The Sons of Heli and a Lutheran from New Jersey

A Lutheran from New Jersey called me last week. His question for me, which is of no consequence to these lines, led us to a discussion of the problem of evil in the Church of Jesus Christ. You see, this man was not merely a Lutheran, but a Catholic who defected from the true Church to join that prototypical Protestant denomination — the illegitimate mother of them all.

The reason he left the Church? According to him, it was his grandmother: a daily-Mass goer, she was well thought of in the parish, highly respected by the neighbors, etc. But he knew better. According to him, she was a child molester, and he was one of her victims. At this point in the conversation, I did what I generally do when such claims are made. I reserved judgment and acted as if they were true. “That’s no reason to leave the Church Jesus Christ established,” I said. I expressed my revulsion for the particular crime of which he was (truly or untruly) accusing his grandmother. It did not take long before he brought up clerical pederasty. No surprise there. Again, I expressed my principled revulsion for this evil. I also pointed out that Catholic priests by no means have a monopoly on that sin.

It is an aside, but they really don’t. For some perspective, see this article asserting more such abuse among Protestant congregations. Also, see here for reference to the Carol Shakeshaft’s assertion that public school teachers have a problem 100-times worse than Catholic priests. Rabbinical Judaism also has a problem, as does the Southern Baptist Convention, which is currently in the spotlight. While I’m at it, Josh Shapiro is a fraud, as is Kathleen Kane — these being two Pennsylvania political hacks who made a lot of noise for themselves by singling out the Catholic Church. For all that, I want to make it abundantly clear that I am not minimizing the problem in the Church. The fact is that when Catholic priest commits such an act, it is objectively worse than if a Protestant Minister, a Jewish Rabbi, or a Moslem Imam does so. In addition to committing a heinous crime against a child (punishable by death in the Mosaic Law), the pederast priest commits sacrilege against the sacrament of Holy Orders and therefore against Jesus Christ the High Priest. Those other men do not. Only in the light of faith can we see the true horror of these sins.

Returning to my Lutheran phone call. I pointed out to the gentleman that if he left the Catholic Church because of that sin, then presumably his thinking was something like this: The true religion cannot have child molesters in it. But the Catholic Church has child molesters in it. Therefore, the Catholic Church cannot be the true religion. This is not only bad logic, it is also a test of authenticity that not a single religious affiliation would pass.

Moreover, a sola scriptura devotee should find no refuge in the notion that corruption could not possibly exist in the true religion. If that were the case, then the very religion of the Bible is self-refuting. I spoke to this fallen-away Catholic about the story of Heli and his sons Ophni and Phinees. Related contemporaneously with the story of Samuel’s childhood in I Kings (I Samuel), this story is sad and tragic. It involves the High Priest (and Judge or Israel) Heli, an otherwise good man, but one who was very weak in keeping his sons, Ophni and Phinees, in line. Among their crimes were glutting themselves on the animal sacrifices offered to God in the Tabernacle before the sacrifices were complete (thus stealing from God and robbing the people of the benefits of their sacrifices), and fornicating with women who came to the Tabernacle to discharge various religious obligations. They gravely violated commandments on both tablets of the law: against God and man. The cataclysmic results of their crimes include the fall of their house, their own violent deaths, their father’s disgrace and death, the capture of the Ark of the Covenant by the Philistines, and a terrible massacre of the Israelites in battle against those same Philistines.

In raising Samuel properly, Heli helped God to prepare the genuine remedy to the ills he caused through his terrible sons. Things get better for Israel when this great prophet becomes judge and returns the people to the observance of the Law.

I have told this story elsewhere as part of a brief apologetics article. What I did not focus on there were some things that really struck me as I was rereading the story recently. Providentially enough, the day after I spoke to the Lutheran from New Jersey about this Old-Testament history, the First Book of Kings entered into the liturgical cycle of readings for the Office of Matins. Perhaps this not-so-chance coincidence made me read the account more attentively usual.

Anna, the mother of Samuel (they are types of Mary and Jesus respectively) came to the Tabernacle in Silo to bewail her barrenness. She poured our her prayers to God and vowed her son to serve him all his days. The High Priest saw her and gave her words of comfort: “Go in peace: and the God of Israel grant thee thy petition, which thou hast asked of him” (I Kings 1:17). Moreover, after the boy’s birth and weaning, Anna brought the child Samuel to the temple to fulfill the vow, presenting him to that same High Priest with many offerings. Samuel remained near the Tabernacle in Silo to serve there and be brought up by the High Priest when his parents went home. The High Priest “blessed Elcana and his wife: and he said to him: The Lord give thee seed of this woman, for the loan [of Samuel] thou hast lent to the Lord” (I Kings 2:20). God made that blessing fruitful: “And the Lord visited Anna, and she conceived, and bore three sons and two daughters: and the child Samuel became great before the Lord” (I Kings 2:21).

Who was that High Priest through whom such blessings came? It was Heli, the same man whose bad parenting led to the long string of cataclysms I listed above. When he was faithful to his office, good things happened; when not, bad things happened. It is rather like the Apostle Peter being called “Blessed” and “Satan” within the same seven verses of Matthew 16; or like that same Peter, two chapters earlier, alternately walking on water and then, paralyzed by fear, sinking beneath the waters when he wavered.

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The problem of evil in the Church is a variation on the larger “Problem of Evil,” about which theologians and philosophers write so many books.

Saint Thomas answers the objection that God (infinite good) cannot coexist with evil in these words:

As Augustine says (Enchiridion xi): “Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil.” This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.

I commended here on these words,

It may sound like a pious platitude to say that God can work good out of evil when something truly terrible happens. It would certainly not be tactful to quote Saint Augustine on this point while someone is agonizing over a thumb he has just stuck with a hammer, when words of sympathy and helpful first-aid treatments are more appropriate. But the great truth remains unchanged and unchallenged: God not only can, but does work good out of evil. Suffering — of the moral or physical sort — is part of His Providence. Evil can even be a useful instrument in His hands for the good of His Saints.

More profoundly, Gary Potter cites that great Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor, saying this:

Evil, O’Connor writes, enlightened by her Catholic faith and summing up in a few words a truth theologians and philosophers may not convey as successfully in thick volumes, is not “a problem to be solved but a mystery to be endured.”

That conclusion of the self-described “Hillbilly Thomist” is worth pondering. Our approach to evil is often ham-handed. We fail to appreciate the advantages that can accrue to us if we bear with evil virtuously. Instead, we want it instantly removed as if it were a rodent to be dispatched by pest control. We may even want to imitate the strange Mr. Crangle in the Twilight Zone episode, “Four O’Clock,” that Dr. Anthony Esolen wrote of so eloquently.

Perhaps the richest material I ever read on this subject came from the pen of a 12th-Century Cathusian writer, Guigo I, Prior of the Grande Chartreuse. I copied several of his meditations into a piece I wrote on the subject almost seven years ago. I cannot recommend them highly enough as wonderful material for mental prayer.

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When it comes to dealing with evil in the temporal society in which we live, or, especially, in the spiritual society of the Church, the Parable of the Wheat and the Cockle should come to mind. God has allowed these poisonous weeds. We must coexist with them virtuously as we strive to bear fruit. At harvest time, God Himself will take care of putting each where it belongs. And He will get it right.

Meantime, let’s work on bearing fruit! Speaking of which, please pray for a Lutheran in New Jersey who needs to come back to the Catholic Church.