Our Catholic Suffering Syndrome (CSS) Part I

girl in pain

“Just offer it up!”

It’s an iconic reference that’s become a Catholic spiritual cliché.  Dollars to donuts, it was your Mom’s response when you complained that Sis just poured the last drop of milk you wanted for your breakfast cereal.  “MOM, Suzie just….!!”  Mom cut to the chase with a terse: “J.O.I.U.”  

So, why do Catholics say that?  Does it help God? Does it help us? The answers we’ll explore in this article may startle you!  Because the answers are Catholic!

Suffering is a fact of life – it happens to both good and bad people.  It’s an “equal opportunity” travail for all who spring on this mortal coil.  Objectively defined, “suffering” results from (1) being denied (2) what is desired or needed (3) through circumstances we don’t control.  Nobody chooses to suffer by design – except masochists.  They’re a wee bit twisted. If you enjoy whips and rolling on tack-strips set in searing, salted linoleum, you might be one…  ask your confessor.

But contrary to all outward appearances – and those aspects are many – Catholics aren’t closet masochists.  They don’t enjoy suffering. But they do endure it. Because Catholicism offers the most beautiful and intellectually satisfying answer to human suffering found on earth.  It explains why we suffer – and, more importantly – how suffering can have meaning and value.

Those without faith necessarily endure a sense of futility born of meaningless suffering. It’s hard to imagine any greater pain. They blame God and shake their fists – which by itself, suggests a rather exquisite irony. They understandably reject an illogical construct of a “good” God who allows human suffering and gazes impassively and unmoved from Heaven upon this “valley of tears” like some stoic sylph.  

A limited scope frames a narrower viewpoint.  They still have much to learn about God’s ways.

As do many Catholics who “pick up their cross” and “suffer with Christ” believing they are somehow dragging themselves toward Heaven. For them, suffering affirms personal holiness surrendered to “God’s Will”.  But such a self-affirming discernment is a springboard into theological folly: it implies that God desires human suffering. If God desires suffering then it must be “meritorious”.  If it’s meritorious, then the more we suffer the more we participate in the sufferings of Christ – and by such self-sacrifices inch ourselves Heavenward.

Unfortunately, that’s not a Catholic belief. It’s a daisy-chain of delusions that flirts with blasphemy and presumption – a heresy called “Pelagianism”. This misconception encourages self-confirmed “martyrs” to wallow in and shamelessly perpetuate their own sufferings as a mechanism by which to “merit” Heaven.  Did I mention Catholics aren’t masochists? It’s hard to distinguish that difference sometimes…

Justification, Sanctification and Grim Saints

Before we proceed, we need to clarify the theological distinction between “justification” and “sanctification”. They’re not the same.

Justification speaks to our redemption before God by grace – which occurs only, exclusively and completely through the Cross of Christ. Catholics (and all Christians) stand justified before God by no other merit than the atoning sacrifice of Christ on Calvary alone.  That merit was entirely sufficient to justify and save all who invoke God’s grace through His Blood for their salvation.  

Conversely, “sanctification” is the process by which those already justified by Christ’s atonement become perfected in holiness during life by increasing their virtues of charity, piety, perseverance, etc.  Our human “marble” is cleansed by justification but sculpted into beauty by sanctification. Sanctification is a cooperative process between human free will and the influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit.  Sometimes that process is enabled through suffering, but more often by inspirations of joy, compassion, love, and patience – the “fruits” of the Holy Spirit.

But when “meritorious suffering” becomes the central script of our faith, it goes off the rails. The Catholic Church does not teach, endorse or indulge any such delusion regarding our justification:

“With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man.” Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part 3, Section 1, Chapter 3, Article 2 (II)

And yet, it’s easy to see where such notions come from.  Have you ever seen a painting of a smiling, joyous Saint in any Catholic Church?  Neither have I. Suffering is extolled by countless paintings of long-faced saints enduring heinous martyrdoms while casting yearning glances heavenward.  We observe our grimly stoic Catholic Saints praying joylessly over musty stacks of holy writ or otherwise engaged in strenuous supplications, eyes pleading, arteries bulging and taut faces evincing the intensity of a strident appeal to (an apparently reluctant?) God.  

