Image result for unjust steward picture

 

The parable of the Unjust Steward is a googly which the Church bowls each eighth Sunday after Pentecost at unwary preachers. Many of them are stumped. Naturally one can find some worthy treatments of it in the Catena Aurea and in the Commentary of Cornelius a Lapide; but the profoundest interpretation I know appears in neither place, coming rather from St Gaudentius of Brescia. As it may be that you don’t know who St Gaudentius was, I will tell you: he was a friend of St Ambrose and a defender of St John Chrysostom and he ruled the see of Brescia in Italy for some 25 years.

A friend of his, called Herminius, or Serminius, or possibly Germinius (it must have been a cold day in the scriptorium when the monk copied out the letter) wrote to St Gaudentius to ask what, exactly, this passage from the holy Gospel means. And the saint, after talking at length as one might expect of the dangers of wealth and the virtues of alms-giving, begins to give a mystical interpretation. The rich man, he says, is almighty God – dives in misericordia. The  unjust steward is the devil, who has been allowed by God to have a certain power in the cosmos, as a steward on an estate. The devil is allowed to test the saints, says St Thomas Aquinas, so that he may not be entirely useless.

But the devil, of course, abuses his power. St Gaudentius says that “the devil wasted the substance of his Lord when he sought the ruin of mankind”. He persecuted the human race beyond all measure, bringing upon it all the cruelties and terrors of paganism. And so God resolved to cast the devil out of His Estate and into the abyss, and made this known when He came among us. Whereupon “this most wicked one, reckoning the death of man as his profit, is consumed with anxiety because the Lord is about to take away the power that he has over others.”

He is not strong enough to dig, and is ashamed to beg, and so turns from violence to craft:

Since he will not work what is good, and is ashamed to ask for mercy as a penitent, he thinks within himself how he may still have power over the debtors of his Lord (that is, over those involved in the debt of sin), not alone by open persecution, but also, under the guise of benevolence, by deceiving them with smooth words, so that seduced by his false kindness they may more readily receive him into their houses, to be judged with him forever.

The devil begins to write off men’s debts:

He falsely promises that he can relax the debts of his fellow servants, which are in his Lord’s power, by vainly assuring indulgence to those who sin either in faith or in deed. For he convinces them that their crimes will not be imputed to them, although even those who commit them know them to be grave offences: for they acknowledge the amount of their debt.

He does this both with the wheat and with the oil:

The wheat is faith in Christ, the principle of man’s life. For He is the living bread who came down from heaven. The oil is good works, which the foolish virgins lacked, and hence when the lamp-light of their souls went out, they abode in darkness. . . . Even so does the devil trick the race of men with false promises, that they may not know what debt of faith and works they owe.

And if the oil is brought down from a hundred, the number of perfection, to fifty, and the wheat is brought down only from a hundred to eighty, perhaps this is because “a smaller number are withdrawn by the devil’s cunning from the true faith, than are withdrawn from right deeds, as our Saviour Himself declares, saying: ‘Why do you call me, Lord, Lord; and do not the things which I say?'”

Ever since Amoris laetitia was published in April last year, I have been wondering what, if anything, it means. Not what it intends: that, unfortunately, was clear from the beginning. But rather, what mental propositions, if any, are expressed by sequences of words such as the following:

No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!”; “A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding its inherent values, or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin”;Conscience can recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal” [etc.].

There seem to be four possibilities:

 

(1) These words have no meaning. An Argentinian priest said to me even before the publication of Amoris, that Pope Bergoglio does not see words as units of meaning which serve to express thoughts, but as tools to achieve ends. So one might hold that passages such as those quoted express no mental propositions, but are simpl tools used to achieve communion for the invalidly married, as another man might use a hammer to drive in a nail.

This is attractive, but I wonder if it is humanly possible not to intend to express some mental proposition when uttering well-formed sentences. Nonsense poetry is a sophisticated genre, which is no doubt why it didn’t emerge until the mid-19th century in England, which take it all in all was the richest period of English letters. Presumably the same is true of nonsense prose.

(2) These words are deliberately ambiguous, i.e. they are intended to express more than one mental proposition existing in the mind of the pope, at least one of which would be orthodox; and he intends that the reader be free to choose among them (though only as a means to the ultimate goal of communion for the remarried).

