Spinning Your Wheels

“Spinning Your Wheels”the image evokes futility: activity without movement, work without result, redundancy, frustration and a measure of myopia. All the moral issues that the Pope’s “Exhortation” Amoris Laetitia addresses have already been settled by the people.

The absence of any mention of contraception suggests that the Pope may not be unaware of that. Artificial contraception has not only been recognized as morally acceptable by the people, it has been heartily embraced as essential to reproductive responsibility. The people decided long ago to stop listening to their teachers in this matter and their behav­ior directly contradicts what the hierarchy commands. The Pope’s silence on this is most welcome.

On the question of divorce and remarriage, not only have the people opted for the freedom to dissolve dysfunctional marriages, but the hierarchical Church itself at the local diocesan level has for over forty years pursued a policy of expanding the category of annulment to include virtually all the circumstances that used to characterize divorce. Failure to acknowledge the complicity of the Church in the granting of divorce in practice as annulment tends to confirm the suspicion that there is a selective blindness in play here.

On the issue of gay marriage, after a great deal of debate the majority of Americans have decided that a committed relationship between partners who are drawn to physical union with those of the same sex, should be considered valid and respected by society.   Same sex marriage is supported by Catholics in the same percentages as by people associated with other religious institutions or no religion.

While many welcome the Pope’s more “liberal” attitudes, others criticize his unwillingness to attempt any structural change in these matters, even though the voice of the people is clear. That leaves tradition in place. Hence the nature of the document is merely an “exhortation.” But who is being exhorted, if the people are already convinced and have decided? The target of the exhortation seems to be the hierarchy itself, the majority of whom are conservatives appointed by the two previous Popes as an element of their strategy to chill the reform-enthusiasm generated by the Second Vatican Council. It is addressed to those clergy who continue to base their pastoral practice on the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church about marriage, teachings that the exhortation itself declares will remain unmodified as law.

Therefore, while using the “family” as excuse, the real doctrine that is in question here is the self-projection of the teaching authority of the Catholic hierarchy. A thorough reading of Amoris laetitia reveals that this current Pope is not rejecting in any way the traditional teaching about the infallibility of the Catholic magisterium, the primacy of law and obedience to the teachings of the Church with regard to marriage, and the essential mediatorship of the Church hierarchy in the person of its priests and the rituals they administer in the pursuit of a right relationship to “God.” What the Pope “exhorts” is that the members of the hierarchy who come in direct contact with people, apply traditional unmodified “law” with a modicum of compassion … and in order to do that he asks them to relax the uncompromising rigidity with which compliance has been traditionally enforced.

I say Amoris laetitia is a case of the Pope “spinning his wheels” because on the one hand for the laity the exhortation is pointless, and on the other, the predominantly reactionary hierarchy, having identified themselves not as the heralds of the “good news” of God’s free forgiveness, but rather as the agents of imperial theocracy for the control of the masses, will, at best, simply embrace compassion as a clever way of “attracting” a reluctant laity in preparation for ultimately confronting them with the infallible truth codified in Catholic law. How else is one to interpret the section of Chapter Eight with the heading: “Gradualness in Pastoral Care” where it is clearly stated that irregular unions “can provide occasions for pastoral care with a view to the eventual celebration of the sacra­ment of marriage.”

There is no acknowledgement that the marriages of billions of people around the globe whether Catholic or not are valid, and just as certainly attain the “ends of marriage” as any conjugal union between Christian partners solemnized at a Christian ceremony. Since the Pope insists on defining marriage as having a necessarily ecclesial-mystical significance “as a reflection of the union between Christ and his Church,” other natural unions that “attain a particular stabili­ty, legally recognized, are characterized by deep affection and responsibility for their offspring, and demonstrate an ability to overcome trials …” are still regarded as second-rate and the legitimate target for being upgraded into Christian marriage.

These marriages that have proven their value are still treated as sub-standard because the ends of marriage as far as the Pope’s mindset is concerned are not just what is natural and good for people, but also include what expands the control of the institutional Church administered by the self-appointed, unelected hierarchy. And since we know that the marriage contract is validly sealed by the mutual consent of the partners, it is the extraneous ecclesial dimension that has been cemented into Catholic “law” and requires the “witness” of the hierarchical Church.

