The Presence(s) of Jesus

Recently, a reader wrote me with an interesting question:

I have a theological problem with the statement of Blessed Mother Teresa: “Everyone is Jesus Christ in disguise,” which is one of the main mottos also of the Focolare Movement: “To see Jesus Christ in everyone.”

 

I accept obviously and wholeheartedly Matthew 25:31-46 (especially 42-46): “For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me . . . . ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

But if “everyone is Jesus Christ in disguise,” this could lead to a very relativistic approach to religions and therefore no need to evangelize or to bring anyone into the fullness of the Catholic Faith, since everyone is JC in disguise! It is also indirectly related to Rahner’s “anonymous Christians.”

It might even lead to monstrosities like saying that Satanists and Hitler are JC in disguise!

Somewhat this same lax interpretation could be given to St. Augustine’s motto “Love the sinner but hate the sin.”

What is your perspicuous thinking about this issue?

I can see why, in a culture infected with indifferentism, sensitivity to such a problem would arise. It is wrong and dangerous to indifferently and lazily speak of the goodness of God along the lines C. S. Lewis describes:

By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right. And by Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness — the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, “What does it matter so long as they are contented?” We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven — a senile benevolence who, as they say, “liked to see young people enjoying themselves,” and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, “a good time was had by all.”

Our culture is more or less nuts for this sort of thing, tending to talk as though, so long as you pray to something or other, recycle, and support your library, then it’s automatic and compulsory Heaven for you. And don’t kid yourself that this is just squishy New Agers, fluffy Unitarians, or worshippers of Obamessiah (assuming there are still any left). The huge phalanx of reputedly Conservative Christians who just turned up in Washington, D.C., to answer the muezzin call of Mormon Glenn Beck to pray to someone or something or other — it matters not whom or what — is eloquent of the fact that the Right, as well as the Left, is plagued by an indifferentism that sees the central issue not as God, but as religion cum crowd control, therapy, Kiwanis club, and divine backing for preferred political tribal pieties. The rampant Moralistic Therapeutic Deism of American culture is everywhere on both sides of the aisle, from the Oprah crowd to those who fancy that a foamy sense of “unity” at a pep rally on the Mall is some sort of replacement for the unity of the Holy Spirit.

 

That said, however, I think it is a huge mistake to gauge any common Catholic formulation by how some hypothetical person somewhere might misread it. “Everyone is Jesus Christ in disguise” could lead to a very relativistic approach to religions, and therefore no need to evangelize — but does it really? After all, any number of sayings by Jesus could likewise be misread and lead to catastrophic conclusions as well.

  • “Why do you call me good? There is none good but God” was famously misread by Arians to mean that Jesus is not God. Was it wrong for Jesus to say it?
  • “God predestined us” was misread by radical Calvinists to deny free will. Was Paul wrong to say it?
  • “God wills all to be saved” was misread by Universalists to deny the possibility of hell. Was Paul wrong to say that, too?
  • “Let his blood be on us and on our children” has been read as a license for Jew hatred. Was Matthew wrong to record it?
  • “You are of your father, the devil,” has likewise led to tragic misreading by anti-Semites. Was Jesus wrong to say it?
  • “God became man that man might become God” is a beloved Mormon proof text for their doctrines. Should Athanasius not have said it?

The list can go on and on. Scripture is packed with statements that, taken in isolation, are as destructive as dynamite. You can take any of a hundred Catholic doctrines or aphorisms, expand them to insane dimensions, turn them into monomanias, and use them as weapons against the rest of the Tradition. That’s more or less what heresy is.

But the great and opposite evil we can commit is to eliminate a real truth from the deposit of Faith out of fear of how some hypothetical person might misread it.

 

So in this case, it is a grave mistake to allow worries about how somebody might misread, “Everyone is Jesus Christ in disguise.” It is, in fact, a perfectly Catholic thing to say, provided we understand it rightly. The way we do that is to remember the wisdom summed up by Lewis: “God is present in a great many different modes: not present in matter as He is present in man, not present in all men as in some, not present in any other man as in Jesus.”

That’s not just Lewis talking; that is Church teaching as well. Pope Pius XII actually teases out eight different modes of Christ’s presence in Mystici Corporis Christi, including Our Lord’s presence in the works of mercy (which is the basis of the Focolare motto). The point, not only of the distinctions, but of the relationship of these modes of Presence, is precisely that you can’t take a piece of Christ and use it to attack Christ. Likewise, you can’t take part of the gospel and use it to attack the gospel. So it’s rubbish to say that the Christ who commanded us to evangelize the world can be ignored, since Christ is present in our neighbor. His presence there is, instead, precisely why they must be given the good news of their full dignity and worth as ones for whom Christ died.

