Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent

Lectionary: 231



“The scribes and the Pharisees
have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.
Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,
but do not follow their example.
For they preach but they do not practice.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry
and lay them on people’s shoulders,
but they will not lift a finger to move them.
All their works are performed to be seen.



In her book, Inside the KingdomCarmen bin Laden describes the Muslim religion in Saudi Arabia as a religion unable to criticize itself. Her brother-in-law, Osama bin Laden, was admired, if not emulated, by his family for his extreme devotion to Allah. They would never say anything against him, or make the suggestion that perhaps he was getting carried away with his piety. She also described how her ex-husband and the bin Laden family scrupulously observed the religious rules so long as they were in Saudi Arabia; and flouted them whenever they left the country. They didn't seem to think their gambling, whoring and imbibing vast quantities of alcohol in Paris was hypocritical.

I am not familiar enough with Islam to say whether her description is true. Surely such an ancient religion with a history of great contributions to culture, art, science and learning has some facility in self-critique. But I am reminded of Christianity's struggle with the same issue.  

If Roman Catholic had built into its structures a tradition of self-criticism the Protestant Reformation might have been avoided. Unfortunately, the Reform, when it came, did not have its intended effect. 

We still rely entirely upon our hierarchy to guide the Church from the top down, with few structures to push back when leadership drifts from its principles. The pope can rein in an errant cardinal or bishop, and bishops can discipline priests; but who reins in a troublesome pope? Or even a pope who suffers dementia? 

Conciliarism, the notion that a council of bishops might challenge the papacy, is whispered occasionally in the halls of academia. But it's a very scary idea. After the First Vatican Council accepted Pope Pius IX's decree of papal infallibility, the bishops began to discuss conciliarism. At that moment the Holy Father rose up and intoned the Te Deum, ending the council and the conversation. It would not resume until the Second Vatican Council. But they didn't get very far. After they established so many reforms in the liturgy, religious life and so forth, they decided to let well enough alone. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. 

Now that Pope Benedict XVI has retired, I wonder if the cardinals in top-secret conclave discuss the issue. They might make a strong suggestion to their appointment that he plan his retirement in advance. You know the press will be on him like a pack of hounds, asking about it. Might they discuss "term limits," that American institution that curtails the authority of our Commander in Chief? Will they contemplate a "balance of powers" as we are supposed to maintain between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government? Will they encourage freedom of speech and of the press among Catholic institutions? 

These structures of self-criticism in the Church would find solid foundations in the gospels. Apparently there were many "pharisees" in the early church. That's why we hear Jesus' diatribes against them. The evangelists would not have recounted Jesus' arguments with the Pharisees if hypocrisy had been purged from the communion of saints. 

The Catholic Church does have its canon law, which protects some of the rights of Christians. Individuals have a right to a good reputation; they have a right to be confronted by their accusers and there should be more than one accuser to build a case against someone. A man and woman have the right to marry if there are no legal, physiological or severe psychological problems to hinder them. 

But clearly, it takes centuries for some ideas to develop into solid traditions and legal infrastructures in both civil and church law. It took almost nineteen centuries for most Christian nations to agree that slavery is a crime against humanity. Few nations fully embrace the equal rights of women. Since the Second Vatican Council the right of people to participate in decisions that affect them is gaining headway. 

The sexual abuse scandal has advanced our awareness of systemic sin. Perhaps the day is at hand when Christians can challenge religious authority without fear of recrimination. 

In the meanwhile we practice self-rebuke with our Sacrament of Penance. But, so long as I examine my own conscience without the assistance of others, the fox is guarding the hen houseI can expect little change. I don't often ask friars, friends, family or colleagues "What sins should I confess?" I leave it to my enemies to do that, on the rare occasion that I listen to them. 


On a warm, bright winter day
small blades of grass sprout in a gravel road.
During this season of Lent 2013, we invite the Lord to expose our hypocrisy in whatever ways God sees fit. Historic changes are afoot. May they penetrate my heart also. 

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