In the exciting and dynamic world of Catholic theology, there are a number of complex ideas expressed in very useful theological terms, often in Latin. Terms like Lex orandi, lex credenda, which means “the law of prayer is the law of belief,” or we believe as we pray. This is why the wording used in the Creed and in the Mass throughout is so important: our prayer shapes our belief. If we pray wrong, we believe wrong.
Another example is the phrase laborare est orare, which means work is prayer. God did not create us to be idle, but to be active. In work, we are active and through our work we give praise to God. Therefore, we should strive to work well so that we can praise God as is fitting.
These are both good and useful terms. They exist so that we can discuss complex topics… but these are complex topics few people ever think much about. Is it true that the words a person uses to pray shape the content of that person’s belief? Yes; absolutely. Does a person have to know that? Of course not. The fact remains true whether a person recognizes it or not.
I point this out because there is one theological term of which I a particularly fond, but it’s an idea few people ever engage intellectually. Even though many people state it outright and make it a central part of their moral life, they often do not really think it through. It is this: the Reductio ad Hitlerum, or the reduction to Hitler. It’s the concept that leads a person when speaking of their moral life to say, “Sure. I’m not perfect…. But I’m not Hitler.”
Maybe you’ve heard this phrase said. Maybe you’ve said it yourself. In either case – whether you’ve heard it or said it or done both – it is no doubt true. Whoever said it was not perfect… but they weren’t Hitler, either. But though true, this notion is still tragically incomplete because it is an excuse. People don’t say it at their finest moment; they say it at their lowest. No one saves an infant from a burning building and responds to the praise they receive with the reductio ad Hitlerium.
The fact is, everyone should aim higher than the Hitler watermark for good versus evil. If you only aim for slightly higher than Hitler but manage to not quite make it past Stalin, you might have some very difficult questions to answer at your Judgment. I assure you: You do not want to have difficult questions to answer at your Judgment.
What about aiming, instead for the Saint Francis watermark. Or the Pope Francis watermark, if you like. Both are very high, but stating definitively which is higher is way above my pay grade; but both men have led lives worthy of imitation. Isn’t it much nicer to say, “I’m not perfect… but I’m striving to be more like Saint Francis” than to settle for the reductio ad Hitlerum?
But there is no need to take my word for it when you can take God’s word for it. After all, this is exactly what Moses was talking about when he said to God that “This is indeed a stiff-necked people; yet pardon our wickedness and sins, and receive us as your own.” Human nature hasn’t changed in the thousands of years from the time of Moses to our own time; we still cry out to God, asking him to pardon our wickedness and our sins.
Fortunately for us, God’s nature hasn’t changed, either. Our cries for pardon still reach the ear of a Lord who is “a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.”
Paul said to the Corinthians, “Brothers and sisters, rejoice. Mend your ways, encourage one another, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.” Note that rejoice comes first. Paul doesn’t tell them to start by beating themselves up a little bit, but then look on the bright side: at least they aren’t Nero. He tells them rejoice! We should – before all else – rejoice in the Lord, for God is “praiseworthy and exalted above all forever.” Rejoice in the Lord, for blessed is His holy and glorious name.
Then Paul says to them – just as he says to us – Mend your ways. Hey – Paul – cut me some slack, buddy. I’m not perfect… but at least I’m not Hitler.
But the truth is, we all can mend our ways. You can do it; I can do it. We all need to do it; we are all in constant need of renewal and repentance; we are all in need of mending our ways. But the fact is, we don’t mend our ways simply because we are trying to aim just a little bit higher than that lowest rung on the ladder climbing from evil up to good. We want to mend our ways and we are able to mend our ways not because of our own merit, but because of the merit of God. We repent because we rejoice; we do not rejoice because we repent.
Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of our fathers, praiseworthy and exalted above all forever; And blessed is your holy and glorious name, praiseworthy and exalted above all for all ages. It is for this reason that we rejoice. It is for this reason that we repent. The life to which we are called begins and ends with God.
Then Paul tells us to “agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.” Often, God assigns a task and offers an assurance. The task: agree with one another; live in peace. The assurance if you do so: the God of love and peace will be with you.
Unfortunately, the notion of agreeing with one another and living in peace has too often been lost in our world, our society, our culture… and in some cases, even our families. I am a happily married man. If you ask me the reason for the success of my marriage, I would tell you that it is because Katei and I agree with one another; we live in peace. We work for this actively. In short, we work for love, and as a result the God of love and peace lives with us. This is why we succeed.
Now, the skeptic or the cynic might argue that that is an easy thing to say, but a much harder thing to do: to work for love. How much love is enough? The answer for me is as much as I have today, and tomorrow, with God’s help, I intend to have a little bit more.
How much love is enough? How much love should I give? God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. That is the watermark.
That is the goal.
The goal is never I’m not perfect but at least I’m not — whomever; and that’s what it boils down to. Whomever I happen to be judging right now as worse than me. Kind of pharisaical when you think about it: God, I’m not perfect but thanks for not making me like this poor, sorry such-and-thus.
The goal is this: I want to be perfect because my Heavenly Father is perfect. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
We are saved through Jesus Christ, who died for our sins. Because we are saved through Jesus Christ, we can rejoice in Jesus Christ. And because we can rejoice in Jesus Christ, we can repent in Jesus Christ. We can mend our ways; we can change; we can become better than we are… better than we ever thought we could be, not because of our own merit but because of the merit of him in whom we are saved: Jesus Christ.
This is the joy of being a Christian; this is the life to which we are called. It is a life of rejoicing, and of repenting… but also of becoming more than we were through Him who saves us. We don’t have to make any excuse; we don’t have to say, “I’m not perfect, but at least I’m not —.” Instead, we can say “I’m not perfect, but I’m on the right path. I’m on the path with Jesus Christ, because I believe in the name of the only Son of God, and that belief calls me to greater and greater perfection every day. I’m not perfect, but one day I might be… not because of me, but because of Him who died so that I might live forever.”
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.