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Witness We Must
The high priest questioned them,
“We gave you strict orders, did we not,
to stop teaching in that name?
Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching
and want to bring this man’s blood upon us.”
But Peter and the apostles said in reply,
“We must obey God rather than men.
The God of our ancestors raised Jesus,
though you had him killed by hanging him on a tree.
God exalted him at His right hand as leader and savior
to grant Israel repentance and forgiveness of sins.
We are witnesses of these things,
as is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”
The Church of the first century was almost invariably law abiding, beginning with Jesus’ teaching that taxes should be paid to Caesar and compassing Paul’s reiterated advice that Roman authorities, especially the Emperor, were to be respected and obeyed as ministers of divine providence, understood as having been sent to punish evil and to reward good (I Peter 2:13-17, Titus 3:1). We have the evidence of Pliny, governor of Bithynia, that Christians had ceased their meetings on the Emperor Trajan’s command, and we have the testimony of Saint Clement embedded in his prayer for the Roman state, in which he prayed for the emperor, probably Hadrian: “Thou, Master, hast given the power of sovereignty to them through Thy excellent and inexpressible might, that we may know the glory and honor given to them by Thee and in nothing resisting Thy will” (41). In the age of revolution in which we live, an era in which Jesus the revolutionary has been a popular figure, historians have often faulted the Church for its complaisance with authority, but the evidence is unambiguous.
As far as our sources go, the martyrs and those who described their sacrifices usually left unvisited the question of the motives of the persecutors. When they might justly have loudly proclaimed their persecutors to be judicial murderers and themselves victims of an unjust tyranny, such evidence as exists suggests that they saw their deaths as the will of Divine Providence. There is no account that they railed against their persecutors.
But in the text superscript from Acts we see the apostles rejecting the command of the high priest that they cease teaching in Jesus’ name. To this order the apostolic reply was, “We must obey God rather than men.” The apostles had been commissioned by Christ Himself to be His witnesses, a commission they would fulfill with their lives (Acts 1:8, Luke 24:48-49). Paul spoke for them when he wrote to the Corinthians “For if I preach the gospel, I have no reason to boast, because an obligation is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!” (I Corinthians 9:16) There would be other situations, when for example civil authority commanded evil, commands Christians would not obey, but the most obvious and common situation that would evoke disobedience would be the situation in which civil authority would say with the high priest, “Stop peaching in that name” To which the answer would be, “We are His witnesses,” and we are under obligation to teach in His name. Christians would pay taxes; they would after a time serve in the army. But witness they must. From the person who refuses to bake a cake for an event celebrating what she knows to be sin to the bishops and faithful of the underground Church in China Christians are still bearing witness to what Scripture calls “the world.”
Much has been written about the reasons that lay behind the persistent if sporadic persecution of Christians by the Roman state, which seemed to work against the civic interest, for Christians were pacific, tax-paying folk who cared for their own. Except when forbidden to witness, or when their witness was used as an excuse for persecution, Christians were complaisant citizens. Whether it was their mere existence that provoked their pagan neighbors to a call for their extirpation or whether it was the awareness of the Roman state that Christians’ beliefs relativized the authority of the state, Christians could not be left in peace. To ordinary Romans Christians seemed to be stubborn enemies of the presuppositions on which civic life was based. The attitude of Americans toward communists in the 1950s might be a near analogy. And surely the nascent bureaucracy of the empire understood at some level that the appeal of Christians to a transcendent order that as it empowered them lay beyond the reach of policies and legions, that this appeal undermined the very foundations of Romanitas.
Inevitably, Christians won this war of wills, not through violence, not through disobedience, but through steadfast adherence to the truth implied in the apostles’’ refusal to obey the high priest because they were obliged to witness to the resurrection and power of Christ. Whether this war can be won in the twenty-first century is the question that is now before the Church. It was possible to defeat a persecuting empire with fidelity and suffering. Whether Christianity can survive a culture of comfort in which the state is in loco parentis, dulling the sharp edges of that reality that teaches the lessons of life, and undergirded by the bright darkness of technological transcendence over nature, would seem on present evidence a near thing. There is no example of the survival of a vigorous Christianity in a socialist state, whether that socialism be democratic or authoritarian.
