“What’s at the root of this temptation is to think that, given so many problems and deficiencies, the best answer would be to reorganize things, make changes and especially “patches”, that would order and synchronize the life of the Church by adapting it to the logic of a particular group. Through this path, it would seem that everything would be solved if the ecclesial life would acquire a predetermined order, new or old, that would end the tensions proper to our being human, and even those that the Gospel seeks to provoke.
This path would eliminate tensions, by being ‘in order and line,’ but with time, it would only put to sleep and domesticate our people’s hearts, and weaken the vital and evangelic strength that the Spirit wants to give us (…) Today, we are called to gestate imbalance. We cannot do something good and evangelical if we are afraid of imbalance. We cannot forget that there are tensions and imbalances that have the flavor of the Gospel.”
— Pope Francis
June 29th, 2019 (my translation)
In his last piece for WPI, Paul Fahey discussed a metaphor he heard in a talk by Dr. Mary Healy, professor of Sacred Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, at the 2020 Encounter Conference on the topic of Christian unity (all emphasis in this piece is mine):
“The image that Dr. Healy used to illustrate authentic ecumenism–which is working toward Christian unity–was a person with two outstretched arms. On one hand, this person holds the truth of the Church, while the other hand is reaching out, not to a religion or ideology, but to an individual. In this way, the Christian becomes a living bridge between the Church and another person.
A person with both arms outstretched is an image of a person crucified. Bringing others to Christ and His Church costs something. Being a bridge costs something. People on one side will say, ‘You’re compromising too much! You’re being too generous to these heretics and sinners!’ On the other side you will hear cries of, ‘You’re being rigid and intolerant!'”
Paul picked up this metaphor and expanded it further, extrapolating it to show the way the Church should relate with those who are LGBT. A person engaging in this ministry should have his/her arms outstretched towards LGBT persons, being crucified between presenting the truth of the Church as it is and treating that person with dignity and respect. This crucifixion, once again, also happens at the societal level: some will say this attitude is too conservative, others that it is too liberal, with some saying that it goes too far, others saying that it does not go far enough.
When I read the article, what struck me was not how this metaphor was extrapolated, but that it was not extrapolated enough. I am not merely talking about extrapolating it to various kinds of sinners, holding Catholic doctrine on the one hand and the love due to the sinner on the other, whomever that sinner may be. No. I think we should go even farther than that: I believe this metaphor applies to everything worthwhile the Church has done in her 2,000 years of history.
The Church is the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-14). As such, Christians are called to imitate Christ, for no disciple is above his master (Mt 10:24). In fact, the Church is called to complete those things that are still wanting of the sufferings of Christ (Col 1:24).
In this sense, the Church has been challenged throughout all her existence to be this image of the Crucified Christ, not just in the everyday sufferings, sacrifices and martyrdoms of the faithful, but also to be crucified in the tension between competing (and seemingly contradictory) values.
Right at the beginning, in the Apostolic Age, the baptized Gentiles posed a problem: how to receive these new Christians? On the one hand, it was argued that they should not be tormented by being required to follow the entire Mosaic Law. They were Gentiles, not Jews. On the other hand, the faith they were being baptized into could not deny its Jewish roots, for Jesus was indeed an observant Jew, and many of the prophecies regarding the Messiah could only be understood by being familiar with the Old Testament. Would it be possible to solve this tension?
Later on, as the Church emerged from the catacombs, she needed to find herself among the shards left scattered by the chaos of the Roman persecutions. The Church needed to do this, by clearly defining Who was this Person she worshipped. On the one hand, Jesus was a man. On the other hand, Christ was God. Would it be possible to solve this tension?
Fast forward a millennium or so, and the Church is again in crisis: the Protestant Reformation. Luther affirmed the preeminence of the grace of God over man’s works, for no man can earn his own salvation no matter what he does. On the other hand, a faith without works is dead, and good works are indeed indispensable for a Christian life. Would it be possible to solve this tension?
These are just three examples. They are certainly not exhaustive, but they are also instructive. In all of them, we find tensions that, at first sight, seem irreconcilable.
Judaizers dealt with the tension they faced by doing away with the freedom the Gospel had afforded the Gentiles. Marcionists dealt with the same tension by doing away with the Old Testament.
Arians dealt with their tension by downplaying Jesus’ divinity. Monophysites did the same by downplaying Christ’s humanity.
Lutherans dealt with the tension by negating the value of works, including the Sacraments. Pelagians did the same, centuries before, by minimizing the value of grace.
In all of these cases Hillaire Belloc’s aphorism regarding heretics was fulfilled:
“Heresy is the dislocation of some complete and self-supporting scheme by the introduction of a novel denial of some essential part therein (…) Heresy means, then, the warping of a system by ‘Exception’: by ‘Picking out’ one part of the structure and implies that the scheme is marred by taking away one part of it, denying one part of it, and either leaving the void unfilled or filling it with some new affirmation”
— The Great Heresies; Introduction: “Heresy”
In other words, when faced with the tension between two seemingly incompatible truths, heretics solve it by doing away with one of those truths, or downplaying it.
