It seems like we are living in a time where everyone has an opinion to express and the means to express it. The collection of voices can be so overwhelming that some people refrain from speaking when they should. In our last reflection, we looked at Blessed John Henry Newman’s “Profession Without Ostentation,” a sermon dedicated to the question of how to witness to Christ while remaining humble, to shine our light before men, but not to make a show of ourselves. When we obey the Church and when we live Christian lives in the midst of our ordinary duties, we witness well. But there are times, Newman says, when we are called to speak our opinion on religious matters and world events as Christians, to pass judgment when called for, and to rebuke others when necessary. How do we go about these delicate matters?
There are times when Christians should give their opinion on religious matters. Newman says we have a duty, depending on our station in life, to speak our mind; but this is not the only way to express ourselves: “We must never countenance sin and error. Now the more obvious and modest way of discountenancing evil is by silence, and by separating from it; for example, we are bound to keep aloof from deliberate and open sinners. St. Paul expressly tells us, “not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother (i.e. a Christian) be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one, no not to eat.’ [1 Cor. v. 11.].”
To express our opinions on world events is also our duty, because we should try to persuade men of the truth. This is a remarkable point from Blessed Newman that would likely offend contemporary listeners who believe men have a right to believe whatever they want, especially in matters of religion; we would benefit from Newman’s counter cultural perspective that not only defends objective truth, but demands we convince others of it. All Christians, clergy and laymen, must lead others to the truth, just as the first Christians did: “Did not the Apostles, with all their reverence for the temporal power, whether Jewish or Roman, and all their separation from worldly ambition, did they not still denounce their rulers as wicked men, who had crucified and slain the Lord’s Christ? And would they have been as a city on a hill if they had not done so? If, indeed, this world’s concerns could be altogether disjoined from those of Christ’s Kingdom, then indeed all Christians (laymen as well as clergy) should abstain from the thought of temporal affairs, and let the worthless world pass down the stream of events till it perish.” We are in this world, even if we are not of it, and we do not have the false luxury to live private Christian lives, which is an oxymoronic phrase.
Finally, Newman says there are times when we need to rebuke and correct others. This task is difficult to do without seeming “arrogant or severe.” Newman offers his listeners a few prudent thoughts. First, although it is a duty, it is not a duty of all men. We have to take into account our position and the circumstances of the rebuke. Teachers of the faith, such as parents and catechisms, for example, would more readily be prepared to deliver a rebuke. Second, some rules will guide us: young people should not rebuke elders, except by silence, and the same is true of inferiors toward superiors. Third, there is an order to our duties as Christians, and correcting others’ errors is not at the top of our list. “I mean, that our duties come in a certain order, some before others, and that this is not one of the first of them. Our first duties are to repent and believe,” Newman adds.
How do we know if we have done well? To be persecuted openly for witnessing to Christ is not necessarily a measure of how faithful we have been. Some of us will be in positions in which we must speak openly and suffer the consequences, others of us will live more quiet Christian lives in the middle of the world. We will have done well if we have loved well, and if we love our Lord, we will not be able to hold back from letting His light shine through our words and deeds.