Matt C. Abbott
Beware of excessive criticism, says priest
By Matt C. Abbott
April 20, 2010

Author Thomas M. Santa, C.Ss.R., writes good material for spiritual reading. While you won't find him publicly commenting on the issues of the day, his reflections allow Catholics such as myself to take a step back, even if only briefly, and think twice about things. His latest reflection, from a newsletter I receive via "snail mail," struck a chord with me; perhaps it will with you as well. Many thanks to Father Santa for allowing me to reprint it in this column.

    Excessive Criticism

    By Father Thomas Santa

    A friend regularly sends me e-mails that are critical of the President of the United States. The president can do absolutely nothing that pleases my friend. My friend's extensive mailing list suggests that he intentionally does no self censoring and delights in letting everyone know his opinion.

    Now, I understand that this president irritates some people. The previous president also irritated some people, and undoubtedly the next president will too. I suppose all of this irritation is a normal part of our national dialogue. What concerns me about my friend isn't his politics. It's that he's engaging in an ever-escalating form of criticism that goes beyond dialogue and discussion to the point that the criticism itself seems to be more important to him than the subject or focus. And it's not just the president anymore: His list of targets is ever expanding. I wonder if he stands outside at night looking at the sunset, thinking God used too much pink and not enough orange!

    Measured use of criticism — the occasional disagreement with another person or the critical diagnosis of a specific problem — is a healthy expression of the gifts of judgment and perception God gave us. But excessive use of criticism is ultimately unhelpful in large doses, as is any negative behavior that engages our feelings, taps into our senses, or provokes an emotional charge. Excessive criticism concerns me because it's so damaging to the human and spiritual person. We pay a price when we use our gifts or talents beyond their intended use.

    When we haven't exercised for a long time and suddenly go on a ten-mile hike, the sore muscles, blisters, and lack of energy we experience the next day isn't a surprise. Muscles have a way of reminding us that they cannot be abused in this manner. Excessive use of criticism affects us in the same way; unfortunately, our spiritual self isn't as easily informed of abuse as our physical self is, so we must be even more vigilant.

    When our first reaction is to be critical, to be mistrusting, or to find fault, we eventually forget how to be enthusiastic and hopeful. Instead of being surrounded by joy, peace, and energy, we're sullen, anxious, empty, and tired. Excessive use of criticism drains us of imagination, dreams, and hope for change. We can become suspicious, mistrusting, full of anger, and convinced there is nothing of value around us. We often become hard-hearted, demanding, unrelenting — frankly, the type of person no one wants to be around.

    Jesus constantly encountered people unable to believe in something bigger than their personal experience or perception of life. He was subjected to a constant chorus of criticism from the scribes and Pharisees because he didn't fit their image of what the Messiah should be. He didn't fit their definition of what God desired for his people. Jesus couldn't do anything they would find life-giving, grace-filled, or a source of blessing. Eventually, Jesus was so saddened by the scribes and the Pharisees that he lost patience with them (see Mark 3:1–6).

    I have a feeling that many of the scribes and Pharisees feasted on the half-truths, innuendos, and anger that fuel unjustified criticism. Instead of feasting on love, patience, gentleness, forgiveness, and the other gifts of the Spirit of God, they slowly fell into the all-consuming pain and anxiety of people who can no longer celebrate life. Jesus disliked being around them, and it wouldn't surprise me if their friends and families felt the same way. So, it seems, it may well be with my e-mail friend.

    I've been tempted to add my friend's e-mail address to my junk-mail list so I no longer have to pay attention to his daily diatribe, but I keep hoping he'll send an e-mail that's positive and life-giving. After all, grace abounds and the power of the Spirit of God is untiring and unceasing.

    In our living out of the Christian life of faith one old habit we might want to leave behind with our old way of living, is any part of ourselves that is excessively critical. The Christian life speaks to us of light and life. Jesus invites us to embrace a way of life that is nourished by hope, animated by grace, and filled with a sense of blessing. If any part of ourselves makes the living of a Christian life difficult or perhaps even impossible, now is the time to have the courage to let it go, to leave it in the past, and to embrace the vision and the hope of a future free of such pain and anxiety.

© Matt C. Abbott


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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He also has an Associate in Applied Science degree in business management from Triton College. Abbott has been interviewed on MSNBC, Bill Martinez Live, WOSU Radio in Ohio, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's 'Unsolved' podcast, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) and WISC-TV (CBS) in Madison, Wis., and has been quoted in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and other media outlets. In 2005 and 2006, he was among the first writers to expose former cardinal Theodore McCarrick's abuse of power with and sexual harassment of seminarians. He can be reached at

(Note: I welcome thoughtful feedback and story ideas. If you want our correspondence to remain confidential, please specify as such in your initial email to me. However, I reserve the right to forward and/or publish emails that are accusatory, insulting or threatening in nature, even if they're marked confidential. Also, if you give me permission to publish a quote of yours, please do not contact me at a later time to request that I delete your name. Only in limited circumstances will I quote anonymous sources. Thank you and God bless!)


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