I had my third baby in the spring, during the first phase of our area’s government-mandated shutdowns. As with my previous two children, I often found myself tiredly scrolling through social media during countless midnight nursing sessions. And everywhere I looked, I saw discord. Strangers on the internet “crushed” each other with one-liners, ignored or belittled those with whom they disagreed, and twisted the meaning of words to suit their argument’s ends. But I also saw members of local church communities getting into heated arguments that were exacerbated by the email writers’ inability to see each other and hash out their ideological disagreements in person. “Is civil discourse completely dead?” I wondered to myself.
It’s easy to think that if we just say the right thing at the right time our interlocutor will see the error of their thinking and agree with our side of the argument, or that if we pummel our interlocutor with the harsh and unadulterated truth that they will be overwhelmed and converted like St. Paul on the road to Damascus. The ability for everyone to have a voice in the public square via social media and to be able to interact with virtually anyone, at virtually any time, on virtually any topic, has warped our society’s self-control about when, and how, and about what to offer an opinion.
Appropriately for this topic of charitable dialogue, today is the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian and one of the greatest minds the Catholic Church has ever known. He was exemplary in his efforts to understand and articulate opposing viewpoints and to be thorough and charitable in his defense of faith through reason. Each broad topic he addresses in the Summa Theologiae, his magnum opus, is broken into more specific questions, which are broken into even more specific questions called articles, and for each of these articles Aquinas offers well-thought-out objections before he states his own thesis and then replies to each individual objection. What a difference from our modern culture that is steeped in out-of-context sound bites, Twitter smackdowns, unnecessary generalizations, and logical fallacies!
If our calling as followers of Christ is to reflect Christ for others and to evangelize, we ought to be intentional about how we may be the face of God for someone else. If I am the only Christian someone is going to encounter that day—be it in line at the grocery store or on a Facebook comment section—how would I want that experience to be? Sometimes I need to remind myself that no matter how willfully defiant my child is being, no matter how obtuse my acquaintance’s social media post is, that they are unconditionally loved by God, and I am called to love them too.
Personally, I have learned not to engage at all in a potential argument on social media. And when I do have disagreements with others, like St. Thomas Aquinas, I try to make sure that I understand the scope of my opponent’s reasoning and what he or she is actually trying to argue before I respond. It is possible to be charitable toward and understanding of others without abandoning the Truth or condemning everyone around us.
Perhaps most importantly, I have learned that the virtual world of the internet and social media is best when used to support our lives and relationships in the real world, not as a replacement for them. As we continue into this new year of 2021, I encourage you to think about how you can charitably engage with those you may not agree with. May we look to the model of St. Thomas Aquinas as we seek to evangelize today’s culture with love.
As a nation, we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 21st. Does this mean anything special for the Church—for Catholics, even? Catholics have much to learn and celebrate about the Baptist pastor, preacher, and prophet. The more we consider how far we have come as a nation and as a human race since Dr. King met his tragic end on April 4, 1968, the more we sense, I think, just how far we have to go to realize his Dream.
When I think of Dr. King, I think of justice. Biblical justice. To recall a famous quote (King’s paraphrase from Theodore Parker), “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” As our nation honors Dr. King in a few days, I think it might be wise to contemplate for a moment the role of justice in our discipleship, which is an integral aspect of our baptismal identity as priest, prophet, and king.
As a pastor and preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr. understood deep in his bones the kerygmatic nature (from “kerygma”) of true justice. Justice is a gift of Jesus. Like all gifts and graces from God, it is meant to be multiplied and shared. Even in the most difficult times of persecution, Dr. King proclaimed the gift of justice. In his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King wrote the words, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Dr. King (who earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Boston University) quotes St. Thomas Aquinas in defining an unjust law as “a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law,” and then adds a simple explanation: “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1774), the great theologian of the Middle Ages and among the greatest in the history of the Church, defined justice as giving the other what is their due. Thomas Aquinas even defines “religion,” which is a virtue, as a form of justice, because it gives God the worship and adoration that is owed to him.
