At first glance, it may not seem that the nature of public discourse—particularly on faith and morals—has changed all that much since the days of Jesus’ engagement and entanglement with so many different groups during his public ministry. Don’t we still have all the usual suspects today? Over there we have the religious zealots; over there are the tax collectors and prostitutes, the “real” sinners; and right here we have everyone’s favorite punching bag—the dreaded “Pharisees.”
Over the course of two thousand years, the word “Pharisee” has come to mean, basically, a self-righteous hypocrite who accuses another of failing to live in accord with the “law.” Jesus cautioned his hearers to avoid this “leaven” (or yeast) of the Pharisees—the hypocrisy of self-righteous accusation—because the Pharisees of his time possessed a flawed definition of “law,” mistaking man-made rules for authentic law—God’s commands, based on both truth and love.
Today, this scenario has become almost cliché—yet, I would propose that something else has, ironically, happened to the cliché. Contemporary culture has embraced it to the extreme, creating both a polar opposite and a new kind of “leaven” for a new kind of pharisaical hypocrisy. Rather than accuse others of failing to live in accord with the “law,” now those who seek to uphold authentic faith and morals are everywhere being accused of failing to live in accord with “love.” But, like the New Testament Pharisees, our modern Pharisees have fallen into self-righteous hypocrisy by failing to understand what real love is.
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Disagreement Is Not an Attack
One of the key reasons that public discourse has taken such a turn is because we seem to have lost our capacity to understand the essential difference between disagreement and attack. Nowadays, when someone writes an essay critical of someone else’s thinking or position on an issue, it is automatically seen by so many as a direct attack on the person holding the opposing view. Depending on the severity of the response, this “attack” may be described as the essayist’s pure hatred and bigotry toward the other person, or it might be the more mild accusation of being “uncharitable” toward the person.
Regardless of the severity, the heart of the new Pharisee’s accusation is not about “law” but about love, with the irony being that, because this “new leaven” is a flawed definition of love, it is the accuser—not the accused—who is being both uncharitable and “unlawful.” It’s the equivalent of asking someone: “Have you stopped beating your wife?” It short-circuits any possibility of authentic dialogue and enables the accuser to continue avoiding confronting their own erroneous definition of love, as well as the truth being espoused by the one accused.
It’s a game-changer and conversation-stopper, and we’ve all seen it in action somewhere, sometime. Secular culture loves this new leaven that undermines genuine “truth-love” (I say it that way because you cannot have one without the other). If I publicly oppose same-sex “marriage,” guess what? I’m just a “hater” and “homophobe” because #lovewins, right?
Tone-Deaf Catholics Online
Yet it’s not merely a secular issue—it’s a huge issue for Catholics as well, particularly those who engage in online public discourse. The mildest expression of the “new leaven” of judging another’s love comes when we choose to react to the “tone” of a writer who disagrees with another’s views: “Hey, the critic has a point, but, ewwww, I sure don’t like that tone!” Even if a writer is extremely careful in choosing words that focus entirely on a subject of disagreement, a reader will often claim—falsely—that “tone” is an issue.
Why? Because the “tone” of a written text is almost infinitely subjective. If a writer consistently, emphatically, and persistently disagrees with another’s view, for example, someone will invariably come along to accuse that writer of being “angry” or “obsessed” or “hate-filled” even when no such language was employed by the writer and no such feelings were felt. Writers now get psychoanalyzed when they express an opposing view. The pharisaic accuser will shift from the issue to the person: The trouble with you is…..or, Oh, you write about this soooo much, you must secretly be guilty of the very thing you’re protesting!
“New Leaven”: At a Combox Near You
In truth (or would that be “truth-love”?), I’m writing much of this from firsthand experience in Catholic online circles. Many Crisis readers will know that I’ve written substantially on issues pertaining to same-sex attraction and the truths of the human person as taught by the Magisterium. I write without appeal to emotion or to personal narrative, mostly because I seek the greatest possible clarity in expressing what the Church does and does not teach. I focus on assertions and claims, and seek to respond to erroneous views by quoting those views verbatim and contrasting them with what the Church tells us.
The “new leaven” of the Pharisees will frequently give rise to responses to my essays accusing me of lacking compassion, of driving helpless people away with hate and disdain, and even making people leave the Church because my writing is so bigoted. I’m just a bully for “attacking” others by exposing their erroneous views.
And, naturally, this makes it possible for the accusers to sustain the pseudo-high ground of self-righteousness, never having to address the substance of my essays. Crisis comboxes are actually filled with examples of this, over and over. Commenters will accuse an essayist in my style of numerous forms of uncharity and will shift focus to personal invective and false claims about what really “motivates” the accused author (hatred, anger, fear, etc.).
Truth in Love, Love in Truth: “Truth-Love”
Is there a loving and “lawful” pathway between the two pharisaic extremes of judging another’s law and judging another’s love? Yes, and it’s a pathway Jesus himself took. Keep in mind that Jesus, too, was a critic engaged in public discourse. The Pharisees of his day certainly felt like they were “accused” by him. Yet Jesus’ disagreements were not attacks, and they were not based on assumptions about a person’s interior dispositions. He knew before he criticized, because he is God.
But we’re not God. We’re terrible at interpreting “tone” online. We’re too quick to judge others’ interior dispositions. We’re too-often wrong about another’s heart when we do judge. The Golden Rule for us fallen creatures in the realm of public discourse should be simple: Don’t assume.
As in don’t assume anything. Don’t assume you can infer the right “tone” in a critique. Don’t assume you’re somehow the right person to sit in judgment over whether someone else is actually writing with enough compassion for others. Don’t assume you know another person’s feelings without asking him about his feelings; and avoid telling the person how he must feel. Don’t assume that public disagreements automatically mean those disagreeing really want to hurt each other personally.
Public Discourse as a Work of Mercy
If that’s what we shouldn’t do, then what are some things we should do? First, always focus on substance, not persons. Speak to the issue rather than speculating as to “why” a person is somehow silly enough to believe something you disagree with. If we remember the times that we have been too easily misunderstood and maligned, it may help us to keep our own potentially false assumptions in check. If we accept at face value the good will of the other person, even if it seems hardly evident, we will more readily avoid playing the part of Pharisee-accuser (whether over “law” or “love”). And, the only way our understanding of “truth-love” will be authentic is to anchor it fully to the teaching of the Catholic Church.
While it’s correct that religious public discourse cannot rightly be construed as direct “pastoral ministry” (for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that pastoral ministry is about real-time person-to-person communication), it’s very true that such public discourse, properly done, is a spiritual work of mercy. Mercy, of course, requires both truth and love, and so does public discourse. When public discourse takes the form of challenging error by presenting truth, we must learn to stop engaging in the hypocrisy and self-righteousness that somehow assumes that the truth presented is severed from authentic love.
If we can take that simple step, the leaven of the Pharisees—both new and old—can be tossed aside for good, and “truth-love” can more deeply permeate our thoughts and words.
Editor’s note: The image above, titled “Jesus and the Roman Coin” is a fresco from San Marco Church in Milan.