How many tax collectors might have worked in first century Palestine? Every time Jesus of Nazareth associated with sinners, his pariahs of choice were tax collectors. He uttered the phrase “tax collectors and sinners” over a dozen times in the Synoptic Gospels and paired tax collectors and prostitutes—notably smacking the Pharisees with, “Truly I tell you, tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matt. 21:31).
Yet, how many tax collectors could there have been? A little squad at major border crossings, a few more at the major market towns. In a poor population of two million, surely there would be fewer than a couple of thousand? There must have been more thieves or adulterers.
Why are the quintessential “public sinners” the tax collectors? Because they were singled out by the Sadducees and Pharisees as visible renegades, pariahs, serving the hated Romans. Condemning public pariahs is highly useful in ratifying the “official narrative” (the dominant shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave) and confirming the moral superiority of the rulers.
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As Jesus charged, there was much hypocrisy in their sanctimony—what today is termed “virtue-signaling.” During Jesus’s childhood, the Sadducees themselves petitioned Emperor Tiberius to replace vicious King Archelaus with a Roman governor—foreshadowing their later cries, “We have no king but Caesar.” Jesus’s public response to this hypocrisy was befriending the public pariahs, embracing them without ever denying the fact that greed is indeed sinful. He loved the sinner while hating the sin.
Still, the official narrative had teeth. Nervous Nicodemus sought out Jesus surreptitiously with a late-night interview. Joseph of Arimathea endearingly displayed his reverence, but only after Jesus was safely dead. This official narrative exalted Oppressed Israel, Yearning for its Law. The sin meant everything, and the sinner, nothing. In public, Jesus’s loving the sinner inevitably seemed to condone the sin—invariably understood by the religious establishment as an offense against the official narrative. Any Pharisee who privately questioned this accusation against Jesus had nothing to say.
Later, after the Pentecost, “many priests” were baptized, so many must already have been convinced by Jesus’s miracles, yet remained silent throughout the Sanhedrin’s show trial. This may seem cowardly collusion. Yet sympathetic Pharisees had no clear, coherent argument against the official narrative—no “messaging,” like the talking points packaged today on billboards and bumper stickers. There was nothing they could say. They might have joined the Nazarene’s entourage, becoming pariahs themselves, but that would change nothing. Becoming a pariah or remaining silent was a lose-lose proposition. Call it the Nicodemus Dilemma.
The Pharisaical Elites of Our Day
Today, we have the obverse problem. Today, our cultural elite chants an official narrative of Oppressed Sexual Minorities, Yearning for Liberation from Historic Intolerance. Denouncing treachery against the Law has been replaced by denouncing traditional sexual morality, especially regarding children. Now, condemning the sin is understood to mean hating the sinner. For our elites, the “sinner” is to be celebrated and the sin is to be treated as an afterthought. The new pariah is the judgmental conservative.
Again, the official narrative enhances the regime’s power—judicial, legislative, educational, and therapeutic. Modern public administration thrives on dependency, ballooning with the multiplication of minority clients—especially those oppressed by the free and familial (“privileged”) majority. Proving the “Iron Rule of Oligarchy”—power concentrates—an already privileged governmental elite uses the levers of minority protection to disenfranchise the majority. The irresponsible mass media—forever “the lick-spittles of tyrants”—relentlessly beats the victimhood drum. So now, the Church is the last obstacle in the sexualization of children.
Like Nicodemus and Joseph, our bishops have been largely silent for almost fifty years, lacking words to challenge this official narrative. With 20-20 hindsight, reticence looks like collusion. It began in the 1970s with their deafening silence about contraception, fornication, and no-fault divorce. Why antagonize the innocent youngsters? That might only make it harder for them to return to the Church. It was all a passing fad—the Woodstock Generation would soon settle down and raise families. And it was pointless to upset their helpless parents by stating the obvious, maybe driving the parents from the Church.
On the other hand, some might object that our bishops have been silent simply because they haven’t been very courageous. What bishops have denied communion to pro-abortion Catholic politicians? How many have made even the minimally demanding effort to pray outside the local abortion clinic? Given the media’s relentless gender advocacy, which bishops have defended the Church’s teaching on homosexuality before the editorial board of the local newspaper? For that matter, what bishops have even defended their own orthodox priests, when they’ve gotten into trouble on the issue? Teachable moments, all squandered.
It’s now commonplace coffee-chatter that, back in Henry VIII’s day, 79 out of 80 British bishops decided to join the Anglican schism rather than lose their heads. These days, there’ve been a few almost St. John Fishers, but the general defection rate seems to mirror that betrayal of Jesus on the Mount of Olives (Matt. 26).
Regardless: indignation is not explanation. We’ve seen genuinely faithful, holy bishops helpless to address the anti-Catholic drift. Some have been hamstrung by heterodox colleagues. Buried under the official narrative—Sexual Liberation from Oppressive Tradition—even a tiny clique of their progressive brother bishops can render any loyal shepherd a pariah, with veiled suggestions that such traditionalists are legalistic and … well, one never wants to use the term, pharisaical. Every hierarchy promotes company men, so even the best long for collegiality. Yet under the media’s sinister gaze, the collegial ratchet works only one way: embracing the spirit of the age, not contradicting it. Deprived of collegiality, good bishops who are lonely voices of orthodoxy in the episcopal wilderness are more susceptible to accusations of judgmentalism by the local popular culture.
Some good bishops have always stressed catechesis of their faithful in the sacramental life of the Church, within the church. They’ve sponsored loving-the-sinner pastoral outreach: Courage for the same-sex attracted, Project Rachel for post-abortion mothers and maternity homes—programs ignored by the public. Further, with justification (e.g., in Lumen Gentium) good bishops may assume that it’s really the responsibility of the well-formed laity to carry the Gospel into the broader culture. The translation of the Gospel into public debate slides into the realm of natural law and political prudence; here the enfranchised laity must step forward.
