Distinguishing between gnats and camels

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Mt 23:23-27

23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You pay tithes of mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity. [But] these you should have done, without neglecting the others.

24 Blind guides, who strain out the gnat [qualma] and swallow the camel [gamla]![1]

25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You cleanse the outside of cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence.

26 Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may be clean.

27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men's bones and every kind of filth. 28m Even so, on the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing.

Lev 19:17
You shall not bear hatred for your brother in your heart. Though you may have to reprove your fellow man, do not incur sin because of him.

It is bad enough when we see other people commit sin; it is far worse if we let their sins cause us to fall into sin ourselves.

Jesus has given us definite instructions on how to treat our enemies. While criticizing others for their shortcomings ("straining the gnat"), we ourselves may fall into a far worse sin ("swallowing the camel").

In matters of freedom, where there is no law, or in small matters that do not oblige under pain of sin, we should apply our high ideals to ourselves, but not hold them against others — we should be hard on ourselves but go easy on our neighbor.

Law and Order Catholics

"Law and order Catholics" are those who worry about others' sins instead of their own. They notice and condemn sin in others, but do not pray with mercy for the sinners. To such people, I must sound like an unscrupulous person. From their standpoint, there is only the right way and the wrong way, with no middle ground. They know nothing of the "glorious freedom of the children of God." There is only one way to be Catholic, one way to pray, one way to say Mass. Their intentions are good; the fruit is bad.

These legalistic perfectionists do not discriminate between small matters and great. They believe that everything to be done is prescribed by law and can be evaluated from the standpoint of the law. Every violation of this imagined "law" is as shocking to them as the violation of the Ten Commandments.

I like the rule of law. I admire the Roman canonical tradition, but it is part of that tradition to multiply favors and restrict burdens.[2]

Small matters

  • Genuflecting before entering the pew.
  • Kneeling and praying silently before Mass.
  • Using a priestly posture ("orans") to pray the Our Father.
  • Making a sign of reverence before receiving Communion.
  • Receiving Communion on the hand instead of on the tongue.
  • Celebrating Mass in English rather than Latin.
  • Wearing good clothes for Sunday Mass.
  • Women covering their heads in Church.
  • Applauding at Mass.

Things we probably can't correct

Changes made by priests

Many priests disregard the Church's instructions for how to celebrate Mass. Such priests:

  • Change the language of the Mass.
    • Create their own prologue to the Mass.
    • Make up their own prayers.
  • Change the order of rituals in the Mass.
  • Change the rituals themselves.
    • Do not wash their hands at the Offertory.
    • Do not bow while consecrating.
    • Offer the bread and wine simultaneously at the Offertory.
    • Do not genuflect after each consecration and before Communion.
    • Invite the people to hold hands during the Lord's Prayer.

The priests who do these things are almost certainly doing them on purpose. I have never heard of such deviations from the norms for liturgy being corrected by a bishop or abandoned by the disobedient priests.

Congregational behavior

  • Talking before and after Mass.
  • Not genuflecting to the Blessed Sacrament.
  • Coming late.
  • Leaving early.
  • Not confessing regularly.
  • Receiving Communion "unworthily" (as far as we can tell from outward appearances).

The Little Way

Life is nothing but a series of little things.

It is easy to get small things right precisely because they are small.

Disorder in the little things in life can enrage us out of all proportion to their actual worth.

Small things do add up — like drops of water in the ocean, grains of sand on the shore, and snowflakes in a blizzard.

"The one who can be trusted with small things will be placed in charge of greater things."

Little things reveal the quality of our character.

"Do small things with great love."

Thou Shalt Not Gunnysack

Someone who cries out, "That's it! That's the last straw!" is guilty of collecting straws.

We can't reach the last straw if we don't hang on to the first straws.

Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice what is adequately explained by stupidity."

Paul's Thorn: 2 Cor 12:10 ...

Jesus' Prayer: "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do."

This is, in essence, the question behind the questions of the Christian Pharisees: "How many times must I forgive my neighbor — or my pastor? When do I get to lower the boom on them and go postal? How can I gain control over them by the application of the law?"

Be hard on ourselves, go easy on others

If we have a sensitive conscience, we should see to it that we behave according to our own highest standards. Our sole task is to examine our own consciences, not those of others. We only know what is going on inside of us; we do not know what God is doing in their hearts and minds. We should not turn the high standards we set for ourselves into a source of contempt for others.

We should not impute malice when we see others violate our highest standards. Instead, we should presume good will and trust in God's mercy. "Father, forgive them; they know not what they do."


"There can be no renewal of any aspect of our Catholic lives and identity without first a revitalization of our liturgical worship."[3]

Is that true? How can we adopt outward observances if our heart is unrepentant?

I would think that the "renewal ... of our Catholic lives and identity" begins with acts of faith, hope, and love. I may be wrong. Perhaps Our Lord is more swayed by obedience to the new rubrics than He is by our trust in Him.

We may need a new sacred image with a new motto under it: "Jesus, I trust in the liturgists." Or we may need to see that the rubrics exist to serve the People, not the People to serve the rubrics.

Forswear Resentment, Practice Love

It is bad enough that someone is doing something that is out of order. That is the gnat on which we are focused. It is far worse if we conceive and bear resentment in our hearts as a consequence of noticing others' wrongdoing. That is "swallowing the camel."

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You pay tithes of mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity. [But] these you should have done, without neglecting the others" (Mt 23:23).

"Go and learn the meaning of the words, 'What I desire is mercy, not sacrifice.'"

Noticing others' limitations gives us "Another F[ree] Growth Opportunity (AFGO)":

  • Forgiveness prayer.
  • "There, but for the grace of God, go I."
  • If we hold them in contempt, we will become contemptible.
  • Loving Jesus and desiring to serve Him well in little things does not give us the right to sneer at others' sins or to imagine them as being beyond God's mercy. Remember the story of the Pharisee who prayed, "I thank you Lord that I am not like other men."

Too Frequent Communion

I hear people complain from time to time that too many Catholics are taking Communion too frequently.

The grounds of this distress are not hard to understand. Far more Catholics take Communion than go to confession regularly. It seems unlikely that everyone who takes Communion at Mass on Sundays is in the state of grace.

I am inclined to think that it's best to give Communion to too many rather than to too few — if those are the only options. God has not given me control over the spiritual life of other people. When I am disquieted about how poorly prepared other people are to receive Jesus, I should think first about my own unworthiness, distraction, and ingratitude. If I am still troubled, I can say the Fatima prayers in reparation for all of the sins committed against Jesus in the Eucharist.

I imagine that it is indeed a great sorrow to God when we receive Communion unworthily, but I cannot persuade these people — or myself! — to repent, confess their sins, and amend their lives by holding them in contempt. God is the great changer of hearts, not me. My resentments add nothing to His love for sinful humanity. "Jesus, I trust in You."

I must not hate those who hate

This whole issue is a tar baby.

I fall into the very trap I wish to avoid when I contemn those who hold others in contempt.

The only way out is up, and I can't lift myself up by my bootstraps.

Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness
In your compassion blot out my offense.
O wash me more and more from my guilt
and cleanse me from my sin. (Psalm 51)


  1. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, p. 455: "In Aramaic, "gnat is qalma, and "camel" is gamla.
  2. Pete Vere and Michael Trueman, Surprised by Canon Law, p. 9 (among others).
  3. "D. Covington: Bp. Foys issues liturgical decrees - No joy for 'hand holders.'"