The Pope Reflects on Mystery of Iniquity and the Need for the Church to be Sober About It.

I just finished reading Pope Benedict’s Book: Light of the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald. There are so many excellent points in the book it is hard to know where to begin. I thought, perhaps over the next few weeks to occasionally present a clip from the book and make it the basis of a reflection and conversation. In my Kindle I marked a number of texts for this purpose.

There is a very helpful discussion in the book on the mystery of iniquity and the Church’s need to be sober about this fact even with, and especially in her own ranks. The matter surfaced in the discussion between Mr Seewald and the Pope about the clergy sex abuse crisis that has swept the Church, first in America, and then in Europe. Peter Seewald asks the following question:

The causes of abuse are complex. Aghast, one wonders most of all how someone who reads the Gospel every day and celebrates Holy Mass, who is constantly exposed to the sacraments and is actually supposed to be strengthened by them, can go astray in this horrible way.

And the Pope Answers:

That is a question that really touches on the mysterium  iniquitatis, the mystery of evil. One wonders also in this regard: What does someone like that think in the morning when he goes to the altar and offers the Holy Sacrifice? Does he actually go to confession? What does he say in confession? What consequences does that confession have for him? It really ought to be the major factor in extricating him from it and compelling him to amend his life. It is a mystery that someone who has pledged himself to what is holy can lose it so completely and then, indeed, can lose his origins. At his priestly ordination he must have had at least a longing for what is great and pure; otherwise he would not have made that choice. How can someone then fall so far? We do not know. But this means all the more that priests must support one another and must not lose sight of one another. That bishops are responsible for this and that we must beg the lay faithful also to help support their priests. And I see in the parishes that love for the priest grows when they recognize his weaknesses and take it upon themselves to help him in those weaknesses (Light of the World, Loc. 582-92)

While the context of their discussion was on priestly sins, one may also apply this to many circumstances. For example, how can a man who married his wife and once loved her intensely, fall so far as to be in intimacies with another woman?  What does he think as he returns home and his children run to greet him? How has he gotten to this point? How can he do this to his family? Or perhaps one can imagine that even murderous felons were once innocent children who played simple games and wept grievously if they but fell from their bike. What happened to them that they have become calloused and hardened to the point that, taking the life of another, or brutally harming them, causes them little compunction.

There is indeed a downward path or trajectory of evil,  though its intensity in some remains mysterious. But the fact is, little sins and insensitivities   lay the foundation for greater ones. As one gives way to repeated sin and fails to repent, that sin becomes custom or habit. But having descended one rung on the ladder, the next rung now seems not so far, nor the one below that. And as one descends further into the darkness the eyes adjust to an increasing dimness, such that the light above now seems quite obnoxious. And behaviors once thought shameful, even impossible to one, now seem within reach and somehow plausible. As the memory of the light fades, the once unthinkable now becomes a daily fare. The descent on the moral ladder continues, one rung at a time, and the light gradually disappears.

St Augustine put it this way: Because of a perverse will was lust made; and lust indulged in became custom; and custom not resisted became necessity (Confessions 8.5). Evil does grow, hearts do harden, intellects do grow dark, very dark. 12-Step meetings often reference the “stinking thinking” that reinforces addiction, bizarre behavior,  and makes every form of lust one’s “God-given right.”  The only way to break this cycle is honest,  frequent confession and authentic accountability to others.

Accountability – Hence the Pope rightly observes that priests must support one another and bishops must be responsible to shepherd their priests and hold them responsible and accountable for the health of their spiritual and moral life. Lay people too must not only pray for their priests but also be of active assistance. This assistance can take the form of simple encouragement, but it may also have to take the form of alerting those to whom a priest is accountable, if the matter is serious.

But here too this is not a matter only for priests. Everyone benefits from frequent, honest confession and accountability to others. I am aware of an increasing number of individuals who struggle with Internet pornography and have made the decision to be accountable to certain close and trustworthy friends. These friends closely monitor the Internet habits of the one struggling by receiving access to the computer cache, and other data made available to them via an ISPN. Accountability, along with Sacramental confession are essential components of the moral life. Otherwise, the mystery of iniquity too easily grows and overwhelms

Salutary Punishment – In the life of the Church there is also need not only for accountability but also salutary penalties which exist, not only for the good of the offender, but also to protect the common good. Here is what the Pope has to say in Light of the World:

The Archbishop of Dublin told me…..that [in Ireland] ecclesiastical penal law functioned until the late 1950s; admittedly it was not perfect—there is much to criticize about it—but nevertheless it was applied. After the mid-sixties, however, it was simply not applied any more. The prevailing mentality was that the Church must not be a Church of laws but, rather, a Church of love; she must not punish. Thus the awareness that punishment can be an act of love ceased to exist. This led to an odd darkening of the mind, even in very good people. Today we have to learn all over again that love for the sinner and love for the person who has been harmed are correctly balanced if I punish the sinner in the form that is possible and appropriate. In this respect there was in the past a change of mentality, in which the law and the need for punishment were obscured. Ultimately this also narrowed the concept of love, which in fact is not just being nice or courteous, but is found in the truth. And another component of truth is that I must punish the one who has sinned against real love.  (Light of the World, Loc  468-76)

This, of course, is a consistent problem in the Church today, also in many families, and to a certain extent is the wider society. Fraternal correction has fallen on hard times and the results are disastrous. Grievous sins often go unremarked, let alone punished. Pulpits are too often silent, pastors, teachers, educators and parents are slow to teach and correct. In many western countries the criminal justice system is quite often askew and many serious criminals are only lightly punished, and too easily walk in wider society where they can, and do harm, again, and again.

I have written here before on the biblical teaching on Fraternal Correction ( There is no need to repeat it all here except to emphasize as the Pope already indicates, that Fraternal Correction is ordered to love, it is a work of charity and is also listed among the spiritual works of mercy.

Note however that Pope Benedict is speaking of more than correction, he also includes salutary punishment. For correction without any punishment ever, even on the horizon, is usually ineffective. Human nature, (at least the fallen version of it), usually requires more than merely verbal warnings and rebukes. There is a place in the Christian community for punitive measures. We do not punish for its own sake but rather as a medicine for the sinner and protection of the common good.

Both Jesus and Paul go so far as to prescribe excommunication for more serious matters, if the sinner is unrepentant (cf: Matt 18:15ff, 1 Cor 5:1ff). Sadly the Church has, at least collectively speaking, been loath to use many canonical penalties, let alone excommunication. The result is that error and misbehavior often go on openly, and for decades. The result is an uncorrected sinner who then harms the faithful by bad teaching and/or example. The Pope’s words here are powerful and one would hope they indicate a change of thinking at wider levels in the Church too. Mercy has its place but love must also insist on truth, respect the common good, and the true good of the sinner.

A fabulous book and conversation with the Pope overall and must reading as soon as possible.

Pondering Punishment In the Light of God’s Love

The first reading today from the Book of the Prophet Amos has God speaking of some rather strong punishments coming Israel’s way due to her lack of repentance. God says the strong shall be brought low and the swift shall not escape!  There is also a vivid line in the psalm that read: Consider this, you who forget God, lest I rend you and there be no one to rescue you. He that offers praise as a sacrifice glorifies me; and to him that goes the right way I will show the salvation of God (Ps 50:22-23)

We have become rather “soft” in modern times (at least in the Western World). We have been taught in the “God is Love” school which is not wrong but has often understood that love in sentimental and simplistic ways. Modern notions of love are usually soft, permissive and non-directive. Love is often thought to be exclusively “supportive” and “affirming.” The understanding that love could or should include setting limits, correction, admonishments or punishments is usually downplayed if not explicitly rejected as pertaining to love. For this reason parenting in our culture has been severely undermined.

God too has largely been relegated to being essentially an affirmer. He is the one who “understands.” One man recently told me that God didn’t care if he went to Church or not. When I quoted the 3rd Commandment and another scriptural passage he just brushed it aside and said, “God understands my heart.” A couple divorcing once told me that God was OK with them divorcing since God “wouldn’t want them to be unhappy.” When I read scriptures that indicated that God wasn’t too impressed with divorce they just brushed it aside and indicated that God wouldn’t want them to go on suffering since they were both in love with other people. A homosexual “couple” recently insisted that since God is about love he has no problem with any two people loving each other. Scriptural quotes as usual had no impact on these men who simply said, “God is not a homophobe.”

So in the end it would seem that God’s main job is to affirm us in whatever we want to do. This reinvented “God” just want us to be emotionally happy and have plenty of self esteem.

Of course in this climate, the notion of God not merely disapproving of something we do but actually punishing us for it seems an outrageous and untenable position. And yet over and over again Scripture is filled with God sending forth punishments on those who persist in sin. It is true many passages speak of his patience but there comes a time when, after warning through the prophets and others,  that God does punish. Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments are filled with warnings of punishment and also its execution.

Now it remains true that God is Love. But he is true and real Love. His love is strong and rooted in what is actually best for us, both as individuals and as a community. Hence when God punishes it is a manifestation of his love.

We also have to recapture a proper understanding of punishment and its purpose. Too many people today think that punishment is the same as vengeance. Hence the one who punishes is merely exactly revenge or getting back at some one for what they have done. Perhaps too many think of punishment as merely a way for the more powerful to vent their anger on the less powerful. It is true that sometimes a parent may punish with mixed motives. Perhaps they are at times venting their anger  as they punish a child. But they are imperfect parents. God however, is a perfect Father and when he punishes it is not admixed with these sinful qualities. But distorted notions of punishment as synonymous with revenge or a mere venting of anger are common today. Thus a proper notion of punishment must be recovered.