The “law” remains the tacit premise of virtually every “exhortation to compassion” in the document which in their turn then become “exceptions to the law” not gospel imperatives. There is no acknowledge­ment that the only message the Church should have, following St Paul, is the “good news,” not law, neither old nor new, but rather the announcement of a general amnesty — a pardon of limitless proportions. Therefore the “exhortation” to enforce the law compassionately contradicts the gospel message and ultimately the nature of the Church.

Of course, one might say what it really reveals is the nature of the Church as the document conceives it. Far from humbly admitting that the Church is one groping religious institution among many in a world teeming with sincere people dedicated to live lives of moral integrity and deep gratitude, the document tacitly insinuates the transcendent superiority of the Catholic Church, its peculiar view of things and its rules of conduct over all other traditions and Churches. At no point are people, Catholic or not, encouraged to associate with any other religious organization nor attempt to find human wholeness by following other possibly non-religious programs. The document does not contemplate the possibility that these other traditions, or no traditions, may provide opportunities for spiritual growth for those who for one reason or another find the Catholic or Christian or traditional religious worldview inadequate or incompatible with their own.

“Human” is the key notion. The hierarchical Church assumes the arrogant attitudes that it does because it thinks it is not human, it is divine.   Please stop for a second and let that sink in. The Catholic Church thinks it is a divine entity and enjoys one of the properties that belong to “God” alone: infallibility in matters of religion, which includes faith and morals. Those of us that come from a Catholic background find this statement all too familiar. We have heard it since we were children. The hierarchical Church thinks it is the specially chosen, protected and guaranteed agent of “God” himself and that acceptance of its message and inclusion in its institutional membership with its ritual requirements is the only way to authentically connect with “God.” All other “ways” are inadequate, even those of other Christian Churches who are committed to following Jesus’ message and differ from the Catholic only in the refusal to accept the authority of the Pope.

Now if we could lay the blame for all this at the feet of Jesus, we might feel more forgiving toward the current hierarchs. But, as a matter of fact, even a cursory reading of the gospels reveals that Jesus was opposed to any such blasphemous arrogance like the claim to be divine, and was notorious for insisting that “law” should not be the guiding category in human behavior.

So the source of the Catholic Church’s outrageous claim to divine status and infallibility was not Jesus. That particular inheritance came from the Roman Empire which had already been a theocracy for a thousand years when Constantine chose Christianity to be his state religion. Christianity was expected to fill the role once played by the now discredited gods who were responsible for victory in battle and therefore for distributing power, wealth and slaves among the people of the world.   Rome had clearly been their favorite. Rome enjoyed divine protection. Diva Roma it was called: “Divine Rome.”

The “divinity” of the Roman Empire and its highest representative was such an axiom that when early Christians refused to acknowledge it they were persecuted with torture and death. In 410 when the Visigoths under Alaric sacked Rome, Christianity was faced with the accusation that the gods punished Rome for betraying their contract and switching to the Christian God.  Augustine wrote The City of God to prove that Constantine’s new Christian “God” was just as effective at justifying Roman conquest and the ensuing rape and pillage of other nations as “preparing the world for Christianity.” Augustine was convinced that the Roman Empire — regardless of the methods it used — was the agent of “God.” It was still diva Roma.

Roman Christianity — Catholicism — reshaped and fine-tuned by Constantine himself for its new role, became the Imperial “Department of State Religion.” It was the handmaiden of the Empire in its work of ruling the world. Catholicism was the religious side of Roman governance, but like the “secular arm” which was its partner, it was always focused on only one thing: crowd control. The soft-side of control was to elicit obedience; when that failed compliance was coerced by the sword. The claim to infallibility was a function of theocracy.

Hence the Church turned from transcending law, as Paul explained it, to promulgating law and finding ways to punish those who did not obey. It was now Rome’s Church. It’s job was to rule the world and it transformed itself from the messenger of a Forgiving Father, to the policeman of a Demanding Emperor.

The document fairly reeks of these assumptions. The Catholic Church needs more than a compassionate Pope who is courageous enough to confront the unmerciful among his fellow bishops. It needs to re-appropriate its own humanity before it dares to talk to others about what it means to be human. A Church that cannot err is not human. And a Church that has erred conspicuously and yet refuses to admit its error, beg forgiveness and display a “firm purpose of amendment” will never be free of the weight of its errors. It is speaking to a world that has moved on and is no longer listening. It will stay stuck in place forever insisting on its divine prerogatives, spinning its wheels.