Now it is precisely the ability to witness that is under attack. At present nobody objects to your going to church on Sunday, but a football coach may not pray at the fifty yard line after the game because his doing so is a public witness. The interests of irreligion have won in the battle for public schools The name of Jesus may not be mentioned or the Bible read in government schools operated, with some regional differences, on the presuppositions of Marxism and the positive value of carnality for seven-year-olds. To ask His blessing on the place and project of learning would be a witness. But in one important respect the ability and power to witness cannot be forbidden: “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Nobody can prevent that witness.
Set My People Free
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.
Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.”
The first Sunday after Easter, the eighth day that completes the octave of the feast, has come to be known as Mercy Sunday, the day on which the Church hears the command of Christ that His apostles, empowered by the Holy Spirit, should have the power to forgive or retain sins. After the great sacrament of baptism, the ability to absolve (or not) is the greatest power the Church possesses, a power rooted in the declarative power of Christ’s promise to Peter (Petros) that he would be the rock (petra) on which the Church would be built (Matthew 16: 18-19). It cannot be overlooked that Christ’s promise to Peter follows upon Peter’s God-inspired witness that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Just as Peter’s witness is not a thing of flesh and blood but a gift of God to Peter, Christ’s gift to Peter was not made in any recognition of Peter’s excellence Immediately after receiving the gift of the keys, Peter, displaying the obtuseness characteristic of all the apostles before Pentecost, denies that Jesus must suffer, causing Jesus to call the prince of the apostles Satan.
Christ followed the famous ‘rock’ passage with the promise that the gates of hell would not prevail, would not stand, against the apostolic power of the Kingdom of God, a promise fulfilled in one way when Christ descended to the place that embodied the lost past, to set free the prisoners in chains of all times and ages (I Peter 3:19-20) and in another way when it became clear that Satan’s usurped reign on earth could not withstand the power of Christ’s mercy and grace, His will that the apostolic mission should set His people free from the chains of sin. This power to restore sinners to a right relation with God, setting them free from a sinful past, restoring their baptismal innocence, is a divine power more important than any power, economic or military or demonic that the world, the flesh, and even Satan can command, for none of these can change the past and secure a promised future of blessedness forever. This is the power symbolized by the gift of the keys to Peter, exercised by men called by God, and commissioned by the Church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, who through the exercise of their ministry have the ability to open and to close the door to salvation, to set free from the bondage of sin and to withhold forgiveness from to those who come to confession seeming neither to have any degree of love for God and so to hate their sins or those who do not even fear hell—if such exist. Jesus resurrected in glory first visited His apostles to give this command; He breathed on them and said , “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them.”
The practice of the merciful power of the keys, of the ability to know the forgiveness of sins at the hands of another person, a priest who presumes to act on Christ’s behalf, known and valued, indeed cherished, by many, has fallen out of use among others. Superficial objections that all share can be dismissed shortly. It is not only humbling but, truth told, embarrassing to recite one’s sins to another person, even when one has confidence that this is the path to setting oneself right with God. The sins that burn for absolution are not climate change denial and abstract racism but the sins of greed, lust, cowardice. It would be bizarre to fear embarrassment before another person, divinely empowered or not, but to believe that one could stand tall before the judge eternal with a soul bespattered by those same embarrassing sins.
But it may at least be suggested that there is another reason why the confession that belongs especially to this season of mercy seems a bridge too far and that is the pervasive denial, as it were in principle, that reality is always mediated. Members of the Old Church, Easterners, some Anglicans and Lutherans live in a mediated world in which Christ is the one essential but not the only mediator, for there is the Blessed Virgin (Pray for us now and at the hour of our death) the Saints, the angels (through whom creation is governed, our guardian angel) and the whole body of the praying and sacrificing faithful on earth, each and all of which may play a part in our salvation. None of these is of the slightest efficacy without the cross and resurrection of Christ, but the power of His merciful heart beats through each of these mediators and we are bound to each by the love of Christ they reflect.
This is not the spiritual world most Christians of the Anglo-sphere inhabit, where it would be the proud assertion that believers need no one standing between them and Christ. Another track might be to be grateful to anyone who, commissioned by Christ Himself could be found to undertake that dangerous position. A priest who undertakes to fulfill that role has zero salvific power. He can, having been chosen and sent, defeat evil, enter and ransack the kingdom cringing behind the gates of hell, by judging sinners worthy of absolution or complete forgiveness, assigning a penance, and pronouncing sins forgiven, their guilt done away, with the authority of Christ himself.
