The Nuncio on the Bishops’ Responsibility

Today the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops begins its annual meeting.  This year the top item on its agenda is the horrific sexual abuse by clergy, especially the disgraced ex-Cardinal McCarrick.

The Holy Father began by stopping the bishops.  They have been in a hurry to pass reforms that will save their face in the media.  Pope Francis wants them, first, to slow down, to make sure that their reforms are good ones.  The bishops have a retreat scheduled in January, and there is an international meeting of bishops–an “Extraordinary Synod”–in February on this exact topic.  True reform of the Church requires doing things thoughtfully and prayerfully, not rushing to impress the media.

The politics of this age is very complicated.  In the United States at least, we are used to thinking of everything as conservatives vs. liberals.  So often those ways of thinking fail to appreciate the real dynamics of the Church.  There are, to be sure, many people thinking as conservatives and liberals–but to the extent that they think that way, or as anti-conservatives or anti-liberals, they always fail the deeper mission of the Church.   We need to think as Catholics, not according to secular categories.

This is a big part of why things are so messy with Pope Francis: because the American Church, at least, insists on seeing everything as conservative vs. liberal, and Pope Francis–the real Pope Francis, not the Pope Francis of the conservative and liberal media (including blogs: those are media too, and all the more inclined to use secular categories)–just doesn’t fit those labels.

One place that is very true is on the issue of “lay review boards.”  I’m not going to try to think through everything in a quick blog post.  But it needs to be said: the bishops are the ordained leaders of the Church.  In the late nineteenth century, the fabulous Pope Leo XIII (who himself is impossible to label as conservative or liberal) refused a movement called “Americanism.”  Americanism was precisely the idea that lay people should run the Church.  That Americanism is returning with a vengeance today.  Ironically, it is the Right that has turned, in secular as well as ecclesial politics, to strange sorts of anti-authoritarianism–always with new kinds of authoritarianism mixed in, in hopes of preserving their libertarianism.  Many Catholics of the Right are shouting “down with the bishops, down with the Pope” (unless he’s my preferred bishop or pope). But whether that comes from the Right or the Left, it isn’t Catholic.

Look, as a lay person working in the Church, I rage against clericalism more than most.  There are lots of false authoritarianisms in the Church that I think should be denounced.  But the Pope remains the Pope, the bishops remain the bishops.  Like it or not, Catholics, we don’t believe that Christ established an egalitarian government for his Church.

Anyway, all of this is too much introduction for the nuncio’s fabulous talk to the US bishops today.  It is well worth a read.  Watch for his denunciation of “delegation,” in phrases like, “we must show that we can solve problems rather than simply delegating them to others”; “The exercise of authority is a real service and governance should not be a privilege or a position, but a responsibility to be neither ignored nor totally delegated.”  Mixed with lots of things about how the bishops should “listen”–yes yes yes–and should be close to the people.  But no, the bishops cannot delegate away their authority, and make it lay people’s responsibility to take care of clerical abuse.  The bishops need to take responsibility, not delegate it away.

Here is the nuncio’s excellent address.

http://www.usccb.org/about/leadership/usccb-general-assembly/upload/ga-2018-fall-nuncios-address-pierre.pdf

ps – I would be happy to discuss this issue further, in the comments or private messages.

Thirty-Second Sunday: True Love

1 Kings 17:10-16, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44

This week’s Gospel is the widow’s mite: “she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had.”

Our reading about the prophet Elijah gives the story of another widow.  The prophet is demanding.  To a woman who is preparing her last meal before she starves to death, he says, “First make me a little cake . . . .  Then you can prepare something for yourself and your son.”  The Lord provides—but only to those who give him everything.

File:Christ on the cross - Hugo van der Goes.jpgOur reading from Hebrews takes us into the priesthood of Jesus Christ.  The priest of the Old Testament could offer only a “blood that is not his own.”  To sacrifice something other than ourselves has no power to overcome our sins or to establish our relationship with God.  But like the widow, the sacrifice Jesus offers is his own life.  That is the only true and sufficient sacrifice.

