The Seed of Onan
Since the beginning of this column, I have used this space shamelessly to stress to you the reality and truth of the Catholic Faith. The Catholic Church is for the purpose of providing the proper environment, instruction, and encouragement for those whom she serves, so that they might come evermore deeply and personally into this faith relationship with God in Jesus Christ. In a larger sense, it is the purpose of the Church to evangelize the world in the glorious and everlasting truth of salvation in Christ Jesus, that all might be glorified in Him, and come to share in these mysteries that unite us to God and to one another.
To accomplish this, it is necessary that the Church speak and act in such a way so as to bring equality and justice to the earth, that God's plan of salvation may be worked out through His people as He intends. Thus, the Catholic social teaching espoused in these pages should never be viewed as an end in and of itself, but, rather, as a means -- a means based upon the premise that a man's belly must be filled with food, and his physical demands satisfied, so as to properly prepare him to receive Christ in his spirit. It is our dear Lord, then, Who is able to fulfill this spiritual need so as to empower the individual soul towards the true goal of life on earth, which is to survive beyond this vale of tears, not merely exist comfortably upon it. In our post-modern, secular society, this concept has not been merely lost but demonized. And, in the effort towards a more politicized, reconciling and worldly theology, it has become obscured in the post-conciliar Church. Pope John Paul II once famously commented that the Church must "breathe with two lungs" concerning unity with the Orthodox and Eastern Rites. My point is merely that she must also breathe with the two lungs of eternal salvation and social justice if she is to evangelize the world according to God's purpose.
The chosen name of this column, "Camel's Hair and Locusts," is a purposeful hearkening to the days when St. John the Baptist came preaching the impending arrival of Jesus Christ. Now don't get me wrong: I believe myself to be neither a saint nor John the Baptist. And I am no more worthy to untie his sandal strap than he professed himself to be in regards to doing the same for the Master. But I do, none the less, identify with the need to stand up in this dystopian wilderness of a world, as he did in his, and proclaim, "Make straight the way of the Lord." In doing so, he pointed a prophetic finger towards not only the Cross, but to a time in which the blood of the Christian martyrs would flow freely in the streets of Rome. And this in anticipation of a time in which the rule of Christ would become the law of the fallen empire. And in the Church it did. The signs of his times were evident, and so the signs of our times are also upon us. And there is, perhaps, no sign greater in a world that increasingly denies our Catholic heritage, and all Christian faith, than that of the medieval fundamentalism of a perverted Islam that puts the scimitar to the necks of our beloved martyred brethren. The cross has made a comeback, and in India even the Hindus have taken up the chant to Christians, "Convert or die!" And so, again, in the face of such persecution, the Word of God approaches. This is no time to capitulate to the cynicism of the secular world, or be despondent, but to instead proclaim the good news: Christ is coming!
There is, then, a desperate need for all of us to relate to what we were shown at Mass this past Sunday, and so boldly point the world towards Jesus and proclaim, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." It is only in a world in which all have the potential to hold this as eternal truth, and in which all knees are free to bend to Him, that Catholic social teaching is able to create the environment conducive to the salvation of souls that God would have it achieve. This is the bigger picture, and, without it, Catholic social teaching becomes merely another form of political theorizing. It becomes an intellectualized masturbation that lends itself every bit as much to mortal sin, for it is every bit as much divorced from what God intended it to be as such deviant sexual acts are from the act of matrimonial love that produces life. And, Onan like, it then spills the seed of its divine inspiration upon the sterile ground of human folly. It succumbs to the secular posturing that robs it of its eternal power and inherent divine authority, and it becomes merely another tool of the devil in his concerted effort to pervert the things of God and so lead us down the primrose path to destruction. And woe be to those who so follow him down this path, all the while believing that the social teaching of Holy Mother Church, devoid of Christ, can somehow save the world. Just the opposite is true.
If we truly believe in our Catholic faith, then we know that Christ is truly in our midst already -- and long has been. In the closing words of Matthew's gospel, Jesus promises, "I am always with you," and, in the Holy Eucharist, He has kept this promise faithfully from that day unto this. This Real Presence of our Eucharistic Lord is the tangible proof of His ongoing spiritual companionship with us, and it is a transcendent truth that even the most adamant and anti-Catholic of our separated Protestant brethren are aware of, as we lift our voices together in the old classic hymn, "...And He walks with me, and He talks with me, And He tells me I am his own..." That so many Catholics seem to have lost the eternal and abiding truth of this is, perhaps, a greater mystery than the miracle of Christ's Real Presence itself.
A Baptist preacher I was once in conversation with was taken aback when I referred to a "personal relationship with Christ." He was shocked and informed me that Catholics didn't believe in such a thing, and that only "real" Christians did. I pointed out the Tabernacle and explained that in the Holy Eucharist, Jesus is present with us "Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity." Incredulous, I asked him, "Pastor, how much more personal a relationship can a human being have with Christ than to have Him enter his very body and become one with him in this way?" He responded, "That may have been so once, but Catholics don't believe that anymore." And the only answer I had for him was a truthful one, "All too many don't."
