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A Thin, Strong Thread of Communion

A prophet crosses a chasm on a tightrope.

How long, O Lord? I cry for help

but you do not listen!

I cry out to you, “Violence!”

but you do not intervene.

Why do you let me see ruin

why must I look at misery?

Destruction and violence are before me;

there is strife, and clamorous discord.

This is why the law is benumbed

and judgment is never rendered:

Because the wicked circumvent the just;

this is why judgment comes forth perverted. (Habukkuk 1:2-4)

Times are dark, indeed, when one looks to the prophetic books not for warnings about what could be but comfort in what has been before. But here we are.

Last week, I wrote in despair for the Roman Catholic Church. Peculiar as it may be, doctrinal documents from the Holy See have been crucial to my faith. Two circumstances apply. The first (and most straightforward) is their articulation of ideas that ring true and, moreover, that arrive theologically where the scientific and philosophical disciplines will only later tread. Understanding of the Trinity and the Logos, the balance of solidary and subsidiarity, and the distinction between substance and accident in the Eucharist are examples of concepts that ring true and that, when applied to, say, science, move one further faster than a materialist approach allows.

The second circumstance in which doctrinal documents have confirmed my faith in the Church is less intuitive: when the reader can tell that the writer really wants to accommodate something that precedent will not allow… but cannot.

In academic, legal, or popular texts, attempts to wish away obstacles of logic and reality are visible to those who wish not to be taken in. The writer brings an idea to a point of crisis and then through some sort of pivot, ambiguity, or rhetorical gimmick leaps across the intellectual chasm. A recent and profound example comes from Andrew Sullivan, from his book, Virtually Normal, a polemic on behalf of same-sex marriage before it had been imposed:

Some might argue that marriage is by definition between a man and a woman; and it is difficult to argue with a definition. But if marriage is articulated beyond this circular fiat, then the argument for its exclusivity to one man and one woman disappears.

The fact of the definition held within it the core of the point. “Articulating” marriage “beyond” it neatly discards both the etymological reason and the effect of every instance of the word’s current usage. One puts aside all traditional explanations and changes the law by changing the meaning of the text.

Unsurprisingly, a classic example comes from Karl Marx, one of history’s most prolific practitioners of such tricks. In his Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts, he must inevitably face the problem that his philosophy hits a wall with the origin of man, and his response is to mumble around on the word “existent,” concluding with this diabolical punchline:

I say to you: Give up your abstraction and you will also give up your question. … Do not think, do not question me, for as soon as you think and question, your abstraction from the existence of nature and man makes no sense.

Your argument cannot disprove his thesis because he has declared impermissible any ideas outside his careful boundaries. True to Marxist form, however, his proscriptions do not apply to himself. His writing proceeds through a tangle of abstractions asserted to be concrete observations and words that don’t quite mean what he uses them to mean. From these fibers of inconsequential ideas with no consistent, coherent thread of truth he spins a noose with the strength to strangle nations. Accept the premise that he might not be a rambling lunatic, and you are already dangling above any firm foundation from which to disagree with him.

In contrast, Church doctrine maintains that thread of Truth — a consistent end-to-end line that prevents the surrounding tangle from bending in whichever direction or blending with whatever material the rhetorical weaver might wish. The Faith is affirmed in the tacit admission that they can only go so far and no farther.

Tragically, “Fiducia Supplicans” bears the tell-tale marks of the trick. The declaration pretends to say what it does not say so it can be understood to mean what it cannot actually mean and still be Catholic. Like so:

Within the horizon outlined here appears the possibility of blessings for couples in irregular situations and for couples of the same sex, the form of which should not be fixed ritually by ecclesial authorities to avoid producing confusion with the blessing proper to the Sacrament of Marriage. 

One brazen lie on which its advocates have relied to fend of objections is that “couples of the same sex” can be translated as “two individuals who happen to approach the priest at the same time,” which is not what anybody reading the document will understand it to mean. The tell-tale mark, however, is the phrase, “within the horizon outlined here.”