First, can we ask ourselves where justice is still lacking in our world and in our own Church insofar as it is, alongside its spiritual identity, an institution composed of fallible, sinful human beings? Any lack of justice is a sure sign that we, the Church, have become adept in talking about the Gospel but have yet to take living it just as seriously. In her ongoing task of renewal, the Church must recover a robustly biblical, prophetic vision and conviction that justice is not accessory to the Gospel. Fortunately, in my own observations and ministry, I have seen that many young Christians are mending the gap that seems to have developed between “social justice Christians” and “liturgy and doctrine Christians.” This distinction is foreign to Aquinas and King, and the extent to which we buy into this split is the sign that we have allowed our faith to be compromised by the politics of the day. To offer one way of restoring this divide, in his letter Dr. King writes, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” What if we thought about our baptismal garment, symbolic of putting on the life of Christ, as also the Church’s “garment of destiny”? Salvation and justice are the garment that clothes the body of Christ, the Church.
One way of looking at Dr. King’s quote about the moral arc is to see it as a challenge that is not “way out there” in the universe, but as an invitation to bend and mend our personal lives toward justice. What might it imply to bend our lives? A change of habit or lifestyle, resisting our initial unkind or selfish response or natural inclination, and going out of our way to change the trajectory of our relationship with other people, our nation, and even creation. This is the message of “integral ecology” Pope Francis teaches in his encyclical letter Laudato Si. Dr. King saw God’s providential hand at work on a cosmic level, and as Catholics, we recognize the need as disciples to participate in God’s grace, and that includes justice. Authentic justice takes work, effort, struggle, and at times—as many true prophets in Scripture and history have experienced—persecution. Not all of us are called to create justice in the same way, yet we are all called to create justice in some way.
Question for Reflection: What is one concrete step you can take to help create a more just situation in your family, school, workplace, or other sphere of influence today?
To learn more about Catholic Social Teaching, please click here.
At some point during my time as a college student, I encountered the great saint and medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), and began to realize just how truly important and vast was his intellectual impact in history. As a witness to the profound and enduring quality of Thomas’ theological insight and teaching, the Catholic Church honors him with the title “Doctor of the Church.” Thomas certainly spent much of his life in a classroom teaching and debating on the most relevant questions of his day. But when it came to his primary vocation as a Christian, the soft-spoken saint would be quick to point out that he was first and foremost a student.
The word disciple literally means “learner” or “student.” In the Bible, a disciple is,
“A student or follower who emulates the example set by a master and seeks to identify with the master’s teachings.” (Catholic Bible Dictionary, ed. Scott Hahn)
For Thomas, discipleship meant being an entirely devoted student of Jesus Christ. One of Thomas’ theological principles was that everything Jesus said and did was meant for our imitation and instruction. In the time of Jesus, a disciple did not just learn from, but learned to be like their teacher. We see this, for example, at the Sermon on the Mount, which is an extended lesson about a radically new vision for life received at the feet of their teacher (“Rabbi”), Jesus. Today, the Church’s emphasis on the New Evangelization to make and grow as disciples also means we are to become in every way students of Jesus. Here are three important ways Aquinas modeled being a student of Jesus, a disciple, worthy of our imitation.
A Student of Scripture
For Thomas, Sacred Scripture makes known “that heart of Christ” (see CCC 112), and we acquire that heart gradually by reading and studying the Bible. In addition to composing many commentaries on individual books of the Bible, all of Thomas’ writings demonstrate a life soaked in a love and knowledge of Holy Scripture. Thomas realized the impossibility of growing as disciples of Jesus apart from familiarity with the living Word of God.
A Student of Prayer
Even with a multitude of followers and demands, Jesus was frequently found in personal prayer with the Father. Similarly, as prolific a writer as Thomas was, Thomas never sacrificed his time of prayer and contemplation for the sake of work or greater productivity. As a result, aside from his dense technical writings in theology, Thomas composed captivating prayers that the Church uses in liturgy and devotions even today. Thomas loved to pray through song, and among his most well known prayers include the famous Eucharistic hymns “O Salutaris,” “Tantum Ergo,” and “Adoro Te Devote.”
