On The Trad Blogosphere and the Prodigal Son
Lent is now upon us. Once again the season approaches when we fast, pray, and hopefully increase our works of mercy in order to prepare to recapitulate the Passion, death, and resurrection of Our Lord.
In the Byzantine Christian tradition, the second to last Sunday before the beginning of Lent is the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. And this year that parable hit home for me more than ever before, and I had cause to reflect on the state of the trad blogosphere.
When I speak of the trad blogosphere, I refer mainly to traditionalist Roman Catholics, though certainly similar factions exist in every communion, including my own. And I think particularly of a recent event that occurred involving Pope Francis.
Now, everyone knows that there is no love lost between myself and Pope Francis; I have criticized him at length before, and I have no doubt that I will do so again in the future. However, in this case, I think criticism of him is entirely misplaced, and the purpose of this post is to explain why.
First, the facts of the case, as near as I can tell:
- There was a couple, on their way to get married. They were to get married in a church not near where they lived, presumably because their families lived there or something. I think it was in the Philippines. Not really important.
- This couple, who up to this point were not married, were living together. Presumably, they were also having sexual intercourse with some degree of regularity.
- The church they were going to get married on unexpectedly became unusable. I believe it was destroyed in a flood or something. Again, the details aren’t terribly important.
- The Pope was on the same plane as this couple and became aware of their situation.
- The Pope married this couple, on the plane, in lieu of the church wedding they had planned, which was no longer practicable.
Now, trad Twitter and the trad blogosphere more generally were, shall we say, incensed (pardon the pun) by the Pope’s action. As near as I can tell, there were a number of objections to the way this was done, but the most salient and the only one I’m going to address is the claim that since this couple was “living in sin,” they should have been required to prove their repentance really hard before they could get married. In trad Twitter’s eyes, a couple that has been living together without being married, and now seeks to regularize their situation, should not be allowed to do so until they’ve undergone some serious punishment. The main one I heard is that they must separate for several months. This is, no doubt, a hard thing to do when they’ve already built a life together, don’t have separate homes to go to, etc.
I want to highlight a few things about this:
- Pastorally, this is foolishness. What you are dealing with here is people on the edge of the Church. They have been living, granted, the wrong way. But now they wish to live the right way. Presumably, the Holy Father spoke to this couple and did his best to determine where they are in their spiritual journey. You did not. Who can know how deep their repentance is? Certainly not I. But I do know this. If their repentance was fragile, such that a harsh penalty would have pushed them away from the Church, then it is better to receive them gently, and guide them along the path to a fuller and more robust virtue gradually. While pastors should never tell people their sins aren’t sins, they should certainly soften the punishment for sinners who have turned away from their sin and might turn back if treated harshly.
- On a deeper level, trad anger over this issue recalls the attitude of the prodigal son’s older brother. Recall that the prodigal son first demanded of his father the portion of the inheritance that fell to him, then received it, and then proceeded to waste it in “riotous living” “in a far country.” After hitting rock bottom, as it were, the prodigal son comes to himself and realizes that even his father’s hired servants live better than he is now living, having spent all his money and living in destitution. He resolves to go back to his father, confess his sin, and ask to be received back as a hired servant, as he is no longer worthy to be called a son. It is clear that the prodigal son is humbled and repentant. It is equally clear that his motive, on some level, is selfish. Nonetheless, he certainly does not have a mentality of entitlement – he does not believe that he deserves for his father to receive him back to the status of son which he had before.
But – and this is the key point – that is exactly how the father receives him. And moreover, the father does not wait to hear the son’s full confession. No, our Lord says “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” All this happens before the son launches into his little prepared speech, which the father does not even let him finish. To the father, only a very minimal repentance is as yet apparent – the repentance of a son who has wasted his father’s living, run out of money, and now wants to come back. But, to the All-Merciful God, this suffices to provoke Him to run the rest of the way and embrace his wayward son, and there is “joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.”
The older son, however, does not share in this joy. At first he does not know what is going on; he is out in the fields, working for his father, and he hears the sound of music and dancing. When he asks about this, he is told that his brother has returned, but he refuses to go inside. So the Father comes to him, as our Father always does, and asks him why he will not come in. And the older son’s answer is that he has served the Father all these years, obeying him, working in his fields, and so on, and no party was thrown for him, but now that the prodigal who wasted his inheritance returns, there is a great feast. In other words, he resents what he perceives as the reward given to his brother’s bad behavior and the overlooking of his right behavior.
At various times we can all identify with both the prodigal son and the older son. I personally have long identified with the older son, but it is important to realize that no commendation is given him in this parable. In fact, his sin is greater than the prodigal’s. He is so focused on justice (as he perceives it) that he misses the point, the point the Father patiently explains to him: “It was meet that we should make merry, for this thy brother was dead, and now is alive; and was lost, and now is found.”
This situation parallels the case with the Pope and the couple he married. I think – and this is unstated, so it’s speculation on my part, but I definitely think – that trad anger has an undertone of this sentiment: “Well, I abstained from fornication and my wife and I were virgins when we were married, and I did things the right way and everything, and it was hard! I was tempted to sin! But I didn’t, damn it! I did it by the book, and those people didn’t, so they need to be punished!” Basically, the focus is on the perception that those who didn’t do things “right,” the way you did them, are getting “rewarded.”
But this isn’t at all the right attitude. In another of the Lord’s parables, we read of a master who hires servants to work in his vineyard, and some of them work a full day, others come in halfway through the day, and still others come in when the day is almost over, yet all receive the same pay. Those who worked the full day are upset by this, but the master tells them that they have nothing to be upset about; they agreed to work for a particular wage, he paid them that wage, and whatever generosity he showed the others is his business.
What both parables illustrate is that we do not have the right to resent the mercy shown to others. While the “trads” -and I include myself here- rightly defend the traditional standards and moral teachings of Christendom from attack, we must not forget that mercy and forgiveness are ultimately the Church’s mission, and that “fairness” is not on the agenda. And let us all remember the occasions we have to be grateful for the “unfairness” of the Church and of God. As St Isaac the Syrian said, “Do not say that God is just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you.”