We can be awfully smug when it comes to Old Testament taboos. Many people assume they were nothing but superstitious, pre-scientific attempts to avoid disease.

All this leads, of course, to a triumphant and confident conclusion that we are 4,000 years smarter than the people who shackled themselves with barbaric nonsense about eating unclean food or avoiding people with rashes.

According to this narrative, the great god Progress has freed us from such ignorant taboos. We know how to cook pork thoroughly, what causes leprosy and how to refrigerate shellfish to avoid ptomaine. Gleaming Science has perfected what Old Testament barbarians were groping toward in their ignorance.

This self-congratulatory notion that we are not motivated by notions of ritual impurity is, however, a tad hasty. For the Gross Factor is as alive and well in our culture as in any other. That’s why we are in no big hurry to brush off some stranger’s dandruff or touch a corpse. Similarly, before we feel too superior about our coziness with pork and shellfish vs. the dietary taboos of ancient Israel, let's ask ourselves how many insect larvae we’ve eaten lately. Been a while since we’ve had a yen for brains or raw blubber?

People in other cultures dine on these foods without harm, but we won’t touch them. Why? Taboo. Distaste is not confined to ancient Israel.

The interesting thing is that Scripture, building on this natural human phenomenon occurring in every culture, is not establishing a Bronze Age Center for Disease Control. The main focus is on connecting what Israel felt about biological grossness to spiritual grossness. Under inspiration, certain things Israelites find distasteful — leprosy, effusions of blood, eating pork and touching corpses, etc. — get connected with the repellent nature of sin.

Now, we could pretend that such connections would never, ever happen in our vastly more advanced culture. We could pretend that nobody would, for instance, ever attach a moral stigma to AIDS or talk as though a lung-cancer victim had it coming for the Puritan sin of smoking.

We could pretend that nobody in our culture ever talks as though obesity or addiction to alcohol is due to moral turpitude. We could put on blinkers and pretend nobody today treats the mentally ill as guilty of some special sin instead of as victims of disease.

But the more profitable thing is to admit that humans have always made connections between physical impurity and moral impurity. Every culture has certain things that evoke distaste. And every culture tends, at some level, to connect physical disgust with moral disgust.

The Jews, like everybody else, did this too — and so the Old Testament connected their revulsion to leprosy and pork with revulsion toward sin.

In short, God chose to use the image of pollution — of some all-soiling, all-pervading contaminant, like an infectious agent or leprosy or sewage-stained water — to portray what sin is and what it does. And when you think about it, it’s an apt image: Sin is not something we can keep to ourselves.

It inevitably gets out, like the Ebola virus, and wreaks havoc with the whole of human society. It defiles, infects, poisons, spreads, rots, ruins and kills.

The problem is that many people learned the wrong lesson from this. Rather than seeing disease as an image of sin, not a few (including the apostles) were tempted to see sickness as proof of punishment for sin. Like Job’s Comforters, many have an all-too-easy certitude that sickness equals divine punishment.

Jesus would have none of such simple-mindedness. When the disciples ask, “Rabbi, who sinned — this man or his parents — that he was born blind?” Jesus retorts, “It was not that this man sinned or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him” (John 9:2-3).

So Jesus, while using sickness and defilement as an image of sin, does not conflate the image with the reality. Just as he does not teach that sickness means the victim is a sinner, so he rejects the notion that ritual defilement under the Old Testament means moral defilement. As Jesus put it:

“Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him.” And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart, but his stomach, and so passes on?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man” (Mark 7:14-23).

His point was that God had taken this natural impulse to say, “Ick” — to regard certain things as “defiling” — and, as with many other natural things, raised it by grace to teach a spiritual lesson. The image of food too gross to eat and things too disgusting to touch was and is an apt image of sin, which sickens the soul as much as pork sickened Jewish stomachs. But Jesus also starkly instructed his followers that it was not food that defiled, but sin; that disease was an image of sin, not evidence of the sinfulness of the victim.

Similarly, Jesus rejects the Pharisaic assumption that saw quarantine as the only possible approach to defilement, whether physical or spiritual. The very name “Pharisee” means “separated one,” and Jesus’ repudiation of all that is no small part of why he was so hated by them.

Note, for instance, Matthew 8-10: Jesus insistently goes out of his way to associate with the ritually impure. He reaches out and touches a leper, committing an act which, under the Old Law, should render him unclean. But instead, Jesus cleanses the leper. That act summarizes the New Covenant in a nutshell.

We see the same message repeated over and over. What renders you unclean under the Old Covenant is instead itself made clean by the Messiah of the New Covenant. Jesus, therefore, consorts with Gentiles, touches bleeding women and corpses and (notably for the author of that particular Gospel) welcomes the company of a tax collector named Levi or Matthew. The thread that binds all these incidents together is the power of the Spirit to make clean what was unclean. The Pharisaic quarantine against defilement is broken.

It is this conviction that animates the Christian Tradition and urges on us the duty to visit the sick. It is also this conviction that links, in the Catholic Tradition, two sacraments in particular as the “sacraments of healing”: reconciliation and anointing of the sick.

