The Wheat and the Tares

In daily Mass we have been pondering the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, from the Gospel of Matthew. In these difficult times for the Church, when there is a legitimate cry for reform, we do well to ponder its cautionary lesson. Beyond the sexual abuse scandal there are also deep concerns regarding the uncertain trumpet of Catholic preaching and leadership, the overall lack of self-discipline among Catholics, and the failure of bishops and clergy to discipline those Catholics (lay and clergy) who cause scandal. The list of concerns is long, and in general I have been sympathetic to the need for reform and greater zeal in the Church.

However, the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares cautions against overzealousness in the attempt to root out sin and sinners from the Church. The Lord’s warning to the farmhands who wanted to tear out the weeds was that they might harm the wheat as well. He wants them to wait until the harvest. In many cases there will come a day of reckoning, but it is not now.

This does not mean that we are never to take notice of sin or to rebuke a sinner. There is certainly the need for discipline in the Church; other texts (e.g., Mat 18:15-17; 1 Cor 5) call for it as well. However, this parable is meant to warn against a scouring that is too thorough, a puritanical clean sweep that overrules God’s patience and seeks to change the Church from a hospital for sinners into a germ-free (and hence people-free) zone.

We are going to need to depend on God’s patience and mercy if any of us are to stand a chance. People who summon the wrath of God upon (other) sinners may end up destroying themselves as well. We all have a journey to make from being an “ain’t” to being a saint.

This parable summons us to find the proper balance between reform and patience. The guidance consists of four steps.

I. Wake up. Jesus proposed another parable to the crowds, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off.”

Notice that everyone was sleeping when the enemy sowed weeds. It is a great mystery as to why God allowed Satan to do this in the first place, but there is far less mystery as to why Satan has been so successful in our times. The weeds are numerous and are vigorously growing. Part of the reason for this is that we in the Church have been sleeping while Satan has been steadily sowing his weeds among us.

Don’t just blame the Church leadership (although we certainly deserve plenty of the blame). Many throughout the Church have been in a deep moral slumber. Too many Catholics will watch anything, listen to anything, and expose themselves to anything. We just “go with the flow,” living unreflective, sleepy lives. We also allow our children to be exposed to almost anything. Too many parents don’t know enough about what their children’s lives: what they are watching, what they listening to, where they are surfing on the Internet, and who their friends are. We rarely think of God or His plan for our lives. On the whole, our priorities are more worldly than spiritual. We are not awake and wary of sin and its incursions; we are not outraged. We take little action other than to shrug our shoulders. We seem to be more concerned with fitting in than in living as a sign of contradiction to the ways of the world.

Church leadership has been too inwardly focused. Too many in the clergy have failed to warn of the wolf who wanders about looking to savage us. Clear teaching on moral issues has been sorely lacking in many ways and at many levels in the Church.

It’s time to wake up and go out. There is work to be done in reclaiming the culture for Christ and in re-proposing the gospel to a world that has lost it.

II. Wise up. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. The slaves of the householder came to him and said, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.”

We must regain sobriety, part of which is understanding that we have an enemy who hates us: Satan. He is responsible for much of the spiritual, moral, and even physical ruin we see around us. We have been dismissive of his presence for far too long, as though he were a merely the villain in a fairy tale. While we cannot blame everything on him—for we connive with him and also suffer from weakness of the flesh and susceptibility to the bad influence of the world—Satan is real. He is our enemy; he hates us, our children, and the Church. He hates anything and anyone holy or even on the path to holiness.

III. Wait up. His slaves said to him, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?” He replied, “No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest.”

We have already laid the groundwork for the Lord’s rebuke to these overly zealous reformers. Today in the Church we are well aware of the need for reform; so is the Lord. He says, clearly, an enemy has done this. Yet to those who want to go through the Church rooting out every sinner and ne’er-do-well, the Lord presents a balancing notion.

The Lord directs us to be prepared, in some cases to wait, and to not be overly anxious to pull out weeds lest we harm the wheat. Remarkably, the Lord says, let them grow together. Notice that now is the time to grow; the harvest comes later. In certain (rare) instances the harm may be so egregious that the Church must act to remove the sinner or to discipline him or her more severely, but there is also a place for waiting and allowing the wheat and the weeds to grow together. After all, sinners may repent; the Lord wants to give people the time they need to do that. Scripture says, God’s patience is directed to our salvation (2 Peter 3:9).