The trouble with this is that we normally say that an author is entitled to say what his words mean, if they lack clarity. Now the pope, by his subsequent statements, e.g. recommending the archbishop of Vienna as a guide to understanding Amoris, has indicated that he wants the words of the document to be interpreted as allowing communion for the remarried. So it seems that we would have to say this is the meaning of these words in the document, and hence that the text, though cloudy, is not ambiguous in the sense defined above.

(3) These words have only a heretical meaning. They express mental propositions in the mind of Pope Bergoglio which are contrary to revealed truths. This is easy to defend. But it is an unfortunate thing to have to say of what seems to be at least indirectly a magisterial document addressed to the whole Church (even though the pope has not declared these passages to be binding on the faith of Catholics).

(4) These words have 2 meanings because they express thoughts in two different minds. Literally speaking, the only mind in question is the mind of the pope. But it is a principle of the interpretation, and therefore of the meaning of magisterial documents, that they are to be read in the light of clearer and more authoritative documents, where possible. In that sense, we can speak of their expressing ‘the mind of the Church’. Now, as mentioned in (2), the pope has unfortunately shown that he interprets, and therefore presumably meant, these statements in way that is not orthodox. But it may still be possible that any of these statements, taken in the abstract, can be read, with a good deal of bending and stretching, in a way that is orthodox.

In other words, we could say that these statements in Amoris have two literal meanings: a Bergoglian meaning and a magisterial meaning. This is not quite the same as the hypothesis of deliberate ambiguity, since the pope has made sufficiently clear what he had in mind, in various non-magisterial ways. But precisely because he expressed himself in AL in such a cloudy way, we are entitled to interpret AL in a Catholic way. Yet that should not prevent us from resisting the heresies which, unfortunately, the pope has used it to vehicle.

If we enter deeply into a spiritual epoch like the Oxford Movement, we find ourselves in the presence of men whose spirits still live and have power to move us. For the men who count in the end are not the successful men who rode on the crest of the wave of change, like Napoleon, but those who are indifferent to success or failure, who despise quick results and preserve their spiritual integrity at all costs. It is they who are the real judges of the world (‘The Spirit of the Oxford Movement’, chapter 1).

No man who has the truth to tell and the power to tell it can long remain hiding it from fear or even from despair without ignominy. To release the truth against whatever odds, even if so doing can longer help the Commonwealth, is a necessity for the soul (‘The Free Press’, XX).

‘These are the times that – what is it Jeeves?’

‘”Try men’s souls”, sir.’

‘They certainly do. In spades.”

There is a potentially serious division among faithful Catholics about how to respond to “The Joy of – ” . I can certainly understand the argument of those, such as Joseph Shaw and Fr Ray Blake, who warn us not to make too much of it, lest we play into the hands of the opposition. By creating the perception that the pope is undermining doctrine, they say, you will strengthen those who wish to undermine doctrine; better to point out, rather, that AL makes no change to canon law, and does not say in plain words, ‘those in invalid marriages can receive Holy Communion if their pastors think it helpful’.

But my question to people who think like this is: “Independently of what we say about the matter, is the pope undermining doctrine or is he not?” If we think that he is, there needs to be an adequate response. Now the New Testament gives us an example of a pope undermining doctrine, and of the adequate response that was made to it.

When St Peter began at Antioch ‘not to walk correctly according to the truth of the Gospel’ (Gal. 2: 14), St Paul did not content himself with preaching the truth that was being undermined. He did not limit himself to saying in sermons or letters that Gentiles could be true Christians without being circumcised. Rather, he ‘withstood’ or ‘resisted’ Peter directly, asking him in public how he could act as he was doing. He realised that a simple statement of doctrine was not enough in those circumstances to keep that doctrine safe.

