No Trespassing in the Vineyard

Too often the Church's highest authorities seemingly endorse violations of both political and spiritual boundaries.

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Many parents—and not a few ex-kids—will recognize the truth of stories involving children and boundaries. For example, to separate two squabbling siblings, a father will mark a line between them, giving instructions for the twain to leave each other alone. Children, prone to concupiscence as offspring of Adam and Eve, will often treat the parental demarcation of separation as an invitation to test and then transgress the law. So, border incursions may be said to begin with original sin at the personal and family level.

But what is an amusing anecdote involving squabbling children illustrates a dark truth about conflict among humans: we shut our ears to God, Who, for our benefit and good order, warns His people, “thou shalt not take nor remove thy neighbor’s landmark” (Deuteronomy 19:14).

Sacred Scripture is replete with examples of God-given boundaries and borders, from instructions not to grasp the fruit of the tree in Eden, through various borders between peoples and nations, to around the mountain when He was speaking to Moses and the people, to instructive examples about the hedges surrounding vineyards, and even to the chasm dividing Abraham’s Bosom from the outer darkness. 

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It is evident that God means for boundaries to be taken seriously. It is only for Him to dispense from the regulations, as when He (the owner in the parable) invites workers into His vineyard for the harvest, or when He definitively commands His people to go into some land. Sometimes He works in less obvious ways, as when Jacob’s people are invited to enter Egypt. It is evident that God means for boundaries to be taken seriously.Tweet This

Building on those precepts, the Church through the centuries has spoken on rules around property and sovereignty. Most recently, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) promulgated during the pontificate of John Paul II, the Church speaks to the legitimacy of defending the “civil community” and “the common good” as a “grave duty” (CCC 2265). It is on that foundation of duty and justice that some Catholics have built their case for the defense of Ukraine against what they consider an unjust invasion and breaching of internationally-recognized borders. 

Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, recognizes that fact in his analysis in a new book-length interview. “We consider Ukraine, Ukrainian territory, as an integral part of the body of the Ukrainian nation,” he tells his interlocutor John Burger. “You cannot negotiate your hands or your legs, because it’s part of your person” (215). 

But that has not stopped Cardinal Zuppi, for instance, from questioning whether Ukraine should try to regain all its territory. The cardinal thinks cessation of fighting is the desired goal. In his modernist downplaying of the sacredness of borders and boundaries, Zuppi seems to be working form the post-Vatican II aggiornamento-plus playbook. Pope John XXIII likened the council to an opening of the windows to let in fresh air, while critics decry it as discarding windows, doors and walls, so that the Church is now a vineyard untended or cultivated and open to predation by the birds and beasts (Isaiah 5). 

It is instructive to consider two different scenarios at the Vatican separated by eighty years. During the WWII German occupation of Rome, the boundaries of the Vatican—including extra-territorial possessions—were vigorously watched and guarded, lest the Nazis trample on Vatican sovereignty dating from the Lateran Treaty. By contrast, Pope Francis welcomed the pagan Pachamama idol and its attendants into the very heart of the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica. 

The violations of political and spiritual boundaries seemingly endorsed by the Church’s highest authorities could lead one to despair, and there are numerous examples of the erosion of respect for borders to enhance that despondency. The mass migrations from the developing world to Western Europe and the U.S. are simply the most obvious.

Here, too, the Church sends mixed signals. On the one hand, many lay Catholics want a firmer stance on immigration and control of the border, while Catholic politicians and bishops apparently believe it is compassionate to have few or no controls. This “frightening” state of affairs mirrors the divide between dogma and “accompaniment” rending the Church for the past half century and more.

The United States’ northern border is not immune from those issues, though the Church is seemingly not overtly involved. Apprehensions of unauthorized border crossers is on the rise here in northern New York where I live, exacerbating decades-long patterns. From the beginning of the U.S. and the drawing of borders, this has been a region where smuggling takes place, most notably during Prohibition. And because the Mohawk lands straddle the U.S./Canada border, sovereignty is a persistent issue. There is more than one story of U.S. law enforcement officers having to tackle or somehow stop suspects fleeing for the border and temporary safety.

As is often the case, myth supplies answers for both political and spiritual dilemmas. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a place where borders matter…and are often violated by the forces of evil. In The Lord of the Rings, Gondor is practically a rump state, having lost through population decline and Mordor’s conquests much of its original extent. Despite those setbacks, signs of the kingdom’s true extent abound, from the monumental statues of the Argonath to the defaced kingly statue seen by the hobbits as they approach Mordor. 

The victory over Sauron and the return of the king mean malefactors are on notice about trespassing on royal territory. In the earlier times of Middle Earth, an invasion prompted by human hubris leads to divine intervention. When the Numenorean king Ar-Pharazon lands on the shores of Valinor, he transgresses the boundaries of the world according to Iluvatar, and he and all with him are destroyed. 

For many of us, Middle Earth is our second home; but we must still struggle in our first home. God has revealed that boundaries and borders are meaningful. Only priests and authorized servers should be in the sanctuary; likewise, only citizens of a country have an inherent right to be within its border. Others may be invited in, but none have the right to storm the place that is not theirs.

The vineyard is not ours. It does not belong to us. We care for it at God’s behest, or He invites us in to work for Him. Just so the wedding feast, in which, if we are to be welcomed across the threshold and inside, we are required to wear the proper attire. Pretending that the rules don’t matter, or at least don’t apply to us, is the same as tearing down a “No Trespassing” sign.

[Photo: Border between San Diego, California (USA) and Tijuana, Baja California (Mexico)]


  • Greg Cook

    Greg Cook is a writer living with his wife in New York’s North Country. He earned two master’s degrees, including one in public administration from The Evergreen State College. He is the author of two poetry collections: Against the Alchemists, and A Verse Companion to Romano Guardini’s ‘Sacred Signs’.

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