So, while there is sometimes a need for strong discipline in the Church, there is also this directive to balance it with patience. Wait. Place it in the hands of God. Give the sinner time to repent. Keep working and praying and teaching against all error, but do not act precipitously.

IV. Wash up. Then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.”

There is a harvest. Those who have sinned (or led others to sin) and have not repented are going to have to answer to the Lord for it.

The Lord is no pushover; He does not make light of sin. In telling us to wait He does not mean to say that judgment will never come, but His general advice is to leave it to Him. To us He says, in effect, “As for you, wash up, get ready, and help others to get ready as well. Judgment day is surely coming, and every knee will bend to me. Everyone will have to render an account.”

That’s it. Wash up. Get ready! For now, the wheat and tares grow together, but later the weeds will be gathered and cast into the fire.

Here is the balance: God is patient, but there is ultimately a harvest. By God’s grace we must get ready for it. To the overly zealous God says, “Wait,” but to the complacent He says, “Wake up, wise up, and wash up.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Wheat and the Tares

On the “Benefits” of Heresy

In times like these, filled with errors and a resurgence of heresies (old or recast as new), there is a cry that goes up among the faithful: “How long, O Lord?” We may wonder why the Lord permits such errors to flourish. St. Augustine pondered the question as well:

But that is precisely why divine providence permits so many heretics to come along with various errors; it’s so that when they taunt us and shower us with questions we do not know the answers to, we may at least in this way be shaken out of our mental sloth and start longing to become acquainted with the divine scriptures … many people are lazy to want to be taught, unless they are sort of awakened from their slumbers by heretics making a nuisance of themselves with their taunts, so that then they start feeling ashamed of their ignorance and begin to realize that they are being put in a dangerous position by this ignorance of theirs.

That is why the apostle too says: “There have to be many heresies, so that those who prove reliable may stand out among you” (1 Cor 11:19). Those who can teach well are the ones who prove reliable in God’s eyes. But they can only stand out among people when they teach… (Augustine, On Genesis, Book 1.2).

Yes, our detractors and dissenters provide us a gift, albeit in a strange package. Their scoffs and pronouncements that the Church is out of date and will eventually change to “catch up” to their newly minted “truths,” compels the orthodox to ponder again the ancient truths given by God and to do so more deeply.

In our own times, so beset with public dissent even from some in the clergy, there has also been a blossoming of Catholic teaching as never before. There is a magnificent array of books, videos, websites, podcasts, solid Catholic journalism, radio and television programming, and even new Catholic universities. Our teaching has become sharper and more apologetic, focused not simply on the “what” of faith but also the “why.”

As I look at younger adults, I think it is a small miracle that they even come to Mass. Where would they have gotten such an idea? Certainly not from our current culture! Although only a small percentage of them attend, the ones that do are far more intentional, devout, and knowledgeable in some ways than the generations that preceded them.

I grew up at the end of an era, in the 60s and 70s, when Mass attendance rode the wave of a cultural energy. Back then it was widely held that “decent people” went to Church. Politicians, community leaders, and business owners were all expected to manifest belief and membership, to include regular attendance at sacred services. It was part of one’s bona fides. We went to Church in much larger numbers in those halcyon days, but in many cases we did so mostly because we were expected to do so. It was not that we were particularly devout or spiritual or that we were theological giants. Rather, it was a certain box that needed to be checked off. Surely not all were attending Mass perfunctorily, but a lot of people were swept in by the current of culture. When the culture turned (not just against attendance but against belief altogether), the numbers began to ebb. The whole thing was thousands of miles wide but only two inches deep. It broke up quickly under the scorching sun in the desert of our discontent, starting in the late 1960s.

