Ten thousand difficulties may not make one doubt, if Newman is right. In that case, what I had last week was a difficulty, but a tricky one. It happened during daily Mass — a habit I can’t manage to acquire, partly because I find the liturgy so moving that it is enormously draining, and partly because I can’t quit thinking that Mass on a Tuesday morning is meant for black-veiled old Italian ladies named Rosaria.
The problem was the Gospel. I know that Our Lord quite regularly said things that sent His fellow Jews stalking off, indignant. Some statements were meant for universal application, while others were aimed primarily at the sinner He was addressing. ("Sell all you have, and give it to the poor" is for most of us a counsel, not a command.)
Some words Christ meant in a terribly literal sense, while others were partly or wholly allegorical. For instance, the promise to tear down the Jewish temple and rebuild it in three days — pure allegory, since the temple He meant was His body. Perhaps to onlookers He pointed at His chest with both His thumbs; otherwise, we can forgive them for misunderstanding Him. Likewise the unnerving business about becoming a "eunuch for the kingdom of Heaven." Poor Origen, the greatest Christian theologian then yet born, took that injunction with bloody-minded literalness, and the Church refused to ordain him because he was no longer "intact."
When Christ spoke of the Eucharist He was almost, but not quite, speaking with absolute literalness; His Eucharistic Presence is different in some mysterious sense from His earthly form, and He didn’t expect the apostles to butcher and eat His crucified corpse. What is more, at the Last Supper He’d confected and distributed Communion, with an earthly body still breathing and unbloody. These waters are too deep for me, but the point is that He wasn’t calling for flat-out cannibalism.
The Gospel that day was one I’ve always found challenging. Okay, that’s not quite candid. I find it appalling:
But to you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic. Give to everyone who asks of you, and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit (is) that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, and get back the same amount.
But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as (also) your Father is merciful. Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you (Lk 6:27-38).
Compared to such injunctions, mysteries like the Incarnation, Christ’s warnings of "the worm that dieth not," and all the phantasmagoria of St. John’s apocalypse are easy to swallow. Taken literally, and applied universally, such commands would result in a world where:
- Christians never called the cops. Thieves could walk right in their homes and take all their stuff — and the Christians would offer their ATM cards and codes as parting gifts.
- Christians had nothing to do with banks. Even credit unions (invented by the Church — I bank at the oldest one in America, founded by a French-Canadian priest) couldn’t charge a fee to cover their costs. All loans would be interest-free and unsecured — and soon utterly impossible, since compulsive gamblers and crack addicts would have bankrupted all believers, including the bishops. We’d worship in tents. Until they took our tents.
- Christian wives of abusive husbands would meekly take their beatings. (Too many priests over the centuries have encouraged exactly that, it’s sad to admit.)
- Christians couldn’t vote against taxes that bankrupted them, transferring their hard-won wealth to the lazy and the envious.
- Christian Indians whose land had been stolen by conquistadors couldn’t demand it back.
- Christians wouldn’t serve in the army, or if they did they wouldn’t shoot back. Christian countries would soon be overrun by conquering Communists, Muslims, or Huns. No advocates of the Crusades (for instance, Bernard of Clairvaux) could really be seen as saints. Nor could soldiers (like St. Sebastian) or kings (like Edward the Confessor).
- Christians couldn’t serve as judges, prosecutors, or jurors, or if they served they’d always vote to acquit.
- Christian citizens couldn’t resist the acts of tyrannical governments, but would meekly accept the dictates of "lawful authority" — as Russian serfs and American slaves were often taught by captive clergy. (The Irish clergy, alas, in the 19th century, similarly urged their charges not to rise up against the British. I’m thankful they were ignored.) At best, they could resist assaults on the clergy and the Church, but not on their own rights or human dignity. So give Big Brother your gun, and act like a good Uncle Tom.
- Christians whose children were abused would never contact the authorities, but would meekly ask their bishops (for instance) to send the poor abuser off to counseling.
- Trying to live as lambs, we’d leave the world to be run by the wolves.
See what I mean about the dangers of literal interpretation? This is why we needed a Church in the first place. Indeed, when the Church climbed gratefully out of the catacombs and resolved to sanctify the Roman world, she had to struggle with how to interpret such radical — and, on the face of it, anti-social — commands. Can a city be run on such principles? Even the Amish, who come the closest to living literally by this Gospel, are sticklers for property rights. If you don’t believe me, go down to one of their puppy mills some time and haggle over the price of a short-haired pointer.
After Mass, I grabbed our college chaplain by the cassock and asked him to help me make sense out of this. Okay, at first I wanted him just to explain the whole thing away. "It’s all just a metaphor, right, Father? I mean, the Papal States had an army. The Vatican owns a bank . . ."
He calmed the layman down, as good Irish clergymen know how to do, and soberly laid out the Gospel’s extent and its proper limits. "We are meant to strive heroically not to hate those who wrong us, in fact to forgive them even before they repent," he said. "While we can and should strive for justice, we must not dwell on personal slights like a slap in the face. We should give voluntarily to the needy, and resist the urge to calculate our own best interest at every turn. Leave that to God, Who looks after us far better than we ever can."
"But what about . . ." I insisted, and laid out all the bullet points above in the kind of quick staccato fashion only native New Yorkers can manage.
The good father nodded. "The Church teaches that we must show mercy, except when it enables or encourages others to sin. When we do that, we are complicit in their sin. Often we must insist on strict justice for ourselves or for innocent others. That means we maintain a police force; we engage in just, defensive wars; and we administer the law. We push back against tyrannical acts by the government, and stand up for our human dignity — in part because not doing so would tempt evildoers to go right on sinning, and lead them to Hell."
And that, my friends, is why Christ gave us, poor lambs, pastors. Would that all were as wise as mine.