An Excess of Christian Charity?

Aristotle, as everybody knows, held that virtue is a mean between the extremes of “too much” and “too little.” If he had been given to the use of colorful language, he would have called it the “golden mean.” This is typical of classical Greece at its best, a civilization that valued moderation in all things.

As everybody also knows, Thomas Aquinas was a great fan of Aristotle. Rarely has any disciple been more devoted to his master than was Thomas to Aristotle. Yet Thomas was more devoted still to Christ. So when the question arose whether one should be moderate in the virtue of love of God, Thomas says no.  He rejects (Greek) moderation and says that there is no such thing as too much love of God.

Love of neighbor is of course the flip side of the love of God coin. Would Thomas also say that there is no such thing as “too much” love of neighbor? I ask this because I sometimes come across Christians, including Catholics, who are guilty, it seems to me, of an excess of Christian charity.

I am thinking of one person in particular, a Protestant woman of great piety, intelligence, and education (she has a Ph.D.), who overflows with love for her fellow human beings.  Not only is she unwilling to inflict harm on others with deeds or words, she is also unwilling to think unkind thoughts about others.  And if, on rare occasions, she catches herself having a negative feeling about another, my guess is that she would chalk that up to Original Sin.  We children of Adam and Eve, including herself, are cursed with a never-ending supply of sinful feelings.

I might add that one of her favorite Biblical texts is the one wherein Jesus admonished us, “Judge not.”

Now, if I had been with Jesus in Palestine, I would have warned him not to utter these two words.  “Do you have any idea,” I would have cautioned him, “how people, especially moral liberals living in the USA 2,000 years from now, will misuse your words to justify abortion and other dreadful practices?” Of course, He knows best.

My good Protestant friend, I should note, does not herself use the “Judge not” commandment to justify abortion or any other sins.  On the contrary, she is quite definitely opposed to abortion. Despite her eagerness to “think for herself,” she believes in a traditional Christian code of morality. She is far from being a modern moral liberal. But while she is more than willing to condemn the sin, she is quite unwilling to condemn the sinner.

This is where she and I have our great disagreement. I tell her that the champions of the abortion cause and the LGBTQ+ cause are out to destroy Christianity, but she is unwilling to ascribe any such malevolent intention to them. For all we know, she says, they are misguided persons of goodwill. God alone knows what is in their hearts.

*Hannibal ad portas

Pushing her on this, I have invoked the usual test case: “Well, then, will you at least condemn Hitler?”

She replies: “Hitler had a difficult childhood.”

I reply: “So did I. And so did you. And so does almost everybody.”

And she replies: “Only God, who unlike us knows all things, truly knows Hitler’s heart. So God alone can judge Hitler. . .or anybody.”

At this point in the discussion, I usually go bang my head in frustration against the nearest wall.

She tells me that she and I differ because I belong to that very imperfect ecclesial institution: the Roman Catholic Church.  I am bound by (what she regards as) the Church’s narrow and inaccurate understanding of Jesus, whereas she is free to seek Jesus as he truly was and is.

I think she is at least partly right.  Unlike a free-floating Protestant, as a Catholic, I have a relationship with God that is mediated by the Church. No, that’s not quite right. It’s not mediation, it’s participation. I am not an individual related to God through the Church. I am related to God as part of the Church. The Church is not a third thing that stands between me and God. There are only two things, God and the Church, and I am part of that lesser thing – a thing that is called the Bride of Christ or the Body of Christ.

Now an individual Christian, like my ultra-charitable Protestant friend, can afford to think well of everybody, can afford to believe that everybody, even apparent enemies, may be well-intentioned. But an institution cannot afford to think this way – and the RC Church is an institution. For, an institution is bound to have enemies. And the Church, both today and throughout its long history, has had tons of enemies.  And so the Church has to be constantly on guard.  It has to be constantly suspicious – rather like the way Secret Service agents surrounding the president have to be constantly suspicious.

It follows that I, as part of the Church, have to be suspicious. For example, when I see the LGBTQ+ movement everywhere making advances in American society, neither I nor our bishops can afford to have that excess of charity that my Protestant friend has. She can afford to say, “For all we know, they have good intentions.  Only God can judge.” No, we Catholics must say, “There, we strongly suspect, is a mortal enemy. Either we will destroy it, or it will destroy us.”

One of the most important lessons I learned when, decades ago, I was a politician is that you have to recognize your enemies.  It can be a fatal error to mistake an enemy for a friend or even for a neutral.  My impression is that many Catholic bishops have minds that are insufficiently suspicious, at least when it comes to detecting enemies of the faith.

My Protestant friend, though I think very highly of her, would make a very poor Catholic bishop.


*Image: Hannibal in Italy by Jacopo Ripanda, c. 1510 [Hall of Hannibal, Capitoline Museum, Rome]

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, and most recently Atheistic Humanism, the Democratic Party, and the Catholic Church.