A word that is bandied about shamelessly in both the secular and religious media of our day is "fundamentalist." I have used it myself here in reference to the wide eyed Muslim extremists who put to death Christians, and others, in the belief that they are doing the will of Allah. Among these others are the Hindus, and there are those in their midst who are doing the same, I suppose to appease the will of the myriad of their gods who they believe would have them cleanse the earth of those who believe differently than they do. Though seemingly an oxymoron, we should also consider the atheistic fundamentalists, who, under the banner of communism, put to death upwards of 200 million Christians, Jews and others in the last century. And most recently this term has come to be applied to Christians within the context that, "Christian fundamentalists are every bit as bad as any other kind." I had this assumed truth presented to me by a Presbyterian acquaintance recently, who did so in reference to what he perceived to be my "fundamentalist" Catholic faith.
Now this is not the first time I have been accused of being a fundamentalist. Among Christian liberals, a fundamentalist is anyone with a sincere belief in the Christian faith, and my take on this has long been that this attitude reflected more upon them than it did me. And, while I am neither a saint, nor do I believe myself to be St. Paul, I do identify with him in that my first encounter with Christ was one in which I, too, was knocked to the ground from the high horse of my previous (un)belief system, and was, in that instant, given to understand that Jesus is not some idea sitting on a cloud in a nonexistent heaven, but a real and dynamic person Who enters into the lives of men and reveals Himself, in no uncertain terms, so as to save them. I spent the ensuing 25 years after this encounter wandering in the unchurched wilderness until He Himself revealed the truth further to me that the Church I sought, but somehow couldn't find, was the very Church that St. Paul wrote his letters too, and it existed in the Catholic Church as it always has and will. And I remember that night at RCIA when we were taught of the Real Presence and the joyous truth of this hit home, and I ended up on my knees in front of the Cross and the Tabernacle and, as St. Thomas in the upper room, I beheld the wounds of my Lord and knew the truth of what I had found: "My Lord and my God!" If that makes me a Catholic fundamentalist, so be it!
Next in our Catholic journey was a stop at St. Catherine of Sienna parish in Sebring, Florida. This was in the days when the Most Reverend John Nevin was Bishop of Venice, and there were those among his flock who called him a fundamentalist. There were those who claimed he did not love the poor because he truly did love and believe in Jesus, though this criticism largely came to a halt when violence was threatened against immigrant farm workers, marching for their rights in Immokalee, and the bishop responded to these threats by not only marching with them but at their head. Bishop Nevin gave our parish the gift of Father Jose Gonzalez, a Spaniard who once presented a splinter of the True Cross at our Masses so that we faithful could venerate this first class relic of our Lord's crucifixion. Some must have surely thought him a Catholic fundamentalist for this, though no one questioned his social conscience when, in the aftermath of Hurricane Charley in 2004, it was he who went out, rolled up his sleeves, and worked tirelessly in the ruins of the immigrant labor camps of central Florida. And there was also Father Peter Sheehan, a "retired" priest who ably assisted Father Jose, and warned us repeatedly in his homilies of the dangers and misconceptions inherent in the modernist, liberal Catholic Church. Certainly he must have been labeled as a fundamentalist by some, though I don't suppose anyone had the courage to tell him this to his face. As neophytes among the largely elderly, and more traditionally Catholic community of Sebring, we didn't even understand what he was talking about.
The words of Father Sheehan did hit home to us when we arrived in Alma, Michigan, in 2005 and found ourselves in the Diocese of Saginaw, a veritable poster child at that time for the abuses we were warned of from the lips of Father Sheehan. Oh my, I could go on about this, but that is beyond my purpose here, and to no avail now, as our past and current bishops have worked diligently to heal the wounds and bring Christian unity into the midst of this imposed "spirit of Vatican II" diversity. Suffice it to say what does address my purpose is to relate that when I told my first parish priest here that I was a "traditional believing Catholic" (a good thing in Sebring) I was labeled a "fundamentalist" in a way that made this term synonymous with "anathema." A nun teaching a course I took at the diocese told our class that anyone who promoted saying the Holy Rosary, or who participated in any traditionally Catholic devotions, was "...too focused on heaven to be a friend to the poor." I was at one point invited to work in prison ministry, which I am sure was to keep me from poisoning the parish congregation with my antiquated and irrelevant faith, and what I found was that the true and ancient Gospel of Christ, in this environment, sings and resonates in a way that draws those who hear His voice back from the very gates of hell. It does this by turning the heart away from violence by bringing it into the peaceful and Real Presence of Christ, Who doesn't hesitate to reach out to the poor in this way, and in this place, He does!
The error that was rife and taught as Catholic truth within our parish, and especially to my young children, eventually led me to believe that we needed to seek a more believing faith community among the remnant of my Mennonite ancestors in Pigeon, a little town 100 miles away. And so for some seven months in 2007, we did exactly this until the words of the old, retired Mennonite bishop who befriended us, and warned me that I was about to be disappointed, came true. At the heart of the Mennonite faith is the doctrine of passive resistance, a belief in true and absolute pacifism that precludes any and all violent behavior, including and especially participation in warfare. Therefore, when I expressed my shock that there were members of this Mennonite congregation whose children were off in the armed forces, and we actually celebrated this during a Sunday worship service, I was labeled (you guessed it), a "Mennonite fundamentalist."