Those of us who still attend Mass today are more intentional. Few seem to expect us to attend. Indeed, our attendance often provokes scorn, eliciting questions such as, “You don’t really believe all that Catholic stuff, do you?” It is this very scorn, however, that can help to quicken our resolve and to be clearer about what we believe and why it makes sense. If you ask me, there is something deeper and richer about the faith of many Church-goers today. In many cases they have had to swim against the current to believe and to come to Mass each Sunday.

St. Augustine’s observation remains largely true. When you encounter heresy and error don’t just get mad. Instead, get smarter and more devout!

Let’s Be Careful in Our Charges Regarding the New Wording of the Catechism on the Death Penalty

As most of you know, the Pope has directed that the wording of the Catechism of the Catholic Church about capital punishment be changed. The new wording is as follows:

2267. Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state.

Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” [1], and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

[1] FRANCIS, Address to Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, 11 October 2017: L’Osservatore Romano, 13 October 2017, 5.

I have concerns that the reactions I have seen in the Catholic “blogosphere” have been too extreme. There are accusations of error, heresy, violations of Natural Law, and unauthorized changes to an unchangeable doctrine. There are calls to resist the Pope, to reject the teaching, and even to bring charges of heresy.

I think we need to be careful, slow down, and look more carefully at the wording. While I understand that there are legitimate concerns, I hope for a more respectful discussion among Catholics than I am currently seeing, at least here in the U.S.

My own reading of the new wording is more sanguine than that of my usual allies. I would like to make three points:

  1. I do not think the Pope or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has changed doctrine or teaching. The new wording addresses a change in the circumstances of our times. While acknowledging the past assessments that permitted the use of the death penalty, the new wording uses an important interpretive phrase: “Today, however, …” What this means is that given the circumstances of our times, the current stance of the Church is that the use of the death penalty is both unnecessary and unwarranted. This is not the same as saying that previous Church teaching was wrong. The emphasis is on current circumstances, in which the need for this penalty is less than demonstrable, and there is an uneven application of “penal sanctions imposed by the state.” These circumstances make the use of the death penalty inadmissible because it does not meet the standards upon which the teaching insists: that it is necessary for the common good and that it is justly and consistently applied. You may disagree with these conclusions, but the point is that the teaching has not been changed; rather, current circumstances do not accord with what is necessary for legitimate recourse to the death penalty.
  2. The circumstances of our times are such that there is a need for a pastoral strategy that speaks to the dignity of every human person. While I realize that an innocent child in the womb is not to be equated with a convicted criminal, we should be careful about affording increasingly secular states the right to end any human life that does not immediately threaten the common good or the safety of innocent people. The new wording speaks to this.
  3. Some have said that the use of the word “inadmissible” is the same as calling the death penalty intrinsically evil. This seems a reckless charge meant to inflame. Had the Pope or the CDF meant to call it such (and it is not) they would have used the words “intrinsic evil”—but that is not the case. A more benign understanding is that the use of the death penalty is inadmissible due to the current circumstances. The context for the word “inadmissible” is supplied by the prior sentences and should be used in understanding it.

I realize that there will be ongoing discussion. I only ask that we calm down a bit and try to listen to what is actually being said (even if we find it somewhat ambiguous). Perhaps we should exhibit a little more care than I have seen exhibited in some of the commentaries I have read.

My central point is that it is not necessary to read this new wording in radical contrast to what has been taught in the past. The stance of the Church for at least the last fifty years has been that the conditions that require the death penalty are rarely if ever present today. This new wording of a moral teaching about a matter rarely encountered in the average person’s lifetime does not amount to a collapse of the Church’s entire moral doctrine. The heated responses on the blogs are out of proportion to a change that, while significant, is worded in a way that permits a contextual no rather than an absolute no that overthrows previous Church teaching. I do not think it does reverse Church teaching and we should be far more careful in making such claims.

In the interest of disclosure, I will say that I have not supported the use of the death penalty for years. I do not hold that it is intrinsically evil, but I cannot see why it is necessary. I do think that we must be more serious about keeping dangerous criminals locked up. First, there should be “truth in sentencing” (i.e., twenty years means twenty years). Second, these convicts should be strictly confined in ways that respect the common good and the need for public safety.

In closing, we should resist the vision of the culture of death, which insists that the killing of human beings is a legitimate solution to human problems.