In writing that styles itself as intellectual, reference to “the horizon” is often a lazy linguistic tic, like “moreover” or “furthermore,” allowing the author to avoid the work of drawing genuine connections between ideas. It means that, although we cannot see the thing clearly enough to explain it, we can pretend we don’t see a contradiction within our range of sight. The writer fancies he or she has sketched a circle so wide that two contradictory things can both fall within it. Somewhere between where we stand and our conceptual horizon, a justification might exist, even if we haven’t found it, yet, so we can behave as if it does exist, despite millennia of precedent to the contrary.

Victor Manuel Fernandez cannot succinctly articulate how his “innovative contribution to the pastoral meaning of blessings” is consistent with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church because the thread of Truth will not permit him to. So, instead, he has handed us a mess of thoughts so jumbled that anybody who does not reject it outright must admit his or her own inability to see a problem.

So familiar is this evil gimmick that my very being cries out that this document belongs nowhere near the legitimate doctrine of the Catholic Church, and anybody who does not actively reject it is out of conformance with the Truth. Hence my lamentation that its acceptance by Pope Francis and the Holy See effectively excommunicated the entire Church and all its members, including me.

Conversations and consultations, along with much reading and prayer, have pulled me back from this ledge. Whatever the condition of Pope Francis’s intellect and soul may be, that the Holy Spirit has not permitted falsehood to be declared as an infallible teaching means the Church, herself, continues to hold that thin, strong thread. By this thread, we are still connected to the Lord, as we are connected with each other, even those who are in error, as (I believe) Pope Francis and Cardinal Fernandez are.

Indeed, the thread — what it means to be “in communion” — is strengthened to the extent we seek never to lose these connections. I must hope, through my prayer, to draw these men away from error, and I must understand that, in some instances, they may do the same for me.

The ancient prophets’ warnings present terrifyingly familiar images:

After their reign,

when sinners have reached their measure,

There shall arise a king, impudent

and skilled in intrigue.

He shall be strong and powerful,

bring about fearful ruin and succeed in his undertaking.

He shall destroy powerful peoples;

his cunning shall be against the holy ones, his treacherous conduct shall succeed.

He shall be proud of heart

and destroy many by stealth.

But when he rises against the prince of princes,

he shall be broken without a hand being raised.” (Daniel 8:23-25)

As we find comfort in the familiarity of times when darkness loomed but the promise of redemption was not dimmed, we must take the draught in its fullest measure. Through Ezekiel God proclaimed: “The end has come upon the four corners of the land! Now the end is upon you; I will unleash my anger against you and judge you according to your conduct and lay upon you the consequences of all your abominations” (Ezekiel 7:2-3). And even in His wrath, He “called to the man dressed in linen with the writer’s case at his waist, saying to him: Pass through the city and mark an X on the foreheads of those who moan and groan over all the abominations that are practiced within it,” and He instructed His destroyers, “do not touch any marked with the X” (Ezekiel 9:3-6).

Yet, that is not the end of it. In our connection to others we have the responsibility to warn them, and not only the wicked:

If a virtuous man turns away from virtue and does wrong when I place a stumbling block before him, he shall die. He shall die for his sin, and his virtuous deeds shall not be remembered; but I will hold you responsible for his death if you did not warn him. When, on the other hand, you have warned a virtuous man not to sin, and he has in fact not sinned, he shall surely live because of the warning, and you shall save your own life. (Ezekiel 3:20-21)

To avoid culpability, we must alert others to their errors, while remembering that we are not marking them for special condemnation, as was a common temptation in eras past. The chief temptation of our era, by contrast, is to imagine we have come into possession of the angelic writer’s case and can mark others as virtuous, whether or not they moan and groan over abominations.

In these times, when it seems our souls stand on a thread too thin to see, and the weight of our comfort and ease feels as if it must cost us our balance, we cannot spend our time scanning the horizon for innovative spiritual destinations. But neither can we push off those with whom we disagree while clinging to those we find easy to embrace. In either of those ways we lose our grip on the crucial fact: The thread of Truth is not a tightrope providing a rare protection against the more-real gravity of the abyss. It is, itself, the center of gravity for all who do not will themselves to plummet, and the more we reach out to save others, without letting go of the Truth, the more it will hold on to us.

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