Msgr. Charles Pope is currently a dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, where he has served on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, and the Priest Personnel Board. Along with publishing a daily blog at the Archdiocese of Washington website, he has written in pastoral journals, conducted numerous retreats for priests and lay faithful, and has also conducted weekly Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House. He was named a Monsignor in 2005.
The books of First and Second Maccabees, which we read every year at this time in the Divine Office, are especially pertinent for us today, when religious syncretism and outright idolatry are allowed to go uncorrected if not openly celebrated.
The Maccabees books are set in the period of about 200 years before Christ. The Jews living in Judea at that time were strongly influenced by the Hellenization that Alexander the Great initiated. Some, especially those of the urban upper class, were keen to dispense with Jewish law and adopt a Greek lifestyle. In their minds this would advance them and the Jewish people in economic and political matters. They hid the marks of circumcision, repudiated the holy covenant and sought to convert Jerusalem into a Greek polis, even renaming it Antioch. An evil high priest, Jason, connived with the Greek King Antiochus to overthrow and eliminate the Jewish faith, replacing it with pagan worship and customs.
Antiochus made possession of the Torah a capital crime and ordered the burning of any copies found. Observance of the Jewish Sabbath and other feasts was banned, circumcision was outlawed, and any who had their children circumcised were killed. The Temple rituals and sacrifices were forbidden, and an idol of the Olympian god Zeus was placed on the altar before the Temple. Many Israelites went along with this refutation of their faith — they even set up altars to Greek gods and sacrificed to them.
Hence, it was not merely an attack by an unbelieving culture or nation, but also an attack from within, from fellow Jews who had lost the faith of their fathers and were determined to uproot it for the sake of social advancement and worldly gain. Faithful Jews were forced to resist not only pagan oppressors, but even fellow Jews who were accommodationists at best and apostates at worst.
These grim times are a warning to us of what can happen if we and our leaders lose or compromise our faith and accommodate the current culture.
There is a particular story in the Second Book of Maccabees that speaks to us of the need for heroic witness to the faith. We must forswear the giving of scandal, even at the cost of our life. The story begins up in the Second Book of Maccabees 6:18.
Eleazar, one of the foremost scribes, a man of advanced age and noble appearance, was being forced to open his mouth to eat pork. But preferring a glorious death to a life of defilement, he spat out the meat, and went forward of his own accord to the instrument of torture, as people ought to do…
Some men who were deceived into thinking that Eleazar could be spared a “needless” death sought to “reason” with him, suggesting a compromise that would spare him his life:
Those in charge of that unlawful ritual meal took the man aside privately, because of their long acquaintance with him, and urged him to bring meat of his own providing, such as he could legitimately eat, and to pretend to be eating some of the meat of the sacrifice prescribed by the king.
Eleazar refuses the compromise, saying that he would rather die than give such scandal — others might be led to think that dying was a fate worse than rejecting the faith.
At our age it would be unbecoming to make such a pretense; many young people would think the ninety-year-old Eleazar had gone over to an alien religion. Should I thus pretend for the sake of a brief moment of life, they would be led astray by me, while I would bring shame and dishonor on my old age. Even if, for the time being, I avoid the punishment of men, I shall never, whether alive or dead, escape the hands of the Almighty …. [No] I will leave to the young a noble example of how to die willingly and generously for the revered and holy laws.
Thus, Eleazar died manfully and faithfully. He is a great example of the need to suffer or even die for our faith and of the requirement to refuse give scandal to the faithful. We must never suggest, even for a moment, that compromising our faith is worth the price of infidelity.
What is scandal in its Catholic sense? When someone “gives scandal,” he acts in such a way as to lead others into sin. This is closely related to its secular meaning in that the most devastating effect of scandals over time is that we cease to be shocked or unsettled by sinful behavior. When we see others engaging in sin, especially those in authority, we begin to think that perhaps it’s not so bad after all. People were once shocked by things like divorce, cohabitation, abortion, homosexual acts and suicide. But once cultural leaders indulged in these sins, sometimes even bragging of them, many were led to minimize, accept and even celebrate such sinfulness. This is the ultimate effect of scandal: bad example leads us to justify and even celebrate sin.
Jesus has no time for those who give scandal. He simply announces woe to them:
But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea (Matthew 18:6).
Yes, it is better to die than to lead the faithful into error and sin. Anyone who would consider “saving” his life in this way had better reconsider, lest he inherit the deepest fires of Hell. Eleazar rightly concludes that it is better to obey God than man, that the fear of the Lord must be greater than the fear of any man no matter how powerful, and that no punishment is worse than eternal damnation. Our relationship with mere mortals can only affect our temporary standing in this world, but our relationship with God affects our eternal destiny. It is never a good thing to compromise our faith or to give scandal — never.
