By Keith Soko
There’s a scene in the Monty Python movie Life of Brian where the Jesus figure is giving the Sermon on the Mount. But the crowd is having trouble understanding what he is saying. One asks “Did he say ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers?’” and another replies “I don’t think it’s meant to be taken literally, it can refer to any dairy product.” The issue of literal interpretation is one that all religions deal with. Another issue is obedience.
We all know about the fate of the sheep and the goats. In Scripture, at judgment day, it is the goats that go to hell. One can see why. They have cloudy eyes, a detached look and horns. I’m not a farmer, and I know nothing about goats, but I can see how they end up in artistic representations of evil and the devil. Then there are the sheep: cute, fluffy and good followers. We talk about Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
But sometimes, as Catholics, perhaps we take the sheep metaphor too literally. There are some Catholics who, in looking at models of the church, argue that there should be more emphasis on literal following of the law and on obedience, even to the point of blind obedience. But elements of the Catholic tradition argue against that approach. Some examples are the Jesus of the Gospels, the Catholic Intellectual Tradition and the pedophile scandal.
One would be hard pressed to find in the Gospels a Jesus who focused on blind obedience and merely following the letter of the law. True, Jesus argued that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. And, he remained a faithful and practicing Jew his entire life. But throughout the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly condemns the Pharisees for their focus on the externals, their showiness, and for their strict adherence to the letter of the law. He argues instead for attention to the heart of the law (getting the sheep out of the pit on the Sabbath, not stoning the woman caught in adultery, eating and associating with sinners, etc.). Some theologians have argued that the message of the Gospels is not obedience, but love, a radical love that forces one to go out of one’s way.
Admittedly, the topic of “blind obedience” is a tricky one in religion. In faith, there are certainly elements of blindness and obedience. God is above and beyond us in a number of ways. But God cannot be “proven” scientifically. Therefore, theologians have talked about faith as “trust” or used phrases such as “leap of faith.”
But, given that, faith does not have to be un-intellectual. The Catholic tradition also contains what we sometimes refer to as the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. Theologians such as Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages devised a system of theology based on all of the available knowledge of his time period, including Muslim thinkers and the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aquinas, suspected as a heretic during his lifetime, became vindicated as the major theologian in the Catholic tradition historically.
That time period, and church, gave rise to the university system which we use today. Later in that era, a religious order such as the Jesuits emphasized the use of the intellect and even acknowledged some truth in other religions as missionaries in the New World, long before Vatican II would address that issue. The Catholic tradition, whether with Jesus, Thomas Aquinas or the Second Vatican Council, is at its best when it engages the intellect and the world.
Another issue not addressed in some people’s nostalgia for a 1950s model of church that focused on law and obedience is the pedophile scandal. While that version of church had a uniformity, serenity and authority, we know now that it had a dark underbelly. While the church may be a divine institution, it is also a human institution. The pedophile scandal exposed elements of the church over a number of decades that were not only sinful, but illegal.
Many have argued that there are two issues underlying this: church structure and views of sexuality. It was the unquestioning attitude that Catholics had toward the church, and the church’s own nontransparent structure, that prevented the tragedy of clergy sexual abuse from being exposed until years later. But the fact remains that, since the pedophile scandal, blind obedience is probably not a wise model for Catholics today. Faithful, informed and critical would probably be a better approach.
Love God with your whole heart, mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself: Yes. Blind obedience to any human institution: Not any more. If we truly believe that the church has anything to do with Jesus Christ, then we should try to make it better, a true “sacrament” to the world. That involves using the mind that God gave us, and that involves all of us, working together, seeing God in all things, and engaged with the world. There’s a saying that “Jesus came to take away your sins, not your mind.” Probably very true.
(Keith Soko is an associate professor of moral theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)