By Bishop Arthur Serratelli
Almost every school of ancient philosophy claimed Socrates as their patron saint. In Greece and Rome, the Skeptics, the Stoics and the Cynics all looked to Socrates for inspiration. Living in 5th century Athens, he did not conform to the pressures of contemporary society. By his method of questioning, he tried to move others away from living in the futile search for fame and power. He challenged his fellow citizens to seek higher moral standards.
In 406 B.C., when the city government of Athens was advocating an illegal proposal to convict a group of Athens’ top generals, he stood apart as the lone opponent. He held firm to his principles and spoke out courageously. Socrates refused to act out of human respect.
Simply defined, human respect is placing the opinions of others over truth in order to be accepted and even honored by others. It is one of the most pernicious attitudes. Like a toxic gas, it subtly surrounds us, ready to rob us of our virtue. It undermines personal integrity. It damages society.
Respecting others even when they disagree with us is the virtue of tolerance. But letting our desire for their esteem make us affirm what is against God’s law is immoral. This is the sin of human respect which inverts the moral order, placing the approval of others before the approval by God.
Being accepted and recognized as a person and not being marginalized is one of the goods that every person desires. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, every person naturally desires to be recognized as having worth (Summa theologiae, 2a2ae, 129.1). No one wishes to be marginalized or dismissed either by others or by society at large. For this reason, all of us face, at times, the temptation to give in to human respect.
At the same time when 78 percent of Americans have shed the cloak of organized religion, those Christians who hold on to their faith often find themselves unwelcome in public life. In such an environment, acquiescence to the prevailing cultural trends is fast becoming more attractive than resistance. Believers face the temptation to go along with things that they neither condone nor believe in order to be accepted.
Living together as husband and wife without being married, same-sex partnerships, abortions, in-vitro fertilization, euthanasia, transgenderism and physician-assisted suicide: all of these have gained acceptance in our society. Our post-Christian culture has rejected the natural law as a way to judge the morality of these choices. Instead, it has made the individual the sole arbiter of his or her own morality. Thus, those who hold to the natural law and the divine commandments find themselves in a particularly difficult situation.
In our fragmented and changing society, those who stridently oppose Christian morality as well as those who do not practice the faith are all too eager to dismiss anything that contradicts their own conduct or opinions. In such circumstances, not clearly standing for truth and goodness for fear of hurting someone’s feelings, losing popularity or being rejected is the sin of human respect. It is always wrong to support, condone or promote a moral evil either by word or by silence.
Herod Antipas is a classic example of someone who acted out of human respect. At a feast celebrating his birthday, he had been so pleased by the seductive dancing of Salome that he swore to give her anything that she desired, even up to half his kingdom. When she demanded the head of John the Baptist on a platter, his conscience stood in right judgment and condemned such an act. But, out of fear that his court and guests would think less of him as a man of power and authority, he gave in to her evil request. Human respect dictated the sentence. John the Baptist was beheaded. Herod sinned gravely.
Whether the individual be a parent, relative, teacher, friend or even a priest, anyone who refuses to do the right thing or to speak the truth for fear of what others may think, that individual sadly repeats the sin of Herod. In an attempt to avoid the derision or rejection of others, such a person forfeits the approval of God. However, when anyone of us resists the temptation of human respect, we are freed from the shackles of narcissism and pride. And, the moral clarity of our speech and actions dispels confusion, helping others to embrace virtue that alone leads to true happiness.