Leon J. Podles :: DIALOGUE

A Discussion on Faith and Culture

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The Rights of Nature

May 2nd, 2010 · 1 Comment

As I said in the previous post, justice must be satisfied. Some Catholics believe that charity does away with justice, that it is wrong to punish sinners and criminals. John Zmirak examines this idea at Inside Catholic in the context of Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos’ 2001 letter praising a bishop for not turning over to the police a priest who raped children.

There’s something else going on. As Dorothy Sayers once observed of Goethe’s Faust, “He is much better served by exploiting our virtues than by appealing to our lower passions.” Some of the worst crimes in European history were committed by men devoted to Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. These values, as John Paul wrote in Memory and Identity, are secular forms of the theological virtues Faith, Hope, and Charity. Why should it surprise us that the Father of Lies can mislead men into misreading even these? I’ve written here before of the toxic trap that Mother Angelica calls Misguided Compassion. What if we are nowadays facing, even among the most sincere Catholics, distortions of the theological virtues — Blind Faith, False Hope, and Bankrupt Charity? While the genuine articles are infused directly by God, such counterfeits are cobbled together out of one-sided theology and our sentiments.

There’s one sure test for determining whether an action really lives up to the theological virtue we hope we’re practicing. It’s simple: Does this action violate any natural virtues along the way?

(snip)

Coming back to Cardinal Castrillón: When he held the paternal bond between a bishop and his priest as more sacred than the right of the community to punish sex abusers, was he upholding the bond of Charity that ought to unite those who head the Church to its members? It must have seemed so at the time. Such sins smell and look like lilies. But they flank a coffin.

Lying dead and stiff inside that box is natural Justice, an attribute of God as much as His Mercy. Simple Justice is what each of us owes the other in an unconditional debt. We cannot violate that Justice in pursuit of Faith, Hope, or Charity. When we contemplate any action that stokes in us the sentiment that we’re being “more radically Christian” and really “living the gospel” by going beyond “merely natural” virtues, every alarm bell in our conscience should start going off. We can no more attain theological virtues by violating the natural ones than we can build the dome on a cathedral by pulling steel from its foundations.

We cannot practice Charity toward the poor through confiscation from the rich; only if something is owed the poor in simple Justice should the state make sure they get it (as Pope Leo XIII taught in Rerum Novarum). At the height of the high Middle Ages, the Church never furthered the salvation of souls by confiscating non-Christian children, baptizing them, and rearing them in the Faith. At age 18 I wondered why not, till a wise priest explained to me that the natural rights of pagan parents could not be torn away in such a “higher cause.” Likewise, the natural rights of parents, and the state that represents them, to defend their children from rape cannot be sacrificed on the altar of priestly solidarity, compassion for “troubled brother priests,” or the need to avoid bad publicity for the Church.

God is the author of both nature and grace; nature has its rights and those rights are not superseded or violated by grace. As Zmirak points out, if grace is all that matters, we should be kidnapping the children of pagan (and Jewish) parents and baptizing them.

The Church has not always respected the rights of nature. In 1858 Pius IX forcibly took from his Jewish parents their six-year-old son, Edgardo Mortaro, who had been secretly baptized by a Catholic servant. Augustine was willing to use the power of the Roman state to force Donatists into the Catholic Church. It was for their own good, for outside of the visible, judicial bounds of the Catholic Church, Augustine believed there was no salvation. But God respects our freedom to love Him or not to love Him, and the Church should imitate God in His respect for nature.

Tags: clergy sex abuse scandal · clericalism

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 John Zmirak // May 2, 2010 at 8:26 pm

    Excellent comments, thanks! Caught a typo that might be confusing:

    “nurture has its rights and those rights are not superseded or violated by grave.” It’s “nature” and “grace,” right? You might want to fix and delete this comment. God bless!

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