Recently I have (yet again) heard the accusation that we at CatholicCulture.org, since we refuse to admit that Pope Francis is an anti-pope, are merely trying to curry favor with him for venal reasons of our own. There are, of course, many variations on this theme, which arise from the dissatisfaction of Catholics who are, at best, worried or, at worst, convinced that the sin of private judgment is essential under today’s ecclesiastical conditions. But we ought never to panic or behave like loose cannons simply because our personal spiritual sensibilities are frustrated. And so I respond to the essential problem as follows:
Living in an era in which the Church has very little influence over human society as a whole, we are apt to feel somewhat abandoned by God. The oldest among us can still remember a time when the Church seemed solid within herself and influential in the wider human community (not realizing, perhaps, how much this depended on an inherited but rapidly waning prior European culture). But even those memories are now some two generations in the rear-view mirror. We are now far more visibly surrounded by severe evils which too many even in today’s Church regard as goods. Where, in all this, is God?
The Jews might have asked the same question before the coming of Christ, and indeed the more zealous among them were asking that question even while many others were intent on preserving the outward shell of Judaism without seeking the strength which could come only from its purification. Among the many false lessons taught by both first-century Judaism and twenty-first century Catholicism—that is, the lessons on how to accommodate our beliefs and actions to the dominant culture while attempting to retain our public religious acceptability—there is surely at least one true lesson also to be learned: Namely, that God uses even the unconverted to further His plan.
Moreover, His plan always involves both the influence and the purification of His visible “chosen people”, whether the Jews before the coming of Christ, or the Catholic Church.
In the Old Testament
There are innumerable examples of this fairly clearly spelled out in the Old Testament, and from the earliest times. Clearly, when God sought to prepare the Jews for their special mission in history, He arranged for them not only to survive by settling in Egypt but to be hardened into a counter-cultural people by their gradual enslavement there. His liberation of His chosen people was a long process of forming them spiritually and inculturating the Law into their very way of life, making them a people set apart from all others.
Here we have a type of the Church, and yet God’s will is worked also through those who are not part of this people. It is Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro—not part of the line which would become “Israel”—who helps to form Moses into the man he needed to become (instead of the hothead he was), and who even advises him on how to share authority over the people during the Exodus, even though Jethro himself did not choose to join them. Moreover, during the forty-year trek to the Promised Land, God uses a morally-questionable non-Jewish prophet named Balaam to foil the temptation of some of the surrounding peoples to curse the Jews in the hope of defeating them in battle and putting an end to them.
We see this pattern of the introduction of putative outsiders with reasonable frequency not only to do evil to the Chosen People but to do them good. It is Rahab the prostitute who conceals the Jewish spies as they prepare to enter the Promised Land, and it is she and all her household who are given protection by Moses in return. Centuries later, long after the Davidic monarchy, God used the Persians and the Babylonians to dispossess the Jews of their homeland, subjecting them to exile so they would come to their moral and spiritual senses. Even many centuries later, with the coming of Christ, God used the Romans to control the Jews and clear the way for the Messiah. More personally, Matthew the tax collector was chosen (out of the blue, as it were) to become one of the Twelve, while another of the Twelve, Judas Iscariot served God’s purpose in a way that could not be more astonishing—betrayal from within the nascent Church herself.
The New Covenant
Obviously, I can only scratch the surface here, with a very few examples. But in the Providential use of evil for His own purposes, God has ordained that the Christian dispensation should be no different. There is significant evidence that Constantine was far from being fully converted from paganism to Christianity when he decided to rely on the Christian God and the sign of the cross for victory. (It was an age in which it would have been generally unthinkable not to raise a banner to some god or other when going into battle, and even after Constantine was more fully converted, he postponed baptism until the last moment in the hope of ensuring that he would thereby die sinless and go straight to heaven—at best a relatively immature Christianity in which genuine spiritual growth was severely truncated.)
