Tuesday, May 21, 2019

I need a Church to tell me I'm wrong where I think I'm right

Sixth Sunday of Easter Year C

The recently published article by Pope Emeritus Benedict raised more than eye-brows. It drew the ire of many left leaning and progressive commentators, who took offence with the former pope’s diagnosis of the clergy sexual abuse situation. They launched a vitriolic ad-hominem attack on Benedict without really addressing substantively the claims the latter made in his article. I would not want to go into the contents of the article but suffice to say that Pope Emeritus Benedict made an interesting and insightful link between doctrinal and moral dissent and clerical wickedness. Clergy abuse did not just fall from the sky. It arose from a situation within the Church that had been brooding for decades since the 1960s, a moral liberalisation that took its cue from the sexual revolution, rather than from the teachings of the Church. It is obvious that the harshest critics, of this article and of the former Pope for having the audacity to make these claims, come from the very groups and individuals who were blatantly or tacitly promoting dissent from Church teachings. As the Malays so wisely put it, “siapa makan cili, dia yang rasa pedas” (whoever eats chili will suffer its spiciness).

One of the most controversial points when discussing the Catholic Church in today’s world would be the Church’s claim that it is able to teach and govern authoritatively; in fact it teaches, governs and sanctifies with the authority of Christ Himself. While most experts can claim some form of authority from training and experience, only the Catholic Church, or the Magisterium, which is the teaching authority of the Church, can claim authority from the Holy Spirit. The Magisterium speaks with the authority of Christ, guided and empowered by the Spirit. But why would He do that? If Christ wanted to ensure that His teachings would have the efficacy of leading humanity to salvation, He would have taken the necessary measures to ensure the same teaching would have this purpose, rather than become a cause for confusion and destruction. This is why Christ promised to protect the teachings of the Church by conferring this very authority of interpretation on to the Church’s Magisterium: "He who hears you, hears me; he who rejects you rejects me, he who rejects me, rejects Him who sent me" (Luke 10. 16).

Pope Emeritus Benedict noted in a homily that “this power of teaching frightens many people in in and outside the Church. They wonder whether freedom of conscience is threatened or whether it is a presumption opposed to freedom of thought.” But then the erudite pontiff noted, “It is not like this. The power of Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors is, in an absolute sense, a mandate to serve. The power of teaching in the Church involves a commitment to the service of obedience to the faith.” This authority of the Church, as the Lord has reminded all His disciples, is not one which seeks ‘to lord it over others’ but ultimately one of service. The Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God. Instead, the Magisterium is clearly under its authority–it is the servant of the Word. Its role is not to add to God’s revelation or to subtract from it. Only to faithfully interpret and apply it (CCC 85-86).

We see an excellent example of the exercise of the Church’s Magisterium in today’s first reading. The issue of whether pagan converts to Christianity would have to submit to circumcision and other Jewish observances had become a major issue that threatened to split the leaders of the Church and the Church itself. During the Council, Peter strongly defended the position that the Gentiles, who were not circumcised, were accepted by God. The apostle James then delivered his judgment that the Gentile converts would not need to be circumcised but laid down certain guidelines that would allow Jewish and Gentile converts to live in harmony. So, finally the apostles and elders adopted the position proposed by James and chose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. In the letter, they wrote, “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves ...” The apostles and elders who had gathered at the Council of Jerusalem were conscious that their decision was no mere human decision. They believed that it was the Holy Spirit who guided their decision, and so, ultimately it is God who has decided on the matter.

Unlike what many dissenters often claim, the Holy Spirit is not the source or muse for innovation. “We have to let the Spirit lead”. Unfortunately, this is often a euphemism for excusing oneself from following the Church’s teachings and disciplines. The Spirit does not provoke us to disobedience. In fact the Lord Himself tells us in today’s gospel, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word.” Likewise, the Holy Spirit is not a spirit of confusion. Our Lord sent the Holy Spirit to guide His Church into ALL Truth. He promised His disciples and us that the Advocate, the Holy Spirit “will teach (the Church) everything and remind (her) of all” He had first taught His apostles (cf. Jn. 14:26).  Our Lord did not leave His people vulnerable to the doctrinal whims of competing leaders. Rather, He built the Church on the solid foundation of the apostles. He gave the Church His Holy Spirit, the Advocate (Parakletos), to enable her to be “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Despite the cultural winds that have blown through the ages, the faithful have always had a visible, easily identifiable magisterial “rock” on which they could safely stand on in all seasons.

