March 22, 2015
Fifth Sunday of Lent
Jesus Changes What We Have Always Taken for Granted
“I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts;
I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” He was speaking of his life that would be multiplied in all who would “become Christ” through Baptism after his resurrection.
But we can see another meaning in it. Each of us has to “die” to what we are by birth and cultural conditioning, in order to rise up as a “new creation” through Baptism (2Corinthians 5:17). This is true of everyone, including saints and bishops.
Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, was a German. He grew up thinking like a German. Pope John Paul II was Polish. He thought like a Pole. Pope Francis is a Latin American. He thinks like a Jesuit! All of us see things the way we were brought up to see them—until we die to our culture and rise up freed by the “mind of Christ” (read three texts: 1Corinthians 2:16; Philippians 2:5; Romans 7:25). Jesus said, “If you abide in my word [or “hold to my teaching”], you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31).
Yes. But not overnight. And probably never completely. Pope Benedict XVI is an example.
As Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, he was in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which used to be called The Holy Office of the Inquisition. He was responsible for correcting errors in teaching and conduct in the Church.
Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, who founded the Legionnaires of Christ in 1941, was repeatedly accused of sexually abusing underage seminarians in his care. According to Jason Berry, reporting in the National Catholic Reporter (April 6, 2010), “Maciel was a morphine addict who sexually abused at least 20 Legion seminarians from the 1940s to the '60s. Bishop John McGann of Rockville Centre, N.Y., sent a letter by a former Legion priest with detailed allegations to the Vatican in 1976, 1978 and 1989 through official channels. Nothing happened.” In 1998 eight ex-Legionaries filed a canon law case with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to prosecute him. Cardinal Ratzinger saw enough evidence to know the charges should be investigated. We know that because, as soon as he was made pope, he did investigate. According to Berry, “In 2005… a few days before John Paul II died, Cardinal Ratzinger announced his intention of removing "filth" from the Church; many believed he was referring specifically to Maciel.” And in 2006, as Pope Benedict XVI, he sentenced Father Maciel to spend the rest of his life in penitential seclusion. But he did not investigate Maciel until John Paul II died, because the pope commanded him not to. And Josef Ratzinger obeyed.
The shocking thing is—and it shocks us even more to say it—in obeying the pope, Cardinal Ratzinger did exactly the same thing we hung the German war criminals for doing: he obeyed a sinful command.
The German war criminals on trial at Nuremberg all made the same defense: “Nicht verantwortlich! I am not responsible! I was only obeying orders!”
They were all found guilty, and the worst of them were hung. The court ruled that it is never justified to obey when commanded to do something criminal; even if you will be executed if you don’t. In the Church we believe—but don’t always teach—that it is wrong to do something sinful, even if commanded by the pope himself.
Cardinal Ratzinger failed to prosecute Father Maciel for sexual abuse when he knew with moral certainty (the level of certainty that imposes a moral obligation) that the charges were almost certainly true. His only reason for refusing to do his duty was that the pope told him not to. That made Cardinal Josef Ratzinger co-responsible for every further act of sexual misconduct that Maciel committed until John Paul died. Were we to question him about it, his defense would almost certainly be the same as that of the German war criminals: “Nicht verantwortlich! I am not responsible! I was only obeying orders!”
He should have received the same sentence he gave to Father Maciel. He was equally guilty.
Was he subjectively guilty? Did Josef Ratzinger commit a “mortal sin” by obeying what he clearly understood to be a sin against truth and justice, and one which prolonged the damage Maciel was doing to others? Aside from the fact that to label anything “mortal sin” lightly puts one in danger of blasphemy because of what it says about God, the best defense I can make of Cardinal Ratzinger is that he was a German, brought up in a culture of obedience to authorities that was reinforced by Catholic clericalism and insistence on unquestioning obedience to the pope. On top of that, anyone made a bishop under John Paul II was required to take an oath of personal loyalty to the pope, as German officers were required to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler. We know that the German officers felt seriously obliged to obey a Führer Befehl, a direct command from Hitler, even if it went against their better judgment. We can presume that German-bred Josef Ratzinger felt similarly constrained. Let those who have never been blinded by their culture cast the first stone (John 8:7).
Why bring all this up? It is because the principle endures: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” We have to die continuously to our cultural conditioning, to attitudes and values we have always taken for granted. We undertake this in the strength of God’s promise: “I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Do I choose to let Jesus change what I have always taken for granted? Do I choose to follow the law within my heart”
Pray: “Create a clean heart in me, O God.”
Practice: Whenever you feel in your heart something is wrong, look into it, no matter how much it is taken for granted in the Church or in your culture.
Discuss: What rules might we be obeying today that are contrary to the will of God?