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Center for Action and Contemplation
Action and Contemplation: Part Two
Action and Contemplation: Part Two

Bigger Than Personal Moral Failure

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Action and Contemplation: Part Two

Bigger Than Personal Moral Failure
Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Contemplation helps us discern what is truly important in the largest, most spacious frame of reality and to know what is ours to do in the face of “evil” and injustice. As a confessor, I know for a fact that many people beat their breasts about trivial things while not spotting the real evils that are likely poisoning their hearts and minds and countries. I have often said that hearing most (though not all!) Catholic confessions is like being stoned to death with marshmallows. We trained people to feel guilty about certain “sins” but allowed them to neglect the evils that are all around us and ignored.

Early Catholic moral theology taught that there were three major sources of evil: the world, the flesh, and the devil. My moral theology professor always added emphatically: “In that order!” Yet, up to now, most Christians have placed almost all of our attention on the secondary “flesh” level. We have had little education in or recognition of what Paul meant by “the principalities of the world” and even less understanding of what he meant by “the ruler who dominates the very air” (Ephesians 6:12). The world and the devil basically got off scot-free for most of Christian history while individual humans carried the majority of the blame. Just look at poor Eve! The implications have been massively destructive, both for the individual and for society, leading to many twentieth-century catastrophes that often took place in Christian countries.

When we are made to feel individually responsible for “the sin of the world” (John 1:29), we become overwhelmed by too-muchness, which will paralyze us and keep us from working to improve things that we can improve, further increasing our shame. It is a vicious cycle, one that most of us are probably familiar with. I believe contemplation is one of the only things that can free us from it. Contemplation draws us deeper into the mystery that we are a part of the problem, but not all of it, and that our actions are essential to solving it, though they may not seem to be doing anything at all. Perhaps this is what it means to “act in good faith!”

Both Jesus and Paul passed on to their disciples a collective and historical understanding of the nature of sin and evil, against which individuals still had to resist but in which they were usually complicit. Jesus and the prophets judged the city, nation, or group of people first, then the individual. This is no longer the starting point for many people, which leaves us morally impotent. We do not reproach our towns, our own religion, or our nation, though Jesus did so regularly (Matthew 11:20-24; Luke 10:10-16).

My hope is that this recognition of Jesus’ and Paul’s emphasis on the collective nature of evil will increase both personal responsibility and human solidarity, instead of wasting time on feeling bad about ourselves, which helps nobody.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, What Do We Do with Evil? (CAC Publishing: December 2019) 18, 21, 22-23.

Image credit: Algerian Woman Preparing Couscous (detail), Vincent Manago (1880–1936).
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: By contemplation, we mean the deliberate seeking of God through a willingness to detach from the passing self, the tyranny of emotions, the addiction to self-image, and the false promises of the world. Action, as we are using the word, means a decisive commitment toward involvement and engagement in the social order. —Richard Rohr
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