Such forgiveness has a price, and the price is two-fold. The first is that mother of every virtue, humility. There is nothing as deceptive as the picture of oneself as basically a good person whose failures are to be explained by circumstance or environment. The second is the hard-won ability, perhaps always imperfect, to know one’s self, to be able to understand which false virtues are screeds for real sins; which spiritual difficulties are dispositions, natural or acquired that must be borne, and which moral anxieties, however worrisome, are failures of faith, when sorrow may be no more than disappointment that one has betrayed one’s presumed good character, which sins are rebellions against the divine will, which failures are misunderstood occasions for gratitude.
One way to understand the rancor that taints post-modernity is to consider that much of this belligerence and hard-heartedness is the consequence of sin unacknowledged and unforgiven and the subsequent effort to see and defend oneself as good enough without God. This latter is the sin of pride through which Lucifer fell, and this conviction that one needs no forgiveness is the foundation of our unwillingness to forgive others. This closed-heartedness, while it leads those thus afflicted to eternal loss, infects public discourse and education. The beginning of a cure is the knowledge that we are not, none of us, good enough for God, that we each and all need the forgiveness Christ offered in John 20:21.
This note is about what might seem to be a Catholic problem. In fact it is everyman’s problem, for it involves deep questions about the natural law and human agency and integrity.
For the first one hundred fifty years of our national existence the chances that a Roman Catholic might win the presidency was not really a question. And there was this: should such an unlikely event occur, the moral formation of such a person would not have been markedly unlike the moral formation of his Protestant neighbors. Presbyterians and Baptists were just as morally firm, some would say rigid, as Catholics until the artificial birth control issue came up with Margaret Sanger’s campaigns of the twenties. That split the moral witness of American Christianity; Episcopalians in 1930, other Christian bodies soon afterward. And to anticipate, then came the pill, about 1963, just after John F. Kennedy’s speech before the Methodists in Houston in 1960.
It was a reassuring speech, cleverly constructed. And while there was the brave line: “Should there be a conflict between my conscience and my office I would resign my office,” there was also, “My opinion will not be shaped by any Church,” and overall the Houston Speech promised that he would not govern according to the moral teachings of his Church. John Kennedy was never very much of a Catholic. The flaws in his behavior, as with Martin Luther King, have been obviated by assassination and memorable rhetoric, as is right; we ought always to remember the best. There was something to be said for Camelot.
Kennedy’s speech quietly laid the groundwork for the personally opposed position, in which one was excused from displaying any personal integrity by holding an opinion which did not affect behavior of governing principles. In 1960 Roe v Wade lay 13 years in the future. When it became law in 1973, it became the duty of the Chief executive to conform presidential actions and decisions to it, whatever the moral convictions of the executive might be. It was a ruling that set part of the population against government policy and set anti-abortion forces in motion. As the abortion question settled into the culture it became clear that about half the population energetically disagreed with the 1960 court decision. This disagreement had and has a religious base, being located principally among believing Protestants and Roman Catholics.
Adding fuel to the fire was the decision of Pope Paul VI in 1968 that every act of sexual intercourse should be open to the transmission of human life. This of course did not mean that every such act that was not, for instance in the natural periods of infertility, was unlawful; indeed the Church encouraged knowledge of such periods, and said that with due regard to charity these could be recognized as a means of limiting procreation. But one could not deliberately subvert nature’s purposes with devices mechanical or chemical so that the only purpose of the ultimate intimacy was pleasure. This decision, which probably assumed that those to whom it was addressed would be married couples, now seems quaint. In 1968 Paul VI could not imagine that for many, perhaps most, sex would become an amusement, nothing sacred, or even romantic about it. But this became the cultural premise and as such it fed the abortion market. If one assumes that sexual intercourse is a conscience-less pleasure and then, sure enough, one turns up pregnant, abortion appears as a right, a right for whom a large majority of Americans will fight by whatever means possible.
