I don’t belong in a Catholic Utopia
It is 500 years since the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia. I remember reading it at university and finding it rather a difficult book, not least, I think because I was trying to decode it rather than read it.
I had assumed that it was like an allegorical jigsaw whereby if you identified and joined the various pieces correctly they would reveal the picture of a perfect society which More had envisioned, but had chosen to turn into a puzzle. It is nothing of the sort. It is actually a satire and is more about Original Sin than about the system of government. For St Thomas knows that you can only have a perfect world if you have perfect human nature. It is the folly of modern societies that they keep trying to find the system that will maximise people’s freedom of self-expression and determination and in order to do so have to impose more and more restrictions and regulations in order to affirm the system. Utopia satirises the idea that a perfect society is created by systems and procedures.
It is tempting to imagine that the Church is some kind of Utopia. Even though she is the immaculate Bride of Christ, she is also an imperfect human society. I think this is what Pope Francis is trying to emphasise, not to the detriment of the Church but to the comfort of those who truly wish to belong to a society which will maximise their flourishing, not exclude them on the grounds of their unsuitability. I am sure I would not belong in a Catholic Utopia, but I do belong in a Church which welcomes with gentleness the sinner who desires to convert. Nor do I belong in a Church where by simply following some procedures I will avoid all pain and suffering and find the Lord.
Conversion paradoxically requires me to be convicted of – or convinced about perhaps would be a better expression – sin. “Conversion,” says St John Paul II, ‘‘includes the interior judgment of conscience, and this, being a proof of the action of the Spirit of truth in man’s inmost being, becomes at the same time the start of a new grant of grace and love.’’ In fact, it’s only the Holy Spirit, which Jesus says will show that he was right about sin and judgment, that can reveal the real nature of sin. He goes on: “Thus in the ‘convincing concerning sin’ (the work of the Holy Spirit) we discover a double gift, the gift of the truth of conscience and the gift of the certainty of redemption. The Spirit of truth is the Consoler.” It follows that if I deny the reality of sin, I also deny the reality of grace.
Grace – the life of God – is both the diagnosis and the cure for sin. Perfect love casts out fear, so this being faced with the truth is not merely the salutary experience of my own awfulness; it is that my awfulness is redeemed and need never be the sum of my relationship with God. Nor is this measured against some standard of procedural compliance of which I am subtly the arbiter. It is measured against the self-gift of God in sanctifying grace, which invites a reciprocal gift costing, as TS Eliot says, “not less than everything”.
As a member of this society, the Church, I must also have an understanding of my own humanity. I am not to be a Utopian who never experiences a wrong desire or thinks a selfish thought, nor am I an angelic creature who fears being contaminated by what is earthy and human because these might lead me astray. I must lose the caricature of the Christian as the one who has ceased to experience powerful passions. In themselves emotions and feelings are not decisive, says the Catechism.
“Decisive” is a good word, meaning that these are not the only means by which I decide the truth. I should never imagine that this means they are unimportant. The Catechism says: “By his emotions, man intuits the good and suspects evil.” Emotions and feelings can be taken up into the virtues or perverted by the vices. The perfection of the moral good consists in man’s being moved to the good not only by his will, but also by his “heart”. No system, not even religion, will make me good. Only the Mercy which makes God give me himself as the remedy for my rejection of him can move my heart to true Goodness, which is willing Him for His own sake.
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London