Saturday, 19 May 2012

Hands off, keep quiet: does the parable of the wheat and the tares justify failure to teach?

Over the last week I've run a series of posts on the positive duty to offer and be receptive to fraternal and paternal correction.

The liberal response to my arguments is clear cut: they don't actually accept the doctrine in the first place, and preach a new 'gospel' of tolerance and niceness instead of the hard sayings of the real Gospel.

The conservative response?

But what about the conservatives - those bishops and priests who, like Cardinal Wuerl of Washington and our own Cardinal Pell, are basically orthodox in their views yet still seem reluctant to move beyond verbal warnings to priests and politicians causing scandal with their views and actions?

Over at the Archdiocese of Washington blog, Msgr Pope has put up a post that attempts to justify their inaction, using as justification the parable of the wheat and the tares.  And it's getting a run on the US conservative websites such as  the Pulp.It and Pewsitter, so let's take a look at it and see how the argument stands up.

I should note in fairness to the excellent Mgr Pope that he does not actually come down on one side or other of the debate, merely lays out the two sets of arguments.  Given that he is writing on a diocesan website, there may be some good reasons for this style of presentation!

Balance?

Mgr Pope makes the point that public correction of sinners involves prudential judgments. 

A bishop, he points out, needs to work through the best way to act taking account a number of competing factors:

"It would seem that the essential goals for a bishop in matters like these would be the salvation of souls, the good of individuals, the common good, unity of the faithful in the truth of Christ and the gospel and of holding souls as close to Christ as possible."

Fair enough.

He then suggests that there are two schools of thought.

Hurry!

The first is the one I've been advocating, of swift, firm action:

"FESTINA! Swift and firm action - This view holds that the individuals and institutions like those above should be strongly and publicly warned by their own bishop, and, in the case of Federal politicians, also warned by the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington. Further, they should be denied Holy Communion and also warned of formal excommunication if they do not repent. Such procedures should be begun soon after it is discovered that repentance is unlikely."

He then provides a good summary of the Scriptural and other the arguments for this view under the headings of scandal and fraternal correction.

Slowly!

But the second school of thought, he suggests, gives higher weight to the cause of unity and the risk of public attack and misunderstanding in the media:

"LENTE! Careful, deliberative discussion with the purpose of keeping doors of communication open and avoiding the alienation of either offenders or third parties. This position usually gives greater weight to the circumstances of our time, wherein disciplinary actions are often misunderstood and misrepresented by a hostile media, and other third parties. For example, it is thought that the refusal of communion to a pro-abortion politicians, will not be seen as a matter of the Church engaging a member in a matter of internal discipline. Rather it is seen and portrayed as a politically based attack by a Church that is increasingly conservative and only “selectively outraged.” These charges are not true but are widely accepted as such. There is also the fear that the disciplined public figures will become martyrs for their cause, and the whole thing becomes a backfire for the Church."

The Scriptural justification for this approach, he suggests, is that of the wheat and the tares (Mt 13:24-30): rather than attempting to pull up the weeds, the landowner decides to wait until the harvest to sort out the weeds from the true crop.

He notes the argument that patience with sinners is God's way:

"It is also argued that this second approach, articulated here by Jesus, is also the usual approach of God, who is patient with sinners and often very slow to punish. Indeed, his patience often makes the patience of Catholic bishops seem pale by comparison. For God was “slow” to bring an end to the likes of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and many other genocidal maniacs. He has allowed many heretics and heresies to flourish."

Correction now vs final judgment later

But does this analogy really stand up? The normal interpretation of the wheat and the tares is that it is about the final judgment. It answers the question, why doesn't God just strike down all who do evil right now?

As St Benedict explains in the Prologue to his Rule, it goes to the principle that 'the days of our life are lengthened and a respite allowed us...that we might amend our evil ways...For the merciful Lord saith: I will not the death of a sinner, but that he should be converted and live."

In no way, however, does it offer a let out clause to those whose duty it is to preach the Gospel and oppose evil to attempt to convert the tares into wheat through the miracle of grace!

There is a big difference, it seems to me, between the bundling up of the tares and burning them, as occurs at the end of the parable (ie consignment to hell), and the kind of corrective measures - even up to excommunication - open to a bishop in the here and now. 

To take up the gardening analogy, one might not attempt to pull out the weed by ts roots, lest you also pull out the wheat, but you might still pull the weed off the plant in order to prevent it from strangling it!

Indeed, the logical consequence of the argument put here is that we shouldn't oppose genocidal maniacs like Hitler, but rather simply wait for God to eventually act against them!  The proper moral we should draw out of the story, though, is surely that we should do everything we can now to oppose such men,  hoping and praying that they may yet repent, but knowing that regardless, justice will eventually prevail, in the next life if not in this one.

The PR problem?

It is, perhaps, also worth saying something abut the PR problem Msgr Pope raises: the probability that taking action will bring attacks on the Church from those hostile to it, and risks creating anti-martyrs.

The most obvious point to make is that Scripture makes no allusion to worrying about our public image!

Rather, we are told:

"preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching.For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry."(2 Tim 4).

I therefore challenge anyone to come up with a traditional or magisterial commentary on the parable of the wheat and the tares that gives even a hint that it provides an out from the 'duty to teach' that is the special charism of our bishops in particular, but a duty for all of us in appropriate circumstances.

In reality, Scripture repeatedly stresses, as St Benedict does in his Rule, that 'those who have the government of souls will have to give an account of them' on judgment day. 

If they have taught clearly and used every tool at their disposal to bring those in their charge to repentance, then they can rest easy, knowing they have done their best, and in the end we all have free will and are accountable for it.

A Scriptural warning to priests...

Those who have failed to teach and act however might perhaps want to reflect on these verses from Hosea Chapter 4:

"Yet let no one contend, and let none accuse, for with you is my contention, O priest. You shall stumble by day, the prophet also shall stumble with you by night; and I will destroy your mother. My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children. The more they increased, the more they sinned against me; I will change their glory into shame. They feed on the sin of my people; they are greedy for their iniquity."

4 comments:

Felix said...

I guess you could argue that Cardinal Pell and some other bishops have taken "festina lente" as their guiding principle. But for most, it's just "lente, numquam".

And, while bishops may see themselves as practicing patience with erring pastors, the pressing reality is that they are surrendering the sheep to wolves.

Felix said...

I guess you could argue that Cardinal Pell and some other bishops have taken "festina lente" as their guiding principle. But for most, it's just "lente, numquam".

And, while bishops may see themselves as practicing patience with erring pastors, the pressing reality is that they are surrendering the sheep to wolves.

Felix said...

I guess you could argue that Cardinal Pell and some other bishops have taken "festina lente" as their guiding principle. But for most, it's just "lente, numquam".

And, while bishops may see themselves as practicing patience with erring pastors, the pressing reality is that they are surrendering the sheep to wolves.

Felix said...

If I repeat myself, it's because this point is important.

Or perhaps because I'm still struggling with modern technology.