ve seen plenty throughout
the ages! Think of St. Joan of Arc, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa
of Avila, or St. John of the Cross just for starters.

Nevertheless, it’s easy, to react in inappropriate ways to scandal.
These reactions — for example, harboring suspicion of everyone, leaving
the Church, denouncing the innocent along with the guilty — these
reactions, although sometimes understandable considering how our human
emotions seem to work, are still improper. We often need time to think
through these scandals, and to deal with them in a spiritually and a
humanly-wise way, which means a fair amount of suffering is necessarily
involved. As Catholics, we should know there’s no way we can avoid
suffering if we’re truly living out our faith.

The remedy for dealing with the suffering and the reality of
scandals in the Church and in the world can be found in the Christian
virtue of fortitude. This is a gift of the Holy Spirit by which we
contend with evil. Christian fortitude, as St. Thomas Aquinas reminds
us, is shown quintessentially in contending with evil, not in
overcoming it, and not in fleeing from it. Fortitude is that virtue by
which we stand in the face of evil yet do not yield to cowardice and
flee, or yield to rashness in which we attack where we can’t possibly
win; neither do we yield to despair or despondency. We don’t yield to
wrath, but we stand resolutely and contend with it, and when the
opportunity presents itself, we ought certainly to conquer it if
possible. Now, that takes a lot of spiritual energy, and it takes
emotional and personal maturity not to become simply jaded, cynical,
angry, passive, withdrawn, or any of these kind of strategies that we
routinely employ in our life when we come up against things that we
don’t like, when we come up against that which we find offensive and
scandalous.

Obviously, life affords us many opportunities to exercise the virtue
of fortitude. So first, in exercising fortitude, we ought to “see
things as they are” and acknowledge them as such. In other words, don’t
practice avoidance or denial. Too often avoidance and denial exacerbate
the scandal. Remember too: Avoidance is the vanguard for denial.

It is only natural that many people want to run when there’s a
problem. We run from danger, and we run from those things which are
offensive to us. But Jesus said we have to embrace Him, and that means
embracing the Cross. Again, that translates into some suffering on our
part. So, if the Church is in trouble because of certain individuals,
we have to embrace the Church more tightly and call ourselves to more
personal prayer, and be more strongly supportive of the guiding
principles of the Church, the teachings of Christ, and the Commandments
given to us by the Father in the Old Testament. And with fortitude we
can do that.

Life is difficult as a true Catholic, and
it’s not safe. If you want a safe path or an easy path through life
then you pretty much have to abandon the Christian life altogether.
With fortitude and the other Christian virtues, we are given the
spiritual tools to overcome discouragement and despair so that we can
continue up that stairway to Heaven no matter what obstacles we may
encounter along the way.

 

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