Pope Francis, unfortunately, is also undermining a truth of the gospel, namely the indissolubility of marriage, by encouraging debate about a matter that has never been uncertain, by praising the most notorious advocate of the heretical opinion, by issuing a document clearly designed not to teach the true opinion, and by giving free rein to those who use this document to uphold the heretical opinion. A striking example of this last thing is the editorial of Fr Spadaro SJ in La Civilta Cattolica, ‘the pope’s magazine’. Fr Spadaro writes: “The exhortation incorporates from the synodal document the path of discernment of individual cases without putting limits on integration, as appeared in the past.” Sandro Magister notes in the article I have linked to that Fr Spadaro is a closer adviser and confidant of the pope, and adds:

The presentation that Spadaro made of it in “La Civiltà Cattolica” was given to Francis to read before it was sent to press. One more reason to take this exegesis of the document as authorized by him, and therefore revealing of his real intentions.

For these reasons, I do not think it will be enough in the present crisis, for bishops simply to repeat the orthodox teaching. That does not particularly bother the other side: ‘pastoral pluralism’, after all, is enough for these people, and they are ready to wait for the rigid bishops to reach retirement age and then to be replaced by more accommodating and joyful ones.

Doubtless, if there were a unanimity or quasi-unanimity of bishops clearly teaching the traditional position, then it would not be necessary to make a protest about AL; but in the absence of that unanimity, a unanimity which already seems impossible, the undermining of marriage will go on, and AL’s part in that will need to be publicly confronted.

So I believe that in the present emergency it will soon be necessary for some bishop, or better, many bishops, to withstand the pope publicly, clearly, respectfully, courageously.

Some years ago, when the anti-apartheid agitation was at its height in the western media and among popular singers, drummers, and electric guitarists (those stern guardians of morality), a certain breakfast cereal had the slogan ‘Free Nelson Mandela!’ emblazoned on the outside of the box. I remember hearing about a chap, obviously not too well versed in international politics, who duly emptied his box of cereals and was miffed at not finding his free Nelson Mandela inside. He didn’t know what it was, but he wanted one.

So please understand that I am not giving anything away gratis in this blog-post. No, I am referring to the need to free the angelic doctor from the positions which he is used to support in the recent apostolic exhortation, ‘The Joy of — ‘.

The first mention of St Thomas is in para. 99, where the document quotes the words from STh 2a 2ae, 114, 2 ad 1: “Every human being is bound to live agreeably with those around him”. This is not too bad, though it omits the second half of the sentence, which is nisi propter aliquam causam necesse sit aliquando alios utiliter contristare (“unless it should be necessary for him for some reason to cause them profitable sadness at some time”).

The next mention is in section 102, where the document quotes St Thomas as teaching that it is more characteristic of charity to love than to be loved. This is quoted in support of the claim that the only value of loving oneself is that it is “a psychological prerequisite for being able to love others”. The quotation from Aquinas is fairly accurate (though one could quibble at the translation of maxime  as ‘the most’ rather than as ‘very much’); but he did not think that love of oneself was only important as a sine qua non for loving others. No, loving oneself is valuable as such. In fact, in the order of charity, a man is bound to love himself before any other creature. St Thomas explains that this is why it is never licit to commit a sin for any end whatsoever. By contrast, making love of neighbour as what is valuable for its own sake, and denying that love of self is valuable for its own sake, opens the way to sinning for the good of one’s neighbour.

In paragraph 120, the document quotes St Thomas’s description of love as a vis unitiva, a unifying force. This is unexceptionable, although he is not as one might suppose from the context of the citation speaking of conjugal love, but of love in God. Something similar can be said about the quotation of  his description of love as a ‘union of affection’ or ‘affective union’, which again the document quotes as if it were said specially of married love. There is nothing much wrong here, though at least a ‘cf.’ before the reference to the Summa would have been in order.

The use of St Thomas that is made in paragraphs 123, 126-7, and 134 appears to me good.

Paragraph 145, however, says: “Experiencing an emotion is not, in itself, morally good or evil. The stirring of desire or repugnance is neither sinful nor blameworthy.  What is morally good or evil is what we do on the basis of, or under the influence of, a given passion.” It footnotes Sth 1a 2ae 24, 1. This is objectionable. What St Thomas says here is that no emotion, abstractly considered, is either good or bad. Not even hatred is bad as such, since it is good to hate sin. But actually existing emotions are either good or bad, even independently of what may be done under their influence. St Thomas says: ipsae passiones, secundum quod sunt voluntariae, possunt dici bonae vel malae moraliter. Dicuntur autem voluntariae vel ex eo quod a voluntate imperantur, vel ex eo quod a voluntate non prohibentur (“The emotions themselves, insofar as they are voluntary, can be called morally good or bad. And they are said to be voluntary insofar as they are commanded by the will, or else because they are not checked by the will.”)

