Kaveny v. Donatists

Professor M. Cathleen Kaveny’s article at Commonweal, “Catholic Kosher,” reflects on the way Catholic attitudes towards artificial contraception may be changing from a traditional moral norm which, we believe, is part of the natural moral law and therefore binding on all, into a kind of cultic talisman, akin to kashrut, which binds only Jews. After all, Jewish deli owners can sell ham, they just can’t eat it. As always, Kaveny’s writing reflects not only her intellectual seriousness, but her deeply learned ability to distinguish what is today held forth by some as “traditional” from the actual tradition. As she notes, Thomas Aquinas would certainly not compare the HHS mandate on contraception to Jewish dietary laws.

But, what really jumped out at me was Kaveny’s observation about the way some of those who have made contraception a central issue in their identity speak of others who have more difficulty accepting the teaching. These latter struggling souls are considered “inauthentic” Catholics and you have only to watch EWTN for a couple of days, or scan the conservative Catholic blogosphere, to find such a charge leveled.

There are, I believe, more central markers of Catholic identity. In the Gospel of John, 13: 34,35, Jesus tells his disciples that they must love one another, even as He has loved them. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” And, in the early Church, we know that Christians were often identified for persecution because of their practice of gathering for the Eucharist on Sunday. During the French Revolution, one of the decrees intended to stamp out the Church was to introduce a different calendar that obliterated Sunday – every ten days, there was a civic day off, and persecuting those who kept the Christian Sabbath. These two markers, charity and the Eucharist, seem to me to be the most central to our Christian identity, not least because we believe them to be so intimately linked.

We must be clear on this point: Christian charity and the Eucharist flow from the same event, the Paschal Mystery. One need not be Christian to be kind or generous. One can love one’s fellow man without reference to his or her faith. But, the love of which Jesus spoke was a love that took as its model and measure the love He showed for His disciples. The measure, then, is not just an absolute love, but a perfect love which is to say, we have been set up. We humans will always fall short of that love Christ exhibited. There is something ineffable about all love, but the love of a God who came down from heaven to save humanity from itself by offering Himself on the Cross, that is of a different order. The Eucharist, which makes the sacrifice of Christ real and present in our midst, is the highest experience of Christian charity precisely because it comes from Christ who alone can make our human love rise above the pedestrian and the pagan. Indeed, we can say that it is only when we keep our gaze firmly on Christ that our Christian love is kept free from the stain of the deadliest of the deadly sins, pride, which melts charity with its sinful warmth as a snowflake melts in the palm of one’s hand.

Kaveny’s article put me in mind of the Donatist controversy in the early fourth century. The Donatists were morally rigorous and they argued that the ordination of Caecilian as bishop of Carthage in 311 was invalid because one of the co-consecrators had been a “traditor,” someone who had handed over the holy books during the recent persecution of Diocletian. It was St. Augustine who pointed out that the validity of the sacraments were not contingent upon the worthiness of the ministers. We are all unworthy. The sacraments enjoy their own validity – ex opere operato – because they are not the work of human hands and hearts, but the action of Divine Grace.

The Donatist controversy illustrated not only the way the rigorists can fall into heresy, although it did show that. It illustrated something about the nature of the Church, this strange admixture of the Divine and the mundane. The Church resists the “faithful remnant” mentality and view it with theological suspicion. There is always a temptation in the religious life to exult oneself but the stern warning in the Gospels is clear – the man who prayed at synagogue “I thank thee Lord that I am not like other man” is not the model for Catholic theology and discipleship. We turn for an example instead to the man who knelt at the back, bowed his head, and prayed, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

It is strange the way those who believe the future of the Church requires accommodation to the world, and those who believe the future of the Church is better served by a rigorist separation from the world, both agree in one thing: It is all about me! The accommodationist says I wish to live this way and demand a benediction be put upon my deeds and actions, even if they find no theological warrant in our tradition. The rigorist says that only his understanding of the faith warrants the designation of authenticity and condemns others as inauthentic. Both fall into the sin of pride and both forget the last scene in the Gospels, when Jesus upbraids Peter who had jealously inquired about the ultimate destiny of John, the apostle whom Jesus loved. “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me.” Pride has received no sterner warning than these, the last words of the Master in the Christian canon.

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