I find it difficult to free my mind from the present scandal in the Church. It bombards us from every angle, if we are even the least bit connected to almost any form of media, especially the Catholic Internet. I’ve been reticent to express my opinions publicly on this disheartening sickness in the Church, but every time I connect online with anything that links with the National Catholic Register, I’m seeing my own face smile back at me, since the Register is presently using my image in their advertisements: “Look who’s reading the Register!”
There is much that can be said, of course, but since I’m finishing this article on the feast of the Passion of Saint John the Baptist, maybe it’s appropriate to consider Matthew 3:7-10 (RSV-CE):
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
The “he” in this Gospel story is, of course, Saint John the Baptist, the last prophet of the Old Testament Age, who came preaching in the wilderness a message of repentance, pointing ahead to the imminent arrival of the long awaited Messiah. From the tone of his words, it’s apparent that he was not too happy with the religious shepherds of his day — and it was this and other statements that eventually led to his imprisonment and martyrdom. Many theologians have suggested that one of the primary reasons the Father discerned that the time was ripe to send His Son for the salvation of the world was because the hierarchy of the Jewish religious establishment had grown irretrievably corrupt. To use John’s own words, a veritable “brood of vipers!” And these weren’t merely the biter opinion of a lone zealous religious fanatic, for Our Lord Himself would later repeat these very words: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites…blind guides … You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (Mt 23:1-39)
Being a natural son of Abraham, one of God’s Chosen People, was, indeed, a great and humbling honor. But John the Baptist chastised them for their presumption that their Abrahamic pedigree somehow shielded them from criticism and gave them power, position, and privilege over and above the needs of the common folk of God’s Chosen People. This desert prophet chastised them for feigning demonstrations of repentance, and commanded them to “[b]ear fruit that befits repentance.” Their Abrahamic pedigree, and assumed power, position, and privilege, will not befit them well “from the wrath to come” unless their acts of coming forward to receive Baptism are genuine expressions of a conversion of heart and of life. Later, Our Lord would make a similar charge: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity. You blind Pharisees! First cleanse the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean” (Mt 23:25-26).
It seems to me that, in this passage, John was saying that, for these particular scandalous religious shepherds, it was likely too late. The truth of their hypocritical lives and leadership was plain to everyone, so he declared, not just for their benefit, but for all who had ears to hear, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Again, Our Lord will repeat this charge to all whom He calls to abide in Him: “Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit .… If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned” (Jn 15:2,6).
Historically, we know that in their own lifetime, John’s prophesy and others like it would literally be fulfilled, for in the year AD 70, nearly 40 years after the Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Our Lord, the holy city of Jerusalem, the Temple, and consequently the Jewish religion based around Temple worship, would be destroyed, every stone overturned, and the city devastated by fire.
But there was another important aspect of this prophetic statement to these scandalous shepherds. John said, “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” This would be fulfilled when the Gospel of the Kingdom was preached outside of Judaism to the pagan gentiles. As described by the Apostle John in his Gospel, 1:11-13, “[The Word] came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
The prophet Ezekiel had warned the house of Israel that there would come a time when, as the Lord said, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols. I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances” (Ezek 36:25-27). Through Baptism, the gentile “stones” will become children of Abraham, children of God’s Chosen Family, the Church; they will be given new hearts and filled with the Holy Spirit.
But this, of course, was something the religious shepherds of John’s day could not imagine or accept, for we know that few of them would respond to John’s warning or to those of Our Lord; few of them would bear fruit that befit repentance; most of them would rally together to send Our Lord to the cross; and few of them, after His Resurrection, would repent, put their faith in Him, and receive Baptism for the forgiveness of their sins.
Most conservative Catholic biblical scholars who study biblical prophesy recognize that there is usually an “already-not yet” aspect to prophetic interpretation. What John the Baptist prophesied had an historical fulfillment, in that it was already fulfilled in his day, in the lifetime of those to whom he was speaking. Yet, there was also an unfulfilled aspect: a sense in which John’s prophesy had “not yet” been fulfilled. His prophetic warning to his contemporary “brood of vipers” pointed forward to a time, or perhaps many times, in the future when men, who had been called by God into ministry and had been given authority in the Church as shepherds, yet through the presumptions of the pedigree of their apostolic ordinations, believed that this somehow shielded them from criticism, giving them power, position, and privilege over and above the needs of the common folk of God’s Church.
