What Catholics (and other Christians) Can (and Should) Learn from Buddhism

from Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
Karen Armstrong

Yet sadly we hear little about compassion these days. I have lost count of the number of times I have jumped into a London taxi and, when the cabbie asks how I make a living, have been informed categorically that religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history. In fact, the causes of conflict are usually greed, envy, and ambition, but in an effort to sanitize them, these self-serving emotions have often been cloaked in religious rhetoric. There has been much flagrant abuse of religion in recent years. Terrorists have used their faith to justify atrocities that violate its most sacred values. In the Roman Catholic Church, Popes and Bishops have ignored the suffering of countless women and children by turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse committed by their priests. Some religious leaders seem to behave like secular politicians, singing the praises of their own denomination and decrying their rivals with scant regard for charity. In their public announcements, they rarely speak of compassion but focus instead on such secondary matter as sexual practices, the ordination of women, or abstruse doctrinal definitions, implying that a correct stance on these issues--rather than the golden rule--is the criterion of true faith.

While Ms. Armstrong and I might have words to exchange over the relative importance of doctrinal and dogmatic clarification, I think we would see mostly eye-to-eye on what really matters.  When I think about the teachings of Jesus, I don't remember a time when he said, "Blessed are the test-makers, for they shall have a precise measurement of the gates of heaven."  Nor do I recall that the ultimate test of faith would be multiple choice on  doctrine and dogma.  Rather it seems clear to me, that Jesus articulated a very pronounced criterion for success in faith matters.  "When I was in prison, you visited me.  When I was thirsty, you gave me to drink.  When I was hungry, you gave me to eat."  This, it seems to me, is the test of whether faith has any substances--not abstract knowledge of the principles.

I don't want to denigrate that abstract knowledge because it helps to inform the practical actions one should undertake.  However, when the abstract knowledge becomes the end rather than the means to a living faith, one needs to examine the principles that are being articulated.

For me, faith has no meaning if it is not lived in a way that everyone can see.  And by that, I do not mean mouthed so that all can hear--although that can be an important aspect of a living faith--but the fundamental understanding that John Donne had when he wrote:

from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions: Meditation XVII
John Donne

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours.

Such a statement comes only from certain knowledge of a shared fate and a deep compassion for human frailty and weakness--a compassion that demands walking with those more frail and weaker than ourselves and helping shoulder their burdens.  We do this in prayer, in corporal works of mercy, and sometimes in our mere presence--a listening ear to turn to.

What Catholics could learn from Buddhists (oh, and a great many other faiths as well) is to recognize the criteria of lived faith and to celebrate those even as we worship as we have been taught.  What we do not need is further division in the name of doctrinal purity or even in the name of  "right translation."  I know that what I have to say is not popular among some groups of Catholics, but the Church would be much better off if more attention were lavished on compassion and how to demonstrate it and how to practice it, than on whether multos translates literally as "for the many" or "for all"  when it is absolutely crystal clear in all dogma and practice that Jesus died for all that sins may be forgiven.  It is the sort of tone-deaf word mincing that causes all manner of difficulty in and out of the church. And I, for one, am tired of the endless division it inculcates. 

Is that a problem of the faith?  No rather, it is a problem of people who must always be in the right.  But, if they would just open their eyes, they must see that to be in the right is to help to take away some of the suffering of those around us--to practice compassion and lovingkindness to one another.  There is no way of being wrong if one's life is lived on those principles.  And when we've died and gone another way--translated into a new life, the legacy left behind is one of mercy, compassion, love, and perhaps a small part of the Earth that is a little better off than before we had been there.


  1. Steven --

    I find myself indicted and convicted by this post! Of late, I have entangled myself in ultimately futile combox debates about condoms in Africa, gays in the Catholic Church, and Jack Kevorkian. And have often expressed myself with an unhelpful vehemence. And will, alas, no doubt continue to do so, under the guise of "defending the faith" or "counseling the doubtful and instructing the ignorant." Yikes!

    I wince, a little, at Karen Armstrong's none-too-subtle perpetuation of the "Catholicism equals sex abuse" meme, but she does perhaps have a point about not letting dogma turn us into monsters of dogmatism, energetic in debate but indolent at the works of charity and mercy. And words from John Donne, whether they be in prose or in verse, are always welcome. Thank you.


  2. Dear Dylan,

    I concur with much of the sentiment around Ms. Armstrong's indictment of the Church; however, I think it is salutary as a "lest we forget" moment. I'm probably more bothered by the seeming implication that only women and children have been damaged by this atrocity. I must admit I am more incensed, angered, and frustrated by this than perhaps I have right to be, but I am among the injured as well--as is any father who now must trust the local vicars and priests to do what is right with solid evidence that they have failed to do so in the past. Only time will tell whether or not the church has learned from this ordeal.

    But thank you. I think often on what I hear in church by way of instruction, and often at the local level, the parish priest is a trifle more helpful than the Church at large. But honestly, I seldom hear what I long to hear and what I need a daily dose of--go and do the good work of Jesus Christ. Serve the poor, feed the hungry, free those unjustly imprisoned (whether the prisons be physical, spiritual, or mental). The Church would be a better Church if we could concentrate on some of these things and have them leavened with the proper instruction as to what the truth of the doctrine is.

    I have no problem with doctrinal truth, but in itself, it rarely helps me be a better Christian in my service. Not never, just rarely, and I suspect it is so with most. I do not have a naturally charitable heart, and I fear it must be trained.

    Thanks again for your kind comments.



  3. This goes hand-in-hand with the documents of Vatican II, as I have recently been reminded while rereading Render Unto Caesar by Archbishop Chaput. Truly it is a great book about living our faith in kindness and compassion while not watering it down. I'm glad that our book club chose it as I likely wouldn't have reread it and the necessity to "act" upon our faith as you mention above is something that I need to be reminded of (like so many other things about our faith).

  4. Dear Julie,

    Thank you for taking the time to comment. I love--LOVE--Chaput's book, a great book.




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