The Law of God is not a legal fiction. Instead, it describes the actual nature of things. The commandments of God describe how things are, such that consequences are quite “natural.”
The Law of Gravity is not a legal problem:
“I didn’t mean to walk off the cliff.”
“Then legally you shouldn’t have died.”
The same is true of sin. Sin is not a legal problem. In the Garden, when God warns Adam and Eve concerning the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, He says, “In the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.” This is not a legal statement. Were that the case, God would have said, “In the day you eat of it, I will kill you.” But the consequence is not legal but natural – it is inherent – intrinsic to the very nature of things.
Adam and Eve die, not as punishment, but because they have broken communion with God who alone is the Lord and Giver of Life, the source of our very being. Death is not punishment, but the natural state of a human being who moves in a direction away from God.
Matthew J. Franck caught me by surprise on this. I first read A Canticle for Leibowitz less than two years ago, so Franck’s title caught my eye. More on that in due course.
I reread (after about thirty years) Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s modern classic A Canticle for Leibowitz. It was far better than I appreciated its being in my younger days (oh, for a nickel every time I realize how dumb I used to be). Published in 1959, this apocalyptic work of science fiction imagines a very long future in which, after the utter collapse of our present civilization, scientific knowledge and literate culture are preserved by a Catholic monastery.
In Miller’s future history, familiar struggles recur, including those between church and state. When, many centuries from now, a nuclear weapon is detonated over a population center near our monastery, a medical officer in the public service approaches the abbot about conducting radiation triage on the refugees crowding the old abbey’s courtyard. The doctor has orders to inform the high-dose radiation victims about where they may go to a government-run euthanasia facility. The abbot thinks it over:
“Very well. You need only make me one promise, and you may use the courtyard.”
“Simply that you won’t advise anyone to go to a ‘mercy camp.’ Limit yourself to diagnosis. If you find hopeless radiation cases, tell them what the law forces you to tell them, be as consoling as you wish, but don’t tell them to go kill themselves.”
The doctor hesitated. “I think it would be proper to make such a promise with respect to patients who belong to your Faith.”
Abbot Zerchi lowered his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said finally, “but that’s not enough.”
“Why? Others are not bound by your principles. If a man is not of your religion, why should you refuse to allow—” He choked off angrily.
“Do you want an explanation?
Do you want an explantion, gentle reader? If so, read on.
“Because if a man is ignorant of the fact that something is wrong, and acts in ignorance, he incurs no guilt, provided natural reason was not enough to show him that it was wrong. But while ignorance may excuse the man, it does not excuse the act, which is wrong in itself. If I permitted the act simply because the man is ignorant that it is wrong, then I would incur guilt, because I do know it to be wrong. It is really that painfully simple.”
Can you “connect the dots,” gentle reader?
Maybe it’s just my occupational hazard, but I could not read this without thinking of the HHS mandate controversy. The amazingly wrongheaded argument deployed by the Obama administration against Hobby Lobby, Notre Dame, even the Little Sisters of the Poor, is that they are “imposing their religion” on others who do not share their particular faith or moral beliefs. In Miller’s novel, Abbot Zerchi handily refutes this nonsense. Those whose faith teaches them the truth about right and wrong must live that truth in all they do, and in all their own involvement in what others do under their aegis. And they must be in control of the use of their own resources in this respect—their own property, their own finances, and their own labor—or their religious freedom will not mean much at all.
Let us then take the example of the proposed joint Orthodox-Catholic Forgiveness Vespers service proposed by Adam DeVille. Would an Orthodox attendee be free to operate within the fullness of the Orthodox tradition? I argue that he or she would not, for the purpose of Forgiveness Vespers is to provide a corporate expression of repentance for sins committed against the Church, the Body of Christ, and Roman Catholics are not acknowledged to be within that covenant community, which is signified by the union of the Chalice, for their union is a union different than the one we confess. A rite intended to express the mutual repentance of members of the Body of Christ should not be bent toward the intention of expressing rapprochement between two rival claimants of that title.
Of course, it is not as though a non-Orthodox person would be barred from participating in the rite of forgiveness, for there is no sacramental action being performed. In such a case, however, forgiveness would be exchanged for general sins against the world, for the failure of the Church to faithfully engage the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But an explicitly Orthodox-Catholic joint rite of forgiveness would fail to bring together authentic expressions of Orthodoxy and Catholicism, and thus it would fail to truly engage the other on authentic terms. Nothing could then be accomplished by such a ritual. To participate in such an ecumenical service would be a sin against the Church and a sin against the “other,” because it would fail to engage the other authentically, that is, to engage the real issues that bring division between us. And because the doors of the house of faith would be explicitly opened to those who are not members of the family, the intimacy of the rite is also cheapened and ultimately discarded.
When Red Army tank divisions crushed the Hungarian freedom fighters in 1956, killing 50,000, Eisenhower did not lift a finger. When Khrushchev built the Berlin Wall, JFK went to Berlin and gave a speech. When Warsaw Pact troops crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, LBJ did nothing. When, Moscow ordered Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski to smash Solidarity, Ronald Reagan refused to put Warsaw in default. These presidents saw no vital U.S. interest imperiled in these Soviet actions, however brutal. They sensed that time was on our side in the Cold War. And history has proven them right.
What is the U.S. vital interest in Crimea? Zero. From Catherine the Great to Khrushchev, the peninsula belonged to Russia. The people of Crimea are 60 percent ethnic Russians. And should Crimea vote to secede from Ukraine, upon what moral ground would we stand to deny them the right, when we bombed Serbia for 78 days to bring about the secession of Kosovo? Across Europe, nations have been breaking apart since the end of the Cold War.
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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)