Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Miter and the Scepter

The picture to the right is a painting by Anthony Van Dyck of St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, physically preventing the Roman emperor Theodosius from enter into the cathedral. It so happened, that the emperor, in order to suppress an uprising in Thessalonica, killed 7,000 of its citizens. St. Ambrose demanded that he do several months worth of public penance; and penance the Roman emperor did. This was a crucial turning point in world history. The era of the all-powerful State was coming to an end.

The third and final post of this series: The Miter and the Scepter: Let Them Meet. Aquila's words leads us to St. Ambrose

Bishop Aquila posed the question: “[H]ow many times and years may a Catholic politician vote for the so called ‘right to abortion’ … and still be able to receive Holy Communion?” This, of course, is a rhetorical question. The bishop is simply stating a fact: It has gone on too long. He also posited that the easy access to the Eucharist by those who publicly contradict the truth of human dignity by promoting grave evil is a scandal to onlookers. It further undermines the teaching and governing authority of the Church when there is no discrimination between a faithful communicant and one who blatantly dissents from the Gospel of Life. Regardless of what the intention of the Eucharistic minister may be, giving the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ to those politicians who publicly oppose our Lord’s teachings is a pastoral action that speaks louder than words. It essentially says that the Eucharist- the greatest gift of the Church –is not that important. It also ignores St. Paul’s admonition that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord.”

“If we honestly pray with the Gospel we can see that hesitancy and non-accountability is not the way of Jesus Christ, but rather it is a failure in the exercise of governance,” says the bishop. He goes on to imply that if the hierarchy of the Church took a stronger stand against those priests who publicly dissented from Church teaching against contraception in 1968 in Washington DC, perhaps the Church would not be dealing with the problem of abortion, same-sex unions, and other problems in the Church.

From 1968 to the present day, Catholics in “name only” have been groomed and fed right along with faithful Catholics. To be sure, the wolf and sheep were given equal status and in some cases the wolf was given preferential treatment. When no distinction is made between the friends and foes of Christ, and when the shepherd does not separate the two, the wolves quite often devour the sheep. This is why St. Paul gave the following pastoral directives to the Christians at Corinth: “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people.” And he then added with an exclamation point: “Purge the evil person from your midst!" (I Corinthians 5)

However, the parable of the wheat and the tares seems to contradict these measures, some might say. After all, in this parable Jesus says that to pull out the tare is to jeopardize the wheat. Some take this to mean that public dissidents should retain their communion with the Church lest its members be scared away. Christian love bids us to just leave them be...right? Wrong! This modern interpretation is contradicted, not only by I Corinthians 5 (cited above), but by several passages in the New Testament. Chief among the passages is Matthew 18 where our Lord says, “If he [the sinner] refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” Mind you, a Gentiles and tax collectors in a Jewish context were excluded as outsiders. Our Lord seems to be suggesting that tolerance has its limitations and mercy is conditional. There comes a point when diplomacy can be exercised to a fault.

As for St. Paul, wayward or unrepentant Christians were to be publicly reprimanded (I Tim. 5:20); the names of heretics were to be published (I Tim. 1:20) and as cited above, the unrepentant sinner was to be expelled from the Church (I Cor. 5). Therefore, the "wheat" and the "tares" that are to be separated on Judgment Day symbolizes the saved and the damned, or, if you will, sinners and Saints. After all, the Church is not endowed with the ability to determine the eternal destiny of souls; nor was she called to separate these two classes of people before the Day of our Lord. But what the Catholic Church does have the ability to do- what she is duty bound to do -is to separate the unfaithful from the faithful, the dissident from the disciple, or the disobedient from the obedient. And this she has done not only for the protection of the faithful and for the integrity of the Faith, but for the medicinal purpose of saving the obstinate sinner. From Pentecost to the 1960’s this ecclesiastical discipline has been applied. It is only recently that this act of fatherly love has been called into question and dismissed altogether.

The importance of Bishop Aquila's address to his seminarians cannot be overstated. It is an attempt to dust off the model of leadership left to us by our Lord, the Apostles and the Church Fathers. When the Church does not draw a fine line between the sheep and wolves; when she fails to make the bold distinction between good and evil, then spiritual and moral confusion in society is but the natural result. And more often than not, what we are left with is a powerful State which attempts to organize the social disorder remaining from such a confusion.

On the other hand, when the Church speaks with one voice and with moral clarity, she is a force to be reckoned with. She is a font of spiritual and cultural renewal. In periods of the Catholic Church's strength and confidence, clergy and laity alike have spoken with moral clarity; sometimes at a great cost. Indeed, the Catholic Church has a legacy of protecting the citizen and the lowly from the tyranny of the State. And one of her greatest accomplishments was that she tamed the overbearing dominance of the State to a kind of governance which understood itself to be the servant of its citizens; a servant who had to answer to a higher divine law.

One man who helped changed the way people looked at the State is St. Ambrose. In 392 A.D. the Roman Emperor Theodosius II killed 7.000 Thessalonians in an uprising. Having been informed of this while the emperor was still miles away, St. Ambrose, a bishop of Milan, wrote him a letter. In this letter he said, “I urge, I beg, I exhort, I warn, for it is a grief to me, that you who were an example of unusual piety, who were conspicuous for clemency, who would not suffer single offenders to be put in peril, should not mourn that so many have perished.” In no uncertain terms, the saintly bishop cautioned Theodosius that “sin is not done away but by tears and penitence. Neither angel can do it, nor archangel. The Lord Himself, Who alone can say, ‘I am with you,’ if we have sinned, does not forgive any but those who repent.” St. Ambrose then recounted a dream he had of the emperor coming into the Church. Upon his arrival, the Lord had forbidden the saintly bishop to offer the Sacrifice at the altar. St. Ambrose took this to mean one thing: confrontation if need be.

Inspired by these convictions, St. Ambrose was determined to publicly call the Roman emperor to public penance. There came a day when Theodosius presumptuously attempted to enter the cathedral where St. Ambrose was presiding at. However, this heroic bishop physically prevented him from entering. Ambrose demanded that this powerful head of State repent from killing so many people before partaking of the Holy Sacrifice of the Liturgy. This Saint and Father of the Church was too concerned for Theodosius’ soul to let his sin go uncensored. It was not only an act of courage but the highest kind of pastoral love a spiritual father could give to a son. It was furthermore a precedent that the great shepherds of the Church aspired to in the centuries that followed. It’s just that we haven’t seen it in the last five to six decades. But with bishops like His Excellency, Samuel Aquila, the miter and the scepter will meet again. The golden standard of pastoring will be restored; a stronger Church will emerge; and civilization will once again give public honor to Jesus Christ.