And thus late modernity got crosswise with a large minority of the Christian population of the United States, the last culture in Western society with a big enough minority to effectively represent the Christian cause. At the heart of the resistance to the destruction of little children was the Catholic Church, although many, many non-Catholics joined the battle. The very first Christian document, dating from about seventy-five or eighty, before there was any Gospel text, having gone through the Sermon on the Mount, lists the actions that must be avoided by Christians just coming in out of the cold of Hellenistic sensuality. No abortion, no infanticide, no corrupting of boys, all actions that while distasteful among the best were tolerated and in a sense unremarkable. Tertullian, writing about 200, developed the matter thus. “Murder, being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing, nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born or one that is coming to the birth. That is a man which is coming to be one.” Reiterations could be multiplied unto this present.
Now let us think about another element in the currently explosive mix. Justin Martyr wrote about 150, that those are welcomed to the Eucharist who are baptized and who live as Christ handed down to us. This meant that those Christians guilty of serious or mortal sin should not participate in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood until they had made it right with God by confessing their sins. [In this vocabulary grave or serious or mortal sin is one in which the matter is grave—stealing a pencil usually does not qualify—and one’s will deliberately and knowingly is set against God’s commandments.] From that day till the present the Church has taught that failure to live as Christ taught us prevented those guilty of mortal sin from receiving the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ until they repent. The Reformed tradition, the most important Christian tradition in America for much of its history, would seem to have forgotten that before about 1850 on the weekend of the Lord’s Supper the minister would routinely issue communion tokens to those in good standing, those not guilty of immoral behavior, permitting them to share in the communion service. The usual remedy for Catholics who have slipped up badly was and is just to go confession and all would be well. Unless, of course one had been publicly promoting say adultery or homosexuality or abortion or, in the case of one of the fourth-century emperors, Theodosius, permitting soldiers to commit atrocities unrebuked. On which occasion Saint Ambrose—this was during the brief period when Milan was the capital of the western empire—asked the emperor not to show up for Mass until he had publicly repented. Over time excommunication became the method for protecting both the sinner and the Sacrament from sacrilege. Rarely used, and obviously, if one is not a Catholic, excommunication has no meaning or effect.
Now consider this. In the United States there remaineth even in this present a core of Catholic fideles, Maybe half the Catholic population of perhaps 70 million, maybe less, maybe thirty percent. These 30 or 35 million at their best are characterized by a disposition of obedience, the obedience that belongs to love. From them comes the cash that makes ecclesiastical wheels spin. They are likely to go to confession maybe once a month, confessing having been rude in traffic or having read a salacious book or looked at the wrong movie or cheated in their income tax. They will show up on Saturday afternoon or whenever to confess their sins whether these be mortal (1 John 5:16-17) or not. And they will be there on Sunday. Perhaps ten percent of them pay some attention to Humanae Vitae. They all abominate abortion as wrong and morally repugnant. And it is the case that they, this small percentage of the much larger number who will check the Catholic box on survey forms, consider the Blessed Sacrament the very presence of Jesus in time and place. It does not matter much to them that millions of atheists consider such beliefs delusional, that Baptists, if they think about it at all, consider this idolatrous, or that Lutherans consider the doctrine a metaphysical impossibility. For them, just as a sociological fact about a part of the American population, the Blessed Sacrament is the center of life.
Now comes a president who is advertised, and lets himself be advertised, as a practicing Catholic, who, while claiming that he is personally opposed to abortion, is putting the entire force of the government behind promoting abortion. It has been suggested by a learned letter in the WSJ that since Pius X encouraged frequent communion, teaching that the Eucharist is food for the pilgrim on the way, not a reward for the perfect, all, thinking now of the President, should be welcomed to the Lord’s table. What this overlooks is the fact that since Saint Paul about 45 AD advised the Corinthians that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” no bishop, no pope, no faithful Christian has ever suggested that those in a state of mortal sin, should share in the Mass or Holy Communion.
