The lack of the unity in the Church in recent years has given rise to more than just a penchant for irrational scientific beliefs and moral dogmatism. It has also allowed the sin of vainglory to flourish and find new outlets to express itself in our increasingly partisan, emotive atmosphere. This sin inevitably corrupts our preaching and dilutes the Gospel, co-opting it for its own gratification.
In the modern context, vainglory starts in a superficial way, with tracking the likes, hits, and shares we get on Twitter or Facebook. This manifestation of vainglory is certainly common and can be hard to escape entirely, but with some practice, self-discipline, and a firm reliance on God’s mercy, the temptation can usually be overcome. There is a far more devious form of vainglory, however, one that infects even prominent figures in the Church, both clergy and lay alike. To overcome this sin, we must first recognize it, though untangling ourselves from it may be far more complicated.
In the New Testament, we find the sin of vainglory ravaging the early Christian Church. Paul warned the Church in Corinth (1 Cor 1:12) to avoid bitterness and divisiveness, as they were claiming to follow one popular figure or another. In the same passage, Paul himself struck down any thought that he wanted to cultivate a fanbase or cadre of supporters. He was on a mission to “preach the Gospel.” But others were not so blessed as Paul with the grace of God. Perhaps its these whom John refers to as “false prophets” in his first letter.
Even in those early days of the Church, we could already see a familiar context emerging. Christ planted the seed of his Gospel in the world, but false leaders were constantly emerging to harvest what they did not sow. As both Paul and John’s letters imply, members of the early Church were more than happy to put their support behind popular figures, many of whom were leading people astray.
History repeats. Countless forces—the internet and social media, individualism, inequality, relativism, and the rise of populism and nationalism, just to name a few—have eroded the importance of truth in society. The result, in simple terms, is chaos. The world is fractured. Where truth would normally unify, power and influence have instead taken hold. Pope Francis writes of contemporary society,
We stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it. We have certain superficial mechanisms, but we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint. (Laudato Si’ 105)
Power’s triumph over truth has been a frequent topic of Catholics over the last few decades, not least of whom were the three most recent popes (cf. Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti 206), and this topic receives special emphasis in Pope Benedict’s writings.
In Catholic circles, we often hear that the solution to these woes is to simply insist on “truth,” and it is quite common to hear Christian commentators today boasting about how they proclaim the truth. They browbeat people into adhering to truth, and they condemn all those who disagree with them for rejecting truth. Ironically, while they are usually aware that all the complex social conditions that once made truth a unifying force are no longer present, they don’t recognize that they too are victims of that same truthless culture. They confuse their personal convictions and assumptions for Truth itself. Are these the false prophets John warned us against?
Truth doesn’t depend on whether we believe something passionately or whether it agrees with our worldview. Truth is measured ultimately to the witness of the crucified Christ. Pope Francis writes in Lumen Fidei 15, “In the love of God revealed in Jesus, faith perceives the foundation on which all reality and its final destiny rest.” Truth is a mystery that continually calls us to humility and deeper self-reflection. Those of us who are invited to encourage others with our writing or speaking about the truth must emulate the same love that Christ demonstrated through his patient suffering, death, and Resurrection. All the while, we know that, because we are human, we will always fall short.
The professional Christian commentariat has a complex array of motivations, and typically these include a genuine desire to help correct the social and moral ills plaguing society. In rushing headlong into the fray, however, there is a risk of believing that we can help fix things by garnering more supporters and hits, and becoming more influential ourselves. We can be tempted to think, “If only everyone would see it like I see it, then the world would be better.” Influence can certainly amplify our proclamation of truth, but a public platform can easily be abused or used in harmful ways.
Members of the Christian commentariat, whether it’s Bishop Barron, Taylor Marshall, One Peter Five, or Where Peter Is, can easily lose sight of our vocation and wander into the pitfall of vainglory. It is essential that our motivation is to lead people to the fullness of Truth out of our mutual love for Christ and for the Church. But when we attempt to make the Truth more accessible or to present it in such a way to cut through the noise of people’s daily lives, we invariably provide our own version of truth. Therein lies the problem and where we find a pernicious form of vainglory. It is vital that we are cognizant of the difference between Truth and our own adulterated derivation of Truth. Are we wise enough to discern the difference?
Our approach and demeanor are also important. When people reject us and spurn us, will we gladly accept the barbs as Christ did in patient service of his Gospel, or will we take offense (ostensibly on behalf of Christ) and seek to correct them at all costs?
Pope Francis’s evangelical principle, “time is greater than space” applies here. If we are doing what God is calling us to do, then we must have confidence in God’s plan. The Spirit will work in God’s own time and cares not whether we are witness to the fruits of our labor. Pope Francis quotes Romano Guardini in Evangelii Gaudium 224, “The only measure for properly evaluating an age is to ask to what extent it fosters the development and attainment of a full and authentically meaningful human existence, in accordance with the peculiar character and the capacities of that age.”
Unfortunately, ridding ourselves of the temptation to vainglory is complicated. All the conflicting perspectives among Catholic pundits, taken in the aggregate, grossly corrupt the witness to the Gospel. Commentators clash over minutiae in their “truth-telling.” Blog posts and videos are often designed to generate traffic, rather than cultivate charity. Commentators compete with one another to become the most influential voice in the room, rejecting the example of Paul, who regarded himself as the least of the apostles.
The fact that many have made careers of being professional commentators adds an additional layer of complexity. A cottage industry has cropped up in the fertile ground of relativism and partisanship, and disentangling the messages of commentators from their careers and commitments is not always possible. On the one hand, good work requires expertise and dedication. There is a need in the Church today for people who can help lead others to the fullness of love and truth. They deserve our support. On the other hand, like St. Paul, no one must think of themselves as better than anyone else.
Unfortunately, Christian commentators’ success tends to be inextricably caught up in their popularity and influence. The risk that commentators will corrupt the Gospel message increases with their need to make a living off the support of their fanbase. As commentators, we must never lose sight of the fact that we are performing a service for God and not ourselves. When we forget that, we risk losing sight of the essential and working against our Gospel-mission in the process.
As John says in his letters, the Spirit of truth bears witness to unity. When we are humble, we can listen to the Spirit who guides us and gives us the wisdom to discern those who are false prophets and those who are leading us astray. Pope Francis writes in Gaudete et Exsultate 69, “Discernment is necessary not only at extraordinary times, when we need to resolve grave problems and make crucial decisions. It is a means of spiritual combat for helping us to follow the Lord more faithfully. We need it at all times, to help us recognize God’s timetable, lest we fail to heed the promptings of his grace and disregard his invitation to grow.”
Prayer is essential for readers and commentators alike. Francis continues in Gaudete et Exsultate 166, “If we ask with confidence that the Holy Spirit grant us this gift [of discernment], and then seek to develop it through prayer, reflection, reading and good counsel, then surely we will grow in this spiritual endowment.” In this difficult time, in our culture replete with sin and confusion, we can find peace in God’s mercy in the silence of our hearts. If we rely on God’s love and remain true to his promises, we need not fear that our lack of influence in the world today is a failure. Our faithful witness to the Gospel, discerned with God through prayer, is all that is necessary.