One of the great icons in the Catholic Church today is Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York making his way up the aisle to commence Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. While the congregation belts out the opening hymn, the good cardinal thumps his episcopal crozier on the ground, beams at all and sundry, kisses babies, embraces young and old, calls out the names of friends he recognizes, and generally speaking, spreads good cheer in every direction. One would have to be either catatonic or positively Scroogian in temperament not to find the scene utterly delightful.
And this is far more than effective PR. In point of fact, it’s one of the reasons why Timothy Dolan is, arguably, the most persuasive Catholic evangelist in the country today. The Cardinal of New York is a remarkably intelligent man (his principle academic interest being American Catholic church history), and he brings his significant gifts of mind to whatever he says and does; but he also knows that radiating a sense of the joy that comes from friendship with Christ is the key to bringing others to the Lord. In the opening chapter of the Gospel of John, we hear about two young men who, at the prompting of the Lord, come and stay with Jesus. So thrilled are they by this encounter that they immediately begin to announce to anyone who would listen that they had “found the Messiah.” In that little episode, we see the fundamental rhythm of effective evangelization: they meet Jesus, they find the experience life-enhancing, they want to tell everyone about it. The very best bearers of the Gospel are those whose joy in Christ is contagious.
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The second part of Thomas Aquinas’s masterpiece the Summa Theologiae deals with ethics, the question of how precisely we ought to live. It is most instructive to note that this massive treatment of Christian morality begins with joy, what Thomas called beatitudo. Ethics is all about what makes us happy. After determining that wealth, pleasure, power, and honor, though good, are not the source of true joy, Thomas argues that only the infinite good of God satisfies the deepest longing of the human heart. Next, Aquinas analyzes the habits and virtues that inculcate in us the moves that properly order us to our ultimate good. And finally, in question number ninety (!), Thomas broaches for the first time the issue of the law—and thereupon hangs a tale. Laws, he argues, are those prescriptions and prohibitions that place in us the habits that produce the virtues that in turn give rise to joy. The relegation to question ninety shows clearly that moral laws are not the heart of the matter, nor are they the starting-point for ethical deliberation. They are utterly subordinate to and ordered around happiness.
When I was coming of age in the Catholic Church—in the seventies and eighties of the last century—Catholics were utterly preoccupied with law. What I mean is that they focused relentlessly on ethical matters, especially in the area of sexuality. And this was true whether one was on the right or on the left. I think of the endless disputes around the morality of birth control, divorce and re-marriage, pre-marital sex, etc. that ripped the church apart in those days. Mind you, I’m not suggesting for a moment that those issues were unimportant or that the people who staked out positions on both sides were unserious. But I am indeed suggesting that a church battling with itself over ethical law presented a deeply disedifying and unattractive face to the wider world. And that is precisely why the church of that period proved so evangelically ineffective. It was so preoccupied with defending (or changing) the church’s teaching on sexual matters that it forgot how to invite people into joyful friendship with Christ Jesus. The huge number of people from my generation who have either left the church for other Christian denominations or, more likely, drifted into a bland secularism testifies to this failure.
Am I subtly implying here that sexual ethics doesn’t matter? By no means! I am arguing that moral law follows and attends upon something far more basic, namely, the happiness that comes from intimate union with God. Once one has caught the zest of Christian life, one wants to know how to maintain that life. We might compare it to someone who has experienced the exuberance of a baseball game well played and who then endeavors, on his own and with enthusiasm, to search out the rules and disciplines of the game. Ethics is important; but joy is more important. And when the joy is in place, the ethics won’t be shunned; it will be embraced.
If I might return to my original image, I would say that a good Catholic evangelist could commence with the contagious joy of Cardinal Dolan walking up the aisle at St. Patrick’s. Once he has drawn someone in, he might say, “did you ever wonder how he got that way? Let me show you.” First the joy, then the ethics. Getting this right makes all the difference.
This piece was originally published on February 8, 2012 on WordonFire.org.