It is a bad year to be a Catholic bishop. The President is a scandal to the faithful, and I suspect not merely to Roman Catholics. What kind of person says: I’m personally opposed, but I don’t think I can foist my opinion on others. Let the killing proceed and multiply. Or perhaps the President is among the multitude who have convinced themselves that being opposed to abortion is just an opinion, rather than a close derivative of natural law and of the divine command “Thou shall not kill.” Tertullian was right, you can kill a child early or late, but you are still killing a child. As Benedict XVI put it, “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”
So what are the bishops to do? They have been told that Pope Francis would not support a national policy; Cardinals Gregory in Washington and Tobin in Newark and Cupich in Chicago and their allies must be allowed to go on welcoming the unrepentant to Communion. Stuck between a hard place and a rock the majority of the bishops on June 17th decided by a vote of 165 to 71 that they should say something. Apart from the question of duty and conscience, if they remain silent they will slip further in the esteem of the fideles. On the other hand, if they dare to single out the President and the Speaker, they will be accused of politicizing the sacraments by liberal Catholics represented by the 71. They know that in the entire still-vast organism of the Catholic Church there has been only one, a priest in South Carolina, who has dared to refuse communion to the President, and furthermore that the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, an appointee of Pope Francis, would be the last person to do so or to back up his clergy should they.
But on the other hand it is a great opportunity for teaching, for teaching Catholics, any Catholics anywhere, to approach the body and blood of Jesus with serious sins on their conscience is a sacrilege that is fatally damaging to their souls and derogative of the honor due Christ. The teaching is not in doubt. There are several millions who need to hear this who are not in politics. As for the President and the Speaker and the like, just pray for them, for they are sold-out souls, too characteristic of a culture in which, taking the advice of the Serpent, we make up the rules for ourselves, in which the gap between profession and action yawns, in which sentimentality is taken for reality. In a way Catholic politicians who claim the word Catholic with the respectability it still brings while despising the teachings of the Church are a poignant sign of the times, an era when words mean nothing, when the political discourse that shapes the culture is, and is known to be, more often than not, a texture of untruths, if not formally, then materially, uttered by those among whom the relation between words and reality has long been considered a matter of mere expediency.
Fathers and Children
See what love the Father has bestowed on us
that we may be called children of God.
Yet so we are.
I John 3:1
For much of the last century fatherhood has been an endangered vocation. In the popular culture of the twenty-first century Patriarchy, when it is not the subject of ridicule, is a synonym for repression, an ancient pathology belonging to a vanished world in which fathers attempted arbitrarily to exercise authority and commanded obedience. In a complementary way to be child-like, open and trusting, an attitude that our Savior considered necessary to faith, is now counted naiveté. Yet He once called a child, put him in their midst, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:1-5). And the wide world forgets that Jesus taught His disciples to call God His Father and theirs. Christ the Son of God taught us to pray beginning with the words “Our Father,” that He calls God His father thirty-four times in the discourses of chapters 14–17 of the Gospel of John, and His last words were, “My Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
But leaving aside the folly of the present—and every age has its follies—we can remember that fatherhood is the cornerstone of reality in the world Christ revealed: the divine paternity of our Creator, the paternity over the Church of him called in Italian Papa, our pope, in the old world the paternal government of the anointed king, and everywhere the divinely appointed fatherhood of the head of every human family.
Among things human, the finest aspiration of every man is to be a good father, to beget children of the woman beloved is a natural duty, but fatherhood itself in its fulfilment of a vocation that must be chosen and in Christendom fatherhood is a supernatural vocation. In the natural and divinely appointed order every father is the head of household, for which, the Christian way teaches, he must be willing to give his life, not always or even often in a dramatic one-time fashion, but in the wearying, unending way of life lived, thus imitating Christ, who gives his life for the whole world and who still intercedes for us. Fathers of sons and daughters to a great degree chose that role, and when they choose to fulfill it they do so in imitation of our Father in heaven, who, having called our humankind into existence first gives His life for His bride the Church whom He loves and then nurtures and disciplines every one of His children.
Just so every father on earth is to his daughters and sons the model of our Father in heaven who governs with power and authority transfused with a tenderness that loves and gives. Christ assumes the just generosity that belongs to fatherhood: “Which of you, if a son asks for bread will give him a stone? If you give good gifts to your children, how much more will your father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:9). The Epistle to the Hebrews construes the obedience of children to their fathers as analogous to the duty of every Christian to God the Father: “We have earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of Spirits and live?” (Hebrews 12:7).