Without in any way demeaning the severity of today’s crisis in the Church, it is imperative to recognize the significance in this gospel passage of the word “many.” Matthew reported that John was moved to exhortation “when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism” — not “all” of them. The implication is that there were some who in no way responded to John’s call for repentance and baptism; and that there may have been some who were not hypocritical “vipers” at all, but true believers and sincere leaders. Maybe these felt intimidated by the sad majority of “vipers brood” and held back. We know, for instance, that when one such Pharisee wanted to talk with Jesus, he had to come alone at night (Jn 3).
All this to say that, in due respect to the many faithful and sincere priests, bishops, and cardinals today who have been sickened and shamed by the details being made public of the unspeakable corruption and depravity of some of their confreres, yet still, I can almost hear the echoes of John the Baptist, as well as Our Lord, exclaiming, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have [apostolic succession]’ … [for] even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Given all that continues to degrade in our present culture and Church, with so many “cats” let out of so many “bags,” I do think it is pertinent for us to consider that judgment of some kind might be imminent. Sure, some will continue to counter, “But this has happened so many times throughout the history of the Church, even worse scandals!” But this does not dismiss the fact that the present scandal among our shepherds — and potentially all the way to the top — is not only repulsive and a complete rejection of the virtues expected by Christ of His hand-chosen leaders, but potentially devastating to the future of His Church. And even if there has been equally bad crisis in the past, there has never been a time in the history of the Church when the details have been so pervasively available, due to today’s media. So, is the axe laid to the root of the tree?
I also believe that John’s other prophetic statement concerning “stones” has been and is being fulfilled in ways few in the Church ever expected. As is becoming more and more apparent through these media reports, this scandal and resultant crisis did not begin today or even in our lifetime, but has been brewing and growing, festering for many, many years. John the Baptist warned the “brood of vipers” of his day, “I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham,” and I believe that Our Lord has been fulfilling this for many years and in our own day in the lives of our Separated Brethren.
Outside the visible confines of the Church — apart from the fullness of the seven sacraments and separated from the Magisterium in union with the successor of Peter — Our Lord continues to draw people to Himself, by grace through faith, primarily through the witness of Scripture. I believe He does this because, since the beginning of the Church and increasingly over the centuries, hundreds of thousands of men and women around the world have been alienated from the Catholic Church and, consequently, from the fullness of the Gospel, often in response to scandals in the Catholic Church’s hierarchy. Is it possible that one of the reasons He inspired the bishops of the fourth century to declare the Canon of Scripture was so that, as more and more people throughout the ages became alienated from the Church, there would always be a trustworthy witness to the essentials of the Gospel message? Though God never intended the Bible to be interpreted alone or the Church to be a “religion of the book,” yet, as the Catechism teaches, “the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures” (CCC 107).
Sometimes the scandals and schisms that followed, whether of a few or of thousands of people, were the direct result of schismatic leaders who broke away from the legitimate apostolic hierarchy in union with the successor of Peter. Often, behind these schisms, however, were the uncharitable, un-Christlike actions of shepherds in the Church. As it states in the Catechism, “in this one and only Church of God from its very beginnings there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly censures as damnable. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church — for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame” (CCC 817).
The Catechism goes on to state in the next paragraph, quoting Unitatis Redintegratio, Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism, “one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers …. All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church” (CCC 818).
Here we see that the Church recognizes that Our Lord extends His mercy and grace outside the visible walls of the Church, to those alienated from the Church through no fault of their own, turning stony hearts into new hearts filled with the Holy Spirit.
To do this, we can also recognize that God has raised up, from within their midst, “shepherds” who have used the Scriptures to bring thousands and thousands of people to faith in Christ. Yes, these non-Catholic Christian “shepherds” may not have had the right pedigree — they may not have had apostolic succession — nor did the Gospel they preached always ring true with the fullness of the Gospel that subsists in the Catholic Church, yet by grace they have led many thousands of people — who otherwise would never have listened to a Catholic priest, bishop, cardinal, pope, or apologist — to faith in Jesus Christ.
