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A lesson in prudence: Stopping the Black Mass in Oklahoma City

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 26, 2014

The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City filed a lawsuit against the group which intended to conduct a Black Mass in the OKC Civic Center Music Hall. The suit was grounded in the claim that the Satanist group could not hold a Black Mass without a consecrated host, and that the group could not possess a consecrated host unless it had been stolen. The Court ruled in favor of the Archdiocese, and the host has been returned.

For background, see the following:

Unfortunately, the case reveals the utter inability of the courts in our society to make decisions on proper moral grounds. The case was decided based on property rights, a rather black commentary on American culture. But it is perhaps humorously black because this time the good guys won.

At the same time, this whole case is a good lesson in “reading the signs of the times”, and being as “wise as serpents”. It is a good lesson, in other words, in that most misunderstood and abused of virtues: prudence.

Prudence

Our Lord’s use of the expression “signs of the times” is recorded by St. Matthew:

And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” [Mt 16:1-4]

This passage is difficult to interpret precisely, as it is a rebuke to the religious leaders of the Jewish community. Presumably they ought to have been able to see something significant and instructive in all that St. John the Baptist had done, in all that Our Lord Himself had done, and even in the thirsty response of so many to their message of repentance and salvation. To put it broadly, what they ought to have been able to see was the needs of their own era, and the opportunity for an effective response to those needs which God was providing them in the present moment.

Ever since this episode, the Church has spoken of reading the signs of the times in exactly this sense of figuring out the particular problems and opportunities with which she is presented at any given time, and also figuring out how to make an effective response to them. This, for example, is how the Second Vatican Council used the expression in Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World):

To carry out such a task [i.e., “to carry forward the work of Christ under the lead of the befriending Spirit”], the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics. [#4]

In the present discussion I will refrain from comment on how often worldly souls have used the “signs of the times” as an excuse to change Catholic teaching to suit contemporary trends. Any schoolboy knows such an approach utterly fails to grasp the point. For by the design of Providence, the signs of the times exist to stimulate prudence, the virtue of correctly understanding a particular situation and choosing the right response to achieve some good.

To express this in terms of our other Biblical phrase, Our Lord cautioned that we must be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Mt 10:16). Clearly there is nothing innocent about gaining worldly status by abandoning the truth. No, this is another demand for prudence, for judging things rightly and responding deftly so as to maximize the good.

Happily, the legal strategy of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City was nothing if not prudent. It read the signs of the times correctly, applied an appropriate “serpentine” technique, and so actually won a victory for the Good in court. “Our legal theory is very simple,” said the Archdiocesan lawyer Michael Caspino. “A consecreated host belongs to the Church.” (Caspino also said, “We stared down the devil and he blinked.” He has a way with words, but when it comes to the Devil, it is far safer to attribute all victories to Christ!)

Higher Values Intact

This strategy left all the higher values intact. We may wish we lived in a culture that could actually address moral evil directly. Indeed, we may be surprised that something as obviously sinister as Satanism does not meet with overwhelming resistance at virtually every level of private and public consciousness. After all, even for someone who does not believe in Satan, and even for a State mired in problematic theories of secularity, it ought to be obvious that Satan is at a minimum the great symbol of evil, the one idea that no healthy social order can allow anyone to openly and confessedly serve.

Sadly, the signs of our own times disabuse us of such dreams. But they also teach that a good number of people will still oppose evil at some level if they can find a respectable contemporary reason for doing so. And so, in Oklahoma City, we meet property rights entering on the heels of prudence.

A small and uncertain victory, you say? Yes, but such are all victories in this world, and it is still a victory. Moreover, it is a victory which did not require the Church to pretend for a moment that she was not concerned with all the other reasons a Black Mass should be prevented—the insult to Catholics, the disedification of the public, the undermining of right order, the defiance of the Good, the utter alienation from God, the mockery of Jesus Christ, the unrivalled sacrilege and desecration.

Too many people define prudence either as an excessive caution or as the strategic sacrifice of the true or the good in order to gain influence. But Archbishop Paul Coakley knows it is a virtue to be cultivated in prayer and exercised for the glory of God. The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City has given us an excellent lession: Prudence, without sacrificing anything that is true, grasps a particular situation correctly and devises an effective particular response  in order to achieve a particular good.

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