Eleazar further reasons that his life is not simply about what is best for him alone in the here and now. He does not live merely for himself but for the sake of others. We must sometimes suffer so that others may live, thrive and be edified. If we refuse this suffering, we harm not only our eternal destiny but that of others. We are our brother’s keeper, and we have an obligation to live in such a way that others can be saved rather than hindered from salvation and ignorant of the truth that sets them free. Jesus, who is Truth, would not come down from the cross to save himself. He stayed on the cross to save us. Eleazar preferred death to misleading others. How about you?
In the Church today there is a form of giving scandal that has become far too common: silence in the face of sin and error. Too many clergy and parents, as well, are silent in the midst of today’s moral meltdown. Fearing for their well-being, desiring future promotions, or just wanting to avoid the unpleasantry of conflict, many refuse to teach against — or even talk about — moral error and sin.
We will all have to answer for our silence to the degree that we had an obligation to speak. Qui tacet consentire videtur (He who remains silent is seen to consent). “He who winks at a fault causes trouble” (Proverbs 10:10). In a 1933 letter to Pope Pius XI, Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross wrote, “Those who remain silent are responsible.”
As Catholics, we cannot avoid responsibility for the current moral morass. Too many of us have been silent, some even collaborating with evil and error. The primarily responsibility lies with the clergy, but none of us is entirely exempt from the duty to repudiate error and speak the truth.
Avoiding scandal is so serious that it often requires us to defend our own character. While attacks on our dignity can usually be ignored, attacks on our character must often be repudiated. For example, if someone says, “Msgr. Pope is an opinionated idiot and a loudmouth,” I have little need to repudiate this. (In fact, it may be more than half true!) However, if someone starts seriously defaming my character by lying and saying, “Msgr. Pope indulges in pornography, hates the poor and rejects the Nicene Creed,” I would have not only the right but the duty to correct the record and defend my character, both for my own sake and that of others. Because I am a pastor and a leader in various settings, allowing damaging lies about my character to stand would be misleading to many others. Similarly, parents must repudiate false accusations for the sake of their children.
All of this reflection leads us to a difficult
Of particular concern are atheist journalist Eugenio Scalfari’s claims that the Holy Father believes in annihilationism (that the damned are simply annihilated by God and that Hell is empty), thinks that Christ on Earth was not divine, and denies the bodily resurrection of the Lord. These claims have been addressed by the Vatican only in vague terms. We are told that Scalfari doesn’t always get everything right, that he doesn’t always faithfully record or represent what the Holy Father says, and that he sometimes misunderstands.
This is too weak. If someone were ever to make such grave allegations about my faith, I would run to the nearest microphone and clearly announce my unambiguous belief in our holy and apostolic faith. I would use every platform I could to reject such claims lest anyone be confused, disheartened or led astray. Yet Scalfari continues to make these assertions with impunity, facing only the mildest and vaguest of rebukes.
The silence has been deafening. The enemies of the faith are encouraged while the faithful are disheartened.
Further, we were treated to shocking spectacles of apparent idol worship in the Vatican gardens, and the honoring of Pachamama idols in St. Peter’s as well as a local church near the Vatican. After weeks of silence and the proposals of various explanatory theories and assertions, the Pope expressed regret that someone (a brave soul, in my opinion) removed several of the idols, throwing them into the Tiber. Pope Francis said there was “no idolatrous intention” in bowing before these figures or in honoring them by placing them in Catholic churches — but in the same statement he referred to them as “Pachamama,” the name of a pagan goddess! Again, we are lost and confused by this.
Holy Father, I am your spiritual son; we are all your children. Far from charging you with idolatry or harboring heresy — which I have no standing or competence to do anyway — I want to help defend you against the things Scalfari and others have said about you. But your silence about these charges disheartens me and so many of the faithful with whom I interact every day. Meanwhile, those who hold such errors are confirmed in them and emboldened to mislead others. Many of us who have strived to remain faithful in the midst of this cultural and moral meltdown are confused. We are left to wonder how we can defend against such things when you yourself help amplify the confusion by your ambiguity and silence.
Eleazar was willing to die rather than to scandalize or mislead anyone. I ask you to show us the same solicitude. I do not ask of you anything that I do not demand of myself or of any other member of the clergy — namely, that we should teach the truths of faith with utmost clarity and not jeopardize any soul by our silence, ambiguity or bad example.
Please, Holy Father, I beg of you to set the record straight by rebuking the errors attributed to you and by asserting the true and Catholic faith. We need you to confirm all of us, your brethren and your flock, in the truth. Do not allow lies or errors to proliferate. Drive idolatry from the Church and lead us in repentance and in reparation for it. Do not let the wolf devour us — drive him away by the Word of truth.
I know that at times you feel that we are critical, harsh and stubborn, but we feel lost and are in anguish. I promise you that I love you as a spiritual father. I pray for you every day, and I pray especially for you to be the rock of truth that God has called you to be. Tu es Petrus!
We need this from you now more than ever. May God bless you with this insight, and may Our Lady intercede for you and on behalf of the whole Church.