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January 1, 2015

 More on Bishops and B******t

I’ve been having another look at that curious Reflection Document for the Clergy on Marriage and the Family put out by the English hierarchy.  At one point it appears to imply that those insisting on upholding the Church’s constant teaching on such matters as Communion for unrepentant adulterers are a bit like the Donatist heretics of North Africa, who were refuted  by St Augustine and St Optatus.

These Donatists believed that the traditores—those bishops and clergy who had handed over the sacred Scriptures to the Roman authorities to avoid martyrdom—were beyond repentance,  had forfeited their authority, and were permanently excommunicated. The Donatists were extreme rigorists, (or “riggies” to use the term employed by modernist  seminary professors to put down orthodox clerical students) . They were of course quite wrong, because no repentant sinner is beyond God’s forgiveness.

The Donatists regarded martyrdom as the supreme Christian virtue. Their most extreme faction, the Circumcellions, were a bit like 21st century  Moslem suicide bombers.  They called themselves agonistici (“fighters [for Christ”]). They  used to  bring about their own martyrdom by attacking random travellers  on the road, shouting “laudate Deum!” and demanding to be killed.  The Circumcellions used to assault Roman legionaries with wooden clubs, which for some reason they called their “Israelites”. They declined to use swords,  because of Our Lord’s rebuke to St Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane. On other occasions they would interrupt  the law courts so that the judge would order their immediate execution for contempt of court.

Anyway, the anonymous authors of the English bishops’ document  think we can derive from the Donatist controversy  “”a way to reach out to people  in their very diverse situations”, and that St Augustine, in his dealing with the Donatists, “offers us a way of looking at the Church from his age which is still relevant today”. St Augustine, they tell us, favoured “patience and tolerance”, not the exclusion of sinners from the Church.  But then, of course, no one on the orthodox side of the present  debate has ever suggested that repentant sinners should be denied Communion.

Let’s have a look at a truly relevant passage from  St Augustine on Our Lord’s words to the woman taken in adultery:

‘Neither will I condemn you’. What is this, Lord? Do you therefore favour sins? Not so, evidently. Mark what follows: ‘Go, henceforth sin no more’. Therefore the Lord did also condemn, but condemned sins, not man. For if he were a patron of sin, he would say ‘Neither will I condemn you; go, live as you will: be secure in my deliverance; how much soever you will sin, I will deliver you from all punishment,  even of hell, and from the torturers of the infernal world’. He said not this. Let them take heed, then, who love this gentleness in the Lord, and let them fear his truth. For ‘The Lord is sweet and right’. You love him in that he is sweet; fear him in that he is right. As the meek one, he said ‘I held my peace’; but as the just one, he said ‘Shall I always be silent?’  ‘The Lord is merciful and pitiful’. So he is, certainly. Add yet further: ‘Long-suffering’; add, even further still: ‘And very pitiful’. But fear what comes last: ‘And true’. For those whom he now puts up with as sinners, he will judge as despisers. ‘Or do you despise the riches of his long-suffering and gentleness, not knowing that the forbearance of God leads you to repentance? But you, after your hardness and impenitent heart, treasure up for yourself wrath against the Day of Wrath and the revelation of the righteous judgement of God; who will render to every man according to his deeds’ [Romans 2:4-6]. The Lord is gentle, the Lord is long-suffering, the Lord is pitiful; but the Lord is also just, the Lord is also true. He bestows on you space for correction; but you love the delay of Judgement more than the amendment of your ways.

Fr John Hunwicke sums it all up perfectly:

The style of much modern dialogue is to set things against each other as polar opposites. Law vs Freedom; Judgement vs Mercy; Cultus vs Prophecy; Demands-of-the-kingdom vs Compassion-and-Love. Any such cheap game needs to be exposed to the fact that Jesus is both. Writers often give me the impression that the Demands of the Kingdom, God’s commandments, are something which we can’t, unfortunately, get out of, much as we might wish to. So we grit our teeth and loyally get down to compliance with as much dutiful obedience as we can muster. But … if only we could square it with our consciences … we would so very much rather be singing, to our congregations and to the World, great paeans of sentiment about God’s Compassion and Love. So we do our best to circumscribe and render practically ineffective the truth of the Gospel and the Kingdom, out of our fear that, by laying too much emphasis there, we shall be robbing people of the Compassion and Love which we would so much rather be seen to be dispensing to a waiting World. I hope I am not being unfair or too cruel when I share my fearful suspicion that the anonymous ghost-writer of the CBCEW document is, with the best will in the world, at just that about stage of thought.

But Jesus is there in both places. The Truth that you cannot divorce a spouse and then acquire a replacement, without committing Adultery, is the Compassionate Love of Christ. He is like the loving and compassionate Land-owner who puts a safe fence along the edge of a dangerous cliff in countryside where people are strongly tempted to behave carelessly, and then sets up as Law the truth (which in fact is inscribed into the very situation itself) that we cannot leap over that fence without falling to destruction. Any contradicting definition of Compassionate Love is a fabrication of the Anti-Christ, who decks himself with devastating plausibility in the most apparently authentic religious language so as to deceive, if possible, even the elect.

You can’t set Love against Law because Christ has you in the most unavoidable of all pincer-movements: He is both.

One comment

  1. Execution was the usual punishment for contempt of court in the fourth century. Even today, judges have (almost) unlimited powers in their own courts when it comes to what is called ‘contempt in the face of the court’ or contempt ‘in facie curiae’.

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