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"Jesus can handle it."

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Mar 20, 2007

"There's a lot of polarity in the Church," notes the U.S. Catholic, and it interviews Fr. Ron Rolheiser on the subject. "Whether as president of a seminary," we're told, "where the younger, more conservative students clash with older, more liberal faculty, or as a speaker, columnist, and author, Rolheiser is often seen as a bridge who can see both sides fairly and bring them together."

Seen as a bridge, you say? Excerpts from the dialogue:

U.S. Catholic: Is there a kind of a mutual indifference in that the church says, "Well, fine. If you don't want what we've got, then we don't want you either"?

Rolheiser: Today there are two schools of thought in the church. One of them is that the church needs to be trimmer and purer. If you don't want to make the commitment, you're out. The other school of thought says Jesus' mercy is universal. It says the church is a family, and a family keeps embracing even when members don't come home.

A lot of conservatives want a leaner, trimmer, purer, committed church. Liberals are more likely to say Christ's mercy and compassion is infinite and the church is a big enough family that we don't have to be exclusivistic.

A few years ago an Episcopalian church in Seattle advertised that anyone who wanted to show up at Easter Vigil with a sincere desire to be baptized could be. I know liturgical people who had cardiac arrest over this! A couple of hundred people showed up, they baptized them, and they probably got 60 or 70 really good Episcopalians out of that. This shows the two schools of thought. For one, it's a sacrilege. For the other, they say Jesus can handle it.

This brand of bogus even-handedness, pivoting as it does on a false dichotomy, is more exasperating than in-yo-face heresy. We've got ecclesiastical purism matched in a contest against Jesus' mercy -- guess which wins the sympathy vote? Yet there's a deeper flaw in this chicanery. In its relation to wrongdoing, mercy is retrospective; it looks upon sins already committed and is ever disposed to forgive. But progressives (always falsely, sometimes mischievously) orient mercy toward the future, turning it into a grant of permission to sin tomorrow. For a man to forgive an unpaid debt is an exercise of the virtue of mercy. For a confessor to tell his penitent, "your sins are forgiven; go and sin no more," is an act of sacramental mercy. But the progressive priest who says, "our compassionate God won't mind if you intend to commit such-and-such a sin," performs an act not of mercy but of subversion.

As for the line, "Jesus can handle it" -- it may be theologically true (in the vacuous sense that no sin will cause Jesus to suffer a break-down) -- but the wink and the smile behind the phrase imply that the failing in question is petty and to be upset by it shows moral infantilism. This works well as a satire of traditional pieties but the joke doesn't travel across the ideological boundaries. Suppose we complain to a rich hotel manager that he defrauds his "undocumented" workers and he replies, "Yeah, yeah. I keep the tips of the waitresses and housekeeping staff for myself and I take a slice of their wages -- but hey, lighten up: Jesus can handle it." Not as amusing, is it, Father?

Is the problem that religion just has too many rules?

In John's gospel, written for his community, there are no rules. Jesus says there's only one commandment: love. That worked while the Beloved Disciple was alive, but after he died the community broke down. No rules works when you have mature people. But where levels of maturity aren't high enough, you have to have rules.


Some of the rules are precisely to weed out the non-committed for those who want the leaner, purer church. I'm not so worried about that. I tend to believe that when I die I'm not going to be accused of being too merciful. As a priest, I have a certain level of power, and there's always the danger of abusing power. The Catholic Church is the most powerful multinational organization in the whole world. We're 2,000 years old, we have more than a billion people, we're founded on rock, with scriptures and creeds. We can carry some weak family members. We don't have to play it safe. Jesus never played it safe.

The word "rules" is ill-chosen, but the U.S. Catholic (out to build bridges, as always) knows the odor the word has in the public nostril. It's particularly useful for anti-Vatican polemic because it lets the critic collapse absolute moral norms into the same category as the one-hour Eucharistic fast (they're both "rules"). Now Rolheiser picks up on the term to pull the same stunt as above (contrasting the doctrinal purists with the merciful), here trading on our sympathy for the "weak." But commandments, laws, moral norms, etc., don't exclude weaklings, even moral weaklings. The controversy dividing progressives and the orthodox concerns what God forbids and God enjoins, and, contra Rolheiser, the community shapes itself around those norms to which its members hold themselves accountable, not around the persons who have conspicuously succeeded in obeying them. Rolheiser is correct that he will not "be accused of being too merciful"; but it's a mistake to imagine that mercy means softening hard teachings -- it costs the softener nothing, after all.

What about those who say we should be more aggressive in our outreach, more like evangelicals?

Some people say that one of the things that has always driven Catholicism is public display, like Corpus Christi processions and World Youth Days, where there's a certain pride: "I'm Catholic and I'm proud of it." They would say today we're too reticent, too shy, too apologetic. Some of the younger seminarians want priests to always wear their collars so they can make a statement.

Others, including myself, say that the real witness is your life. I believe that you don't witness to anybody walking through an airport with a collar. You only witness to people you know through the quality of your life. I don't think wearing a collar in public converts anybody. A lot of people in my generation don't feel that public witness should be in anyone's face.

In an earlier post I quoted the teaching of Cardinal Suhard: "To be a witness ... means to live in such a way that one's life would not make sense if God did not exist." Taken in earnest, this challenge blows away Rolheiser's shallow rationalizations. Yes, it's true that character is more important than vesture; and yes, it's true that external tokens of the clerical state are worse than worthless when contradicted by an un-Christian way of life. But since Rolheiser himself chose this way of addressing the "outreach" problem, we can put the questions squarely: does wearing religious garb today, in public, give the priest and nun more room for misbehavior, or less room? Does it make people less aware of the presence of committed Christians in their midst, or more so? Does the sight of a roman collar or a nun's habit cause dismay in ordinary folk (the parking lot attendant, the woman vacuuming the departure lounge carpet) or does it have the opposite effect? Alternatively, in the case of a priest or a nun wearing business attire, are the wealthy they meet less likely or more likely to feel confirmed in their worldliness? To put the problem in Suhard's terms, which expedient would make more sense if God did not exist?

The U.S. Catholic, as we see, laments the fact that there's a lot of polarity in the Church. I'd agree that this is not a good thing, but it's far from being the worst eventuality. Polarity implies a pole, and if there's a pole at least you know which way is up. I'm not sure how conflict resolution is possible within the terms of the polarity metaphor, but no one who can locate the U.S. Catholic on the ideological map will be surprised at its choice of Fr. Rolheiser as the man for the job. His indication of the path forward ("let's compromise and do it my way") is perfectly in character. And in spite of the rubbish, after all, he did help locate some significant common ground: like Fr. Rolheiser, your Uncle Di "tends to believe" that he "won't be accused of being too merciful." A basis for on-going dialogue.

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