The danger of fragmented thinking

By | September 16, 2009

Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was a convert to Catholicism from the Anglican tradition. His writings have had a major impact on Catholic thought, more specifically on the documents of Vatican Council II. Pope Paul VI even commented that Vatican II was “Newman’s Council.”


Bishop Robert Morneau


In one of Newman’s homilies, he makes the distinction between the darker side of the Gospel and the brighter side. For Newman, the darker side is the Gospel’s “awful mysteriousness, its fearful glory and its sovereign inflexible justice.” By contrast, the brighter side is “its tidings of comfort and its precepts of love.” Newman was worried that we tend to embrace one or the other side, failing to appreciate and appropriate the full Gospel message.

The Scriptures for this Sunday contain a considerable amount of darkness: the disciples arguing about who is the greatest just after Jesus tells of his approaching death; St. James comments on all those things that weaken and destroy the peace of God’s Kingdom — jealousy, selfish ambition, war, conflict, passions and envy; and from the book of Wisdom, we witness revilement and torture. Not a pretty picture! But then God’s word is always realistic, giving us the full human condition.

So where is the bright side of revelation? Where can we find hope in a world of gang warfare, a run-away consumerism, growing violence and terrorism, the in-fighting among religions? Our Christian hope is rooted in the person of Jesus and the story of his life, death and resurrection. We believe that by participating in his life, we will one day share in the eternal life.

The bright side of the Gospel is seen when a Mother Teresa reaches out to the poorest of the poor and offers them gracious hospitality. The bright side of the Gospel is made manifest when members of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) are sent into disaster areas to provide assistance. The bright side of the Gospel shines forth when individuals and communities do small random acts of kindness, help to formulate just policies for immigrants, and visit those in prisons and on death row.

Cardinal Newman’s concern is a valid one. We all have a tendency to embrace the either/or option: people are either saints or sinners; nations are either just or unjust. It’s not that simple. The both/and factor is true both of the Gospel and history. The world is both good and bad; people are both saints and sinners; nations are both just and unjust. Uncomfortable and as messy as that is, such is life.

Simone Weil, the brilliant French writer, confirms Newman’s insight: “It is true that men are capable of dividing their minds into compartments, in each of which an idea lives a sort of life of its own, undisturbed by other ideas. They don’t care for either critical or synthetic effort, and won’t submit to making either unless obliged.”

Questions for reflection

1. Do you lean more toward the dark or bright side of the Gospel message?

2. Why is discouragement worthy of being named the eighth capital sin?

3. How do you balance your seeing of both the good and evil in the world?


Bishop Morneau is the auxiliary bishop of the Green Bay Diocese and pastor of Resurrection Parish in Allouez.

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