the dark side of the quest for perfection

Eugene Kennedy has written a thought-provoking article called, Catholicism’s central teaching: how to be imperfect. An emeritus professor of psychology at Loyola University, Chicago, Kennedy describes the pre-Vatican II Church’s obsession with perfection.

The demand for being perfect, based on Matthew 5:14, “Be ye therefore perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” became the deranged and deranging discipline that was brought to an end by Vatican II’s healthier attitude toward spiritual growth.

Life in religious communities and seminaries revolved around an unhealthy focus on rules and regulations. “Keep the Rule and the Rule will keep you” was the battle cry. Spiritual perfection lay in following the rules, “most of them more like traffic regulations than spiritual insights”.

It wasn’t any easier for the laity. I was still a child in the transition years of the 1960’s. A very serious child, I had a fear of breaking rules, and the ensuing punishment. I realize now that I probably suffered from an overly scrupulous nature. I’m sure it wasn’t unusual at a time when so much about our religion was measured in both degrees of seriousness and in number.

Each sin had to be confessed – whether mortal or venial. We struggled to not only remember all our sins, but to remember how many times they were committed. The scales of justice were ever before our eyes. Missed Mass last Sunday? Then we had to trot off to the confessional to avoid the eternal punishment assigned to a mortal sin. No food or water could pass our lips before receiving Communion. Eating meat on Fridays was a sin. Worried about the purgatory time you were racking up? There were prayers, rosaries, and other holy actions that could earn you indulgences. So many prayers equaled so many days off purgatory. (I envied martyrs, because a martyr’s death guaranteed you a first class, non-stop ticket into heaven.)

Kennedy has hit the nail on the head. Religion at that time was focused on perfection; an unattainable, unreasonable, and inhuman perfection. It was the Pharisaical style of religion that Jesus spoke so angrily about; one that worried about clean dishes and hands more than a good and righteous heart.

Some say that the pendulum swung too far the other way, making us lose our sense of sin. Perhaps. We need to know what is right and what is wrong, and we need to teach our children the same. We need to listen to our conscience, for guilt can be a healthy indicator that we have screwed up and need to make things right. We need a moral compass to guide us. We need to regularly examine our consciences, ask for forgiveness and seek reconciliation with those we hurt. What we don’t need is to focus on our sinfulness to the point where we lose sight of the good in us, and the good in each other.

We are sinners and saints, just like the motley crew that Jesus gathered around himself. He loved them all, and called them to love themselves and each other. Kennedy sums it up beautifully.

The mystery of being human and certainly of being a Catholic lies in our embracing together the imperfect state known as the human condition. First and foremost, if we could ever be perfect or do things perfectly, we would eliminate mystery, an essential ingredient in the good life and the spiritual life…

There would be no need for love if perfection were possible. Love arises from our imperfection, from our being different and always in need of the forgiveness, encouragement and that missing half of ourselves that we are searching for, as the Greek myth tells us, in order to complete ourselves. In every mythic tale, it is where we stumble and fall that we discover the gold.

6 thoughts on “the dark side of the quest for perfection

  1. One of the parables that has always delighted me was the “Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector” The Pharisee offers his actual rightness and is deemed wrong by Jesus; the tax collector offers his actual wrongness and is deemed right by Jesus.

    Julian of Norwich puts it this way: “First there is the fall, then there is the recovering, both are the mercy of God”. Fr. Richard Rohr says it this way in his book “Falling Upward”, “We come to God by doing it wrong; falling is part of the deal.” Jesus says” “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it brings forth much fruit”. “There is no freedom or salvation until we have failed”.

    Remember “O happy fault” from the Easter Vigil Liturgy?

  2. Hi Isabella!
    Wonderful images all! I can so relate as I was also a child of this transition! …and now I have the lyrics and tune in my mind…O happy fault! O necessary sine of Adam!
    A good thought to leave in my mind.


  3. Hi Cathy!
    Anyone who reads your blog knows that you are a woman who treasures the memories of the past, and ensures that they are remembered! Hmmm….isn’t that what sharing our faith is all about? 😉

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