It was at this point that Jesus revealed Himself to me again in His Real Presence, and with my own error thus pointed out to me in no uncertain terms, we came home to the Catholic Church. The Lord, through faithful brothers and sisters, directed us to Father Wolfgang Streichardt, a faithful priest who welcomed us warmly home to the Church at Sts. Cyril and Methodius parish in the little town of Bannister, in the most far flung corner of the diocese. He was labeled a "fundamentalist." And from here, we were recommended to Father Will Prospero, also a special man of God, a gentleman, a gentle man, and a Jesuit, who was then pastor at St. Mary University parish in Mt. Pleasant. When he took over this parish, long considered to be among the most liberal in the diocese, he was loudly and publicly derided as a "fundamentalist" by those who walked out of his Masses in anger. This became our parish home and a place in which our family flourished in the Catholic Faith. Both Father Wolf and Father Will have since gone home to their heavenly rewards, and in retrospect I owe much to both of them, as it was Father Wolf who brought me back home to the Church, and Father Will who assured I would always stay put regardless of what I was called.
Since this time, the bandying about of labels such as "fundamentalist" and "liberal" has died down, and we Catholics in the Diocese of Saginaw now struggle more successfully in finding unity in the midst of our diversity by concentrating more attention on Jesus, and less on the perceived failings inherent in the way we have labeled each other in the past. We are back in Alma where our current pastor, Father Nate Harburg, proclaims the gospel without reservation, and encourages Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, in which I have found the tremendous sense of real and genuine peace I went looking for among the Mennonites. I need this, our diocese needs this, we all need this, the whole world needs this. Praise be to God! Spend time with Jesus! He doesn't label us but heals us one and all if we but believe and let Him. And He brings with this healing a true, deep and abiding peace.
Therefore, it took me quite by surprise to be taken to task for an assumed Catholic fundamentalism that, through the misconceptions fostered in the media, is now assumed to be equivalent somehow with that fundamentalism in other faith traditions that results in the death of our Christian brethren and numerous others. And I will give our separated brethren Protestants this much credit that I have known many, and still do, who proudly call themselves "fundamentalist" Christians, and not a one believes this gives them the right to encourage or perpetrate violence among those who believe differently than they do. And the delicious irony in this for me is that the last time I was outright called a fundamentalist, it was for proclaiming pacifism among the pacifists. Perhaps it's time to rethink this labeling business.
We live in a world that eschews all things of faith and which seeks to equate the Christian message of peace on earth with the violence that is at the heart of false religion, for any religion fostering violence in any way, shape or form is precisely that. There is no such thing as a holy war, only those of the unholy variety. And, while there have been those times in the history of the Church when she herself has succumbed to this very evil, it has always been as an aberration of the true faith and never because of it. To be sure, when true to the faith of Jesus, the fundamental Christian experience has always been that of having our blood shed, not shedding the blood of others. This is above all else the meaning and example of the Cross, for it was Christ's blood shed for us that saved us out of this world and into the next, and to resort to the behavior of those who crucified Him only serves to re-brand us with the mark of Cain, which Christ, through His act of sacrifice, has removed from us. Violence can be fundamentalist, but it surely isn't Christian.
Catholic social teaching seeks to rise above the ways of the world by encouraging a system of interaction among men that fosters a universal peace, prosperity and goodwill towards all. It is based upon the Christian principles that are inherent in the Catholic Faith, and to attempt to remove or downplay the role of Catholicism, and the saving gospel of Jesus Christ in this teaching, is to appease a world that no longer sees the positive effect of the Cross of Christ upon social justice -- that this is truly where it originates. Perhaps the New Evangelization we hear so much about needs to start at home among those in our own midst who have so tragically lost sight of this.
To attempt to remove eternal salvation in Jesus Christ from the social justice equation merely fosters the old world order that crucified our Lord, and encourages a new world order which seeks to do the same to all of those who still truly believe in Him. If the poor shall always be with us, then so too the martyrs. However, a great Christian civilization was built upon the foundation in blood laid by the ancient martyrs, and so it is conceivable that this civilization might be rebuilt, and in a more just fashion, upon the foundation in blood laid by those of our day. This is not possible, however, if the choice is made to reduce to the lower case the "C" in "Catholic" which stands for Christ, and perceive this as more palatable to the world as a generic and worldly "universal" equivalent. This merely robs the social teaching of the Church of its very life force. Such a sterile teaching is at odds with God Almighty, and so irreversibly sets us on a course for the plagues of Revelation.
You may call me a fundamentalist for such claims as this. It won't be the first time.
Phil is the owner of the news portal Radio New Jerusalem.
All Biblical quotes from The Catholic Edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1965, 1966 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.