The world Saint Paul assumes is one in which the bond that binds the family together is love made present in obedience. We know that these are inseparable: Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Saint Paul says directly: “Children obey your parents for this is right. Honor your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise) that you may live long on the earth” (Ephesians 6:1–2). And Paul then makes it clear that paternal authority combines patient teaching with discipline: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
When Saint Paul commands children to obey their parents and wives to obey their husbands he is assuming that this obedience within the family is the second step in a hierarchy of obedience that begins with the father who is head of the family. To be a good father is not simply to exercise one’s own will, for the tree of obedience that bears much good fruit begins higher. It begins when the Father himself is obedient to the laws divine and natural, to the teaching of the Church and the laws of the political community, themselves being the reflection of natural and divine justice. To ask one’s children to be obedient in the Lord, to ask one’s wife to be subject to him, every father and husband must first himself be submitted to the law both of the cross and of this world’s authority. Saint Paul’s command regarding obedience to political authority , necessarily addressed to fathers as head of the family, are now no less embarrassing than his command that Christians obey and revere the emperor. But the fact that they cannot easily be located in post-modernity does not mean that they can be ignored.
Just as when nature has been defeated by the awful technological transcendence that ignores the very forms in things, one must still respect those forms, just so when political authority claims only positive sanction, only the ability to command and punish, Christians, and especially the head of the house, must live as though the law has the authority of God because the law of Christ lives in our hearts and is taught by the Church. When the head of the house, the authority in the family is truly submitted to the law of Christ it may be time to consider the duty of wives to be submitted to their husbands and of children to be obedient. If the husband and head is truly submitted to God he has before him ever Paul’s admonition that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church and died for her (Ephesians 5:25), and as well the teaching of Jesus on the night in which He was betrayed: “The gentiles lord it over one another, but it shall not be so among you,” and he has in memory as well the admonition that children are not to be provoked to anger (Ephesians 6:4). A husband and father thus armed is able to expect from his household the obedience that belongs to love.
Saint Paul incidentally names one other tie between fathers and children. In explaining to the Corinthians that he seeks nothing but their good, that they owe him nothing, he writes, “Children ought not lay up for their parents but parents for their children. I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls.” Paul is citing a commonplace of family life to illustrate a spiritual obligation, but it is noteworthy that he recognizes the duty of fathers to the secular future, to lay up something for their children. But Paul knows that the greatest gift of fathers to sons and of mothers to daughters is a tradition of Christian virtue and honor.
Understanding with the Heart
There are seed that fall in good soil, who produce good fruit, yielding one hundred-fold, sixty, or thirty. These are those who hear the word and understand it.
The parable of the sower is somewhat unusual because Jesus tells the disciples its meaning. Its broad purpose is to explain the failure of the grace God has poured out on the earth and its inhabitants to produce universally faith, hope, love, and obedience, and in some the seed, understood, has produced fruit pleasing to God.
Jesus gives three examples of failure, examples now familiar. The seed that falls along the path is easily taken away by the birds because the one thus gifted has no understanding. The seed that fell on rocky ground represents those who receive the word with joy but whose understanding is superficial; when their faith is tried, when the commands of Christ seem hard, these fall away. The seed that falls among thorns does not bear fruit because the one to whom it is entrusted is seduced by the cares of the world, delights in the good things of the world to the exclusion of faithfulness to Christ.
Jesus also gives a single example of success. These are seed that fall in good soil, who produce good fruit , yielding one hundred-fold, sixty, or thirty. They hear the word and understand it. The good soil is the heart prepared by grace given and received, enabling the elect to understand the Word.
The verb beneath the word “understand” is a compound of the prefix together or with and a verb that has many meanings. Its use in Matthew must signal its importance, for, although it appears in other biblical texts, in the Gospels it is limited to parallel texts and to those describing the disciples’ understanding of Jesus’ words. Of course Jesus spoke Aramaic, but we trust the Greek-speaker who recorded His words for the Graeco-Roman world to have used the verb translated as “understand“ accurately. In any event we know that “to understand” is different from knowledge that signifies our recognition of the facts of the matter, although it includes that recognition, but to understand the Word sown means something deeper. Monsignor Knox and the Douay-Rheims and the Authorized Version translate “understand” as “understanding of the heart,” and RSV in another place as “hear and grasp.”
