Monday, March 17, 2014

Of judgment, sheep and Fred Phelps' passing—UPDATED

Fred Phelps, Sr. preaching at Westboro Baptist.
Yesterday, I happened to remember a chorus from Part II of Händel’s Messiah, “All we like sheep”, which is taken from Isaiah 53:6 KJV: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” And it occurred to me that people who use the image of sheep to illustrate people who blindly follow leaders know less of sheep than I do ... and I don’t know much at all, at all. (Sorry; on St. Patrick’s Day I tend to slip into a stage-Irish accent.)

Contrary to the image, sheep have minds of their own. They wander all over as they graze. The shepherd’s task is to keep the flock together, and to protect them from predators. The task is made easier by dogs who have been bred to chase livestock back into herds (they make really good pets for children, too). Nevertheless, the shepherd’s life is hardly that of Riley — er, one of ease and contentment; when they’re not on the move trying to get the sheep from one pasture to another, they’re on watch for wolves.

So it is with Catholic and Orthodox bishops: The true picture of Church history is neither the triumphalist Whig history of millions of devoted faithful marching shoulder-to-shoulder in the wake of inspired leaders nor the hideous dystopian myth of cruel tyrants tormenting anyone who showed signs of intellectual independence. Rather, it’s the story of mostly ordinary men — some saints, some knaves, some fools, all limited by the very fact of their humanity — trying not only to spread the Gospel message but also to protect to the best of their knowledge and ability its integrity against threats both real and imagined.


Not only from outside predators but also from the sheep’s own tendency to wander. (2 Timothy 4:3-4: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.”)

St. Vincent of Lérins wrote in the fifth century, “But here someone perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason,—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. ... Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of [Church] interpretation” (Commonitory 5).

I bring this up in connection with Fred Phelps, Sr. because I’ve called him and his congregation at Westboro Baptist “prima faciae evidence that sola scriptura is dangerously bad doctrine”. Indeed, it’s almost an “Irish bull” to say that Phelps et al. preach the Bible but not the gospel.

As I’ve discussed here and here, the idea that God hates anyone, let alone homosexuals, is completely contrary to Jesus’ message of God's love for His creation. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared in ringing terms in their letter “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”, “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church's pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law” (op. cit., 10). While the Church maintains that homosexuality is a dysfunction, a disordering of the physiology by which Man participates in God's ongoing act of creation, she also insists that gay people “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2358).

I can’t say that all bishops at all times have held this position. I can say that “hate the sin, love the sinner” is an historically authentic Christian position. Wrote St. John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407), for example:

And you, when you stand anxiously concerned for your own sins, how can you but shudder at making mention of others’ faults? How can you implore pardon of God? For your own case is made worse on the terms of your imprecations against another, and you forbid Him to make allowance for your own faults. Might He not say, “If you would have Me so severe in exacting offenses against you, how can you expect Me to pardon your offenses against Me?” Let us learn at last to be Christians (Homilies on 1 Timothy, 6)!

And this is firmly rooted in Christ's words, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).

This section updated March 20, 2014 @ 2:00 pm CDT:
The CBS report which broke the news that Phelps, 84, was on his deathbed noted that the claim came from his son, Nathan Phelps, who's been estranged from his father for thirty years; a spokesperson for Westboro Baptist merely confirmed that Phelps was not in good health. “He’s an old man, and old people get health problems.” Nevertheless, the question of whether Nathan was exaggerating was made moot by his passing at midnight Wednesday night.

The appropriate response here is not to condemn Phelps to Hell, but rather to pray for Christ's mercy on his soul. For while it’s impossible to calculate the damage that he and his Westboro Baptist followers have done for the sake of their twisted, heterodox Christianity, we must also be mindful of the damage done over the centuries by impeccably orthodox believers trying to do the right thing by Christ and their fellow man. Bringing it down to a more personal level, we come back to St. John Chrysostom and Jesus’ teaching about the logs in our own eyes (Matthew 7:1-5), and we must ask ourselves what sins we commit to which we’re blind but by which we hurt others.

Perhaps the final proof that we Christians are not mindless zombies following malevolent masterminds like so many children of Hamelin lies in the fact that so many of us refuse to “walk the talk”, that we find so many excuses for our own deviances from Christian moral doctrine while demanding that others live up to it. We are sheep, not because we’re part of a flock but because we wander away from it so much.

And if we’re as stupid as sheep, it’s because sin makes you stupid.