It is through the work of non-Catholic Christian “shepherds” — pastors, ministers, missionaries, teachers — that, as the Catechism teaches, “‘many elements of sanctification and of truth’ are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: ‘the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements’” (CCC 819). It is essentially through the work of these non-Catholic “shepherds,” that, as the Catechism continues, “Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church” (ibid).
And why does God do this? Because Scripture teaches that He “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4).
Does this mean that God has abandoned His Church? That it no longer matters that these non-Catholic Christian believers are outside the Church? Should we merely be content to leave them to find Jesus right where they are planted? No, absolutely not! For as the Catechism continues, “All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to ‘Catholic unity’” (CCC 819). They may have received some essential aspects of the Gospel, but one significant thing they have not received, among many other things, is the Eucharist. It’s significant to hear what Avery Cardinal Dullas once wrote:
The question could be raised whether Catholics should evangelize other Christians. According to the teaching of Vatican II, these others are not fully initiated into the Body of Christ. Baptism is only the first sacrament of initiation and demands to be completed by the Eucharist (UR, 22). Full communion requires acceptance of the Church’s entire system and admission to the Eucharist, the sacrament of full communion (LG, 14). Since the whole creed and the dogmas of the Church, as well as the sacraments and pastoral government, pertain to the gospel, it follows logically that Christians who are not Catholics still require additional evangelization.¹
It remains our responsibility to proclaim the fullness of the Catholic Faith — how our Separated Brethren respond, and whether in fact God is calling them by grace to come home, is between them and God. Our responsibility is to “speak the truth in love” so that by grace together we can “grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph 4:15).
But another essential aspect of our responsibility remains: the continual renewal of the Church. What would our Separated Brethren find if, regardless of the present scandal, more of them were to come home? Listen to what Pope Saint John Paul II stated in Redemptoris Missio, 47:
Certainly, every convert is a gift to the Church and represents a serious responsibility for her … especially in the case of adults, such converts bring with them a kind of new energy, an enthusiasm for the faith and a desire to see the Gospel lived out in the Church. They would be greatly disappointed if, having entered the ecclesial community, they were to find a life lacking fervor and without signs of renewal! We cannot preach conversion unless we ourselves are converted anew every day.
And the laity cannot leave this to the pope, cardinals, bishops, and priests, especially when it is embarrassingly obvious that many of our present shepherds have failed in bringing authentic renewal to the Church. As St. Paul wrote to the Christians of Ephesus, “And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:11-12). When we think that “the work of ministry” and the “building up of the body of Christ” is solely the responsibility of the pope, cardinals, bishops, and priests, we surrender the Church to clericalism and consequently reap what we have sown — which is why I disagree with those who believe that the answer to the present crisis is to turn back the clock and resurrect the clericalism of the 1950s.
I suppose the most charitable way to end this article is to remind myself that the prophetic words of Saint John the Baptist, as well as Our Lord, of course, point to each one of us. I don’t, in any way, mean to belittle the present crisis, or to suggest that we all somehow share the blame for this present scandal, but I do know, myself, that I have not always “born fruit that befits repentance.” Is it possible, for example, that the less than perfect way I have lived my Catholic life has been a barrier to someone, in my family or neighborhood, from considering coming home to the Church? Is it possible that my ranting about the present crisis, to some of my family members and friends outside the Church, has merely confirmed their convictions against the Catholic Church?
Lord, we are in difficult times, as You, of course, fully know. Please forgive us each for how we may have tarnished the beauty of Your Church, and we pray for our Shepherds — for those who have disgraced Your Name and Your Church, but especially for the many good and faithful Shepherds who now shoulder the responsibility of carrying the torch forward, in obedience to their apostolic commission. May we all by Your grace bear fruit that befits repentance.
¹Steven Boguslawski and Ralph Martin, The New Evangelization: Overcoming the Obstacles, (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2008).