Throughout the centuries, the Church has also experienced many crises that threatened to shake its very foundation and unity. In the early centuries, many Church leaders were divided as to the issue of Christ’s divinity. In later centuries, there were also disagreement about many church teachings and practices. In modern times, the most contentious issues revolve around sexual mores.  Throughout its histories, the Church had to contend with schisms (splits) and heresies (erroneous teachings) but remain steadfast on its course, the course set by her Lord and Master. And yet in spite of these many centuries of crises and trials, the Church has continued to survive and grow, only because of the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit’s guidance ensures that in spite of all our personal opinions and ways of thinking, and despite the wickedness and failings of her shepherds, we can be sure of a certain authoritative position that reflects the will of God. In other words, the Holy Spirit is the guarantee of unity within the Church. Without the Holy Spirit, the Church and unity would not be possible.

As noted in Pope Benedict’s recent letter, the crisis that has afflicted the Catholic Church since the 1960s has been a crisis of both faith and morals, that is, a crisis that has made many Catholics to no longer know, what to believe or what kind of conduct God expects of us. What is needed as a remedy for this is a firm standard, a reliable guide or teacher who can tell us both what we must believe and what we must do. We need a Church who can ensure that the light of Christ’s saving Gospel will shine on every generation. We need a Church that does not only provide us with good ideas and opinions but who teaches authoritatively, who is able to give us great light & clarity in a world that seems often enveloped in the darkness of sin; in a world enamoured and confused by the fallacious philosophy of relativism which provides so many competing false lights. We need a Church and successors of the Apostles who will “discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine” (Vatican I, Constitution on the Church of Christ). And as G.K. Chesterton once said, “I don’t need a church to tell me I’m wrong where I already know that I’m wrong; I need a Church to tell me I’m wrong where I think I’m right.”

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

A New Commandment, A New Standard

Fifth Sunday of Easter Year C

One frequent objection to Christianity is that, it isn’t very original. Now, this is not targeted at the historical ties between Christianity and the Hebrew-Judeo faith, which we Christians make no apology for.  Rather, the argument is that the teachings of Christianity comprise of stitched-together parts of other religions. The Golden Rule is a prime and important example. The rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is found in many religions and philosophies. The Golden Rule is a maxim of the law of reciprocity that essentially holds that people ought to treat others how they themselves want to be treated. Ultimately, self-interest or self-preservation is the yardstick for such a rule.

But the argument that Christianity merely restates the Golden Rule and therefore does not offer anything new falls apart in the light of what our Lord proposes in today’s gospel passage. In fact, our Lord insists that He has something supremely novel to offer. We are brought back to the scene of the Last Supper, just after the Lord had washed the feet of His disciples. In fact, it is this very statement which gives Holy Thursday its traditional name, Maundy Thursday or Mandatum Thursday – from the Latin word for “commandment.” “I give you a new commandment: love one another, just as I have loved you!” To underline the importance He will repeat this two more times during the Last Supper. He speaks like someone who wants to leave an inheritance: “I give you … I bequeath you”.  

Technically, loving others is not a new command per se. It was already there in the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”) and our Lord reiterated the same in His formulation of the Great Commandment recorded in the Synoptic gospels. In a way, this commandment is an adaptation of the Golden Rule, with love as its motivation. “Do good to others as you want others to do good to you” now becomes “love others as you want to be loved.” But there is still an element of reciprocity. You only love others because you wish for them to love you in return. Such love remains self-serving. It is not spontaneous for people to love those who do not deserve it or cannot reciprocate.

In Christ’s new command, the significant words are “as I have loved you.” The novelty introduced by this commandment – perhaps justifying its designation as New – is that our Lord introduces Himself as a standard for love. The commandment isn’t new; but the extent of love, the standard of love is new. The usual criterion had been “as you love yourself”. However, the New Commandment goes beyond the ethic of reciprocity and states “as I have loved you”, using the Love of Christ for His disciples as the new model. Pope Emeritus Benedict sheds light on the mystery: “This commandment has become new because Jesus makes a very important addition to it: “just as I have loved you, you must also love one another.” What is new is precisely this “loving as Jesus loved.” All our living is preceded by His love and refers to this love, it fits into this love and is achieved precisely through this love… “Jesus gave Himself to us as a model and source of love, a boundless, universal love that could transform all negative circumstances and all obstacles into opportunities to progress in love.”

In this New Commandment Our Lord makes Himself the pattern we live by. Now, one need only look at Him to know and carry out the single, all-sufficient commandment He gives. In Christ we discover the grandeur, the height, the depth and the perfection of love. Our Lord did not replace or change the commandment, “Love your neighbour, as you love yourself.” Rather, He filled it out and gave it the best illustration ever – not just by washing the feet of His disciples, but more importantly by dying on the cross. The model of true love is Christ crucified and the commandment of love is finally actualised and perfected on the cross. This depth of love takes the Christian to a whole new way of expressing love for others. Self-love no longer becomes the criterion, but Jesus’ love for us is. The Lord sets Himself as the new norm and measure of Christian love. Our Lord demonstrates His love by showing what it means to love His own ‘perfectly - He loved them ‘to the end’. Therefore, to love one another as He loved is to give oneself wholly and fully to the other. It is in this totality of self-sacrifice and self-giving that the new element in the commandment of love is to be found.

