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The Subjective Church

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Jeffrey Bruno

James V. Schall, S.J. - published on 09/30/14

Contemporary thought is striking in its reluctance to judge anything in terms of right and wrong.

I.

At one time, the famous phrase, “By their fruits (deeds) ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:16), seemed obvious enough to everyone. It meant that one’s deeds and indeed his words manifested his character. Everyone knew that our external acts were products of our internal understandings and choices. Laws were external to us in the sense that we did not give ourselves their content, but their obedience or rejection was internal as a norm of our action. Publicans and sinners have a certain visible status. Nor were the hypocrites neglected. These were the ones who obeyed the external letter of the law, but did not practice it themselves.

The Church herself, while being identified with the body of Christ, had certain external manifestations. It was not an invisible Church of the saved. It manifested itself through visible hierarchy, sacraments, buildings, laws, and words. It was pictured as being built on a rock. Those movements that wanted to interiorize the Church so that it had no visible presence were declared to be heretical. Enemies of the Church have worked to deny it any place in the public forum, any real freedom of action to be itself present among men.

The most difficult of the Christian teachings was thus not the existence of God but that of the Incarnation of the Son of God. Atheism is a relatively minor problem compared to the Incarnation. This fact meant that, while the Father was not visible to us, He could make Himself visible through His Son, the Word made flesh, a graphic phrase. “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14.9) This Word actually “dwelt amongst us,” another graphic phrase. The notion of God entering our history as man seemed to many to be a rejection of God’s utter otherness, whereas, in fact, it was a confirmation of it.

But since Pope Francis’ famous “Who am I to judge?” and the way bishops chose to deal with those who claim that they are Catholic but do not agree with the Church’s stated position on many issues, a shift from objective to subjective criteria is noteworthy. If neither the Pope nor the bishops are willing to “judge”, we have a Church in which we really cannot tell who is or is not a member. We can say that anyone who is baptized is a Catholic or Christian. But we are not ever sure what it is that anyone holds or how God judges the internal or subjective side of life. The distinction between saint and sinner becomes blurred.

Augustine had already pointed out that the City of God could not be identified with visible Church membership. There were members of the City of Man who would eventually be saved, while members of the visible Church would be lost. Aquinas, moreover, held that we must obey an objectively erroneous conscience. This principle did not mean that we did not need carefully to form our conscience. But we did not want anyone to act against his conscience even if erroneous. This position implied that someone who does something objectively wrong would not be guilty if he honestly thought it right.

In addition we have the Old Testament admonition that “My ways are not your ways.” (Isaiah 55.8) The Church has consistently taught that we do not know God’s final judgment on anyone’s eternal status. Oh, we canonize saints, but that is never undertaken without some sign of final holiness. Whether Judas, Ivan the Terrible, the Muslim suicide bombers, Hitler, Stalin, and other famous killers of history are eternally lost, we are reluctant to say. Not a few people deny the possibility of any after life to avoid facing this issue.

There are always, of course, the stories of the holy man being buried alive. Therefore he may have despaired at the last moment. Also we have stories of terrible sinners and killers who repent on their way to the gallows, the good thieves of history. “Only he who perseveres to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 24:13) We do know that the divine mercy can save “whoever will be saved,” as John Paul II put it.

II.

In this context, let me say a further word about the Muslim suicide terrorists, as they are called. Let me include in this consideration the Catholics in public life who disagree in “good conscience” with the Church’s teachings, who act on these disagreements as if it is all right. In Muslim theology, a suicide bomber is a martyr. In killing a number of infidels along with himself, he is offering his life to the cause of Allah. The people whom the terrorist kills are not Muslims. They are by definition at war with Islam. Moreover, they were born Muslim, as are all people, but they were corrupted. Their status is that of an enemy to Islam. Therefore, it is an act of virtue to kill them.

Such a doctrine, no doubt, is hard to swallow. And yet even on Catholic principles, we must say that, if the conscience was clear that this was a right thing to carry out, then it is an act of virtue, not a vice. Once we accept this position, the whole objective order of right and wrong is obscured. We might question whether there is such a thing as a conscience so erroneous that it can accept this consequence. But on the surface, it seems to be possible.

In the case of the Catholic politicians who take the position that their conscience tells them that supporting legislation that is objectively evil is the right thing to do, we are in the same situation as with the Muslim. If a politician is not excommunicated, he can assume that he is still in good standing in the Church. The bishops are silent or do not explicitly forbid sacraments or Church membership. The man can conclude that there must be something valid in his position. Otherwise, he would be excommunicated. Again, we have the subjective becoming the reality, not the objective rule or law.

The same situation, no doubt, exists in the case of the man who is seen to be good. The parable of the publican and the sinner (Luke 18:13) graphically made the point that external piety is not enough. Likewise, it was the sinner who really showed the love of God. None of these considerations is intended to suggest that the objective order is not important. It, indeed, remains the standard. Moreover, we cannot know that someone—the suicide bomber, the politician—is not deceiving himself and knows it. This situation too would be invisible to us.

Can we draw any conclusion from such reflections? Surely the old Aristotelian adage, “Call no man happy until he is dead,” applies here. It is pretty plain from Scripture that God reserves final judgment for Himself. So we can survey the souls of the seven billion people who live on this planet and be sure that we do not know how each will stand before God. Surely, this fact is a blessing to us. But it is also a warning.

One of the striking things about contemporary thought, except in the case of the Muslims who follow a different piper, is the reluctance to judge anything in terms of right and wrong. What is behind this refusal? It allows us to do what we want even if it is evil. If we convince ourselves that no final accounting will ever be made, then we can be sure that whatever we do makes no ultimate difference. In a world in which everything is relative, nothing makes any difference. Can this view itself be a justification for an erroneous conscience so that in fact everyone holding this view would be saved? In theory, I suppose it is possible, but in practice, I doubt it.

Why doubt it? It is too obviously a refusal to look carefully at what we do. We desperately invoke a theory to justify ourselves. The purpose of the theory is precisely to allow us to do what we want. We suspect that we do this, but we are reluctant to admit it. The essence of divine judgment, no doubt, is to see the heart. But that “seeing” by no means suggests that the whole order of nature and grace could be bypassed on the grounds that we honestly did not have a clue about whether there was any order in nature and grace.

We are left with the certainty of judgment, the certainty of reason, and the certainty of grace. In the end, I suspect, the “subjective” Church is judged by the standards of the objective Church. Why else would the Lord have bothered to establish an institution whose principal purpose was to lead us to eternal life? It does this by telling us to keep the commandments, seek repentance when we violate them. We are given enough grace to see the difference between what is good and what is evil. When Socrates, at his trial, said that “It is never right to do wrong”, he set the standard of all judgment. The life of Christ reaffirms this principle—and teaches us what happens when it is violated.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic and The Modern Age.

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