Whose Side Are You On?

JMJ

YOU HAVE TO ADMIT THAT life seems to be polarizing right now: socially, politically, and religiously. Everyone needs to be on a side and you’d better be on the right side as well. Generally, of course, the right side is my side. We are seeing this in all areas: if you don’t agree with me, then you must not only be wrong but you must be filled with hate for me. Anyone so wrong must be hateful.

This is not only a secular issue, for we see it in other religions and in the Church. It’s something I’ve seen for most of my life in every religious tradition in which I’ve participated. People tend not to hold together, but rather spin apart. The more “religious” people get, the more fractious they get. It’s practically a joke among protestants. Well, two jokes actually. Both of those jokes could be told about political parties or social groups and, in some cases, friends or relationships. They run like this in the religious form:

When the man was found on the deserted island, his rescuers found he had built a house and two churches. They asked why. “Well,” he said. “That’s the church I go to. That’s the church I used to go to.”

Many people think the first [denomination name] was [founder name]. In fact the first [denomination]s are mentioned in Genesis. Abram said to Lot, “You go your way, and I’ll go mine.”

It’s a bit of a commonplace to note this about the Anglicans of my youth: lawsuits filed against departing parishes, bishops denied entry to their churches, parishes split over questions of morality and polity, etc. Even before the present moment, there were the liturgy wars and the prayerbook wars. Yet, even before that, there are other bodies which pealed away from the “Anglican mainstream” to become their own things: the Methodists and the Reformed Episcopal Church for two. In these latter days, the Anglican Church in North America and the Anglican Catholic Church also split away. Fleeing Anglicans and their divisiveness, I was certainly seeking stability, but I was too quick to believe the writings of some converts to Orthodoxy who said all these problems were solved in the Eastern Church. Everything was calm, cool, and kosher in the East as compared to everything in the West where things are falling apart and heretical.

This mythology was false: in the Eastern Churches, as in the West, the person next to you in the liturgy may not believe all the things the Church teaches, may be just as much a liberal, modern American as in Anglicanism. Short of the Parousia, this will always be so. God promised us the True Church, but not a pure church. No matter where you think the True Church is (and I believe her to be only in communion with the Roman Pontiff) you will always find some who are better or worse at being there. The root of the faith is always in your heart and that’s where you need to work on it. It is impossible to work on – or to judge – the faith in the heart of another person.

So, Rome.

The divisiveness of America is here too. There are those who view the movement from Pope John XXIII through Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, to Pope Francis as one of differing political regimes: some good, some bad. They view the popes of their lifetime through a lens of modern politics resulting in a hermeneutic of rupture: things change from one Pope to another. We sometimes get a Pope who does good things – and sometimes a Pope who does bad things. It is we who get to decide if the Pope is good or bad, based on our political and cultural feelings. What makes a Pope “good” is that he does things I like.

This attitude has increased in the current century to where it’s possible to create a personal ecclesial bubble: Catholics who agree (or disagree) in exactly the same way I do are “the Church” and those who disagree (or agree) in other ways are being divisive. So one must pick: is one a Pope Francis man or is one a Benedict XVI guy? Is one a trad or a modernist? Novus Ordo or TLM? Ad Orientem or Versus Populum? Are you on my side or are you wrong?

This all came to mind with the reporting of the recent meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the discussion of the teaching document on the Eucharist. The whole vote was around the question of should we draft a teaching document? Given that nearly 70% of people who say they are Catholic do not believe what the Church teaches on this topic, it seems we need more than just one teaching document. The media (both secular and some Catholic outlets of all flavors) made out that the document was to be about abortion and our Catholic president. However the document hasn’t even yet been drafted. Additionally, the USCCB has no power to tell bishops what to do or to deny (in itself) communion to anyone. So, stories about the non-existent document and the idea that it could be “enforced” are horribly distorted. The reactions to this non-existent document were like the reactions of children to monsters in the dark: silly, and would be cute except they keep the adults from getting a good night’s sleep.

