A Matter of Holiness


Published June 17, 2022

First Things

Here’s a simple fact: Many of today’s social issues are important, but not all of them have the same gravity. And it’s misleading to tie them all together as somehow equivalent, because they’re not. Concern for the environment, more effective gun laws, and better immigration policies is a good thing. But being “right” on those issues can’t balance out being wrong on killing, or tolerating the killing of, a developing human child. Some things are always and inexcusably wicked. Abortion is one of them.  

My wife and I have a son with Down syndrome. Three of our grandchildren have disabilities that range from moderate to severe. They all deserve the gift of life. They all make their siblings more genuinely human by the treasure of their presence. So we feel an immense gratitude to San Francisco’s Archbishop Cordileone for speaking the truth and doing the right thing by excluding Speaker Nancy Pelosi from Communion in her home diocese.

Pelosi has been a high-profile, vigorous, privileged, and defiant supporter of easy abortion access for decades. Whatever her virtues may be, her record as a Catholic Christian on the matter of abortion is an icon of public hypocrisy. Thus, in our family, we feel an equally intense disgust—“disappointment” is too weak a word—for those persons both outside and, more repugnantly, inside the Church, who have criticized or attempted to undermine what Archbishop Cordileone has done. There comes a point in the work of Christian witness where otherwise-sensible concerns for prudence and the complexity of politics become indistinguishable from the temptation to fellow-traveling and cowardice. Church leaders, both here and abroad, might profitably take note.

In the Catholic context, what the Church expects from each of us in sorting through tough moral issues is to follow our consciences—but first to form our consciences intelligently and faithfully, in accord with Christian truth. Conscience needs to be fed, developed, and disciplined to discern what’s right. Then it needs to tell us what’s right, rather than what we’d prefer to hear. And what the Church asks is that, before we act, we at least make a sincere effort to consider and understand the truths that she teaches and why, and to try honestly to follow her wisdom. If we do that, we’ve done what our faith requires. This isn’t easy. In practice, it’s very hard, because serious thinking about anything is drowned out in our current culture by emotion, distraction, dumbed-down slogans, and noise.  

It’s our job as Christians to remove ourselves from those things, and to think before we act, so that when we act, we do so with our brain and an examined conscience, and not just with our bile and passions and the latest distortions from our mass media. We also need to pray for our country, and for each other, because we all very obviously need it. The nation we were six decades ago, and the nation we are today, are two very distinct creatures: similar on the surface, but different in substance. One of the differences is that we’re now wrapped in a nonstop, narcoleptic haze of consumer appetite that prevents us from understanding our situation and changing it for the better.  

As for the Church: Georges Bernanos, the great French Catholic writer, liked to describe her as a huge railroad company carrying people to heaven—but one that’s unhappily prone to train wrecks. Left to her human management, the Church tends to end up, in Bernanos’s words, as a giant pile of crashed locomotives and burned-out carriages. We owe our ecclesial leaders the respect due their offices and our obedience to authentic Church teaching. But it’s worth remembering that men like Gregory the Great, or Leo XIII, or John XXIII, or John Paul II, are the exception, not the rule. Most popes are good men, dedicated (if often forgettable) in their ministry. Others are less inspiring. Dante planted several bishops of Rome quite firmly in his Inferno. 

The thing that saves the Church from complete disaster is not her leaders or formal structures, but her saints. And by “saints” Bernanos meant much more than just the holy women and men whose names we all know, and whose paintings can often seem saccharine in their piety or alien in their unreality. He meant the ordinary believers who love God and love the Church not just when it’s easy, but when it’s hard; not just when her leaders are good, but when they’re not; not just when faith is socially acceptable, but when it isn’t.  

So here’s a final thought.  

In 1514, just a few years before the start of the Reformation, a pamphlet circulated in Europe. Its title was Julius Exclusus, or “Julius Excluded from Heaven.” The author was anonymous, but most scholars today attribute it to the pen of Erasmus of Rotterdam. The pamphlet’s plotline is simple. Julius II, the powerful Renaissance pope who had recently died, shows up at the entrance to heaven expecting a royal welcome. Instead, he finds the door firmly locked. St. Peter at first doesn’t recognize him. Then he refuses to let him in.  

Julius blusters and bullies and threatens. He lists his achievements, his papal authority, his servants and toadies and popular acclaim, and his considerable influence in earthly life. Peter is unimpressed. The Holy Father, His Holiness Pope Julius II, lacks the one key quality that really does unlock heaven’s gate: actual, personal holiness.

As others have noted, the word “holiness” has interesting roots. It comes from the Hebrew word meaning “other than” and “different from.” And that’s exactly what God calls each of us to become: holy. In other words, we’re in the world, for the sake of the world—but not of the world. We’re meant to be “other than” and “different from” the habits of thought and behavior that pull humanity away from its true purpose—to love and be loved by God.  

Baptism involves us in a struggle for the soul of the contemporary world, as one modern saint wrote from direct and extraordinary personal experience. Our weapons are charity, justice, mercy, courage, and patience—not hatred or violence. But, in the end, there can be no lasting concordat, no real peace treaty, between a genuinely holy people and Church on the one hand, and a world of material excess, destructive sexuality, exploitation of the poor, and industrial-scale homicide of unborn children on the other.  

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.

Photo available on Unsplash


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