 

Divine Transcendence and the “Holiness” of “God”

“Be holy as I am holy”  (1 Pet 1:16;Lv 11:44-55; 21:26;)

“Be holy as I am holy.”  That striking challenge from the first letter of Peter has always held center stage in the Christian Doctrine of “God.” What it means to say that “God” is “holy,” how­ever, is not immediately clear because the significance of the word has been different in different contexts.

In its original place in Leviticus, the biblical authors used the word “holy” (kodesh) to separate what is pure from what is impure as regards foods, animals and certain activities, and so it means “apartness, set-apartness, separateness, sacredness.” “Holy” referred to a category that goes beyond the moral and bears on the contract that bound Yahweh to Israel and formed the conditions for his keeping his promises. The items listed for avoidance were all “dirty” in some way and therefore unworthy of those who would associate with Yahweh, who was considered absolutely clean … holy.

As the religious thinking of the Mediterranean peoples came to be dominated by Greek, and especially dualistic Platonic imagery, the notion of “impurity” was easily absorbed into the notion that “matter” was dead and needed “spirit” in order to live. Matter by its nature was composed of parts; it was spirit that held those parts together. Left to itself matter decomposed. Matter was impure in the first instance, therefore, because it is the source of death.

Matter also had a direct relationship to animality for the Greeks, who considered bodily urges, especially for being spontaneous and unresponsive to mental control, to be something less than human. The agitation of the “flesh” was the antithesis of spirit’s characteristic serenity. Hence to be “holy” for the Greeks signified the contemplative quiet­ness of the purely spiritual … nothing made of matter could be expected to achieve any such tranquility and therefore was to that degree “unholy.” Peter’s intention in repeating the phrase from Leviticus seems to assume the Greek meaning of impure as “giving in to passions” and the call to holiness an encouragement to keep a “sober-minded” control over the body.

At the end of the middle ages, the “holiness” of “God” was conceived in Augustinian terms. “God” was holy because, as Plato imagined him he was beyond matter in every way, but also as Augustine taught, because “God” was Mind, the ultimate source of all rationality and the one who created and sustained the universe as the material expression of his self-reflecting ideas. For Augustine it was the Mind of God that made things what they were and gave them their destiny. Everything was created for a reason. The universe was believed to be full of discernible purpose. So God was “holy” because he commanded that the reason embedded in things — the purposes that were the reflections of his perfections, the natural law — be obeyed and not be thwarted. God was holy because he demanded that everything be done and treated “right.” God was “righteous” and demanded that we conform to the rightness of his creation.

This righteous holiness became the source of an imagined infinite gap between God and humankind. It made “God” morally transcendent. For Augustine the counterpart to that transcendence was the utter depravity of man caused by Adam’s disobedience. Not only did men and women have “bodies” made of mortal matter which made them impure and slaves to their lusts, but because of original sin their humanity had become thoroughly corrupt and led them to behavior that was morally “irrational:” it disregarded the right purposes that “God” had put into created things, including the human body; human nature was not “righteous.” The human race, according to those who followed Augustine, like the Reformers of the sixteenth century, in the searing light of the all holy God deserved nothing but annihilation.

This human experience of the overwhelming holiness of God is identified by Adolf Harnack as the very epicenter of religion.

the religious motive in the strictest sense of the term [is] the motive that asserts itself within the Christian religion as the power of the living God, before whose Holy Spirit nothing that is one’s own retains its independence …[1]

In passage after passage, the Reformers reveal their vision of the degeneracy of man and the overwhelming righteousness of “God.” “Predestination,” which means that “God” intentionally chooses some to be condemned to eternal torment and others to live in endless bliss regardless of merit, was considered a perfectly reasonable thing to do for the supremely holy Creator in his dealings with a thoroughly corrupt humankind. Here is John Calvin:

Since God inflicts due punishment on those whom he reprobates and bestows unmerited favor on those whom he calls he is free from every accusation: just as it belongs to the creditor to forgive the debt to one, and exact it of another. The Lord, therefore may show favor to whom he will, because he is merciful; not show it to all, because he is a just judge. In giving to some what they do not merit, he shows his free favor; in not giving to all, he declared what all deserve.[2]

“What all deserve” is the key notion for Calvin, following Augustine. The entire human race, regardless of the merits of the individuals, deserves eternal torment in hell because of Adam’s infinite insult to “God.” Even infants who died without baptism “deserved” damnation because of Adam’s disobedience. Humanity was congenitally impure, degenerate, unholy. “Salvation,” therefore, was always the gratuitous gift of a holy “God” who was under no obligation to save anyone. “God” made some chosen individuals “holy” by drawing them to himself through faith in the atonement wrought by Christ’s death on the cross. No one was ever capable of a holy act on their own without the miraculous grace of a saving “God.”