Loathe to invoke an unseemly specter of frivolity upon the dread seriousness of spiritual joy, Catholics resolutely impose “hang-dog” demeanors upon their Saints. Across Catholic canvases, stained glass, pedestals and ceilings, there’s not a gleaming tooth to be seen anywhere.  If Christ’s message is “good news” (“Gospel” in Old English), then why all the long faces and pursed lips? Our beloved Saints look like a commercial for Prozac! Small wonder why the Catholic Church isn’t overflowing with enthusiastic converts to Catholic spirituality…

God in the [Parish] Box

One abysmal consequence of these Catholic misconceptions is that healing ministries are virtually unknown in the average Catholic parish today. Pastors are leery; parishioners are skeptical. It’s considered “on the fringe”. A more mundane and minimalist parish spirituality preserves a “safe harbor” of pastoral control over the Holy Spirit.  Keep it in a box, please?

Healings are relegated to outliers – “evangelical Catholics” [is there really such an animal?] who speak in tongues, are “slain in the Spirit” and reflexively raise hands at every “Hallelujah”.  It’s insufferable. Such emotional, exuberant and joyful experiences are utterly foreign to dour, dutiful, and grimly pious Catholics. “Not my thing” is a very common Catholic response.  Go figure.

Actually, it’s God’s “thing”. God leaves us free to respond as we like. [“Free will”, remember?]  So, you still have to ask for His healing, just like 2,000 years ago.  God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. If suffering affirms your notions of personal holiness, then a healing ministry becomes a threatening – if not entirely suspicious – activity.  Dangerous stuff. People were actually crucified for engaging such activities a long time ago…

Contradictory Catholicism

If the paradigm of Catholic sanctity isn’t “suffering”, then what is?  The insight and wisdom of a renowned contemporary Catholic luminary informs us:

The culminating evidence of sanctity is a joy that is not of this world. Saints always suffer in various ways as a consequence of their heroic virtue, which pits them against the “wickedness and snares of the Devil,” but there is no such thing as a sad saint.” (Father George W. Rutler. “The Joy of the Saints.” from The Pastor (April 27, 2014).

Fr. Rutler doesn’t much appreciate Catholic art, apparently. He’s an Episcopalian convert to Catholicism. We’ll take that into account.  But Scripture confirms his perspective:

…and you are to rejoice before the Lord your God in everything you do. (Dt 12:18)

Let all those who seek you rejoice and be glad in you. (Ps 70:4)

Jesus entirely stumbles our collective Catholic preoccupation with suffering as well. Consider a simple fact: EVERY miracle of our Lord Jesus Christ was performed and purposed to end human suffering!

There are NO exceptions to that statement. Go ahead – open a Bible and see for yourself! Does God desire suffering?  Scripture records that Jesus’ was consistently determined to end human suffering! Jesus didn’t enjoy watching people suffer. He didn’t permit suffering to persist – He never turned his shoulder and walked away from suffering.  The only exception was where faith was insufficient to invoke Him. [c.f. Mt 13:58]. Simply stated: there was not even enough faith to believe He could help. So, nobody asked…

But if God attributes “merit” in human sufferings, then it begs an obvious question – were Jesus’ miracles then counter-productive to God’s Will?  Why would Jesus be absolutely fixated upon ending so many circumstances of “meritorious suffering” by dictate of deformity, disease, hunger, demonic possession and even apostolic sea-sickness with His every miracle?

The contradiction doesn’t make sense! Truth is never contradictory. So, let’s separate accurate Catholic theology and Scripture from the contradictions that belabor and confuse more than a few Catholics.  When we’re done, no contradictions will remain.

Consider that Jesus never once caused, requested or endorsed ANY human suffering in those He encountered. He never once proposed human suffering as necessary or propitious for their salvation – with one exception.  Himself.  Because Jesus’ suffering alone would be the sole, propitious and necessary mechanism of our salvation. The Catechism passage cited above confirms that Catholics enter heaven exclusively through the merits of Christ’s Cross – not by their own crosses!

The ONLY Suffering That Gets You Into Heaven

There is only one circumstance of suffering which Jesus directly confirmed and endorsed to us as “meritorious” in gaining Heaven: to suffer at the hands of others because of our faith [c.f. 2 Tim. 3:12, Mk. 10:30 and Jn. 15:21].