A Student of Truth
Jesus is the Truth (John 14:6). In a culture saturated with opinion and often biased news, we can learn from Thomas’ unceasing search for truth. A love of the truth compelled Thomas to devote himself to understanding the world around him (even where he disagreed), to be slow to judge, quick to learn, but steadfast in his convictions and trust in Jesus.
Whether you are in school or beyond, Thomas models what it means for a disciple to seek the truth. That could mean doing more research about our opinions, being more willing to have our perspective challenged, or just trying to learn something new every day. Thomas even has a great Prayer for Students that we can all apply to whatever situation Jesus is calling us to keep learning about.
To learn more about prayer, please click here.
Many hope to journey through Lent having experienced a true transformation in their spiritual life. But sometimes, innocently enough, we don’t take full advantage of our time when we give up something that we have every intention of picking right back up (or indulging in on Sundays). Don’t get me wrong—it can be spiritually edifying and purifying in a lasting way to give up normally enjoyable things (e.g., chocolate, Netflix, alcohol) for just a period.
A few years ago though, inspired by centuries-old Catholic theology I learned from some introductory college classes, I tried a different approach to Lent. I found the saints were all talking about Lent as a time to grow in virtue. In the Catholic tradition, a virtue is “an habitual and firm disposition to do the good” (CCC 1803). You might think of virtues as character traits that describe a holy and happy life. Here are some of the “human virtues” that play a prominent role in the Catholic life:
The Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude.
The Cardinal virtues have a special role in the Catholic tradition, and make possible other important virtues like…
The Capital Virtues: Humility, Generosity, Chastity, Meekness, Temperance, Kindness, and Diligence.
The seven Capital virtues are meant to counteract the Seven Capital Vices, or ‘Deadly Sins.’
One of the best teachers about virtue is the famous Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas, who lived from 1225-1274. Growing in virtue helps us grow more like Christ, so we can, in St. Thomas’ words “recover the completeness and distinction of mind” that gets lost through sin and vice (Meditations for Lent, 22).
Lent is also a great time to focus on developing a virtue that has become weak in your life. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that we grow in virtue by forming good habits and receiving grace.
Habits are important because they tend to shape our overall character and moral decision-making process, and therefore have a role in our relationship with God, others, and our self. Lent is an excellent opportunity to form new habits that we can then carry forward into Easter and beyond. In order to grow in virtue, we need to develop good habits, and we develop habits through repeated actions (See also CCC 1810).
Repeated good action --> Good habits --> Virtue
It’s a little simplistic here, of course. And although it’s a simple concept, admittedly, it’s not always easy in practice. Building good habits can be difficult because we often find ourselves already stuck in bad habits (vices) that may be tough to break. That’s why giving something up isn’t always enough; we need to replace it with a good action.
It also takes focus and developing discipline, which is exactly what we see in the desert experiences found in Scripture as well as the Early Church (CCC 1434).
Interestingly, contemporary psychology reinforces to some degree what theologians have understood about habits. Scientists report that it generally takes between 21 and 66 days to turn a new behavior into a habit. So over the forty days, why not consider choosing a Lenten practice that’s not just temporary, but one you hope will stick?
Take some time in prayer before Lent begins to identity one specific virtue that will help you draw closer to God. Then, consider some actions can you take toward growing in this virtue.
Think in terms of the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. For example, fasting can help transform habits associated with our appetite for things, the virtue of temperance. An appetite doesn’t necessarily mean food or drink, though it may. It really covers anything we use to fill our mind and body, like TV and the Internet. Lent is a desert experience where we learn to pursue and subsist on the Word of God rather than our perceived needs.
Or maybe you want to grow in the virtue of kindness. Commit to going out of your way to doing one kind action each day by giving of your time, talent, or treasure. Or you might pray for someone you don’t get along with.
At its heart, Lent is not a course in self-improvement; it is a disciplined journey toward deeper communion with our crucified and risen Lord Jesus. Ultimately, the help we need to grow in virtue comes from God’s gratuitous gift of grace. We say yes to this journey as we respond by developing habits of holiness.
For more resources to help you develop your Lenten habits, please click here.