And the whole thing drove us into further divisions.

Sed contra, there is a hermeneutic of continuity or, one might say, a hermeneutic of charity through which we can view the last 60 years as well, a way in which we might understand what the Church teaches about herself: the Holy Spirit guides the Church and she gets the men she needs to lead her in the way she should go. The Popes have all been on the same mission and are doing the same thing in communion with the Holy Spirit as the Vicar of Christ on earth: furthering the Kingdom of God.

A Hermeneutic of Charity claims that there is a spiritual unity in the Church, of Love in Christ. Thereby we may see the Holy Spirit guiding the mystical bride of Christ through the stormy weather of the world via the Magisterium and the faithfulness of the People of God. It’s seems very clear that this reality is contrary to the political opinions of many folks inside the church and outside the church, on social media and in traditional media. The narrative of good-versus-bad inside the Church means the Church is no longer who she says she is. She can thus be ignored as she does what I dislike. I need only follow Popes I like: everyone else is an infiltration of some outside evil. Please note that “everyone else” will change if my political alliances change. The pure Church is only where I say it is. I am now the Pope.

Love forbids this though.

The scriptures and the saints counsel us to believe sin, judgement, and hell can only be assumed in the first person: I am a sinner, under judgement, and will be condemned to Hell in God’s righteousness unless I am saved by his mercy. All others – especially strangers and enemies – should be viewed in love, should be blessed, should be welcomed as angels, and should be treated as living icons (the very presence of) God. That means they are not destroying the Church, but rather I who am in danger of departure. They are not heretics, but rather I whom am at risk of damnation (if not already under it). Anyone who is a them in this picture must be treated with more, not less, love.

Our Hermeneutic of Charity must go further, though, lest it become yet another ideology, another way to create an “us versus them” narrative in the Church.

To this point, here is one of the stories of the desert fathers:

There was a saint in Egypt who dwelt in a desert place. Far away from him there was a Manichean who was a priest (at least what they call a priest). Once, when this man was going to visit one of his confederates, night overtook him in the place where the orthodox saint was living. He was in great distress, fearing to go to him to sleep there, for he knew that he was known as a Manichean, and he was afraid he would not be received. However, finding himself compelled to do so, he knocked; and the old man opened the door to him, recognized him, received him joyfully, constrained him to pray, and after having given him refreshment, he made him sleep. Thinking this over during the night, the Manichean said, “How is it that he is without any suspicions about me? Truly, this man is of God.” And he threw himself at his feet, saying, “Henceforth, I am orthodox,” and he stayed with him.

Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Benedicta Ward

Using the hermeneutic of charity even those not using that hermeneutic are assumed to be more-faithful followers of Christ than I am. It is impossible to love too much, if it is true love. It is impossible to be too hospitable if it is Christ we are welcoming.

So when we look at a “them” in the Church, the first question must not be “why are they on the wrong side?” but rather “Why am I on a side?” Even if it is a matter of morality and I can look at my own life and see that I am in keeping with the Church’s teaching, how can I judge someone? The very same measure I use to judge others is the one with which I will be judged. I know how imperfect a Catholic I am. It’s actually very easy to imagine you to be better at it than I.

It may be a bit late in our division to point this out. We are not at risk of destroying the Church: the Church can’t be destroyed. They can’t kill her – no matter who they are. Even we cannot kill her. She is the very body of Christ, the living and visible presence of the Kingdom of God on earth. The Church is the pillar and ground of the truth: society, morals, politics, and culture are judged by her – not the other way around. If someone begins with a political assumption and then compares the Church to that assumption, they are living an ideology rather than a theology.

Because It’s…

 

JMJ 

The Readings for Monday, 2nd Week of Ordinary Time (B2): 

Quoniam quasi peccatum ariolandi est, repugnare: et quasi scelus idololatriæ, nolle acquiescere. Because it is like the sin of witchcraft, to rebel: and like the crime of idolatry, to refuse to obey. 

