Paragraph 1708 describes the work of Christ: He delivered us from Satan and from sin. He merited for us the new life in the Spirit. His grace restores what is damaged by sin. The term for all of this is “salvation.” I can recall when I moved to the deep south in the 1970’s the intense evangelicalism of my neighboring churches, and from time to time I was asked personally if I was “saved” or “born again.” The wrong answer, I quickly learned, was that I had been baptized and saved in the Roman Catholic Church as an infant. Nothing made a 1970’s evangelical blanche more painfully than this string of Catholic “heresies.” My heresies? First, the Catholic Church of Rome was “the professional lady from Babylon and thus the anti-Christ.” Second, Catholics don’t baptize correctly in that we rarely use full immersion. [Catholic law permits full immersion, but I digress.] Finally, infants are too young to profess Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.
I miss the Evangelicals of years ago. Having sold their souls in 2016 on the empty promise of a Pro-Life agenda from the current administration, they are torn by anger, division, and I believe shame, in the position they now find themselves. I pray for them now more than I used to. I surmise that in the last generation or so, Evangelicals have opted to “save society from itself” by closer entrenchment in real world politics, particularly in matters of family life and sexual mores. The general principle of bringing the good news to the market place is laudable, necessary in fact, though I think the communicative art of persuasion and example is preferable to state-imposed morality, as a rule, which smacks more of Gelasian “two-sword” governance.
The language of para. 1708 is time conditioned; Christ is depicted as delivering us from Satan, the personification of evil. In the early passages of Mark’s Gospel, the Sunday texts for 2018 [Year B], Christ demonstrates his mission of ushering in the kingdom of God by the expulsion of demons and multiple healings—both actions understood at the time [and today] as works against evil. Some caution is necessary here; it is easy to slip into an easy image of Christ engaging with another powerful force for the destiny of man, but as we discussed last week, later Jewish thought came to understand that evil is internal, within the psyche of man.
I am uncomfortable with terms like the Evil One, Lucifer, or personified devils, because such talk suggests of duel kingdoms, God’s and the evil beings, the latter attributed with powers to overcome the morals of good souls and steal them from God. This strikes me as a diminishment of God’s infinite power. The language of devils, not unique to Christianity, does serve a useful purpose in avoiding language that implies God create evil (as in Genesis 3, where the serpent in the garden is said to be “the most cunning of all the creatures God had made.”) The idea of devils and evil ones was suitable for the culture of Palestine and the early Church, but for the most part our language today does not address evil in those terms. What was once described as demonic possessions might find better explanation in mental illness or mass hysteria—the Salem, Massachusetts, witch trials of 1692 are an excellent example of histrionic attribution of evil to the devil at the cost of 20 lives.
The ugliness of evil and sin can be so invasive that we feel compelled to look outside of the human experience. Coming up in the Thursday Reformation page of the blog in a few weeks is a discussion of the impact of the Black Plague (1347+ A.D.), a catastrophe described quite graphically in The Great Mortality (2005), which killed 50% of the European population alone. (See my review.) The United States Atomic Energy Commission uses the plague as a model for post-nuclear war consequences. (TBP, p. 11) One would imagine that this ravenous terror—thought to be the end of the world from England to Italy—was borne by the full army of Lucifer and his minions. In fact, the cause of the disease was simple mutation of the virus Y-Pestis, a direct descendant of a virus that afflicted the Roman Empire a millennium earlier. Y-Pestis mutated on the backs of field rats in China, journeyed to Europe alongside Turkish traders on new medieval trade routes, and infected every European port with amazing alacrity.
That the world is filled with injustice, crime, natural catastrophe, and perhaps most of all, chronic failures of humans to connect in constructive ways is beyond dispute. Para. 1708 states Jesus’ salvific agenda, of delivering us and remaking us. We Catholics use the words “Jesus” and “saves” probably daily. But as one Catholic journal put it this week, how do you preach salvation to a population that believes it has no guilt to be rescued from, which is pretty much what I see and hear from my own little cabbage patch?
A major part of the answer is the absence of a sense of Jesus as a Cosmic Savior. As St. Paul writes eloquently, the impact of the cross extends throughout the cosmos, including entire human systems of enterprise. Catholic catechetics continues to focus on a highly personal and highly specific focus of morality, just about all of it sexual. I don’t deny that there are critical issues of personal morality, but more oriented to the concept of Christ’s kingship is a saved people, as in plural. The Church has a feast to emphasize universal salvation, Christ the King.
My argument with neo-Evangelicals is similar to my concern about a highly personalized Catholic morality. Next week many churches will conduct Pro Life awareness, obviously a major need in the present day. But I was moved to look up how children in our country fare once they survive the birthing experience. I came across a Washington Post piece from 2014 reporting on a study of infant mortality, i.e., in the first year. The United States, which leads the world in medical spending, ranks 26th in infant care. In twenty-five nations, newborns have a better chance of reaching their first birthdays, in some cases by a factor of three. The conclusion of the study cites a significant decline in the availability of infant health care after leaving the hospital, proportionate to income.
Jesus never used the words systematic or holistic in his teachings, and understandably so, given his time. But his call to a moral life and the reach of salvation goes out to individuals and communities. If we as individuals are judged for our individual conduct and rewarded our faith, how will God address our corporate conduct?