A World of Confession, a World of Harmony
I recall in my youth the sort of Baptist-style preacher (often southern) who railed on television against a world increasingly turned against all morality, where traditional notions of right and wrong, old-fashioned good morals, have been thrown out the window in favor of an ethic represented by slogans like “if it feels good do it” or “my body, my decision” or “free love.” I'm not here to get down on the Southern Baptists, because Baptists and southerners have contributed much of great worth to American culture, and also because there is plenty of blame to go around. While these fiery preachers certainly had a point, I think they weren’t getting to the real heart of the matter and the result has not been a net moral improvement for Americans.
Rather, what has really been going on is that we’ve transformed our society by transforming our sense of ourselves. No longer do we find it more or less sufficient to confess our own sins and sinfulness, and leave the sins of others to God. Rather we’ve become a culture which has replaced authentic personal humility with a kind of Puritanical moralism obsessed with the sins of others. Under the guise of bringing "social justice" we've become quite busy “outing” the sins of others. Our sense of injustice in the world is increasingly a matter of what is outside me - real evil is in “unjust structures” of society, and in other people. Social commentators have even come up with a special term for this kind of habitual activity: “virtue-signaling.” I imagine that when I rail on against the sins of others, I’m showing everyone how moral I am, how committed to “justice” I am, how righteous I am. In Our Lord’s time there was a class of people just like this: the Pharisees. We know very well how Jesus dealt with them. He called them “hypocrites” and “a brood of vipers.” The Pharisees had forgotten that their true vocation was to prepare Israel for the coming of the Messiah, and they had rather appointed themselves the moral police of the people. Because they refused to begin with themselves they made their society less just, less righteous, less good, and not more so.
In the end, all of these moralistic preachers haven’t made the world better. If they've really accomplished anything it's that they've taught society the wrong lesson. They’ve taught us that one can gain political power-advantages through a rabble-rousing public moralism because their own self-righteous anger inspires imitation: self-righteous anger appears in other, and this anger can push others into towards one political movement or another, such that puritanism is in the end a kind of propaganda. Ironically, when the puritanical habit metastasizes in a society, that society become morally ill.
The famous British Catholic writer, G.K. Chesterton, was once asked to contribute an article to a newspaper series that would be titled “What’s Wrong With the World.” He wrote a very short article:
Imagine, if you will, if it became the general character of our society that we took the attitude of G.K. Chesterton, and began by confessing our own sins before becoming so terribly interested in the sins of others, or of “the system”? When we walked into the workplace, or into the marketplace, or into our family homes, there would be an atmosphere of humility that would engender trust. There would be more harmony in society, because we would all recognize ourselves as sinners in need of forgiveness rather than righteous ones ready to point out the sins of everyone else, of "the world" and "the system."
Now we’d be insanely optimistic to think that our society as a whole is heading in this direction any time soon. Things are likely to get worse before they get better. But perhaps the “getting better” will begin with us, who recognize by faith in the Gospel that we are sinners in need of forgiveness and restoration, and that harmony in the world begins with confession of sins. Do we truly recognize this? I don’t think it too much to hope for that we could have a Catholic Church in America that began with honest self-assessment, a Church where Catholics responded authentically to the Gospel message by obeying the Apostle John and centering their lives around the Sacrament of Confession and penance. When we see this happening it will be the first sign of true spiritual renewal in our Church. This Advent, let’s begin with our parish. This Advent, let’s each begin with ourselves.