This connection is already present, of course, in the words of Our Lord: “They that are sick need the physician,” he says, noting that he has not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance (Mark 2:17).

Once again, the image of sickness of body and sickness of soul are linked, but (once again) sickness is not identified with sinfulness. Similarly, in each of these sacraments, the relationship of sin and sickness is noted, yet the Church also does not make the mistake of conflating them, as though sickness is a surefire proof of God’s wrath. That’s why there is a distinction between the sacraments — reconciliation for the sinner, anointing for the sick — yet the sacrament of anointing, while certainly directed at physical healing, is also primarily intended for spiritual healing.

It should be noted that beyond the sacramental life of the Church, what the Tradition commends as a work of mercy is visiting the sick, not curing the sick.

What is in view is not the development of the science of medicine (though that will be a happy side effect, as the Catholic Tradition invented the hospital system and encourages the growth of the sciences). Rather, what is in view is, once again, the human dignity of the sufferer. Being around illness means being around vomit, pus, ghastly injuries, tears, misery, fear, anger, pain and death.

All this corporal work of mercy asks us for, at its most basic level, is to have the guts to enter a room, sit down and hold somebody’s fevered hand. And even that is often more than we can muster.

There are, of course, good reasons for that, especially if we happen to live in a time of plague, when nobody knows what causes disease. Part of the reason the Black Death broke the back of medieval Europe is because it decimated the very classes of people (doctors, priests and other educated people) who lived the corporal work of mercy by visiting the sick — and then themselves contracting the plague.

It takes real courage — and often a strong stomach — to visit the sick.

It can also require moral courage. The Veronica legend reminds us of the stigma that can sometimes attach to those who reach out to the sufferer. Veronica has the face of the sufferer impressed on her cloth — and her soul — forever. No small part of that is because she has the raw courage to stick out of the crowd. While everybody else either watches Jesus stumble by or, worse still, joins in screaming at him that he would be better off dead — a sentiment as contemporary as our euthanasia culture — Veronica is moved to do this small yet immense act of kindness for the sufferer. She thereby becomes emblematic of the courage to visit those suffering, not just from bodily illness, but from moral disease as well.

Veronica has not the slightest idea who this condemned criminal is. He’s just one of the rabble that Rome sentenced to die. Judging from the screaming crowd, he might be a very bad man indeed. Yet she sees his bloody face, and he gives her that face to remember forever.

In that moment, she becomes the mother of every saint willing to visit the sick and the sinner and shun the defilement that conventionality fears. Here is one such saint, Catherine of Siena, writing of her care for the condemned criminal Nicolo di Toldo, who asked her to be with him at his execution and whose death she describes:

“I have just taken a head into my hands and have been moved so deeply that my heart cannot grasp it. ... I waited for him at the place of execution. ... He arrived like a meek lamb, and when he saw me, he began to smile. He asked me to make the Sign of the Cross over him. ... I stretched out his neck and bent down to him, reminding him of the blood of the Lamb. His lips kept murmuring only ‘Jesus’ and ‘Catherine,’ and he was still murmuring when I received his head into my hands. ... My soul rested in peace and quiet, so aware of the fragrance of blood that I could not remove the blood which had splashed onto me.”

The urging of Our Lord to visit the sick is, at bottom, the insistence that we see the sick — including those suffering from the sickness called sin — as Catherine of Siena did. It is the call to put faces to names, to honor their human dignity. Instead of calling them “the appendectomy in Room 8” or “that loser that everybody hates” or “that burden on society,” we are to call them by their proper names and look them in the eye.

The statistical bent of our culture is against this. In our culture without mercy, much can be excused, but nothing can be forgiven. So sinners are to be thrown away, not redeemed.

As Malcolm Muggeridge observed, to say that God cares more for the one lost sheep than for the 99 who are not lost is an anti-statistical proposition.

In a cash-strapped culture full of aging baby boomers who are only going to cost more as they age and sicken, it will soon be a subversive and anti-American remark. For as we deal with the morally sick mercilessly now, so we shall soon deal with the physically sick and especially the aged. What else can we expect from a culture that kills a million and a half perfectly healthy babies every year for the sin of being “inconvenient”?

The push, which is already well under way, is not to visit the sick, but to hurry them on to the grave, lest they destroy what is left of our economy with their selfish desire to not be murdered by efficient cost-cutting bean counters. Christians who oppose this will soon find themselves the subject of intense legal pressure to play ball and off the expensive and used-up aged, just as they already find themselves the subject of intense pressure to play ball and kill the unborn. When that day dawns, we may again find an appreciation for a Veronican spirituality that looks at the face of the sufferer instead of turning away and babbling happy talk about how he or she will be better off dead — or we may cave to the culture.

It’s our choice. But whatever we choose, we will still, sooner or later, face the verdict of the King who teaches (and warns) that whatever we do to the least of these we do to him.

Mark Shea is a Register columnist and blogger.

Previous parts in the series on the corporal works of mercy:


Feed the Hungry

Give Drink to the Thirsty

Clothe the Naked

Harbor the Harborless