The flipside is that when Christ “will appear a second time,” it will no longer be to offer sacrifice, but “to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him.”  That “eager awaiting” is the sign of our own sacrifice: do we, like the widow, long only for God?

Last week we read about loving God with our whole heart.  Now we see how demanding that love is.

***

Our Gospel gives two contrasting paragraphs, one about the scribes, one about the widow.  The scribes—those who know God’s laws and promises from the Old Testament—are a theme here.  Last week it was a scribe who knew that we should love God with our whole heart, and to whom Jesus said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  To know is not far—but not there yet, either, until we love in fact.

Then the Lectionary skips a short scene where Jesus argues with the scribes, who misunderstand the power of the Messiah.  They know the command, they don’t fully appreciate the promise.

Isus od Kumanovo.jpgAnd this week, he condemns the scribes.  He says they “like to go around in long robes (in Greek, stoles) and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets.”  Sound like anyone you know?

They have their fancy costume, and they go three places: the marketplaces, the synagogues, the banquets.  Everywhere, they want to be first.  But notice that all of this is very social.  One could imagine that they—as so many of us today—pass this all off as love of neighbor: how could I not love to greet people in the marketplace, and to go to parties!  We pass off a lot of self-indulgence in the name of love.

Then comes the stinger.  Jesus tends to slap us in the face, but here he is more like Paul, who likes to bury the sting.  “They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers.”

“Devour” is literally “eat up,” and it comes right after the banquets.  I’ve only seen one scene from the Sopranos, but it’s on this theme.  How often, in the name of ministry, do we all—yes, priests especially, but all of us—claim to be piously enjoying hospitality, when in fact we’re just serving ourselves.  How often, in the name of love, do we justify self-indulgence?

***

Dead christ cyprus.jpgThe “widow” puts a point on it.  It’s still self-serving if you’re getting your steaks and movies from Carmela Soprano, who has plenty of money.  But the widow brings out the pure selfishness of the scribe who claims to be pious and eats away her livelihood.

Jesus then looks up to see a widow.  The last line is, she “has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”  In fact, the way Greek says this is, “her whole life”: what the widow put in the coinbox was, for her, life itself.

Elijah demanded all—but Elijah also had the miraculous power to restore that widow to life.  He gave more than he received, and his receiving was truly in the name of piety.  That’s not true of much that we do.  We are called to be like the widow, not like Elijah.

***

I like the contrast between those who “contributed from their surplus wealth” and she “from her poverty.”  The Evangelist introduces the widow as a “poor widow.”  In Greek, the word for “widow” already means, literally, “one in need”; it’s not just that her husband is dead, it’s that she has no provision.  But the word for “poor widow” here means “crouching,” and thus “begging”; it’s distinct from a word for poverty that means “toiling”: the “crouching” person is a beggar.

Then the contrast is built on two prepositions.  The word for “abundance” is a fun expansion of the word “around”: either it means, “people with a lot of stuff within arm’s reach” or “people giving the stuff that is nearby, but not really themselves”—like the Old Testament priests, who offered animals instead of themselves.  But when it says she gave “from her poverty,” it’s a similar expansion on the word “under”: either because she is the kind of person who is “beneath” everyone else, or because what she gives, what he next calls her very “life,” is not something just “nearby” her, but the very ground she stands on.

Like it or not, friends, when Jesus tells us to love with our whole heart, he doesn’t mean we go to parties and get fed.  He means we enter into the widow’s poverty—the poverty of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Where are your claims to love really a sham?

Thirty-First Sunday: The Heart of the Matter

Deuteronomy 6:2-6, Psalm 18, Hebrews 7:23-28, Mark 12:28b-34

As we begin the last month of the liturgical year, our Gospel leaps ahead.  We had read a few consecutive stories leading up to the triumphant entry at the beginning of Mark, chapter 11.  Now we leap ahead to the middle of chapter twelve, where Jesus and a scribe agree that the “first of all the commandments” is to love God and neighbor.