The concept of “anonymous Christians” is not, I think, an excuse for abandoning evangelization (though, as with anything else, it certainly can be and has been twisted toward serving a goal directly contrary to the Tradition). I think the real purpose being served by the concept is to prevent wasting time speculating about the fate of those who have died without visible union to the Church. I deal with that question here. Short reply: We know where the Church is; we do not know where it is not. Let’s not waste time speculating on who is in hell and get on with evangelizing in hope. Paul (and the Church) gives us hope that those who have not been able to hear the gospel may yet find a favorable verdict if they are faithful to the light God has given them. But it’s not our business to judge, so let’s stick to the work of evangelization Christ has given us. In His words, “What is that to thee? Follow thou me” (Jn 21:22).

I would disagree that there is anything necessarily monstrous about saying that Satanists or Hitler are Jesus Christ in disguise. All men are, in a certain sense, for whomever we meet is our neighbor, including our worst enemy, and we are commanded to love him. That’s because it is Jesus Christ who is the image of the God in whose image and likeness they are made (Heb 1:4). Sin radically distorts that image and can even damn a person eternally, but it remains a fact that any prayer or act of charity extended toward even the most evil human being is being done, in the end, unto the Lord. Indeed, you could argue that the worst sinner is “the least of these” and is profoundly poorer than those who merely lack the things of the body like food and water.

The key here is not to confuse sharing in Christ’s humanity with sharing in His sanctity. Hitler, as long as he was in the body, shared in Christ’s humanity, if only by a toehold. That is because evil is always parasitic on good. Hitler can never fully escape the debt he owes to God for whatever remains in him that is good (such as, for instance, his being, will, power, intelligence, etc.) He may pervert these things to a monstrous degree, but as long as they exist to be perverted, they do so as gifts given him by God. Therefore, as long as he was in the body, any real Christian charity done him was charity done to his Creator, the Lord of the least of these who was present in his life and laboring to draw him out of his monstrous evil and into repentance. That he never responded to the call does not mean that works of mercy done for him (e.g., prayers for his repentance) were not work done unto God in Christ Jesus. Indeed, they were, for from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. None of that magically transforms a sworn enemy of God into a saint. But it does mean that all men, no matter how wicked, remain creatures made in the image and likeness of God — and therefore our neighbor in whom Christ is, in a certain mode, present.

 

That’s why I don’t really buy that there is a lax interpretation of “hate sin and love the sinner.” Our culture doesn’t even try to do that. What it does instead is, “Make excuses for sin as long as possible. Then, when the excuses run out, crush the sinner mercilessly.”

That’s because our culture, not believing Christ, does not believe in the possibility of mercy. For mercy is about sin — dirty, filthy, repulsive, inexcusable sin. Our culture avoids admitting sin till the last possible second and, when it meets it in, say, a child molester or a Klansman or serial rapist, it does not hate the sin and love the sinner. It simply hates the sinner. The rest of the time — with sins of which it approves — it does not hate the sin in the least. It hates, rather, the person who says, “That’s a sin.”

Meanwhile, Augustine’s actual counsel isn’t laxly interpreted. It’s ignored.

What do Catholics do about this? I think the best thing is to hold fast to the Tradition. There’s not a thing wrong with loving your neighbor and doing for the least of these as you would do for Christ. That does not, of course, mean approving his sins (since Christ is not present in sin, but in your neighbor). But it does mean remembering that your neighbor is in the image and likeness of God. We are in no danger of going overboard with Christian charity. If there is any side of the boat that we postmoderns are crowding till it is nearly gunwale under, it is the side that insists that there is nothing whatever sacred about human life.

So my advice would be not to borrow trouble by fretting about remote hypothetical misunderstandings when lovelessness and contempt for the least of these is running rampant throughout the world. Indifferentism is not cured by fear of loving too much. It is caused by a culture seeking to escape from love into merely room-temperature tolerance that resists the claims God places on us to spend ourselves in love of neighbor. We do far better seeing every human person as Jesus Christ in disguise than seeing them as animals, enemies, sex objects, protein resources, cogs, tools, ingredients in a demographic bloc, consumers, or all the other disguises the world shoves at us.

Mark P. Shea

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Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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