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Our Church: How should the watchman of Israel act?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 29, 2020

Another German prelate has expressed concern that the German “Synodal path” will lead to a split in the Church (German cardinal: ‘Synodal path’ as danger to Church unity). I am sure many faithful German Catholics are wondering why it has been allowed to go so far. At issue are a continuing pressure for the ordination of women, beginning with licensing of women to preach at Mass, and changes in Catholic teaching on sexual morality and marriage.

The underlying attitudes are already far-advanced in the West generally. Of course, those who wish to tinker with sexual morality might as well call for changes to the natural law, but the captives of the sexual revolution evaluate moral questions in terms of cultural norms rather than the absolutes by which cultural norms are supposed to be formed. In any case, the Catholic agenda in Germany is not unique to Germany. It is simply farther along there than in most places. The bigger question at this point is what the Church should do about it.

The dilemma of democracy

One of the problems inherent in societies which prize democracy is that people increasingly come to think they have authority not only over prudential laws but over truth itself. The same problem afflicts technocratic cultures, which tend to believe they have control not only over the manipulation and fabrication of material things but over all of reality. This tends to open the doors more widely than usual to atheism and the consequent deification of man.

Never mind that this sense of human control is largely illusory, not only in the theoretical sense but in a very practical sense. Most people simply cede their alleged “control” to the political, social, economic and ideological forces enshrined in the dominant culture. They exercise their “freedom” and their “power” through an unrecognized and seriously slavish conformity, content to vilify as hopelessly retrograde all those who are not enslaved to the dominant errors and vices of their time—all those, that is, who actually know what it means to be interiorly free.

This is the main fact of the case, and the main problem is not that the dominant culture both hates and mocks God, the Church, and committed Christians. Rather, again, the main problem is: What should the Church do about it? Unfortunately, this question must be raised now not in the context of preventing a wholesale erosion of faith in the larger culture (which has long since happened), and not even in the context of a brand new Church addressing a pagan culture for the first time (for there are still large nominally Catholic congregations which the Church would like to preserve, and on whom she materially depends).

Rather, our situation is that of an established religion facing both massive cultural hostility—more strongly felt because it still has the character of a rebellion—and a continuing loss of faith among large numbers of its nominal adherents.

What to do?

If the Church, from the top down, speaks out loudly, specifically and consistently against the errors of the day, she risks alienating many who might, through some common ground, be won over—or so churchmen may hope. A policy of emphasizing common ground is manifestly the course most often chosen by Catholic leaders today. It can be defended not only on the spiritual grounds of gentleness but, far more dangerously, on financial grounds as well. And since the Church is herself badly infected with this cultural loss of faith and moral tepidity, those at the very top may fear formal rebellion and even outright schism (perhaps narrowly avoided in the German situation or perhaps not) if they attempt to take a hard line. Such considerations may haunt the relationship of a bishop with his priests, or of a pope with his bishops—not to mention the complicated relationships of secular clergy to religious communities, or the even more complicated task of influencing nominally Catholic academic institutions which are generally constituted along the same lines as their secular counterparts.

All of this argues for a caution which is often described incorrectly as “prudence”: In other words, temporizing (when it is not deliberate complicity). It ought to be extraordinarily easy to see that it is self-defeating to avoid taking any public stand which requires the use of heavy artillery with no guarantee of success, not to mention bad press. My dear sir, it just isn’t done! But there are two huge problems with this reluctance. The first is that it has been the rule now almost exclusively for at least two generations and things have only gotten worse. The second is that it is difficult to find a strategy more at odds with the word of God.

St. Paul wrote these words to a new bishop, Timothy:

As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without favor, doing nothing from partiality. [1 Tim 5:20-21]

Paul also gave this advice to another new bishop, Titus:

As for a man who is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is perverted and sinful; he is self-condemned. [Tit 3:10-11]

The apostle James gave this advice to all:

My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. [Jam 5:19-20]

And Our Lord’s words to all of us have the very same purpose:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. [Mt 18:15-17]

But wait, this last passage says far more than we usually notice.

Ecclesiastical tepidity does not work

In Our Lord’s words on fraternal correction, I think we usually see that intractable sinners are to be corrected by the Church, through both her authoritative teaching and the direct action of her ministers. But underneath the words, this teaches something very important about one of the primary purposes of the Church in the first place. For if the Church herself neither upholds what is true nor rebukes and spiritually punishes her errant members, this actually makes it impossible for Christ’s words to be followed with any good result. Rather, the nonfeasance of the Church’s ministers undermines these words, and this has been happening with great frequency as long as I’ve been old enough to follow Catholic news.

It is this more than anything else which so easily proves the policy of accommodation to be false and deadly. Now, if we remember that Israel is a type of the Church, foreshadowing under the Old Covenant what is to appear with far greater perfection in the New, we can see this even more clearly. We can readily understand that the ancient prophets foreshadowed those who exercise authority in the Church as priests, prophets and kings—an authority, by the way, in which all the baptized participate to some degree, but of course it is exercised preeminently by bishops. In this context, then, we may apply the word of the Lord given to the prophet Ezekiel:

So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked man, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way; he shall die in his iniquity, but you will have saved your life. [Ez 33:7-9, but read the entire chapter]

Looked at whole, it becomes crystal clear that no case can be made in the Church for failing to correct the common cultural errors into which even those who claim the Catholic name have fallen. The Church must remain a church of sinners, of course: Of that there can be no doubt. But it must not be a Church of unbelievers—of obstinate sinners who refuse to accept her teachings. St. Paul insists upon this in the case of the Corinthians’ refusal to correct sexual license:

It is actually reported that there is immorality among you…. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you…. [Y]ou are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? [1 Cor 5:1-6]

This is not a matter of crushing the bruised reed or quenching the smoldering wick (Is 42:3, Mt 12:20). We are speaking here of safeguarding what Christ has given the Church to preach to the ends of the earth. The right course is not primarily a matter of a prudence which is too easily misguided. It is a matter, regardless of the consequences, of fidelity to the mission of Jesus Christ, who has made the Church a watchman for the house of Israel.

Certainly, as the font of eternal life, she is much more than this. But she is not less.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: timmccmd3591 - Sep. 30, 2020 11:09 PM ET USA

    Interesting reflection particularly given podcasts James M and Thomas M are doing lately about VERY similar issues going back thru centuries: to Augustine and even before! Once again, the Church is at a crossroads with very little leadership channeling divine guidance. One lesson from these histories of these earlier times, rot begins at the top. Far better to have a smaller Church with true faithful, than a global tent full of accommodators.