It’s called “persecution”. Jesus foretold that persecutions would afflict His followers in Jn. 15:20, Mt. 24:9 and Mk. 10:30.  He also said that our salvation hangs in the balance based on our willingness to endure that suffering. This is the ONLY scenario Jesus confirmed as “meriting” us into Heaven – there is no other:

“So, everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” (Mt. 10: 32-33)

Christ’s statement frames a very narrow circumstance:  suffering persecution “for the sake of the Name” [c.f. Acts 5:41, 9:16, 1 Pet. 4:14]. But even here we pause to focus a distinction of great subtlety. Christ did not propose human suffering as meriting Heaven. The merit Jesus identified was in the faith professed by reason of undergoing such persecutions.

Suffering to the point of death professes a faith in Christ so heroic as to stand confirmed beyond any flaw, uncertainty or equivocation. It is faith so completely, eloquently and conclusively affirmed that Christ Himself will not deny it before His Father in Heaven. Therefore, neither will His Church. Only Catholicism confirms martyrdom as a crown of assured sainthood.

Let this Cup of Suffering Pass

This discussion of persecution enables a further theological illumination. What about where Jesus says to “pick up our cross and follow Him”?  What about where Paul offers his sufferings in union with Christ in Col 1:24? These verses are commonly cited by Catholics as frequently as they misinterpret them.  We’ll address both of those statements in sequence.

What cross was Jesus proposing to us?  The cross was an instrumentality of persecution imposed upon Jesus by decree of the Jewish religious leaders who envied Him and resented His message [Mt. 27:18].  He accepted the cross at their hands – but did not seek or shoulder it by a choice of self-assertion.

Quite the opposite. Jesus asked that the cup of suffering be taken from Him if possible. He wasn’t a masochist. The angelic presence that came to comfort Him thereby confirmed crucifixion as the Father’s Will – as also did the fulfillment of the Scriptures.  Jesus did not presume God desired that He should suffer – it was confirmed to Him by God.

Victim souls are extremely rare. They are not “assistant” Christs. They do not justify themselves or anybody else by their sufferings.  As such, we Catholics dare not presume, claim or propose by self-determination the sufferings which God alone permits for our sanctification.  That is spiritual presumption, not piety. The chasm between them is huge. And dangerous. There is no need to seek out personal suffering – it will find us, regardless.

How we respond to life’s left-turns, dead-ends, disappointments and raw deals is a choice left up to us.  God knows why they’re there. We don’t. But a loving and gracious God of kindness and compassion will always have very benevolent purposes in mind for each of us even in travails. Our human trust in those attributes of God doesn’t come easy or cheap.  It requires our own determination, patience, humility, and perseverance acting in docility to the greater grace and influence of the Holy Spirit.

Best to leave it there. Suffer if we must, but rejoice always – even in persecutions.  Only joy confirms real Catholic holiness. This is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Where there is hope, joy abides. Not anxiety. Not fear.  There is no such thing as a depressed and joyless Saint.

Except perhaps in Catholic paintings…

[In Part II we will consider a second form of suffering identified by St. Paul and a third. There are only three categories of sufferings deemed “meritorious” within a Catholic faith profession.]

Guest Contributor: Mike White is a Catholic convert, a real estate investment banker, lawyer, Cursillista and father of four boys. Having navigated an Exodus from California, he now lives in Castle Rock, Colorado with Mary Jo, his wife of 36 years. Mike teaches RCIA  at his parish and writes on contemporary faith and economics issues.

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5 thoughts on “Our Catholic Suffering Syndrome (CSS) Part I”

    1. David Dowd, OCDS

      What about the concept of redemptive suffering,? This seems to be central in Catholic teaching.

    2. I don’t see how the words redemption and redemptive can apply to anything that we do because the redemption happened 2000 years ago. Redemptive suffering was part of the redemption process of the suffering Redeemer. Our job is to receive His Spirit by faith so that we benefit from the redemptive graces.
      Whatever suffering that we encounter on this earth can benefit us if we continue to exercise faith and trust in Christ while it is occurring. We are not to despair. This is how Paul could remain content regardless of what was happening to him. He preferred to have his thorn in the flesh removed; but when it wasn’t going to be removed, he accepted it and moved on in peace and contentment. “Tribulation worketh patience” (Romans 5:3).

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