The translators are telling us something important. The word “heart” does not appear in either the Greek or Latin. The Greek for “grasp” is also missing from the text. Jesus is explaining that those who failed to enter the Kingdom, although they heard did not take the Word into their hearts. But there were those who both heard and understood, who located Christ and His Gospel at the center of their lives, those who have grasped Jesus and His message, who make His person and His words the very principle of their thoughts and actions, bearing fruit for the Kingdom of the New Heart over which Christ now reigns as king.
Jesus offers an explanation of the failure of those who hear but do not understand. Christians are not permitted to say that Satan caused them to sin (James 1:13), but it is evident from Scripture that he never stops trying, and that with the cooperation of the human will, he may have his successes. From the moment of the Incarnation, Satan has roamed the earth seeking to destroy the faith of the children of the Woman Clothed with the Sun (Revelation 12:17). His principle method is obfuscation and studied neglect. It is he who sows weeds among the wheat that grows in the Church. And the weeds will continue to grow because Jesus warns the zealous disciples that if they try to clear the field of weeds, in rooting up the weeds the wheat may be damaged. And this means that the Kingdom in its historical manifestation as the Church will always be a mixed community consisting of some who have taken the Gospel to heart and some who hear but do not understand. It is a mercy that only Christ knows who has understood with the heart and who has not; this will not be revealed until He comes again, until the book of life is opened at the end of the age.
Meanwhile understanding the Good News planted in the human heart prompts many actions: belief, obedience, and above all love, love for God and love for our neighbors, for those we come upon as we walk the path that is our life. Each of these has its own necessity. Belief involves belief in the merciful acts of Jesus by which He bought our freedom with His death and resurrection. But it involves more; each sentence in the Creed invites our belief, and we dare not prefer belief in one of Jesus’ actions to another. For belief to be effective it must be what is called theological faith, belief that is ours not because we consider it suitable or even because we are grateful for it, but belief because the truths of our religion are expressions of the authority of God. In an analogous way heart-understanding expresses itself in obedience. Very often the yoke is easy and the burden light, but the day will come when conscience makes a claim that desire can follow only with difficulty and humility. It is the evangelist John who reminds the ages that the sure sign of our love for Christ is our obedience to His commandments, of which the first is love of our brothers and sisters. And as for love, it is the supernatural empowering gift that enables belief and obedience.
What the Word in our hearts promotes may seem simple, but it is in reality deep. Jesus commands us to love God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our minds (Matthew 22:37). And perfecting the Word understood in a life lived is made difficult by the fact that God is not unopposed in this world. As Matthew 13:24–30 tells us, there is an enemy roaming the earth, seeking endlessly with demonic energy to snatch the Word from every life, sowing doubt, ever proclaiming the glory and the satisfactions of “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and pride of life.” In our present century Satan has an easy sell, for he moves among a people, perhaps even Christian people, who have never taken Christ and His words into their hearts, who do not understand and who do not know that they do not understand.
Therefore to our duty to believe, to obey, and to love, there is added one more, the duty to witness. You, said Jesus, are my witnesses to the ends of the earth. Laying aside not the grace of conversational engagement but the fear of intruding upon others and the pusillanimity that cannot bear a challenge, refusing the stance that considers religion too private to have any place in the public square, the time has come to accept the scandal of the Gospel, that no one comes to the Father except through His Son Jesus, that men are appointed once to die and after that comes judgement, that God’s judgement is the ultimate source of meaning, that this same judgement rewards those who long to see the face of God and allows those who have not and will not understand the consequences of their neglect.
“The Risks of Repudiating Reality: Timely Lessons from Lewis’s The Abolition of Man”
Lewis Tolkien Society
“The Risks of Repudiating Reality:
Timely Lessons from Lewis’s The Abolition of Man”
by Ken Myers
In 1998, during the centenary of C. S. Lewis’s birth, I had the privilege of interviewing philosopher and ethicist Gilbert Meilaender, prompted in part by the reissuing of Gil’s book The Taste for the Other: The Social and Ethical Thought of C. S. Lewis, originally published in 1978.
