A common methodological error of novice apologists is proof-texting (yes, Catholic apologists are just as guilty of this fallacy as our Protestant brethren). Proof-texting can go one of three ways:
- Pick a single Scripture verse, pull it out of the context, and use it to prove a theological point which is in opposition to the rest of the chapter, book, and Scripture (and Tradition and the teaching of the Magisterium).
- Take a single passage or collection of verses from Scripture and use them to validate one’s own opinions and decisions.
- Limit a single passage or collection of verses to one, and only one interpretation.
Latching on to a few verses and chapters with limited interpretation provides a sense of security. It brings God down to our level. It allows us to box up the Mystery in a way that is comfortable and accessible. As Catholics, it can be tempting to extend the proof-texting fallacy to other areas of our Faith including our relationship with the Saints. I’ve seen the lives and teachings of the Saints selectively redacted in a number of ways:
The first is to take a Saint’s action or teaching out of its historical context and set it in opposition to the Scripture, Tradition or teaching of the Magisterium.
For example, St. Thomas Aquinas believed ensoulment of an unborn child occurred either 40 or 80 days after conception depending on the child’s gender. By Aquinas’ definition, a first trimester fetus is not fully human which would hypothetically make early abortions permissible.
The second is to take a Saint’s action or teaching out of context and use it to validate one’s own opinions and decisions.
A friend, in explaining her conclusion that NFP is morally unacceptable, cited the example of Bl. Azelie Martin. Bl. Azelie had breast cancer and didn’t practice NFP. Since the saintly Martin couple didn’t deem a threat to the mother’s life a legitimate reason to postpone a pregnancy, the Church must be mistaken in her teachings on family planning.
The third is to take a Saint’s opinions or actions as Gospel truth.
St. Pio was known to kick women out of the confessional for wearing pants and short skirts or for having uncovered heads. St. Pio had a very strict, specific standard of modesty. All Catholic women are bound by these same standards.
In order to avoid proof-texting the Saints and to benefit fully from their extraordinary example, there are a number things to keep in mind before you crack open Butler’s great anthology.
Consider the gifts of the Saints. I’m guessing a Bishop would be a little peeved if he heard his brother priests were imitating St. Pio and kicking ladies out of the confessional. As a man gifted with the extraordinary ability to read souls, St. Pio had perhaps a little more latitude to be quirky than the ordinary confessor. Perhaps he evicted penitents due to immodest dress, but maybe he looked into their hearts and didn’t see repentance. In either case, it would be wrong to impose St. Pio’s standards of modesty which belong to another era and which were ultimately his standards. Far better is to learn from St. Pio a deep hatred for sin and a burning desire for purity of heart.
Consider the historical context which formed the Saints. St. Thomas Aquinas was operating without our advanced knowledge of science. We know that a completely unique complement of human DNA exists the moment an egg is fertilized. We can watch human development from a single cell through the miraculous first, second and third trimesters. We know that an unborn child is fully, in potential and actuality, human from the moment of conception.
Saints make mistakes. Who knows? St. Thomas Aquinas might have kept his views about ensoulment even with access to 21st century technology. It’s a good thing we have the Church…
Familiarize yourself with the teachings of the Church. The Church canonized Thomas Aquinas for a life of extraordinary holiness, but she did not canonize his thoughts and writings as infallible. The Church has not, and will not, teach that abortion is morally acceptable in any circumstance. Get in the habit of comparing the writings of the Saints with the teachings of the Church laid out in the Catechism.
Recognize that the Saints were sinners. The story goes that all the priests in Rome rejoiced when St. Jerome was reassigned because the holy man had quite a temper. The comforting thing about the Saints is that all of them sinned – and sometimes their falls were tremendous – but their love was greater and “love covers a multitude of sin.”
Practice discernment. I can’t say if the Blesseds Martin would have practiced NFP if they had had the knowledge, but I do know that the decision would have been theirs to make with prayerful discernment. We have a tendency to proof-text the Scripture, the Saints, and everything else because it is so much easier than praying, listening, and taking responsibility for our actions. When you find yourself at a crossroads, reading the lives of the Saints can certainly help, but it is no replacement for seeking guidance on bended knees.
Practice the spirit of the law. I’ve spent most of my three years of marriage either pregnant or breastfeeding. Obviously, it would be highly impractical and harmful to my babies to adopt a bread and water diet or run through the streets naked like St. Francis. I can, however, imitate the spirit of fasting modeled by so many of the Saints. Giving up that precious second cup of coffee or even (horrors!) abstaining from coffee all together is a mortification much more suited to my state of life than wearing a hair shirt.
Forge your own path. Compare the lives of the Saints and you’ll find some similarities, but you won’t find two stories which are completely alike. God chose to create as distinct individuals – each with our own gifts and calling – because his love is deeply personal. Every single one of us is called to extraordinary holiness and every single one of us is called to walk an extraordinary path.
The Saints are our brothers and sisters in Christ, who despite their remarkable individuality, hold in common a deep love for Christ and his Church. Our imitation of them should not be a slavish copying of external words or actions. Rather, we should be inspired by this “great cloud of witnesses” to enter into a more intimate relationship with Christ, to pursue truth, to correct our imperfections and to serve our neighbor with genuine love.
Don’t imitate the Saints because they are Saints. Imitate their charity because charity is what sanctifies.