In a recent article, Philip Primeau wrote about the controversy surrounding comments made by Jewish commentator Dennis Prager concerning sexual sin. Prager’s view of sin is not the Christian view; that is to say that it tends toward a silo approach rather than a wholesome, integrated view of the human person. In Prager’s mind, the physical act, and only the physical act, is a sin, and thinking is not an act. Primeau deftly demonstrates that such a view is simply not supported by the Hebrew Scriptures.
At the time I read Primeau’s article, I had been otherwise unfamiliar with the controversy. But I soon received an email from my son with a link to a debate between Prager and Matt Fradd on the subject. For his part, Fradd did an admirable job of explaining that the choice to mentally dwell upon an evil act (in Catholic parlance, to “entertain impure thoughts”) is in fact an act of the will, an act that may very well affect whether or not one chooses to act out evil in the physical world—that there is never action without assent, and assent is the result of impulse and/or contemplation.
Thoughts have consequences; and by that measure, they are acts within themselves and, therefore, potentially sinful acts. Fradd is careful to exclude, as acts of the will, temptation—fleeting thought that enters the mind and begs to be honored and pampered, promising to entertain in return.
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For me, one of the most striking things about this exchange was that all of Fradd’s arguments had to do with humanity seeking the perfection of the Father, whereas Prager’s interest was, by comparison, very meager, stating,
I am not preoccupied with the ideal life; I am preoccupied with a good life. As I often say, I am not interested in making saints, I am interested in making good people and, uh, it is so hard to make good people in a post-communist, post-Nazi world…I admit I am preoccupied with real evil rather than non-idyllic behavior.
There is, of course, no small abyss between these two world views, despite Prager’s repeated assertion that “We’re not that far apart on this.” Christ was all about seeking perfection, about us becoming reflections of the Father. There is not the tiniest sliver of “good enough” in the spirituality to which He called us.
Prager’s non-eschatological practicality aims to rectify society, but we are called to perfection: “I know your works; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15-16). Christ came to shake us from the comfort of mediocrity.
While Prager’s approach to the subject is decidedly pragmatic, Fradd points out that if one is to take a purely secular, pragmatic approach, it should represent, at the very least, good secularism, and Prager’s meandering, good-enough moral theology defies even the common sense of good secular feedback about the workings of the human psyche. He offers Prager a copy of his new book, The Porn Myth: Exposing the Reality Behind the Fantasy of Pornography, a work that Fradd tells him is, “a non-religious response to pro-porn arguments.”
From sports to business, secular culture readily recognizes that if one shoots for mediocrity, surely not even that will be achieved. What athlete does not strive for excellence?—In the words of St. Paul, for the “prize”? Prager, it would seem, is getting the world he signed up for, a world where mediocre goals fail to achieve even the desired mediocrity.
What is it that you and I are signed up for? Since this last Good Friday, my mind has been fixated on a certain word: thirst. In His agony, Jesus proclaims, “I thirst” and then turns down what is offered to Him, prompting speculation about that for which He thirsted. The saints, pondering these words, emphatically tell us that He thirsted for souls, and those last moments, when it seemed that the Father had forsaken Him, that thirst became unbearable, finally abated when He proclaimed, “It is consummated” and gave up the Ghost.
How about us? Do we thirst for souls, or are we just trying to be Prager-esque “good people,” while hoping to lead others to the same mediocrity? Is mediocrity as distasteful to us as it is to Christ? If not, what does that say about us? What are the chances of us changing the world? Are comfortable conservatives the answer to the world’s problems? I think not. Jesus Christ thinks not. Do we thirst for souls, or are we just trying to be Prager-esque “good people,” while hoping to lead others to the same mediocrity? Tweet This
I began a list of saints who expressed their thirst for the redemption of souls, but the simple fact is that compiling a list of canonized saints who never expressed such a wish would be a much simpler, largely nonexistent, task. That said, two modern saints come to mind as particularly good examples of souls thirsting for the divine and the salvation of others: Therese Martin and Mother Teresa. Christ has called us to sainthood. No lower target is worthy of His calling. Saints thirst for the redemption of souls. There are no mediocre saints.
Perhaps Heaven is populated largely by expurgated souls, for nothing imperfect beholds the face of God. But that is the point. Mediocrity makes Purgatory our default goal. Not only is it a goal that is below our dignity and our calling, it’s not one that we would want to fall short of, and falling short of the target is a human norm. And if, after suitable purgation, we are able to see God face-to-face, our glory will forever be mediated by our failures. No one is in Heaven whose sins have not been forgiven and purged, but Heaven is not egalitarian, not even remotely.
For those among us who thirst for souls and work to bring them to Christ, eternity has already begun, for the thirst to see the face of God is already partially quenched by the knowledge that one has played a part in bringing others to the beatific vision.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ calls us to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect”; and in Luke, He calls us to “Be merciful, just as [also] your Father is merciful.” Perfection is our goal. Aiming for less, as attested to by both the secular and the sainted, the profane and the divine, is beneath our dignity and our calling. We are born with a thirst. Ignoring it destines us to dry up and shrivel for eternity.
I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.
Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned.
If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.
By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
[Image Credit: Pints with Aquinas YouTube channel]