Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 9:26-31 / Psalm 22 / 1 John 3:18-24 / John 15:1-8
Clean up your act – or else might be the subtitle for today’s gospel image of God the Father as he prunes the vines and cuts down all the deadwood in the vineyard. It didn’t take long till the Church Fathers understood the vineyard to be synonymous with the Church, ever in need of purification from doctrinal error and moral misbehavior. This outlook would eventually give rise to things like the Inquisition, the Index (of forbidden books) and, in our time, a renewed emphasis on the demand to conform to the Magisterium, the Church’s teaching authority, with little room for questioning or nuanced disagreement.
These “markers” in the history of the Church might be perceived as extremist positions. Not satisfied with the conversion (albeit pressured, if not forced) of Spanish Jews during the Reconquista of the fifteenth century, the Inquisition sought to make sure their conversion “took.” Spying on friends and family was encouraged so as to report any remnant religious practice, like avoiding pork or seeking to circumcise your son. And well into the twentieth century Catholics were forbidden to read certain books and authors deemed dangerous to your faith. How a book ended up on the Index was a mystery unto itself, though an insight was given a few decades back by Graham Greene. What is now considered a very Catholic novel, The Power and the Glory, was about to be placed on the Index when a young monsignor working in the Vatican interceded on Greene’s behalf, insisting that the character of the priest, weak and sinful though he was, is ultimately a noble testament to divine grace working through that weakness. The monsignor won out and Greene was spared condemnation. The monsignor, Giovanni Battista Montini, would eventually become Pope Paul VI.
As for the renewed emphasis on the Church’s teaching authority and its demand for the believer’s obedience, we seem now to be approaching a crisis point. Evidence of the dilemma erupts here and there in ever-increasing frequency: bishops refusing communion to certain politicians who hold pro-abortion views; the recent case of a Catholic school teacher being fired because she became pregnant through in vitro fertilization; the Archbishop of Seattle requesting all parishes in his archdiocese to campaign for signatures at Mass in order to place a referendum on the ballot attempting to overturn same-sex marriage legislation. The dilemma occurs not because bishops are teaching in error, but because other loyal believers see the enforcement of certain liturgical embargoes in response to views held, or lifestyles practiced, a foolish response to complicated issues.
The rector of the Seattle archdiocesan cathedral, for example, refused his archbishop’s request to campaign during Mass for parishioners’ signatures to place on that referendum because, he said, it would serve only to offend and divide his congregation. Or, in the case of a lesbian who was denied communion at her mother’s funeral because the priest knew she was living with another woman, the Archdiocese of Washington apologized to the woman and put the young priest “on leave.” And, perhaps most significantly, the recent case reported from the Archdiocese of Vienna where Cardinal Schönborn overruled his own spokesman who had stated that active homosexuals are living in the state of grave sin, and permitted an openly gay man, living with his male partner, to serve on his parish council after being elected by parishioners. Cardinal Schönborn made the decision after meeting with the man and his male lover for lunch. It serves well to remember that the cardinal was the main editor of The Catechism of the Catholic Church and a former pupil of Pope Benedict himself.
Although moderation in doctrinal enforcement may indeed be coming to the fore, the forces that seek to prune away what they perceive as deadwood in the contemporary church seem all too willing to sacrifice anyone, and nearly everyone, for the sake of purity in faith and morals. Remember that movements like the Inquisition and the Index ultimately backfired: so-called heretics were emboldened in their perceptions, and books placed on the Index (as well as movies later condemned by the Legion of Decency) became guaranteed best sellers.
As for pruning those vines, it might be wise to acknowledge that an unblemished purity in matters of faith and morals is seldom found (except in bishops, of course); and, more importantly, that perceived impurities can in fact be the very place where grace enters the human heart – O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, sings the Exultet. The esoteric Alan Watts, once Anglican priest turned Buddhist, reflected on this deep and essential paradox when defending his own lack of purity in both faith and morals when he wrote that “the finest incense in the world – aloeswood – is made from a diseased part of the tree, and pearls are a sickness of oysters.”