The “critical lethargy” of an affluent Church
Clodovis Boff, the Brazilian liberation theologian, once remarked that the Church in the developed world is characterised by “critical lethargy”: a tendency towards banality and conformism and a reluctance to adopt a truly prophetic perspective on social and political realities. He believed that discernment and critical analysis were qualities that the Christians of the affluent North could embrace with profit.
Of course there is nothing in the Christian approach to morality which entitles us to make rash judgements or jump to conclusions based on a glance at surface appearances, and this is true whether we are thinking of persons, situations, theories, institutions or the large-scale features of social and cultural life. Also to be avoided, surely, is a consistently over-critical attitude, a willingness to believe the worst of everyone and to assume that base motives will always triumph in every sphere of life.
That such a mentality poisons healthy, trusting relationships is self-evident, although even here I believe we should always be prepared to admit that behind the pessimistic judgements of the cynic there often lies an acute awareness of the painful sinful side of life which at least partially reveals the truth of things.
It seems to me that that even greater threat to a genuine Christian outlook lies in a sort of wilful naïveté, or false innocence, which retreats from reality into a realm of comfortable illusion. This tendency can present itself in the guise of Christian joy, or masquerade as the virtue of charity but in fact it usually has more to do with the desire to avoid facing conflict or anything that questions one’s convenient ideas and values. Among many church people there is a deep antipathy to honest disagreement, an inclination to shut out alternative viewpoints rather than a willingness to offer sound arguments supporting one’s own.
We often come across Christians who are very ready to construe Jesus’ words, “Do not judge lest you be judged yourselves” as meaning that we ought never to criticise anyone or anything and, in effect, ought not to cultivate the virtue of discernment at all. The recognition of unpleasant facts - of sin – disrupts the facile optimism of those who only wish to be “Jesus’ little sunbeams”.
Persons of this sort add their own Beatitude to those recorded in the gospels: “Blessed are they who do not think, for they shall have ease of mind”. But can this really have been Jesus’ meaning? Did he not also instruct his followers to be as wise as serpents but as gentle as doves, i.e. able to discern the sinful and perverse motives present within ourselves, and in all areas of human affairs, while striving to resist them? Jesus did not advance a model of holiness which encouraged gullibility or self-serving eirenicism.
The virtue of discernment
Discernment, then, needs to operate first at the personal level. It is natural to be irritated by sharp-witted individuals who point out our inconsistencies, our ulterior motives and rationalisations. We become annoyed not because their observations are false but because they are true. A Christian attitude, by contrast, open to the virtue of discernment in ourselves and in others, welcomes criticism as an opportunity to gain greater enlightenment and self-knowledge.
Opposed to this is the mentality of the Scribes and Pharisees, who denied the need for criticism and rejected the all-too discerning judgements of Christ as the axe-grinding of a heretic. This is always the first resort of those who believe they have a monopoly on truth and nothing to learn from other perspectives. As disciples of Christ we need to guard ourselves against this mentality, which is closed to God’s grace and open only to the “cheap grace” we confer upon ourselves, confirming our existing prejudices and resisting authentic conversion.
Jesus’ teaching, “Do not judge” can be distorted in another way. Some time ago I heard an impassioned sermon in which the preacher argued that the trappings and external features of certain types of religious devotion cannot and should not be scrutinised, analysed or criticised. To “label” and pigeon-hole people is a terrible injustice showing a lack of charity, etc.
Well, I repeat: rash, shallow judgements are morally wrong. But what about wise, sound and penetrating judgements? Are we really to believe that these are never possible? By developing the virtue of discernment we learn to distinguish when protests like this are genuine and when they are being used dishonestly as a means of forestalling legitimate and necessary criticism.
It is simply untrue, for example, to maintain that all forms of piety are equally healthy, that none is in danger of falling into sentimentality or escapism, or that our external demeanours convey no reliable information about our inner spiritual state. We know too much now about the workings of the subconscious to advance such a notion with any credit. Besides, was it not precisely because the Pharisees’ pompous, condescending manner accurately expressed their inner blindness and alienation from God that Jesus censured them so vehemently?