Looking ahead, God used Irish pirates to capture Patrick and sell him into slavery in Ireland, apparently just so He could later send the future saint back to Ireland to convert those whom he had served. More dramatically still, Islam (developed partially out of a perversion of Christianity) was allowed by Providence to arise in the East and became a dreadful scourge, and yet it was used to strengthen European Catholicism and the Church herself in the long struggle for survival that ensued. It is perhaps inevitable (though still within the scope of Providence) that European Catholicism became increasingly worldly with the rise of European strength, and who can now doubt that the rise of Protestantism was permitted by God primarily to call attention to the dramatic need for Catholic renewal?
In a similar way, we may suppose, the long rise of secularization—in a West that was growing increasingly wealthy and powerful over several centuries—was permitted and therefore used to enable a great missionary effort to the “New World” and later to Africa and the East. At the same time, the growing decadence—the widespread imitation of powerful secular “virtues” within the Church herself, and the consequent rapid discarding of Christian values by the Church as she lost her formative influence—resulted in an ecclesiastical worldliness by the twentieth century which easily equaled or surpassed that of the high middle ages. But who can doubt that all of this, from slavish adherence to the dominant culture to grave sins of sexual abuse, has been permitted in God’s Providence as a painful goad designed to turn the Church back to the Gospel and reliance not on worldly power but on the power of Christ?
Indeed, one might consider the current pontificate to be the Providential straw that broke the camel’s back (perhaps so that, at last, it can again fit through the needle’s eye)—except that we almost certainly do not yet grasp the full weight of the Church’s corruption. Are not we too tempted by facile explanations instead of a deep and sacrificial reading of Providence? Do not some explain all this away by arguing that we have no Pope, or that fidelity demands that we divide the Body of Christ by insisting on our own liturgical comfort, or that the Church can be healed only through a process of neo-Protestant fracture? Do we not all very frequently confuse even our own sensibilities with the righteousness of God Himself?
A Time of Hope
For the Catholic, suffering ought to be a sign of hope, precisely because it is the sign of the Savior. Yet we are tempted to flee form it, and nowhere are we tempted more strongly then when we believe we are savoring spiritual things. Indeed, even in our very flight, we are capable of piously hanging the crucifix on our walls, and praying devoutly to the Crucified: “Not thy will but mine be done.” When we catch ourselves in such self-deception, we ought not to be surprised, but we must at least be wary. There is a fine line between a devout intention to accept suffering and a supposed righteousness that is both immature and spiritually dangerous. When it comes to the Church, our effort to separate ourselves from the consequences of evil, if we can but recognize it, is akin to Constantine’s postponement of baptism: We can talk the talk without walking the walk:
I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. [Lk 12:49-51]
The point here is that we cannot escape the purification of suffering—certainly not as a society, but also neither as a Church nor as an individual soul. The wheat and the tares can be separated only by God, and that at harvest time. Meanwhile, we are called not to reinvent the plan of salvation but to fidelity. We may see evil everywhere, and we must certainly, in prayer and discernment, combat some evils, but we are never called to separate from the Church, which is the Body of Christ, or to pretend that the Church can be divided into an unacceptable bad part and an acceptable good part, according to our own lights.
Such attempts to divide the Body of Christ are, in fact, the ultimate scandals—the scandals committed by dividing the Church in the name of separating oneself from scandals. “And woe to him by whom they come” (Lk 17:1). We are to trust instead in the larger truth here—the truth that God uses even present evils, evils both inside and outside His Church, to achieve His end of bringing us to full stature in Christ. No matter how bad things seem, God’s Word does not return to Him void, but accomplishes the end for which He has sent it:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it. [Is 55:10-11]
God’s Word is now joined intrinsically and exclusively in its fullness to the Church. Therefore, we must never try to divide or separate from the Church. If we do this, we become our own little powerless “words” that seek to return to Him on our own—in other words, empty, or as another translation puts it, void. It is always better to suffer the pains of obedience than to pretend some ecclesiastical evil is so great that, out of righteousness, we must separate from the Church. St. Paul cautions instead:
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love. [Eph 4: 15-16]
Evil is the absence of a due good, and so evil is always and everywhere at work in the world. It goes without saying that we must understand this. But we must also understand that God uses even evil to purify us—and especially to purify His Church, which is also the Body of Christ, so that it will “prosper in the thing” for which He established it. This prospering may be a constant struggle for her members. But if we deliberately separate from the Church, we can only return to God empty—which is to say we cannot return at all.
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