The Church Is Not Ruled by a Plebiscite

Sin does not grow sweet by majority practice; truth is not altered by a vote. The Church is not a political party.

A few weeks ago, I saw in an article in The New York Times the phrase “Pope Francis’s agenda for the Church.” The author approved of that agenda and was no doubt oblivious to the fact that, unless we are talking about governance, reform of abuses, and missionary work, an agenda for the Church is the last thing a pope should have. That is because the Church is not a nation, a business concern, a philanthropic society, or a big social club. Francis himself has said so. She is the Bride of Christ, and she is to follow Him and Him alone.

Of course, Catholics of all kinds would agree; but let’s tease out what that implies. Christ says He is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and that no man comes to the Father but through Him. He does not say He is “one way among several.” He does not say He is “one method of regarding reality.” He does not say He offers “a lifestyle” that some people may find amenable. 

Rather, He knows very well He is that sign of contradiction that the aged Simeon foretold. He says things He knows will cause many to turn away. “Will you also leave?” He asks Peter, who answers not by saying that he understands what Jesus has meant by eating His flesh and drinking His blood but by a kind of ultimate trust with no more earthly illusions to it. “Lord, to whom shall we go?” says Peter.

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St. Paul likewise rebuked those men of Corinth who were all too accustomed to the strife of the Greek political arena. “I am for Paul,” said some, and “I am for Cephas,” “I am for Apollos,” and “I am for Christ,” said others, rather as, it pains me to notice, some people now, habituated to the assumption that all things are up for political disputation, call themselves “Pope Francis Catholics.” What sense can that make? Christ cannot be divided from Himself, as Paul admonishes us. 

That impossibility of division extends beyond the present moment. The eternal Word of God cannot be held to say one thing on Monday and its clear, logical contradiction on Tuesday, or on a Tuesday a thousand years ago or a thousand years hence. Whether you will use your town money to build a playground or a fire station—that is the kind of thing a plebiscite is for. Not whether it is good for children to play, or bad for houses to burn down. Truth is not up for a vote.

Sin does not grow sweet by majority practice. If we believe that God is real and not a figment of our imagination, if we believe that whatever reality anything possesses is merely derivative from God, a wavering shadow to His solid rock, then sin, which at its heart says with the fool that there is no God, or that God is not around to see, or that God does not care about it one way or the other, is a lie, an emptying, a turn toward unreality; and mortal sin is a leap from the rock into the void. Nothing we say about it can alter the matter.  

There was a time when the great majority of physicians and professors of medicine ridiculed Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister for believing that unseen microbes were carriers of disease and that simple antisepsis would save countless women in childbirth and people undergoing surgery. Why, some of their opponents even believed that solid, healthy dirt was good for those patients. But Pasteur and Lister were right, and the majority were wrong.

Sin is a spiritual disease. Your opinion about gangrene does not matter; it is what it is, and it does its work regardless. Sin is likewise, with this complicating difference: if you are ignorant of it and its works, you suffer its consequences but not, perhaps, the consequences of full and open-eyed malice. On the other hand, your ignorance is itself a woeful thing, and it may easily lead you on to other forms of the disease. 

In any case, it does not go away by majority rule, or even by the opinion of a priest or bishop or pope. Supposing that a pope were to say, expressing his strong opinion but not as an ex cathedra teaching, that modern life makes it all right for a man and woman to enter a sexual relationship and even to live together without being married. He might as well say that there was no such thing as cholera and recommend swimming in stagnant water open to the sewers. Cholera is not bound to respect his opinion. Reality does its dreadful work. Supposing a pope were to say it is all right for a man and woman to enter a sexual relationship without being married. He might as well say that there was no such thing as cholera and recommend swimming in stagnant water open to the sewers.Tweet This

Then there are objective realities that we experience subjectively, such as beauty. The experience lies with the beholder, but the reality that provides the experience does not. It may be that one person is alive to the beauty of, say, a mathematical proof but, for him, Chopin hammers away on deaf ears; meanwhile, his friend loves Chopin but boggles at anything with numbers in it. In both cases, beauty is there to behold, and the problem lies with our relative blindness or numbness. 

So, also, with degrees and kinds of beauty. The Magic Flute really is more beautiful by far than “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” though Mozart composed them both—the latter, when he was a very small boy. If anyone were to say that a painting of colored squares by Mondrian was more beautiful than Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam,” I would reply that he was either lying or out of his mind. Mondrian would have said so too.

When it comes to controversies over the form of the Mass, I notice that, again, they are often cast in political terms. I do not, myself, attend the old Latin rite. But if I did, it would not be for anything political. It would be for the beauty of it, which for me would be inextricable from the experience of simple and silent prayer. It would be for the greater coherence of the Church year, and the fuller flourishing of feasts, and the subtle liturgical distinctions among them. 

It would also be, and here I speak for myself and my nerves, for the confidence of knowing that I would never again have to listen to the hymnodic equivalent of pressing a tomcat against a blackboard and scraping his claws up and down—no more the phony jingle-jangle bonhomie of “Companions on the Journey”; no more the narcissism and inept poetry of “Gather Us In”; no more hippity-hop rhythm reminiscent of clumsy show tunes for soloists off-off-Broadway.

It strikes me, though, that when those who do attend the old rite are criticized, it is because they are taken to be a political faction; as if no one could possibly be moved by the beauty of it, or find it more conducive to prayer. Now, far be it from me to say that political factions do not develop around questions of aesthetics. Mankind can and will fight about anything. Justinian almost lost his empire over political factions associated with chariot racing. But why can we not acknowledge the peculiar beauty of a rite that nourished Catholics for so many centuries? And why can we not admit that when it comes to inspiring great art and music and powerful forms of devotion, the new rite has been rather barren? 

I do not blame it entirely; it is a pretty bad age for such. But no fiat or poll can make beauty exist where it is not. To illustrate by an extreme, if all the people in your town were so corrupted in their taste as to prefer a paint-by-numbers picture of a smiley angel to the choirs sculpted by Donatello and Luca della Robbia, that would not change a thing; they would be better off to learn to see and no longer to be blind.

In the end, each of us would do well to pray to see the truth and to hold to it, even when all the world seems to say otherwise. It is to say to Christ upon the Cross, “Keep me near you, Lord, and let me never be ashamed to be alone.” Nor will you be alone.

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]

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tagged as: Church morality

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