The doctrine of Our Lord Jesus Christ is full of seemingly antagonistic truths which nevertheless when examined closely, far from mutually denying one another, actually complement one another, forming a truly marvellous harmony. This is the case, for example, with the seeming contradiction between divine Justice and Goodness. God is at the same time infinitely just and infinitely merciful. Whenever we close our eyes to one of these perfections in order to understand the other we fall into grave error. In His earthly life, our Lord Jesus Christ gave admirable proofs of His gentleness and His severity.
Let us not try to “correct” our Lord’s personality according to the smallness of our views, to close our eyes to the Saviour’s kindness in order to better understand His justice; nor on the other hand, to turn away from His justice in order to better understand His infinite compassion for sinners. Our Lord showed Himself perfect and adorable both when He welcomed Mary Magdalene with ineffably sweet forgiveness and when He punished the Pharisees violent language. Let us not tear up any of these pages from the Holy Gospel. Let us understand and adore our Lord’s perfections as they reveal themselves in both episodes. And finally, let us understand that our imitation of our Lord Jesus Christ will only be perfect the day we know not only how to forgive, comfort and caress but also to scourge, denounce and fulminate as our Lord.
There are many Catholics who consider as unworthy of imitation the episodes of the Gospel showing the Messiah’s holy wrath against the ignominy and treachery of the Pharisees. At least that is what emerges from the way they consider the apostolate. They always talk about sweetness and always seek to imitate this virtue of our Lord. May God bless them for that; but why don’t they seek to imitate the other virtues of our Lord?
Very often, when one proposes some energetic action in matters of the apostolate the invariable answer is that we must proceed with the utmost gentleness “in order not to further alienate those who have fallen astray.” Could one sustain that strong action invariably causes the misguided to “drive even further away”? Could it be argued that when our Lord called to task the Pharisees with burning invectives He did so with the intention of “driving those misguided ones even further away”? Or should one perhaps suppose that our Lord did not know or care about the “catastrophic” effect that His words would cause on the Pharisees? Who would dare admit such blasphemy against our Lord, the Incarnate Wisdom?
God forbid we should call for strong action and verbal violence as the only remedies for souls. God forbid, however, that we should banish such heroic remedies from our methods of apostolate. There are circumstances in which one should be suave and other circumstances in which one should employ “holy violence.” It is always a grave evil to be gentle when circumstances require severity, or severe when circumstances require suavity.
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All this unilateral order of ideas we are denouncing stems from a one-sided consideration of the Parables. There are many people who take the parable of the lost sheep as the only one in the Gospel. Now this is a very serious mistake that we do not want to shrink from denouncing.
The gentle Saint Francis de Sales states: “The declared enemies of God and the Church should be vilified as much as possible (provided the truth is respected) and it is a work of charity to cry: Behold the wolf! when it is amidst the flock, or anywhere else it is found.”
Photo Credit: Sander van der Wel, CC BY-SA 2.0
Our Lord not only speaks of the lost sheep, unfortunately bloodied by thorns, which the shepherd patiently seeks out at the bottom of the abyss. Our Lord also tells us about rapacious wolves that constantly surround the fold watching for an opportunity to slip in disguised in sheep’s clothing. Now if a shepherd who knows how to tenderly carry a lost sheep on his shoulders is admirable, what could be said of a shepherd who were to abandon his faithful flock and walk a long distance to fetch a wolf disguised in sheep’s clothing, lovingly take it on his shoulders, open the doors of the fold to it and place the ravenous wolf among the sheep?
However, if they were to apply effectively the unilateral principles of apostolate that they profess, how many Catholics would act exactly this way!
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In order to understand better that the perfect imitation of our Lord is not found only in meekness and suavity but also in severity, we will cite a few episodes and sentences of some saints. A saint is one whom the Church has declared with infallible authority to have been a perfect imitator of our Lord. How did the Saints imitate our Lord? Let us see.
Saint Ignatius of Antioch, a martyr of the second century wrote several letters to various churches1 before being martyred. These letters contain phrases about heretics such as:
“ferocious beasts (Eph. 7); rapacious wolves (Phil. 2.2.); mad dogs that attack treacherously (Eph. 7); beasts with men’s face (Smyrn. 4.1.); Devil’s herbs (Eph 10.1.); parasite plants that the Father hath not planted (Tral. 11); crops destined for the eternal fire (Eph. 16.2).”
