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“Salus animarum supemus lex esto” — the salvation of souls … must be the supreme law in the Church.” Canon Law (1752)

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A Commentary in Passing:

upon excerpts from

Introduction to Christianity

by Pope Benedict XVI

Part II:

Of Benedict and Balaam — of Horses and Asses


As we had seen, Pope Benedict XVI stated in very clear and certain terms that contemporary theology has become a wan and bloodless specter, exsanguinated of the Blood of Christ, until, drop by drop, reinterpretation through endless interpolation, we have been left with something quite counterfeit, "the small coin of empty talk painfully laboring to hide a complete spiritual vacuum."

Not satisfied that the analogy will penetrate, take hold, he ventures yet another and more forceful metaphor to stimulate us to grasp the extent of our misunderstanding, and the pernicious effects of our indifference: it is taken, appositely enough, from the 19th century Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, in his famous Either/Or, a treatise on ethics*. An abbreviated version follows:

"A traveling circus in Denmark had caught fire. The manager thereupon sent the clown, who was already dressed and made-up for the performance, into the neighboring village to fetch help, especially as there was a danger that the fire would spread across the fields of dry stubble and engulf the village itself The clown hurried into the village and requested the inhabitants to come as quickly as possible to the blazing circus and help to put the fire out.

But the villagers took the clown's shouts simply for an excellent piece of advertising, meant to attract as many people as possible to the performance; they applauded the clown and laughed till they cried. The clown felt more like weeping than laughing; he tried in vain to get the people to be serious, to make it clear to them that it was no trick but bitter earnest, that there really was a fire. His supplications only increased the laughter; people thought that he was playing his part splendidly — until finally the fire did engulf the village; it was too late for help and both circus and village were burned to the ground.

In is medieval, or at any rate old-fashioned, clown's costume, he is simply not taken seriously Whatever he says, he is ticketed and classified, so to speak, by his role. Whatever he does in his attempts to demonstrate the seriousness of the position, people always know in advance that he is in fact just — a clown.

They are already familiar with what he is talking about and know that he is just giving a performance which has little or nothing to do with reality. So they can listen to him quite happily without having to worry too seriously about what he is saying. This picture indubitably contains an element of truth in it; it reflects the oppressive reality in which theology and theological discussion are imprisoned today and their frustrating inability to break through accepted patterns of thought and speech and make people recognize the subject-matter of theology as a serious aspect of human life ... the clown then needs only to take off his costume and make-up, and everything [presumably] will be all right.

But is it really quite such a simple matter as that? Need we only call on the aggiornamento, take off our make-up and don the mufti of a secular vocabulary or a demythologized Christianity in order to make everything all right? Is a change of intellectual costume sufficient to make the people run cheerfully up and help to put out the fire which according to theology exists and is a danger to all of us? I may say that in fact the plain and unadorned theology in modern dress appearing in many places today makes this hope look rather naive."

Introduction to Christianity, Chapter I

The metaphors are manifold, each a kind of transparent overlay that ultimately provides depth, perspective and definition which finally culminates, in shallow ecclesiastical relief, the condition in which we find ourselves today as Catholics.

We had arrived at St. Peter's on a horse, and like Balaam (Numbers 22.22-33) it took us where we did not wish to go, and so we beat it until it fell to the ground and we would have killed it, had God not interceded — and even as it bled from Balaam's fury, it reproached Balaam for his abuse, whereupon Balaam saw God's Angel that barred the way Balaam would have taken — which was not the way that God had chosen.

We, too, had our stupid asses; we tired of them and their constancy, and when they took us where we did not wish to go, where our fathers had long gone, we beat them until they laid bloody in St. Peter's Square — and even as the flies gathered, they spoke the truth and pointed the way. But by then we had been making change in the Temple, and in a sorry trade took "the small coin" because it was mere change, bought a cheap second-hand car, left the horse in the square, and sped off to the State of Mind where, the theologians told us, there was no more sin, and ultimately no sanctity ... and for a fee they sold us the map leading to the Land of Nod that they told us was Eden.

Is sanctity, the Holy Father asks, really that easy? Is sin so elusive? Have we traded wisely ... made a fair trade?

And, still, what of that carcass of the beaten horse that is a blight, but still breathing, by the fountain at St. Peter's?


Geoffrey K. Mondello
for the Boston Catholic Journal


   Printable PDF Version


Part III: Beating a Dead Horse and the Dialectic that Didn't

Go Back to Part I: The Corrupt Theology of Vatican II and the Odor of Less than Sanctity


*Kierkegarrd's trenchant, Attack Upon Christendom, should be required reading for every seminarian, indeed, for every minimally sentient Christian.

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