The disciples’ love must therefore not depend on the worthiness of the ones who are loved since Jesus did not love His disciples because they were lovely or loveable. Therefore, what is required of us is not just about getting from giving, the basis of the Golden Rule. Our Lord loved His own without expecting anything in return. He loved them despite their faults and failures. He loved even Judas, who was going to betray Him and Peter who would deny Him and the others who would turn their backs on Him. Likewise, we are called to love even those who may have failed or wronged us before, and to love even those who are our enemies.

We must recognise that all human beings despite their fallen state are capable of showing ordinary love and care for the needy and impoverished. In times of disaster like famine, tsunamis and earthquakes, secular organisations will rally to provide aid and humanitarian support within a short time. And philanthropists will give of their billions to ease the sufferings of their fellow man. But if all that we do as Christians is merely to emulate this love we would be no different from non-Christians who love one another. The love that is required of us in the new commandment is meant to distinguish us from others. It is living out this commandment which makes us recognisable as Christ's disciples because it exhibits the love of Christ Himself. This commandment would be the epitome of Christianity: “By this love you have for one another, everyone will know that you are my disciples.”  

Therefore, the second reading reminds us that heaven, depicted in the Holy City which descends from heaven to earth, is nothing other than the realisation of this love between God and man, “Here God lives among men.” Men can never establish this perfect dwelling by themselves. They can never erect a paradise on earth even with their most altruistic efforts.  

But here on earth, we can already make this paradise visible in a somewhat imperfect manner. No other characteristic of the Church can convince the world of the rightness and necessity of Christ’s person and teaching. Radiant love lived by Christians is the proof of all teaching, dogmas, and moral precepts of the Church of Christ. This was the kind of love that the first-century Christians became known for (Acts 2:44-47) or as Tertullian (who lived in the 2nd century AD) records what the pagans of his time were saying about the Christians: “See how they love one another and are ready to lay down their lives for each other.” This is the kind of testimony that has caused many to turn to Christ for salvation. The most powerful and convincing apologetic for the Christian faith is the love among Christians, and of Christians for others.

Christianity does not claim to be the first religion to use the Golden Rule, but it is fair to say that Christians have (or at least should have) a superior appreciation of it and something new to say about it. The value of Christianity is not novelty. The value of Christianity is the Incarnation – God became man so that men may become gods. The golden standard of men will no longer be the benchmark. It would be a supremely higher one. Man’s standard would now be pegged against God’s.  To Love as He did, that would be the ultimate yardstick of love.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Shepherd and Warrior

Fourth Sunday of Easter Year C

Every year, this Sunday’s liturgy offers for our meditation a passage extracted from the lengthy Chapter 10 of the Fourth Gospel, where our Lord presents Himself as the “true shepherd.” The four verses which I just read this year are taken from the last part of the speech and helps us foster a deeper understanding of this beautiful biblical image. But do you pay attention to the portrait of the Good Shepherd that is painted here?

Firstly, it dispels a widely held myth about the Good Shepherd. Whenever we think of this, what does it remind us of? For most people, the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd may come from pictures in children’s books or in stained glass windows: Jesus as a benign shepherd in long flowing robes, surrounded by cuddly lambs and golden-haired children in a soft grassy field on a perfect day.  Perhaps, the image painted by St Luke in his parable of the lost sheep may have something to do with influencing this portrait (Luke 15:4-8).

But the image of the shepherd in St John’s gospel has nothing to do with this nice and pleasant picture. Our Lord is not presenting Himself as the one who lovingly caresses and coddles the wounded sheep like a doting mother whilst giving its ego a therapeutic massage. St John paints a picture of a seasoned battle-worn shepherd, strong, courageous, who fights off bandits and wild beasts like David (another shepherd-warrior-king). Here is one who is not afraid to risk everything and even lay down His life for the flock He loves. Here is one who stands in the face of danger, holds his ground and issues this warning, “no one can steal from the Father.”

We tend to overlook the fact that shepherds are also fighters. Shepherds must be prepared to kill to protect the sheep in their charge.  For of such is the “Good Shepherd.” The shepherd does not flee the scene at the slightest indication of danger or risk to himself. The shepherd does not sit down for a meal over roasted lamb with a bandit who has only one intent in mind – the stealing and killing of his charges. The shepherd does not hand over his flock to the wild beasts in order to appease them and to save his own skin. As “nice” as the image of a benign and friendly shepherd may be, he does not have his sheep’s best interest in mind. His job is to protect and guard them from their enemies. His job is not to invite the enemies in, to feast on his flock.