What then is the proper understanding and purpose of punishment? In effect the purpose of punishment is allow the one punished to experience the negative effects of bad behavior in a small way so that they do not experience the bad effects in a far worse way. Consider a child who has been commanded by his parents not to cross the busy street without an older person to escort him. This warning is issued in love. The parents are not trying to take away his fun or merely limit his freedom to no purpose. They are trying to protect him from grave harm. But what if the child does cross the street unescorted and the parents discover it? Likely they will or should punish him. Perhaps his father will have him stay in his room for three hours alone as a punishment. Now notice what is happening here. A smaller injury is inflicted to avoid a much worse injury. After all which is worse, a three hour “time out” in a boring room, or being struck by a car and possibly paralyzed or killed? It is clear that the purpose of punishment is to allow a small amount of pain to avoid a much worse situation.

And thus when God punishes he is surely acting in the same manner. He will allow pain or inflict it so that we will avoid far worse pain eternally in Hell, or also pain here as our bad behavior spirals downward into far worse and dangerous matters. Punishment when properly applied (and it always is by God) is salutary. It helps to bring an end to bad and ultimately hurtful behavior and usually issues forth in good and constructive behavior.

Hence punishment is integral to love. But love here must be understood as the strong and vigorous love that speaks the truth and insists upon it for us as the only basis for real and lasting fulfillment.

The Letter to the Hebrews has a remarkable passage that spells out the true contours of punishment and discipline rooted in God the Father’s true and vigorous love for us:

My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges.”  Endure your trials as “discipline”; God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are without discipline, in which all have shared, you are not sons but bastards.  Besides this, we have had our earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not (then) submit all the more to the Father of spirits and live? They disciplined us for a short time as seemed right to them, but he does so for our benefit, in order that we may share his holiness. At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it. So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be dislocated but healed. (Heb 12:5-13)

As a final observation note that this passage says that those who are without discipline are called  “bastards.” It is interesting that this word,  which originally refers simply to child that does not have a father in his life, has come to mean some one who is obnoxious self centered, or incorrigible. When a child grows up without the discipline of a father they often become a  “bastard”  in both the ancient and modern sense of the word. In our use of this rather impolite word we are connecting what happens to a person who does not know discipline.

It is a true fact that many children today have not known proper discipline and this leads to any number of ills: bad and self destructive behavior, arrogance, disrespectful attitudes, incorrigibility, hostility, selfishness, greed, insensitivity, lack of self-control and many other sociopathic tendencies.

We need to rediscover that punishment is part of love. It is not love to leave a child undisciplined. We are not helping them in any way when we fail to discipline. Surely discipline must be rooted in love and when it is it leads to many good effects. God too shows us his love in disciplining us and punishing. I have quoted these words of St. Thomas before and it is good to finish with them: [F]raternal correction properly so called, is directed to the amendment of the sinner. Now to do away with anyone’s evil is the same as to procure his good: and to procure a person’s good is an act of charity, whereby we wish and do our friend well. (II, IIae, 33.1).

In this video Fr.”Bing Crosby” warns the young men of the school of what comes from bad behavior.

Be VERY Careful Before You Ask God To Be Fair

The first reading for today’s (Feb 3) Mass describes how David decided to conduct a Census (likely in order to draft men for the army). The text speaks of this as a sin and though David regrets what he has done yet still God exacts a punishment. But the punishment afflicts not David per se but over 70,000 who died from pestilence at the hand of God. It is another of those difficult texts in the scripture where we struggle to understand how God is not acting “unjustly.” Why would God punish people who had not committed the actual sin in question? So let’s roll up our sleeves  and wrestle with this text. It is similar to what we discussed when we considered the “ban” (Did God Command Genocide?) . As with many things Biblical there are often many different theories and explanations. We only have time to explore a few.

First the Story:

King David said to Joab and the leaders of the army who were with him, “Tour all the tribes in Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba and register the people, that I may know their number.” Joab then reported to the king the number of people registered: in Israel, eight hundred thousand men fit for military service; in Judah, five hundred thousand. Afterward, however, David regretted having numbered the people, and said to the LORD: “I have sinned grievously in what I have done. But now, LORD, forgive the guilt of your servant, for I have been very foolish.”…Gad [the Prophet] then went to David to inform him  [of the Lord’s punishment]. He asked:  “Do you want a three years’ famine to come upon your land, or to flee from your enemy three months while he pursues you, or to have a three days’ pestilence in your land? … David answered Gad: “I am in very serious difficulty. Let us fall by the hand of God, for he is most merciful; but let me not fall by the hand of man.” Thus David chose the pestilence….and seventy thousand of the people from Dan to Beer-sheba died. But when the angel stretched forth his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the LORD regretted the calamity and said to the angel causing the destruction among the people, Enough now! …[And David} said to the LORD: “It is I who have sinned; it is I, the shepherd, who have done wrong. But these are sheep; what have they done? Punish me and my kindred.” (2 Sam 24:2-17)

And now some of the concerns, questions and some possible answers.