Samuel goes to Saul to say look, you have sinned in disobeying God, and Saul’s reply is very telling: his men took sheep “to offer sacrifice to the Lord their God” which must be good, right? (Now a sacrifice would be a feast for a family, so, yes, “to the Lord” but also “for all of us…”) They were not, you know, really disobedient. They were doing something good.

But Samuel says, no, that’s not the case. Doing what you are told is good. Disobedience is always bad. How bad? Samuel compares it to Witchcraft and to Idolatry.

We might hear at this point about the “Primacy of Conscience” whereby even an “erring conscience is binding”.  And so we must follow our conscience.  

But Aquinas says “if erring reason [that is, the conscience – DHR] tell a man that he should go to another man’s wife, the will that abides by that erring reason is evil; since this error arises from ignorance of the Divine Law, which he is bound to know.” (Summa II.i.19.6) The Catholic teaching is not that the Conscience will always lead us right, but rather that a Conscience, properly formed by the Church into conformity with the Law of God will always lead us right.

As Catholics, we must submit to the teaching of the Church even if our erring conscience would lead us elsewhere. We reform the conscience. We do so for the inculcation of virtue, whereby the knowing and doing of the Good becomes effortless.

Saul was given a clear command of God to kill all the Amalekites and destroy all their wealth. But he ignored that and – doing what any good war leader would do – he allowed for there to be plunder. But God has had it out for the Amalekites since they tried to thwart the Exodus and no one has listened to the command to do them in entirely. Saul fails in this test as well.

Sometimes God commands things that are hard. That’s the way things go. But it is impossible for God to command what is untrue, unjust, or evil, for God is goodness, truth and justice in his person. We cannot fail in love, in truth, justice, or goodness by following God’s commands. It is better to follow these commands than to make up stuff on our own. Aquinas, again, “The eternal law cannot err, but human reason can. Consequently the will that abides by human reason, is not always right, nor is it always in accord with the eternal law.”

Jesus walks us down this path as well, with an interesting saying about sewing and vintnering. 

Nemo assumentum panni rudis assuit vestimento veteri: alioquin aufert supplementum novum a veteri, et major scissura fit.
No man seweth a piece of raw cloth to an old garment: otherwise the new piecing taketh away from the old, and there is made a greater rent.

Saul wants to take what he knows about running an army and do – mostly – what God has commanded. Our temptation always is to say that we can take our old lifestyle, our old patterns of thinking and just sew on a Christian patch. We can oppress the poor and deny our workers their wages as a Christian. We can be racist as a Christian. We can seek wealth as an end as a Christian. We can do sex outside of Marriage as a Christian. We can do sex inside a Marriage with contraception as a Christian. Samuel compares all of this to Witchcraft and Idolatry. We might as well do fortune telling and play with the Ouija boards and burn incense to Kuan Yin.

Jesus is clear: our old things will tear apart from the patch, our wineskins will burst spoiling both the wineskins and the wine.

Samuel is clear, too: you have rejected God, God has rejected you as king. A king served as priest and teacher for his people. Saul is not fit for either – nor as war leader – because he has decided, when it comes to God’s commands, there might be times when he knows better.

When our conscience wants us to go against God, it is our job to reform the conscience. Not to make an idol of our will, nor to say, with Luther, “Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir.” (God help me be standing here against God?) Rather we are to say, with David, 

Concupivi salutare tuum, Domine, et lex tua meditatio mea est.
Vivet anima mea, et laudabit te, et judicia tua adjuvabunt me.
Erravi sicut ovis quæ periit: quære servum tuum, quia mandata tua non sum oblitus.

I have longed for thy salvation, O Lord; and thy law is my meditation.
My soul shall live and shall praise thee: and thy judgments shall help me.
I have gone astray like a sheep that is lost: seek thy servant, because I have not forgotten thy commandments.

That’s how not to be a witch.