Throughout this scenario the transcendent “holiness” of “God” who dwells in light inaccessible beyond the realm of perverse humankind, was the overriding notion.  It was the guiding imagery that brought Christians to their knees in total surrender — shorn of any means of self defense. “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.”  You could not help yourself in any way.  All you could do was pray you were one of the “elect.” In order to be holy as “God” was holy, you had to be specially chosen, called and miraculously made holy by the irresistible grace of the holy “God.”  According to Augustine, Peter’s invitation omitted a lot of details.

*     *     *     *

Jesus also left out details — not only Calvin’s but also Peter’s.  In his preaching, Jesus frequently called his listeners to “be like” their Father.  The idea of imitating “God” was reminiscent of the sentiments of Leviticus.  But Jesus offered neither kosher purity nor spiritual control as the content of the imitation, much less did he make any reference to “congenital depravity.” Rather Jesus’ terms are about super-abundant generosity, limitless mercy, unbounded forgiveness, measureless love.  This gives a completely different sense to the word “holy,” one that Jesus seems to assume is well within everyone’s grasp without recourse to an elite education, sacraments, membership in a new religion, miraculous intervention by “God” or some special psychological appropriation of moral impotence.

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons and daughters of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. … You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.[3]

The last phrase “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” semantically parallels the Leviticus call to be holy, but it imposes a new meaning. What makes the Father “holy” and sets him apart from everything else for Jesus is the absolute universality of his generosity. He is perfect in giving: he treats absolutely everything and everyone the same by showering them with LIFE in rain and sunlight without regard for who they are. But astonishingly, according to Jesus, this “perfection” is also ours simply by imitation.  Just do it! he says.  There are no hidden details.  It is by being universally generous as “God” is universally generous — i.e., without regard to whom it benefits, even if it is those who hate us — that we become “sons of our heavenly Father.” “God’s” holiness suddenly no longer sets him apart from us; to the contrary it turns out to be what we have had in common all along.  There is no infinite gap between the Father and us. “God” does not “transcend” us; he is our genetic source, “our Father.” His holiness is already poured into us because we can do what he does. For Jesus we are not rotting matter facing a “Pure Spirit,” nor are we groveling degenerates begging the all-holy to make us human by the intervention of some miraculous power.  We are the proud legitimate sons and daughters of our Father; we share his genetic material; and we can be perfect as he is perfect.

I contend that the imitation of the selfless love and forgiveness of “God,” based precisely upon the genetic relationship to that “God” whom Jesus never referred to as anything but “Father” was the leitmotiv of his message, repeated in his preaching, his parables and his interactions with people. And I submit that it implies a religious vision that is antithetical to all of the notions of “holiness” derived from philosophical transcendence.

Jesus was not a philosopher.  But make no mistake.  That only means he did not express himself in philosophical terms.  It does not mean that he did not have a solid worldview that was completely consistent with the moral invitations he was issuing to his fellow Jews … invitations that even in his lifetime were recognized and responded to by those who were not Jews.  Jesus’ universal call and its universal recognition by people of various cultures and tongues even thousands of years after he lived and taught, and despite every effort to complicate his simple message and harness its energy to drive one particular political machine or another, still astonishes us.

The often self-aggrandizing attempts to understand why it is that Jesus’ message still has such appeal after so much time, collapse before the evidence that wells up even within the heart of the one searching: we know exactly why Jesus’ message has such appeal.  We hear the echo within us.  It vibrates at our own frequency.  No logic is required to convince us of the truth that simply restates what we intimately know about ourselves.

Be holy as he is holy” in Jesus’ vision of things ultimately means, “be holy, because it is genetically what you are … holiness resides in the very marrow of your bones.”  Be holy because you are holy.

 

 

[1] Adolf Harnack, History of Dogma, vol. VII, p. 127, Dover, NY, 1900

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Ch. XXIII, sect. 11

[3] Crossway Bibles (2011-02-09). The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (with Cross-References) (Kindle Locations 189810-189812). Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.