Saturday, May 25, 2019

Do We Act as We Believe? The Double Standard Trap

There’s a saying, falsely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach always. If necessary, use words.” Sometimes mocked by people who don’t understand it, it actually means we should realize that our behavior will show others how seriously we really take our faith. As Tertullian described the words of persecutors seeing the behavior of Christians: 

The practice of such a special love brands us in the eyes of some. ‘See,’ they say, ‘how they love one another’; (for they hate one another), ‘and how ready they are to die for each other.’ (They themselves would be more ready to kill each other.)” (Apology, Chapter 39).

Keeping this in mind, Catholics have to beware giving a bad witness by the tendency to condone in an ally something which they absolutely will not tolerate in an opponent. So, you might see the gaffes of politician A treated as proof of senility, while similar gaffes by politician B is treated as a simple mistake. You might see a Catholic blogger condemn voting for Candidate X on grounds of limiting evil while advocating voting for candidate Y on the same grounds. This can also happen within the Church. You might see a Catholic denouncing other Catholics dissenting against the teaching of one Pope while rejecting the authority of his successor.

I call this “Okay for me, but not for thee.” It’s not limited to Catholics of course. But since we’re supposed to be the light of the world, the city on the hill, the salt of the earth, the witness we bear should be consistent. If a thing is wrong, we are supposed to bear witness to the truth in both our words and actions. But if we turn a blind eye to the sins of our allies, the witness our actions bear shows that we don’t really act from love and justice. Rather we act hypocritically from partisan motivations. And if the person who sees this and is repelled by it ends up facing judgment for rejecting the call from God, we are likely to face judgment alongside him or her.

This doesn’t mean we treat our friends like enemies, harshly judging their actions (cf. Matthew 7:1ff). Nor does it mean that we treat wrongdoers with laxity. It means we act justly and mercifully to friend and foe alike. We refuse to ever justify evil, but we act in a way that seeks the good of the wrongdoers and not driving them away from seeking salvation.

That is the witness we want to show by our actions: behavior that leads the other to ask, “what guides these people to live in this way.” Then our words will be recognized as sincere, that we really believe and practice what we call them to be.


  1. Acting as if I believe what I say: it's nowhere near as easy as it might seem. And that's almost another topic.

    1. Indeed. I include myself in this kind of behavior. It’s easy to justify but we need to pray and strive.