These words, metaphorical though they be, and no matter how one interprets them, are among the many hard sayings of our Lord. They are always timely as a reminder that what we colloquially call niceness is not, in fact, a virtue.
This particular metaphor makes brilliant use of a common analogy between the person and the community. On one level, it is about removing habits and occasions of sin from our lives, however painful this may prove.
In its immediate context, however, the imagery is employed for an ecclesiastical purpose. Though “it must needs be that scandals come” (Mt. 18:7), the body of believers must be prepared to cast out those who insist upon scandalizing Christ’s “little ones” (Mt. 18:6), no matter how intimately integrated those members may be within the Church.
This is why, as some have argued, the crisis of the Church in modern times is in large part a crisis of governance, borne from a culpable unwillingness to impose the sometimes grisly but always necessary discipline of excommunicating those who would abuse their status as laymen, religious, priests, or bishops to lead others into the devil’s snares.
There is, however, one caveat that comes to light in our present circumstances: Christ does not tell us what to do in the event that the member of his body scandalizing us is . . . our head!
How then are we to respond? If we follow the same metaphor at both analogical levels, I think it suggests a formula which, followed in charitable prudence, will enable us to do everything possible to retain our own faith, and that of the “little ones” under our care.
To begin with, we cannot excommunicate, or otherwise effectively rid ourselves of the man appointed as Christ’s Vicar.
Given the number and gravity of his public sins, and the cycle of vicious behavior in which he seems to be trapped, it appears likely that legally speaking he already has, or may well soon, excommunicate himself. Even so, unless he choose to resign, there is no earthly power with the authority to declare and enforce this fact.
For the body of Christ to attempt to govern itself without a Supreme Pontiff would be to cure a persistent migraine by cutting off its head.
On the other hand, for Christians to proclaim a belief in the God who is Truth itself, and at the same time to affirm or connive at the teaching and implementation of sanctimonious falsehoods, is also to acquiesce in the loss of the minds God gave us.
No, the solution is sadly not so simple. If we are to keep our heads, we must do better than resolving the scandals we face by attempting to live popeless or brainless lives. Instead, as St. Thomas teaches, we must learn to distinguish three things: the office, the man, and the acts.
Regarding the office, we must honor it, and the man who holds it, for the sake of Christ whose image he bears. Regarding the man, insofar as he lapses into evil ways, we must refrain from honoring him, lest we bear false witness. Regarding his acts, we must obey and follow those which are sound and therefore binding in conscience, and disregard those which are the opposite.
If we follow this recipe, there is no guarantee that the headache will dissipate, or even diminish, as soon as we would surely like. But is it not better for us to enter into life with sore noggins than, enjoying easier times now, to be cast into everlasting fire (Mt. 18:8)?
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