TO THE EDITOR, CATHOLIC TIMES, CREDO FOR 24TH FEBRUARY 2000,
FR FRANCIS MARSDEN
“Take the plank out of your own eye first, then you will see clearly enough to take out the splinter that is in your brother’s eye.” With these words Jesus criticises the human tendency to leap to rash judgement - to seize upon others’ minor failings while ignoring one’s own grave faults.
However, once we have amended our own lives, the Lord expects us to take the splinter out of our brother’s eye. He does not say, as the modern world might, “Everyone has planks or splinters in their eyes. Don’t bother about it. It’s only natural.”
The traditional wisdom of Holy Church lists the seven Spiritual Works of Mercy:
1. To instruct the ignorant
2. To counsel the doubtful
3. To admonish sinners
4. To bear wrongs patiently
5. To forgive offences willingly
6. To comfort the afflicted
7. To pray for the living and the dead.
It is no mercy to leave the ignorant in their ignorance or the sinner uncorrected. Instructing the ignorant and admonishing sinners is part of our Christian duty.
Some might contend: Jesus says “Do not judge, and you will not be judged yourselves; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned yourselves; grant pardon, and you will be pardoned.” (Luke 6:37) Is it possible to reprove sinners, foremost among them ourselves, without judging?
One verse of Scripture should never be plucked out and interpreted in isolation. For example, Jesus instructed us “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. . .” (Lk 6;27) But the example He gave: “ To the man who slaps you on one cheek, present the other cheek too,” cannot be a universal obligation. For when at His trial Jesus Himself was slapped across the face by a guard in Annas’ house, He did not turn the other cheek. Instead He challenged the man: “If there is something wrong in what I said, point it out; but if there is no offence in it, why do you strike me?” (John 18:23). Thus He gave us an example of how to bear wrongs patiently, but He nevertheless challenged the unjust soldier.
In John 7:24 Jesus commands us: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgement.” He criticises the Pharisees for judging “according to the flesh” (Jn. 8:15). He expects us to use our moral faculties: “Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” (Lk 12:57)
The Saviour tells us to “judge with right judgement.” We can judge acts, but we should not pass final judgement upon the person committing those acts.
Vatican II taught: “We must distinguish between the error (which must be rejected) and the person who is in error, who never loses his dignity as a person even though he flounders amidst false or inadequate religious ideas. God alone is the judge and the searcher of hearts; He forbids us to pass judgement on the inner guilt of others.” (GS 28)
St Paul warns against condemnatory judgements: “Why do you pass judgement on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgement seat of God.” (Rom. 14:10) Like Jesus, he abhors hypocrisy: “Do you suppose, O man, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgement of God?” (Rom. 2:3)
Yet elsewhere he provides the scriptural writ for canon lawyers: “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, matters pertaining to this life!” (1 Cor.6:2-3)
In this bizarre society which acknowledges no mortal sins except “intolerance”, fox hunting and paedophilia, it becomes very difficult to take both the plank out of one’s own eye and the splinter out of someone’s eye - to instruct the ignorant and admonish the sinner. In performing these works of mercy, it is ironic that Christians will be judged and condemned as intolerant by the very people who laud tolerance and tell us we shouldn’t judge or “impose our beliefs on others.” Even as they say this, they are trying to impose their beliefs on us?
Modern society’s understanding of tolerance has gone haywire. The tolerance of what is good is a virtue. The tolerance of what is evil is the vice of apathy or indifference, as Thomas Aquinas explains. With the virtue of patience we try to bear wrongs and forgive offences, but that does not mean we should call evil good.
“The disciple is not superior to his teacher.” In every area of life bar religion we accept this principle of the rightful role of authority. A physics lecturer does not say to his first-year undergraduates: “Tell me your views on general relativity. Do you agree with Einstein?” A French teacher does not gather the opinions of Year 9 on how to conjugate the verb connaître.
Teachers have to teach what is correct and true. If they teach falsely, their students will fail their degree exams or be incomprehensible in France.
Sadly the field of religion is riddled with relativism – with misguided half-thinkers who aver that there is no absolute truth, excepting of course their own statement that there is no absolute truth. Or who believe along with the X-files that the truth is out there, but hold that it is impossible to know it. How they arrive at their own fiercely-held version of this unattainable truth is indeed a paranormal wonder. They are saying in effect: “We are all blind, really. No-one can see.” Can a blind man lead a blind man? Both need to find someone who has clear vision, who can speak with authority about the things of God.
Until we return to a proper understanding of the role of authority in religion, we are lost. Without it, millions have diluted Christianity into a vague, congenial, undemanding liberalism.
“The disciple is not superior to his teacher; the fully trained disciple will always be like his teacher.”
Pope John Paul II, a fully-trained disciple, is like Jesus – sometimes mild, sometimes stern, too broad minded for the bigots, too solid for the relativist liberals. What cannot be denied, but only resented, is that he speaks with magnificent authority.
The modern world oddly asserts that in religious matters the disciple is equal to his teacher. My opinion is as good as yours, even if you have studied the revealed Scriptures for half a lifetime, pray for several hours a day, and hold to the teachings of canonised saints, popes, miracle-workers and martyrs.
I may never have been inside a church or prayed to God for twenty years, my whole idea of religion may be garbled prejudices accumulated from the mass-media, I may have never opened the Bible since childhood, but God help you if you tell me my opinions about Christianity are wrong.
In every other walk of life we recognise the role of the community of specialists, the hierarchy of experts, be they linguists or astrophysicists. But religion easily becomes the toy of the ignorant and opinionated, who think that they know better than saints and Popes and General Councils. This is the end result of the Protestant Reformation and its principle of private interpretation – Everyman has become his own Pope and writes his own Credo.
Tragically Everyman may find himself as lost in the next world, as the third-form visitor to Cherbourg who has invented all his own conjugations of French irregular verbs.
Jesus offers us a double simile: “There is no sound tree that produces rotten fruit, nor again a rotten tree that produces sound fruit. For every tree can be told by its own fruit. . . The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”
“The treasure of the heart is like the root of the tree,” St Bede explains. “A person who has a treasure of patience and of perfect charity in his heart yields excellent fruit . . he loves his enemies, does good to him who hates him, blesses him who curses him, prays for him who calumniates him, does not react against him who attacks him or robs him . . wishes not to judge and does not condemn, corrects patiently and affectionately those who err. But the person who has in his heart the treasure of evil does exactly the opposite: he hates his friends, speaks evil of him who loves him, and does all the other things condemned by the Lord.”
The good man speaks wisdom, the evil man utters folly. Ex abundantia enim cordis os eius loquitur – “For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”