Paragraph 146 cites the angelic doctor in connection with the statement that: “A family is mature when the emotional life of its members becomes a form of sensitivity that neither stifles nor obscures great decisions and values, but rather follows each one’s freedom”. The citation is a bit strange, since St Thomas says nothing about families or great decisions and values or freedom in it; he just explains in what sense emotions co-exist with moral virtues. However, there is no particular harm in citing him, I suppose.

Paragraph 148 first of all cites the angelic doctor in support of the statement that excessive seeking of some pleasure can weaken or taint that same pleasure. This is alright. Personally I find the use of the next quotation, in a footnote to the same paragraph, somewhat distasteful in its context, and there is no attempt to give a well-rounded account of St Thomas’s teaching on the relation between the use of matrimony and virtue; but let us pass on.

Now, paragraph 301. Here the pope states that people, and from the context he is speaking of Catholics, can be living in irregular (e.g. adulterous) situations and may know the Church’s teaching on ‘the rule’, and yet may be unable to see the point of ‘the rule’. These people, he says, may possess sanctifying grace and may be unable to obey the rule without sinning. This is contrary to Trent; but here I am considering only the use which Amoris Laetitia makes of St Thomas. And it quotes him in support of this position! “Saint Thomas Aquinas himself recognized that someone may possess grace and charity, yet not be able to exercise any one of the virtues well.” As Joseph Shaw has pointed out, this quotation is completely irrelevant to the matter at hand. St Thomas is talking of people who have repented of past sins, and who keep the moral law, but do so with some difficulty because of the effect that those past sins have left behind. It is hard not to see this as a cynical misuse of the angelic doctor.

Paragraph 304 seeks to recruit St Thomas in favour of having no unvarying law about how to act towards those in e.g. adulterous situations. It quotes a passage from 1a 2a 94, 4: “Practical reason deals with contingent things, upon which human activity bears, and so although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects…  In matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles.” Presumably one is supposed to think that St Thomas would have said that therefore you can’t have a fixed principle of not giving Holy Communion to those who live in an adulterous relationship, but only a defeasible presumption of not doing so. The problem with this is that it ignores his, and the Church’s, teaching about intrinsically evil actions. Since some actions are intrinsically evil, one can indeed have unvarying negative precepts, saying that such and such a thing must never be done, whatever the circumstances. Affirmative precepts, on the other hand, such as giving back a loaned article when the lender requires it, bear on a good to be done and not on an evil to be avoided, and since goodness requires not only a good object but also the right circumstances, affirmative precepts can be suspended in particular cases (e.g. don’t return a gun to a madman.) The precept of not giving Holy Communion to those in public mortal sin is a negative precept, based on the intrinsic evil of dishonouring the Church.

In a footnote to the same paragraph, the document says: ‘In another text, referring to the general knowledge of the rule and the particular knowledge of practical discernment, Saint Thomas states that “if only one of the two is present, it is preferable that it be the knowledge of the particular reality, which is closer to the act”.’ This is a reference to the commentary on the Nicomachaea ethics, Book 6, lecture 6, section 11. It is misleading. St Thomas does not contrast rules and discernment here, but universal truths and more particular truths. He gives the example of someone who knows that ‘light flesh’ is healthy to eat, but doesn’t know what counts as light flesh, and someone else who doesn’t know the general principle about ‘light flesh’, but does know that the flesh of birds is healthy to eat. The latter person is a better guide to diet. So St Thomas is not saying that the priest who knows that Mrs Smith really loves her new husband but has never heard that one should not give Holy Communion to those in adultery is in a better position to judge what to do at the altar-rails, but that a priest who knows that one should not give Holy Communion to those in public adultery, but doesn’t know the general principle that one should not give It to those in public sin, is in a better position to decide what to do than one who knows that one should not give It to those in public sin, but who has no idea about what counts as public sin.

I didn’t notice any other references to the Angelic Doctor in this document.