Effective Bishops Confront the Cultural
The question of the past half-century, however, is whether the bishops really could have educated their laity, without confronting the official public narrative in the public square. Their catechesis was always conditional. If you want to marry inside a photogenic church, you must take the marriage preparation course. So, for example, in our own marriage course in the 1980s (at the cathedral), we were the only couple in a dozen not cohabiting. No one warned the others of the proven danger of this to their future marriages. Sacramental catechesis merely allowed the Church to abandon her responsibility and competence as the final interpreter of the natural law and natural happiness. And not surprisingly: it soon ceased to be even sacramentally adequate.
For the last fifty years, the Church has had science on its side—psychology, sociology, economics, and demographics. This is not rocket science. All of the indices of a collapsing culture—anxiety disorders, child poverty, epidemic “cutting,” psychosis, addiction, domestic violence, homelessness, STDs, suicide, etc., etc.—are irrefutably correlated with the collapse of the family. Yet Gender-Marxists are legally fortifying the official narrative: “The family is the source of all evil”—the source of all sexual oppression. Only the nanny state can protect the limitless diversity of sexual expression—and provide ersatz public programs to tidy up the inevitable wreckage. Bureaucrats eagerly step forward.
The Church has conceded the whole argument over nature to gender pseudo-science. Certainly there’s been a proliferation of lay Catholic advocacy groups arguing the case, but the Church has not made the case. We are a church of bishops. If the bishops don’t defend nature, the media easily ignore any pariah advocacy groups which challenge the official narrative.
In the parishes, the laity half-learn the sacramental order, then watch television for the rest of the week. Result: they’ve become oblivious Averroists, blindly straddling the “Two Truths” of Catholic revelation and public “science”—pseudo-science, hijacked in the media by gender ideologues. Judges, legislators, and editors now publicly decree “transgender identity” to be “settled science,” for example, when the real science clearly proves gender dysphoria a self-destructive pathology.
Again, how could our bishops have been collectively so far behind the curve in answering sexual liberation ideology? As Twain said, “A lie can travel half way around the world, while the truth is putting its shoes on.” This isn’t just hyperbole. Ever since the Enlightenment kick-started the “Treason of the Clerks,” ideologues have undermined Christian principles by pillorying the Church for falling short of them. How could Christians wage war against their brothers, sow poverty, oppress women, condemn other races, exploit children—all without acknowledging that only Christianity ever tried to limit war, liberate the poor, honor women, embrace all races, and protect children? The partial truth in all these accusations silenced any defense.
And few prelates in their Episcopal Bubble have taken seriously the looming threat to the Church’s local survival. A solid cohort of their accusers really do seek the final eradication of the Church, but few bishops realize that they’re already pariahs. They’ve had such pleasant conversations at banquets and galas, so they’ve assumed they could lie down on the tavern floor and not get stomped. “I thought we had an understanding!” will grace many tombstones.
Even some good bishops have spent fifty years “putting their shoes on.” No matter how often they’ve repeated, “love the sinner, but hate the sin,” they’ve implied clumsily that they care more about the sin than the sinner. Why? Because the truth is always expressed in the form of abstract law. The law says, hate law-breaking, but love law-breakers. Said like that, “love” conveys all the empathy of a notarized contract.
How might bishops answer Gender-Marxist bigotry, loving sinners by hating everyone’s sin? They must embrace becoming pariahs. They must lighten up. “We’re all bozos on this bus,” and good, sinful bishops must stop grimacing every time they say so. Bumper-sticker slurs need bumper-sticker replies: “The Church Loves Drunks, Gays, Video Addicts and Us,” and if LGBT activists go ballistic, the bishop’s riposte should be: “My best friends are alcoholics.” Heart can speak to heart on billboards: “God Freed Me from My Compulsion,” advertises an ex-lesbian. Bus benches can address the nub of the issue: “Pride Kills Happiness.” And parents would love a diocesan-sponsored placard, “Sex! Teachers! Leave Those Kids Alone!” Why don’t bishops use bumper stickers? They’re terrified of saying too much, when the real danger is saying too little.
Above all, our good bishops must stop being afraid of hurting people with the truth. Like the baptized Pharisees at the Pentecost, they must step past the Nicodemus Dilemma. They need to talk about lonely single-mothers, kids abused by mommy’s new boyfriend, fatherless boys betrayed by a trusted gym teacher. Of course the media will savage them as “uncaring,” but the pain is already out there: lonely 30-somethings in their parents’ basements, the 10 percent of adolescent girls habitually cutting, gender-confused youth steeling themselves for suicide. The pain is already there, caused by the ideology of sexual liberation, and bishops can’t fear saying so—complete with the convincing statistics. In truth, “The Emperor has no clothes.”
Our ruling elite is becoming so heavy-handed with gender legislation, school regulations, court cases, and media campaigns because they can feel their official narrative coming unglued. The loneliness and anxiety of the Millennials and Gen-Zers is palpable. Nobody (except public educators) believes anymore that the misery and chaos of promiscuity can be solved with more promiscuity. It’s the 1989 Soviet Union all over again, needing only Solidarity to give it a good push. Our civilization is in pain, so this is the ripest moment for evangelization since Romanitas: “Behold, now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:3). As the official narrative dissolves, so does the Nicodemus Dilemma, and “pariah” is a banner worth flying.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is Lawrence Olivier as Nicodemus with Jesus in a scene from the 1977 film Jesus of Nazareth directed by Franco Zeffirelli.