During our conversation, we talked about the distinctive qualities of Lewis’s writings, particularly his works in Christian apologetics. Gil said that he thought that Lewis’s success as an apologist was tied less to the cogency of his arguments, and more to the vitality of his imagination
“His work is so fundamentally imaginative, I think he’s not so much trying to argue anybody into thinking something as he is simply trying to help us understand what it would mean to believe something, through the enormous gifts he has for illustration and metaphor and story. A great deal of what he does is simply trying to think through what the world looks like from a Christian perspective, make it understandable and make it come alive for us.” Continue reading ““The Risks of Repudiating Reality: Timely Lessons from Lewis’s The Abolition of Man””
Modernity and the Magician’s Bargain
Modernity and the Magician’s Bargain:
Why C. S. Lewis Believed Science Must Repent
by Ken Myers
PDF of this article: ken-myers_repentant-science
In the past few years, we have witnessed the publication of a number of books by very angry atheists. The tone of these books has been remarkably intemperate; “Jeremiad” is a term that comes to mind, but it’s not an apt term to describe these books, since it suggests some higher cause being served; intoning prophets were channeling divine wrath, not simply their own, and the last thing authors like Richard Dawkins and Steven Weinberg want is to identify their complaints with some transcendent cause.
But I can’t escape the irony of the tone of righteous indignation in these books. Rarely has the case for the superiority of cool rationality been made with such irrational heat. Commenting on Richard Dawkins and on a number of hysterical op-ed pieces published when the film version of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe came out, sociologist Frank Furedi observed that “the vitriolic invective hurled at Christian believers today is symptomatic of the passions normally associated with a fanatical Inquisitor.”1 Such violent rhetoric gives one little confidence in the premise that religious belief is the main source of violence in our world, and that eliminating religion would leave room for intrinsic human niceness to flourish.
Some of the anger is clearly related to the fear of religious extremism in a post-9/11 world. Many complacent secularists can’t imagine that anyone in the twenty-first century would suffer a minor inconvenience in the name of religion, let alone give one’s life and take a few thousand other lives along with them. Suddenly, people who had been superficially celebrating diversity and tolerance and the rational manageability of human life came face-to-face with a diversity they couldn’t fathom, let alone tolerate or manage, and some of them seem to have come unhinged. But I believe there is a deeper fear evident in the rhetorical style of many of the antireligious screeds in the past several years. While these writers insist that belief in God is irrational, they believe firmly in the modern liberal assumption that the hope of human progress could be realized through two principal mechanisms: scientific advancement and, in sociologist Craig Gay’s summary phrase, “the liberation of individuals from the repressive constraints of religion and tradition.”2 It’s bad enough that religions continue to inform the private lives of individuals, but when religion questions science, especially the science of evolution, then all hopes of human progress are threatened. Continue reading “Modernity and the Magician’s Bargain”
The Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
I saw Satan like lightning falling from heaven.
What happens in the cosmos in time is a mirror and a consequence of what is known timelessly in heaven, where God’s knowledge comprehends all times and all ages, what was and is and is to come, and the providential biography of every creature from the sparrow to the saints. In the Book of Revelation, after the great commissioning vision of Christ, the first and last, who died but ever lives (1:12–16); and after the message to the seven Churches (2:1–3:22), God opens for the Prophet John a door in heaven: “Come up hither and I will show you the things which much be done hereafter” (4:1). What John will be shown is not a chronology but the pattern of time. John’s vision is story-like in that it has a beginning in God, a peripety or turning point in the Incarnation, and a magnificent ending in the vision of the New Jerusalem, Christ its center, creation restored. Continue reading “The Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time”
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Looking ForwardNo one who sets his hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is worthy of the Kingdom of God.
The Lord’s instructions to those who would follow him seem brutal. To one who says, “Let me go and bury my father,” the answer is “Let the dead bury the dead,” and to one who says, “I will follow you Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home,” the words are, “No one who sets his hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is worthy of the kingdom of God”
These are not abstractions of universal application, but divine teachings given to the faithful to do with as we can. These words were given to a Church in which elaborate teaching had been given about our place in this world, how it is to be between husbands and wives, between parents and children, how fathers and mothers are to be honored; in short about the life of Christians as they take their place in society, living lives pleasing to God. But there are intimations of another, higher set of relationships, prefigured in the account of the man who could not come to the banquet of the king because he had married a wife (Luke 14:20). Continue reading “Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time”