Which brings us back full circle to the metaphor we began with. Any tension between two extremes in the Christian faith invokes the outstretched arms of the Crucified Jesus. Humanly speaking, the Crucifixion is a scandal. That is the reason why the Bad Thief asks Jesus to free him from the cross. It is a very human reaction. Whenever we feel extended beyond our limitations, our self-preservation instincts kick in: a crucified person, spread with his arms open, almost to the point of rupturing muscles and sinew, tries to free himself, to find a way to escape the process he is forced to endure. If that crucified person was able to free only one arm, then the tension would be somewhat solved and he would feel a bit of relief. That’s what heretics seek to do: relieve tension by freeing themselves from one of the competing values at stake.
That is not the way of the Church, however, because that is not the way of Christ. Jesus endured His cross, for that was His Father’s will. In fact, He did it precisely because no one else could. While every single one of us tries to free himself from the cross necessary for our salvation, Jesus withstood it so that we would not need to face this trial perfectly, because not one of us can, by our own strength. Therefore the Church, as the Body of Christ, has withstood these tensions as well, even if its human members did so imperfectly at all times.
When Judaizers and Marcionists told the Church: “you have to chose,” the Church said: “I chose both the New Testament and the Old. I will part with neither.” The Church chose the tension, to the scandal of both Greeks and Jews.
When Arians and Monophysites told the Church: “you have to chose,” the Church said: “Jesus is both fully human and fully divine.” The Church chose the tension, to the scandal of everyone who could not conceive of a simultaneously fully human and fully divine entity.
When Pelagians and Lutherans, in different centuries, told the Church: “you have to chose,” the Church said: “We need the grace of God, but our free response is also necessary.” The Church chose the tension, to the scandal of kings and scholars alike.
By forthrightly facing the tension of the outstretched arms of the Crucified Christ, the Church shows her divine nature. Any human institution would have caved in to pressure and simplicity. No mere human can tolerate all of these tensions. It takes the Spirit working in our minds, wills, and hearts, to be able to bear it.
Yet, these outstretched arms are not painful just because of the tension of the cross. They are also a sign of vulnerability. These arms are welcoming, but they are also powerless. Nailed arms cannot move, and therefore, cannot defend the exposed body from attacks.
What attacks? Those that come from heretics. When confronted with the tensions that the Church embraced, heretics react with hostility. As I said before, the heretics eschewed the tension by doing away with it. When faced with the challenge of the crucifixion, they chose to remove one of the nails and cling to the other branch of the cross, so as not to hang by their own weight. The Church, on the other hand, tells them that they must return to that excruciating tension they have freed themselves of. But the heretic will react by cursing the other extreme, and by calling out the Church as the true extremist. But this is an illusion created by their own false solution to the tenson.
It is precisely because the Church is crucified in the image of Christ that she is vulnerable to being attacked as too conservative by liberals, as too liberal by conservatives, as too lax by rigorists, as too rigorous by laxists.
Every time period has its own tensions, proper to its culture and historical context. Nowadays, very few people are concerned with the Christological debates of the first millennium. However, as I said before, those debates were instrumental in the formation of the Church, helping her by discovering Who exactly she was worshipping (and without Whom the Church would have no reason to exist).
Conversely, those tensions from times long past do not scandalize us as much, because those judgements of the Church have now been justified by centuries of apologetics and theological rationalizations. Today, we have the historical distance to assess these tensions more easily and dispassionately. However, it is only because the Church did not take the easy way out and faced the challenge of these tensions that we are able to stand where we are right now.
The present is not devoid of tensions, however. In a highly secularized and hedonistic society, the greatest tension is how to balance the love for the sinners with the hate for the sin. The tension between orthodoxy and pastoral care. Please, bear in mind, they are not opposites: the opposite of orthodoxy is heterodoxy, not pastoral care. However, many people today have difficulty grasping this. Secularists will evaluate this tension as too hard to bear and will demand that the Church discard orthodoxy.
There is a mirror image of this: those who, without any authority to do so, will appoint themselves as guardians of orthodoxy and who will tear down the notion of pastoral care in their misguided quest. They will also demand that the Church must choose between the pureness of the faith and the messiness of reality. Since they do not see how it is possible to reconcile both, they will demand that the Church ease this tension by accommodating their view.
Here, as in past centuries, the Church continues to manifest her divine nature and mandate by not giving in to tension, but by embracing it. Dissenters will cry out to the Church: “You must choose! You must choose between Benedict XVI and Francis! You must choose between Amoris Laetitia and Veritatis Splendor! You must choose between pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II! You must choose between fighting abortion and treating immigrants humanely! You must choose, because I cannot fathom how these are reconcilable.”
And the Church will look upon these demands and will simply pass through them, drifting away from these false dichotomies, and choosing neither extreme. The Church can, in fact, do nothing else, for she is configured to the Crucified Christ, with His arms extended to the point of disarticulation, embracing all of humanity and the entirety of Creation. The Church will continue to face this tension for the good of souls, both present and future.
The sooner Catholics acknowledge this, the sooner they can let go of the comfort of false clarity, and the sooner they accept the discomfort of the Mystery that they cannot grasp, the better it will be for them and for the Church.
[Photo credit: “Crucifixion” from Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald, ca. 1480-1528]
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.