What was wrong with conducting a census? There are three possible answers to this question.

  1. David sinned by pride in numbering the men in his kingdom. The purpose for this was to raise an army. But God had given David no order to or reason to go to battle. It is rather David’s pride and ambition that he musters for battle.
  2. David violates the Deuteronomistic Code which forbade Kings to build military power for its own sake. The code referred to this as “multiplying horses” which is a euphemism for building a large army. Here is the pertinent passage from Deuteronomy: The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the LORD has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. (Deut 17:16-17). Hence the powers of a king must be limited but David has transgressed this planning to draft a large army without battle imminent. In so doing he abuses his power but taking large numbers of men from their families and from their farms and occupations.
  3. David sins by not trusting God. The need for a large army is rooted in a lack of trust that God can help him win either with a smaller army or can help him muster troops when the need arises. David’s planning for the future amounts to a failure to have faith in God.

Why did God punish the people who did no wrong? It hardly seems fair that 70,000 people should die for the sin of David alone. David has repented of what he did. It is true sometimes even after repentance we sometimes need to experience punishment, but is the punishment so severe and why is it directed at the people? And here is our central question: Is God being unfair? There are at least two explanations or answers.

  1. The People were not innocent. At the time of Samuel the people clamored for a king. Samuel told them that this was a sinful desire on their part for God was their King. Still they persisted in their demands and here is where we pick up the story:  But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD.  And the LORD told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do.”  Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king.  He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots… He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants.  He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.” But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. (1 Sam 8:6-19). Hence the people are not innocent in this. They had been warned. Among the warnings was a very specific warning that the King would abuse his power to raise an army. Now David had planned exactly this. It is right that they should share in the punishment for they had forsaken God as their ruler and now they would have to suffer under the bad decisions of the earthly ruler they preferred.
  2. This is a moral tale that the innocent frequently suffer as a consequence of our sins – One thing that cannot be avoided is that the innocent frequently suffer from the decisions that others have made. For example, parents may squander their money, or drink too much, or behave badly. The children suffer though they did not do it. A bad pastor can bring down a whole parish, A bad general can get troops killed. Unfortunately our lives are interconnected and we cannot escape the fact that others often suffer for our bad choices. This is a sobering fact that should help us amend our ways. But, sadly, we are often insensitive to how our sins hurt others. David’s sin has hurt others and this is an important moral tale for us to heed for we too hurt others by our sins.

But # 2 still leaves unaddressed the fact that what is depicted in this story that God carries out  is not merely the natural consequence of the bad choice of a leader. Rather it is God himself who personallycarries this out through his angels. What this likely reflects is a biblical focus on primary causality. God is the first cause of everything that happens. In modern times we tend to focus more on secondary causality. If I take a walk tonight the primary cause of the walk is not me, it is God. I am the secondary cause of my walk for I who move must first be moved by God. The biblical world was accustomed to see things in terms of primary causality. There is an old saying, “What God permits, he commits.” We are unaccustomed to see things this way and focus on ourselves and what we do as somewhat independent of God. It is a symptom of our anthropocentric age. We like to say when we observe bad things, “God did not do that, Hitler (or some other bad person) did that.” But honestly, everything that happens God “does” for he sustains all things and is the first mover of everything that moves. This sovereigntyof God interacts mysteriously with our freedom. Clearly the notion of primary causality (God) and how it interacts with secondary causality (Us) requires some sophistication (which we often lack today). God is sovereign and the cause of all but we are free and responsible. Hence God is the primary cause of this plague but David is repsonsible. And WE are responsible for what we do. And we must sober up to the fact that our bone-headed decisions can lead to great pain for others.

A Call to humility – In the end humility is called for when texts like these arise. From our perspective the cry too easily goes up: “That’s not fair!” But be VERY careful before you ask God to be fair. If God were fair we’d all be in Hell right now. As it is, God is merciful and none of us have ever gotten the punishment  we deserved. God punishes David and his people. Perhaps they deserved it, perhaps it is just a consequence of bad choice of a leader. But in the end God summons his mercy and ends the pestilence. In the end it is only his grace and mercy that will ever see us through. We ought to have enough humility to banish notions of fairness in our relations with God. Mercy is the only way we stand a chance. Kyrie Eleison!

This song says, “Lord I’ve sinned but You’re still calling my name.”