As we see, this way of dealing with heretics closely followed the examples of Saint John the Baptist who called the scribes and Pharisees a “brood of vipers,” and of our Lord Jesus Christ Who named them “hypocrites” and liked them to “whited sepulchres.”
The Apostles proceeded in the same manner. Saint Irenaeus, a martyr of the second century and disciple of Saint Polycarp, who in turn had been a disciple of Saint John the Evangelist, recounts that when the apostle went to the baths he withdrew without washing because there he saw Corinth, a heretic who denied the divinity of Jesus Christ, for fear, he said, that the building would came down because in it was Corinth, an enemy of truth. The same Saint Polycarp, meeting one day with Marcion, a Docetist heretic who asked if he knew him, replied: “No doubt, you are the first-born of Satan.”
Moreover, in doing so they followed Saint Paul’s advice:
“A man that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, avoid” (Titus 3:10).
If the same Saint Polycarp happened to meet with a heretic he would cover his ears and exclaim: “God of goodness, why hast Thou kept me on earth to endure such things?” And he would immediately flee to avoid such company.
In the fourth century Saint Athanasius recounts that Saint Anthony the hermit called the speeches of heretics a poison worse than that of snakes.
And this is the way the Holy Fathers treated heretics in general, as can be seen from an article published in Civiltà Cattolica, a journal founded by His Holiness Pius IX and entrusted to the Jesuit Fathers in Rome. In this article they cite several examples that I transcribe:
“Saint Thomas Aquinas, sometimes presented as invariably peaceful towards his enemies, in one of his polemics with William of Holy Love, who still had not been condemned by the Church, thus treated him and his henchmen: “Enemies of God, ministers of the devil, members of the Antichrist, enemies of the salvation of mankind, slanderers, sewers of blasphemy, reprobates, wicked, ignorant, equal to Pharaoh, worse than Jovinian and Vigilantius (heretics who denied the virginity of our Lady).” Saint Bonaventure called Gerald, one of his contemporaries, “impudent, libellous, crazy, poisoner, ignorant, deceitful, wicked, foolish, perfidious.”
The mellifluous Saint Bernard, talking about Arnold of Brescia who led a schism against the clergy and church property, called him:
“disordered, vagabond, impostor, vessel of ignominy, scorpion vomited out of Brescia, viewed with horror in Rome, with abomination in Germany, scorned by the Roman Pontiff, praised by the devil, worker of iniquity, devourer of the people, mouth full of cursing, sower of discord, maker of schisms, ferocious wolf.”
In more ancient times, Saint Gregory the Great, rebuking John, Bishop of Constantinople, denounced to his face his profane and abominable pride, the pride of Lucifer, his foolish words, vanity and lack of intelligence.
Nor did Saints Fulgentius, Prosper, Jerome, Siricius Pope, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, Hilary, Athanasius, Alexander Bishop of Alexandria, the holy martyrs Cornelius and Cyprian, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Polycarp, Ignatius martyr, Clement, and finally all the Fathers of the Church who distinguished themselves by their heroic virtue speak otherwise.
If one wishes to know what rules the Doctors and Theologians of the Church provided to be followed in controversies with heretics, read Saint Francis de Sales, the gentle Saint Francis de Sales in Philotea, chapter 20 of Part 2: “The declared enemies of God and the Church should be vilified as much as possible (provided the truth is respected) and it is a work of charity to cry: Behold the wolf! when it is amidst the flock, or anywhere else it is found.”2
How many protests we would have to listen to if Legionário were to publish against contemporary enemies of the Church half of what has been said above!
– By Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
The preceding article was originally published in O Legionário, on 28 September 1941. It has been translated and adapted for publication without the author’s revision. –Ed.
- The Letters, or Epistles of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Father of the Church. Among these letters are those to the Ephesians, Philadelphians, Smyrnæans, and Trallians, mentioned here. (Back to article)
- Hitherto quotes are from the article in Civiltà Cattolica, vol. I, section V, p. 27. (Back to article)