Using Prayer as a Rhetorical Weapon

We all need prayers. Every soul praying for our soul is a net positive. As Catholics, it’s one of the main reasons we ask the Saints for their prayers. Yet there are times when the phrase “I will be praying for you” sounds more like spite than a genuine offering up to God.

I’ve noticed this more and more in Catholic blog comment boxes, and it has happened here on more than one occasion. A person of a more leftist orientation disagrees with a post written by one of our regulars, and after a semi-heated exchange, goes off in a huff, but not before saying that they will be praying for the person they’ve been debating. Instead of coming off as a “I’ll be praying for you so that God may provide his abundant mercy,” it sounds more like the person is saying, “I will be praying for your poor soul to recognize the merits of a higher tax rate for the wealthy.” The underlying tone is, I am a better person than you, so God better hear from me to save you from the hellfire.

I suppose we all do this from time to time. It was common while Christopher Hitchens was alive to hear Catholics declaring that they were praying for his conversion, or simply for his soul. Now there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, and all people truly need our prayers. Yet there is a very fine line, and we can all run into the danger of using prayer almost as a rhetorical bludgeon. It might be a good idea to stop and ask yourself, am I offering to pray for this person because I am truly moved by the Holy Spirit to do so, or am I doing this to subtly indicate my own self-righteousness? Then again – and this is for the theological philosophers to muddle over – is prayer offered up even with bad motivation better than no prayer at all?

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Dante alighieri


  1. I think it’s just the new form of Weaponized Charity Demands. Because there’s nothing as charitable as accusing someone of lacking the Proper Spirit of Charity, IE, the desire whatever you want them to do…..

  2. More seriously– I usually take it as having been addressed by Jesus with the whole “go to your room and pray quietly, not on street corners” thing. Unless you think it’ll actually help someone to know that you’re praying for them, I highly suggest keeping it quiet.

  3. I have many faithful, loving people (living and dead) for whom daily I pray.

    Neither the Gospels nor prayers ought to be subverted to spiteful motives.

    Anyhow, I use “bless her/his heart”, whenever I want to express disdain for evil.

    Many times a day I say, “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins; save us from the fire of Hell; take all souls to Heaven; and help especially those most in need of Thy mercy.” I believe that covers, bless their hearts, liberals.

  4. I believe those that speak of back-handed praying as a way of insulting another or estabishing superiority run afoul of the commandment not to misuse the name of God.
    I also believe that when we say to someone that we will pray for them, and don’t follow through with it, we are guilty of breaking the same commandment. I confess my own sin in this matter.

  5. Excellent article. I have seen exactly the spite you’ve described.

    I’ve also seen prayer used as a kind of cop-out. Instead of admonishing or correcting someone, I’ve seen people say “I’ll pray for them.” This reminds me of the parable where instead of giving food to a hungry person, a well fed person instead “prays for them”.

  6. I’m embarrassed to admit this but, I did not realize until recently that “bless his/her heart” is NOT a compliment, or a low-key prayer for someone’s good! I used to hear my grandparents say that in reference to people who drove them nuts. I assumed they were being charitable, and they never explained to me otherwise because I didn’t ask.

  7. OK, I’ve got to be the jerk who says this, I guess. But both sides do this. Self-righteous condescension is one of the devil’s most effective temptations for the faithful.

  8. Dagnabbit! I missed Ollie’s comment.

    “If the wicked refuse to join in the blessed endeavor, they should be loved as enemies are loved in Christian charity, since, as long as they live, there is the possibility that they may come to a better mind.” St. Augustine

  9. Admonish the sinner.

    Bear all wrongs patiently.

    Forgive all injuries (including the imaginary).

    Counsel the doubtful.

    Instruct the ignorant.

    Pray for the living and the dead.

    The Spiritual Works of Mercy

  10. Again, I don’t mean to stir up trouble, but I notice a lot of “may God have mercy” comments in the Caroline Kennedy thread. Isn’t this the same thing? Or, rather, doesn’t the result of both appear the same no matter what the motivation?

  11. Pinky-
    yes, if you’re determined to try to read every mention of praying for someone as weaponized forms of religion, you’re going to be able to.
    Kind of like the folks who respond to every pointing out of Democrat misbehavior by finding SOMETHING the Republicans have done, and acting like it’s exactly the same, or worse.

    If, on the other hand, you’re willing to recognize that there’s a difference between:
    1) having a large argument, usually laced with lots of attempts to use the Church’s authority to support a position it doesn’t require, and ending with a variation of “I’m praying for you” heavy with the implication of “you horrible person”
    2) “this woman is publicly supporting something that is absolutely off limits, I will be praying for her”
    No, it’s not the same thing, nor does it appear so, unless you’re blinding yourself by trying to be “fair” by taking the worst possible interpretation of one side vs the best possible on the other.

  12. St. Augustine quote: “What is reprehensible is that, while leading good lives themselves and abhorring those of wicked men, some fearing to offend shut their eyes to evil deeds instead of condemning them and pointing out their malice. To be sure, the motive behind their tolerance is that they may suffer no hurt in the possession of those temporal goods which virtuous and blameless men may lawfully enjoy; still, there is more self-seeking here than becomes men who are mere sojourners in this world and who profess hope of a home in heaven.”

    I think “weaponized prayer” is distinctly less unchartable (and less judgmental) than the hackneyed democrat (bless their hearts) hacks’ habitual calling down a horrid death on, or calling a nazi, anyone so evil as to disasagree with the nightmarish program.

  13. Fox – I will always go out of my way to look on my opponents in the most favorable light. That’s a “gimme”. I don’t know a way to attain heaven without doing that. (There may be a touch of scruples in it as well, to be frank.)

    As for calling out the people on my own side, I probably have gotten more aggressive on that because the internet seems rigged against that impulse. It’s nearly impossible to take advice from an opponent in any circumstances, and with the net allowing us to form into smaller and smaller groups, nearly everyone eventually becomes an outsider who isn’t worthy of listening to. There’s no check on the speck vs. mote phenomenon. I have a feeling that if we could view our internet selves objectively we’d be stunned at our lack of charity. (I suspect the same is true of our driving selves. The things we do when we’re not making eye contact with someone else.)

  14. Pinky-
    there is a MASSIVE difference between taking the best reasonable spin you can on those you disagree with and totally ignoring their flaws.
    Likewise, there is a MASSIVE difference between ignoring the problems of those you agree with, and going to crazy lengths to take the worst possible interpretation of their actions.

    I agree that there is a lot of what I called induced psychopathy, but that does not excuse actively choosing against fairness, let alone charity, just because someone agrees with you.

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