File:Bernardino Luini. Christ among Doctors.jpgJesus is affirming the Old Testament.  Here, at the culmination of his teaching, in answer to the most basic, ultimate question, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy, the culmination of the five books of Moses.  First he quotes the Sh’ma, the most fundamental Jewish prayer: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is Lord alone.”  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is not as obviously central, but it is a quotation from Leviticus (19:18), and it does indeed summarize much of the Old Law, the two poles of which are worship of God and love of neighbor, especially the poor neighbor, the one most in need of our mercy.

The scribe agrees with Jesus.  “Pharisee” and “Sadducee” are names of two particular interpretations of the Law (Pharisees looked for ways to maximize their religious life away from the Temple, Sadducees deemphasized everything but the Temple).  But “scribe” names not an interpretation, but an expert.  We don’t know what this guy thought, only that he knew his stuff.  The learned Israelite agrees with Jesus.

***

Neither Jesus nor the scribe quotes Deuteronomy exactly.  As our first reading shows, Moses says (both in the Hebrew original and in the classic Greek translation that Jesus often quotes), “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”  Jesus expands “all your soul” to “with all your soul, with all your mind.”  The scribe says “with all your understanding.”

These are friendly amendments: not changes, just interpretations.  But it shows that they are thinking about the meaning of Scripture, not just quoting mindlessly.

***

This is another story where the first and last words are important.  Now, the reference begins 12:28b—partway into the verse—and the English translation just dives in: “One of the scribes came.”  The Latin (the official version of the Lectionary) adds “In illo tempore: At that time, one of the scribes came.”  But both leave out the key words of the first verse: “Hearing them disputing with one another.”  There is a context for the scribe’s conversation with Jesus.

File:Domenico Fetti - Christ and the Tribute Money - Walters 37582.jpgIn the stories the Lectionary skipped over, since Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he has “disputed” about the cleansing of the temple (which Mark “sandwiches” with the strange story of the cursed fig tree), Jesus’ authority and the authority of John, the parable of the tenants who do not pay their master, paying taxes to Caesar, and the reality of the resurrection.

It’s worth reading through that list carefully.  What our story this week highlights is that in all of these things—in all of the “disputes” of Jesus with the Jewish authorities—his real principle is just the primacy of God.

This week’s scribe helps us focus.  What are you really talking about, Jesus?  Loving God above all else and loving our neighbor as our self.  That’s it.  There’s lots of disputes where that word takes flesh—but the central word is to love God and neighbor.

***

File:Antonio Arias La moneda del César Museo del Prado.jpgAnd so in the other direction, our reading ends, “And no one dared to ask him any more questions.”  In fact, they don’t.  In the rest of Mark’s Gospel, the only question about doctrine that remains is when the disciples ask, “When will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?”  We have reached the culmination of Jesus’ teaching.

It’s that simple: love—a demanding love, a total love, of God alone, and thus of our neighbor.

***

The scribe adds one key point.  He repeats Jesus’s teaching on love but adds, “is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

This too is a summary of the Old Testament.  In a sense, Jesus has summarized the Law, in response to the question about “the commandments.”  But the scribe has added a summary of the prophets: after Moses gives the Law, the prophets add, in a hundred ways, that God isn’t looking for the sacrifices themselves.  The sacrifices are there for the love.  (My concordance names Samuel, the Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, and Micah as places you can find that point, though we could multiply further.)

We could add that, just as this central teaching on love of God and neighbor summarizes all of Jesus’s disputes with the Pharisees and Sadducees, so it summarizes what all the prophets have taught: you don’t understand anything till you understand it is all about love.

***

File:'sacrifice'. Study for the painting in Ottawa. Art.IWMART5581.jpgOur reading from Hebrews shows how that teaching culminates in the death of Christ.  Hebrews is a complicated meditation on various Old Testament passages; this week’s reading, for example, ends with “the word of the oath,” because it is meditating on the profundity of Psalm 110’s saying, “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.’” For the Lord to “swear” suggests there’s something important about this priestly order of Melchizedek, something greater and more fundamental than the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament.

The key line from this reading in Hebrews, though, is “he offered himself . . . a son.”  The perfect sacrifice is not Temple worship, but the pure worship of life and death as a loving son.

That is the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets: Christ on the Cross, the perfect act of love.

Are there parts of your religious life that get detached from simple love of God?