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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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  • Posted by: - Mar. 21, 2007 4:23 PM ET USA

    Whenever I see a religious sister dressed in her habit, I approach her and thank her for doing so, WE NEED TO SEE THOSE WHO HAVE DEDICATED THEIR LIVES TO GOD! The sight of a priest or nun immediately turns our thoughts to the Lord! What if policemen or firemen didn't wear uniforms? There has been a study showing that children prefer to be treated by a doctor on a white coat than by one without. Fr. Ron's column in Britain has his picture in a Roman collar, but not in N. America. Why not?

  • Posted by: - Mar. 21, 2007 2:58 PM ET USA

    The greatest act of charity (love) is to share and affirm the Truth.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 21, 2007 1:46 PM ET USA

    I think they can rest assured that Jesus IS going to handle it. He'll put the just on one side with Him in heaven, and the wicked on the other side with Satan in hell.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 21, 2007 1:31 PM ET USA

    Mar, "Catholic San Francisco" is an oxymoron.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 21, 2007 12:27 PM ET USA

    Ross is right in the political sense. However, it is incumbent on the pope and magesterium to be doctrinally conservative, that is, to conserve, protect, and promulgate the doctrines from Sacred Scripture and Tradition given to the Church from the beginning. This has nothing to do with a political slant!

  • Posted by: - Mar. 20, 2007 11:49 PM ET USA

    The words "conservative" and "liberal" should never be used in speaking about the Catholic Church. These are strictly political terms. I know they are used a lot, however, I believe that these terms have no place in teaching the Roman Catholic Faith.. "Liberal" is not synonymous with "merciful" and "consevative" is likewise not synonymous with "righteous".

  • Posted by: - Mar. 20, 2007 8:56 PM ET USA

    FrPhillips, I would privately/directly ask Abp. Gomez who invited Fr.Rolheiser to speak at all anywhere in the diocese. Rolheiser's traitorous agenda is in his own syndicated columns: there's one on healing, but not one mention of either Sacrament of healing: Confession or Anointing; another, after Pope Benedict XVI's election, has Rolheiser stating that Cdl. Ratzinger was his last choice for pope; another canonizes Fr. J.Dupuis. I pray that Abp. Gomez silences Fr. Rolheiser in San Antonio.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 20, 2007 7:43 PM ET USA

    Not really necessary to pile on, but: " And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed." Luke 2:34-35 I feel sure that my conversion was partly influenced by those good priests and religous in my life who were unafraid to be signs of contradiction.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 20, 2007 6:06 PM ET USA

    Listen, Uncle Di, and you will hear the applause from Erie, Pennsylvania from your loud coterie of admirers here. Thank you.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 20, 2007 5:22 PM ET USA

    Fr. Ron Rolheiser is also President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, where the seminarians study. I can't quite figure this out. Our archbishop has been here for two years. He is an orthodox Catholic bishop, formed by Opus Dei and had been Archbishop Chaput's auxiliary. Yet Fr. Rolheiser has been invited to be the main speaker at our priests' retreat before the Chrism Mass this year, I assume at the archbishop's invitation. What's Ron' magic?

  • Posted by: - Mar. 20, 2007 4:02 PM ET USA

    "let's compromise and do it my way"-perfect! For people who are all about love, they sure throw around some unloving appelations. Now I'm "unmerciful". "Jesus didn't play it safe"?! I didn't think Jesus was playing at all. "If you don't want to make the commitment, you're out." Wrong. If you don't want to make a committment, you're not in. Our parish bought his Lent/Easter reflections booklet to hand out. The usual poetic, high-minded sounding phrases that either mean nothing or are heretical.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 20, 2007 1:52 PM ET USA

    OK, so lets take Fr. Ron Rolheiser at face value - it is all about love. In this he is certainly correct. However, it you are to love, there are certain things that necessarily follow (derivations). It is impossible to love someone and yet rob from them. It is also impossible to love children and yet abort one of them. It is impossible to love someone and yet use them as a sexual object. The problem is that he fails to take his starting point to its necessary conclusion.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 20, 2007 1:25 PM ET USA

    It's not only dioceses like Helena that run Fr. Rolheiser in their papers. He's regularly on the op ed page of Catholic San Francisco, Most Rev. George Niederauer, publisher. In fact, they have just moved him to the top of the page and George Weigel to the bottom. What a surprise.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 20, 2007 1:11 PM ET USA

    Ah, notes the "Mother Jones" of the Catholicism, there is polarity in the Church. But from where did it come? Perhaps from the special "Spirit" of VC II that only authentic Catholic progressives can see. The one that induces them to speak in tongues better found among Unitarians and in New Age bookstores. Our Lord had this to say to Father Rolheiser: "But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall render an account for it in the day of judgment." Matt 12:36

  • Posted by: - Mar. 20, 2007 11:24 AM ET USA

    Fr. Rolheiser: “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.” In other words, “Liberals are more likely to say Christ is obliged to forgive obstinate pride & heresy and that the church is big enough that people have a right to reject Catholic morals & doctrine in good conscience, which is just another way of looking at things and fits in quite well with VCII non-judgmental ecumenism.”

  • Posted by: - Mar. 20, 2007 11:21 AM ET USA

    I'm continually astonished, Diogenes, at how you hit nails on heads.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 20, 2007 11:07 AM ET USA

    Did Fr.Rolheiser forget that John also said this: "Whosoever revolteth and continueth not in the doctrine of Christ hath not God." ( IIJohn 1:10 ) Oh, thats right the Bible wasn't written by the people that wrote it. Only the parts that liberals like was. The rest was written years later by dogmatic, Roman Catholics trading in the good names of the Apostles. Any fragments of documents that might be original should be ignored. Silly me.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 20, 2007 11:02 AM ET USA

    You make excellent points about wearing clerical garb, Diogenes. Points that every priest in the world should read and take to heart. Indeed, because I wear the collar, people have been invited, non-verbally, to approach me and ask for spiritual help -- and for the Sacrament of Penance, as I have been asked on several occasions to hear a confession in an airport, something that would never occur without my wearing the collar and letting people know who God has called me to be for His people.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 20, 2007 10:58 AM ET USA

    Amen, Diogenes. Great blog. Fr. Rolheiser preaches "50-yard-line" Catholicism, seeking the "middle ground" & often compromising the Truth. The bp. of Helena, Montana, George Thomas, & some other bishops & cdls. regularly run Rolheiser's writings in their diocesan newspapers. Rolheiser & Thomas & their camp espouse what they call "centrism" to the point of lukewarmness, and we know what Jesus says about such folks (Rev. 3:16). Jesus doesn't sit on the 50-yard line, neither should His disciples.