Sense and Nonsense: Practicing What We Preach

Walking slowly down “M” Street in Georgetown in mid-November, in the latter stages of gout, even while the Bishops were meeting at the Washington Hilton, I noticed an odd headline in a USA Today automatic kiosk. It blared, “Church Says We Must Practice What It Preaches.” I checked this wording at the next kiosk too, but I did not buy the paper, unfortunately. So maybe the headlines read, “We Should Practice What We Preach,” or even, “The Church Should Practice What It Preaches,” but I doubt it.

Anyhow, I got to thinking about this as I continued down towards Connecticut Avenue. I wondered about what it meant. For example, we hope the Church does not mean that everyone should practice what he (anyone) preaches. That would make, say, Hitler a great Christian, because he did just that, practiced what he preached. I wrote an essay once (in my Praise of “Sons of Bitches”) to the effect that “sincerity” was “the most dangerous of the virtues,” for this very reason.

I was recently reminded of this topic when one of my students, Scott Walter, from Knoxville, Tennessee, gave me a book on “The Theology of Peanuts,” which showed in one series Linus and Charlie Brown looking over a stone fence. Linus mused, “When I get big, I’d like to be a prophet.” As they walked on, Charlie explained, “That’s a fine ambition, the world could always use a few good prophets.” But suddenly he turned to Linus seriously, “But the only trouble is that most of them turn out to be false prophets.” As they went on in single file, Linus concluded, hopefully, “Maybe I could be a sincere false prophet.” I would add only that these latter are the most dangerous kinds.

Furthermore, I trust it is still theologically untenable—one must be cautious—to hold that everyone can, unaided, practice exactly what the Church teaches. Grace and mercy, words rarely heard in these days of justice and self-actualization, are still needed. Officially, at least, we are not Pelagians who work out our own salvation by our own theories for our own final goals, with little fear and no trembling, except for The Bomb.

On the other hand, if in fact everyone suddenly began to practice what the Church taught, it would cause economic and political chaos. Jails would empty. Brothels and abortion mills would close. Defense plants would shut down. No one would need much insurance. The home safety and protection industry would go bankrupt. We would not need to fear pickpockets, footpads, felons, drunken drivers, embezzlers, or opium peddlers. Sam Spade, Lord Peter Whimsey, and Father Brown would be rendered unintelligible to the next generation, as in fact would the whole human condition.

When clerics and other pious folks (not necessarily the same, to be sure) begin to tell us that we should actually practice our faith, they usually imply, not overly delicately, that we don’t. And that, presumably, is why the world is so badly off, even if we have a pretty respectable income and education. Likewise, there is a whole industry of ex-Christians and non-Christians who take great comfort in pointing out the considerable distance between announced moral criteria and actual performance. The “hypocrite” is indeed a favorite, though feeble, excuse many give for not believing.

Chesterton, in a famous passage—I do not think he wrote any other kind—remarked that the Christian faith has not been tried and found wanting, but rather tried and found difficult. We are cautious of those whose beliefs always rule their practices. This is why we have the word “fanatical” and the word derived from it, “fan”, to suggest a rather profound difference of spirit in relation to one’s ideas or loyalties.

Yet, if we suppose that the reason everyone is not a believer is because some individual believers are rotters, we soon arrive at some very untenable positions. The New Testament recounts several instances wherein Our Lord does a remarkably good deed, only to have those who observe it immediately go out and plot his death because He did it. Indeed, several passages in the New Testament seem to suggest that “the good” will be rejected because it is good, especially in the “latter days.” This is merely another way of recalling that human beings are constituted with a radical freedom which enables them to reject any preaching or example, enables them to call what is evil good and what is good evil, then proceed to follow their “calling” fanatically. We are not to be coerced into Paradise.

Consequently, when the Church tells us to practice what we preach, we must hope its preachers still recognize that the world is full of finite men and women, that the doctrine of the Fall is not so demythologized in practice that the lot of most normal folks can no longer be comprehended by these same preachers. The tares and the wheat, I believe, intermingle until the end, even most obviously in ourselves.

But when the Church teaches us to practice what we preach, we also hope its new-found “compassion” is so bored that it excludes the poor and the weak from their own moral dignity on the grounds of some neo-Rousseauist theory about sinful structures or social sin, which insists on locating evil outside any particular human heart, or at least outside of most human hearts. We are very near reducing most people to “objects” of “concern”,—or, to put it differently, we are very near handing over the essential decisions about moral worth to the manipulation of the ideological state.

To practice what we preach, then, can also mean to impose a supposedly pure ideology on the people for their own “good,” however well it might or might not fit them. Such social theory also enables us to locate the origins of evil not in the human mind and heart, but in classes and groups, in abstractions. We should note with considerable attention that all totalitarians practice exactly what they preach, in so far as reality permits them.

So let those who preach to us, at least, be those who still know about the Fall, who understand why men can fail, who see the human dangers in “demanding” that we practice what we preach, lest we lapse into ideology in the name of religion, alas, a well-trodden-path. We ought to be virtuously virtuous, as Aristotle remarked, that is, freely so while Aquinas reminded us not to expect everything from the law. If this sounds like a plea for the imperfect, the hypocrites, and the cotters against the revolution of the saints, so be it. What is different today is that the ideologies are preaching perfection, while the clerics are seemingly extolling politics. No one, alas, seems left to preach to us poor sinners.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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