Similarly, then, today, we have to subject our motives to a searching examination, avoiding all self-deception and recognising for what it is the kind of faith that clings to ostentatious display, relations of seniority and juniority, and a closed, defensive mode of thought. Otherwise we will find ourselves the victims of the flawed consciousness that leads to idolatry.
Political discernment: raising of consciousness
Discernment is also needed in connection with the social and political aspects of Christian faith. The view that religion is a private, individual affair with no implications – at least no subversive implications – for wider political and economic questions has had a good airing over the past few years. This was the traditional refrain of conservative commentators, although there is growing evidence that right-wing politicians who previously lectured churchmen on their duty to keep out of politics are now ready, U.S. style, to highlight their “conservative” moral stance on certain peripheral but emotive medical/biological issues in an attempt to differentiate themselves from New Labour and attract the votes of religious minority groups.
In the light of what we know about the consequences of the market economy in our own country and in the world at large such a naïve, or perhaps, disingenuous attitude is completely untenable for Christians, especially at a time when the parties of the left have abandoned even their anti-capitalist rhetoric and wholeheartedly embraced the business agenda. As Pope John Paul has insisted on numerous occasions, we cannot ignorantly assume that the features of our post-Christian consumer culture are normative for the whole world or somehow represent the summit of human development. The disciples of Christ must be discerning, able to see not only the signs of the times – the action of the Holy Spirit in the world around us – but also the spirit of the age, especially those currents and tendencies which are incompatible with the gospel.
It can often appear that some conservative Catholics, strongly motivated by a need for security, cultivate what amounts to a “spirituality of evasion”, an escapist faith which in reality permits them an all too easy adaptation to the values of modern capitalist society. They seem to think that the Church should simply denounce “Marxist” influences in the Third World while baptising the essentially Godless ideology of Western society.
One of the first duties of the Church, however, if it is to be true to the message of its founder, is to unmask all ideologies, i.e. all representations of reality which arise from the propaganda of powerful interests. Followers of Christ cannot assume the fundamental benevolence and rightness of the social order in which they live; their faith must involve a process of consciousness-raising and critical reflection on the values of society. Indeed, when this is not done Christianity quickly degenerates into an establishment religion, anxious to safeguard its influence within the prevailing socio-economic order, devoid of prophetic vision and the power to challenge and transform. The danger of “critical lethargy” is again apparent.
Christians of all denominations who defend such an establishment religion should realise that it is no good reacting to a discerning prophetic critique with parrot-cries about cynicism and the duty not to judge others. Is it not obvious that it is the desire to protect a cosy, self-serving faith which dictates such a reaction? British Catholics who are fooled by recent tactical manoeuvres on the part of the Tories, for example, into dovetailing traditional moral teaching with a general right-wing political stance, might consider throwing the spotlight first upon their own presuppositions before berating the so-called liberals for accommodating the gospel too readily to secular values. Erroneous, highly selective concepts of Church Tradition are frequently little more than a collection of pleasing ideas that ultimately confirm rather than transform a selfish, complacent existence.
Discernment: a “primary need” in evangelisation
Among men and women today - many of whom are searching for authentic values amid the cynicism and bankruptcy of contemporary culture - and in meeting the critical attitudes of non-Christians, shallow, conformist thinking impairs effective evangelisation and betrays the radicalism of the gospel. By the same token most people are able to see through the type of religious belief which merely provides a buttress for ideological positions arrived-at elsewhere.
In order to make the Christian message credible at the present time we need to be capable of discernment regarding our own views and able to take seriously the reservations and criticism of others. The great Redemptorist theologian, the late Bernard Haring, considered this to be of such decisive importance that he did not hesitate to declare: “He who does not consider acquiring the virtue of discernment as a primary need is not in a position to preach the gospel”. 
Notes and References
 Bernard Haring, Evangelisation Today (revised edition), St. Paul’s Publications, 1990.