No, the life of a shepherd and his flock is one marked by danger and strife. In fact, all life is a struggle from start to finish.  At no time is life not in the conflict of struggle.  And the struggle to survive is a fraction of the total struggle in which life is engaged at all times and places.  The heart struggles to beat, the lungs to function, families to love, enterprises to exist. Man’s ineffable, ineluctable and interminable destiny in this world is conflict (war as Heraclitus puts it).  Someone once said, “Time is war.  Space is conflict.  Land is violence.”

And that is the reason why we speak of the Church as Church Militant, with Christ as our Warrior-King, Shepherd cum General. It is not our intention to be belligerent, that is to pick fights and to sow discord and violence. Rather, it is others who often pick fights with us, who sow discord in our midst and eventually intend our destruction. And so, our destiny has already been written by the perennial condition of a fallen humanity hostile to Christ and His mission. The Catechism of Trent, Article IX, puts it very succinctly: the Church “is called militant, because it wages eternal war with those implacable enemies, the world, the flesh and the devil.”

It is not un-Christian to fight, on the contrary, Christians are called to fight the good fight. But how can this spirit be compatible with the commandment to love? Everything a Christian does should be motivated by love, but this does not conflict with the spirit to strive and fight. Rather this spirit should be a fruit of love. Love presupposes sacrifice for the one who is loved. Without sacrifice, there is no true love – only sentimentalism. If a man loves his wife and children, he is ready to defend them. If he loves his country, he must be ready to fight against all attacks. Likewise, he too must defend his faith and his Church. True love is proven under such difficult circumstances. Love is ultimately determined when self-sacrifice is called for. Our Lord who sacrificed Himself on the cross is the greatest example of the militant spirit as the fruit of love.

But unfortunately, modern society, mistakes our fundamental convictions as intolerance and extremism which breeds violence. We live in a society that is more concerned with providing self-help therapies which affirm us in our error than it is with challenging us with the Truth in order to change. In fact, this is a generation which can’t handle the Truth. Living a lie is so much less threatening and comfortable. That is why the world tries to convince us not to enter into battle. “Do not waste your life fighting for abstract ideals, enjoy the pleasures life has to offer,” is its message. Yet the Catholic spirit should be the exact opposite – “Do not waste your life on the pleasures of this world, fight for ideals that are worth living and dying for.”

Sadly, the church is too often simply a mirror of the wider culture on this issue. This plays out in how church leaders sometimes compromise the most basic values and beliefs of the Church in order to appease the world. We want to make peace with the world, even at the risk of offending God. We insist on “listening” to the world and even conforming to the values of the world, forgetting that the primary duty of the Church is to teach prophetically. And so we end up dumbing things down in an attempt to be catchy or popular. We fail to realise that our kids can actually understand the big doctrines of the Christian faith, if they are given the opportunity and the forum to do so. But we often believe that they are too dumb to handle these things.

But the Church of the living is ultimately the Church Militant. This is what the Church is meant to be. Catholicism is meant to be active and not passive. It's where you are required to adapt to it, rather than it adapting to you. The longer you are in it, the more you realise its demands of you. The Catholic Church is not a mall or a spa. No, the Catholic Church is a gym, a battleship ready for war. Yes. The Catholic faith is difficult. It is demanding and it’s meant to be so. It is about mercy, but it is also about overcoming oneself.  We are challenged in a deep way, not just to “feel good about myself” but to become holy. 

In times of war and in the heat of battle, obedience is paramount. That is why the Lord tells us, “The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice.” This is what ultimately defines us – our obedience. He makes the judgment call, we merely carry it out. In the midst of a culture of mass information, relativism and individualism, in which there are so many competing voices, we must learn to listen to the only voice that matters, the voice of Christ the Good Shepherd. Failing to listen to His voice only ends in chaos and conflict within the ranks of the flock.

So who are the sheep of His flock? Are they those docile, pacifist creatures who only know how to pray, pay and obey? Hardly. His “sheep” are those who have the courage to follow Him and the humility to obey Him. His “sheep” are those who are prepared to fight in His army and die for Him. If our Shepherd King is a Warrior, we His sheep must be ready to wage the “eternal war with those implacable enemies, the world, the flesh and the devil.” Indeed, following His example, pious Catholic men and women throughout the centuries have brought tremendous acts of daring and bravery to the battlefields of life and steadfastly faced innumerable situations of danger and conflict. Nothing could be more Catholic than this.