I get the sense from many Catholic preachers and pastors that they don’t understand human weakness.
More than that, too often I have heard Catholic preachers downplay, or deny, the reality of mental illness, treating addiction as if it’s a bad habit, depression and anxiety as if they’re spiritual problems, or trauma as if it doesn’t have a profound and lasting impact on people.
It’s also not uncommon for Scripture to be misused to defend that misunderstanding. Jesus’s words to St. Paul (and to all of us), “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” can get turned into, “God has given you everything you need to be perfect now, so if you’re not perfect it must be your fault.”
These preachers create a false dichotomy, if I violate the moral law then either grace was insufficient or I sinned, and since God’s grace is always sufficient then I must have sinned. Because God’s grace is sufficient, the faithful must always be able to follow the moral law at any time, and if someone can’t follow the Commandments then they simply don’t want to badly enough. There’s no room in this false dichotomy for the fact that we live in a world that’s been wounded by sin with bodies and minds that have been wounded by sin. There’s no room for weakness.
I want to be clear, these preachers fail to take the Church’s teaching seriously.
The Catechism teaches that “Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” (CCC 1735). In other words, if “sin is an abuse of the freedom that God gives to created persons” (CCC 387), then anything that impedes a person’s freedom reduces, or even at times eliminates, the sinfulness of an action. In fact, even someone in an objective situation of sin “can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity” if they didn’t have sufficient freedom (Amoris Laetitia 305).
In his beautiful document on holiness, Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis addresses this mentality head on. He says:
“When some of them tell the weak that all things can be accomplished with God’s grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added. They fail to realize that ‘not everyone can do everything’,”
Footnote 47 here says, “The phrase is to be understood along the lines of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1735,” which is the passage quoted above about reduced culpability. In other words, the pope is saying that “not everyone can do everything” because we are limited by fear, habit, and other weaknesses.
The pope goes on to state that “in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace.”
In the footnote citation for this passage, Francis quotes St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote, “But here grace is to some extent imperfect, inasmuch as it does not completely heal man, as we have said.” In other words, on this side of Heaven, God does not completely heal us and allows us to remain wounded by sin (our personal sins, original sin, and the sins of others).
The fact is that a person’s outward inability to follow the moral law can sometimes hide tremendous holiness. In that same document, the pope teaches, “Even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there. If we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit rather than our own preconceptions, we can and must try to find the Lord in every human life.” One of the best illustrations of this reality is the life of St. Mark Ji Tianxiang.
None of this is to say that it is impossible to commit sins. Of course it is. I have used my freedom in ways that have harmed others and myself. When I’m vulnerable with God he shows me my sins and moves me to respond in repentance and reparation. He can also show me what for now is the most generous response I can give to him, even if that response isn’t yet the objective ideal (cf. AL 303). As Pope Francis says:
“We can wonder if God is demanding too much of us, asking for a decision which we are not yet prepared to make. This leads many people to stop taking pleasure in the encounter with God’s word; but this would mean forgetting that no one is more patient than God our Father, that no one is more understanding and willing to wait. He always invites us to take a step forward, but does not demand a full response if we are not yet ready. He simply asks that we sincerely look at our life and present ourselves honestly before him, and that we be willing to continue to grow, asking from him what we ourselves cannot as yet achieve” (EG 153).
The reality is that we live in a broken world and a lot of people suffer from addictions, trauma, anxiety, depression, phobias, ADHD, moral injury, and a whole host of other things that can reduce their freedom. Instead of piling shame and guilt upon the heads of people who are struggling we need to preach about a God who loves his children like a father, a God who chases his children down until he finds them, a God who accompanies his children in their pain, a God who became human and who explicitly identified himself with the wounded and suffering.
Image Credit: Head of Christ, drawing, attributed to Pedro Duque Cornejo
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Paul Fahey lives in Michigan with his wife and four kids. For the past eight years, he has worked as a professional catechist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology and is currently working toward a Masters Degree in Pastoral Counseling. He is a retreat leader, catechist formator, writer, and a co-founder of Where Peter Is. He is also the founder and co-host of the Pope Francis Generation podcast. His long-term goal is to provide pastoral counseling for Catholics who have been spiritually abused, counseling for Catholic ministers, and counseling education so that ministers are more equipped to help others in their ministry.