The Catholic Thing
What Should We Do? Print E-mail
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Sunday, 16 December 2012

In the liturgy on this third Sunday of Advent, we hear the words of John the Baptist. Two thousand years ago crowds came to him and asked: “what should we do?” He answered: “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.”

Usually, we do not even do that bare minimum. Nevertheless, for us at this point in Western history, another crucial point is that John is not advocating redistributionism where a third party like the government arbitrarily decides how much you are allowed and how much it will take – and then uses what it takes to buy votes.

John was not the messenger of the religious theism found in the modern Whig economic individualism at the heart of ideologies of redistribution. Such an individualism means that, as historian Glenn W. Olsen has put it in The Turn to Transcendence, “with Locke the ‘friend’ of traditional society disappeared. . . . [And] an undefined and abstract egalitarianism, always experienced as a thing of the surface, advanced at the expense of concrete forms of friendship, the deep things that from time immemorial had defined the actual societies of village and neighborhood.”

In stark contrast, John’s message of repentance was intended to lead people to sharing what they had out of friendship. With the coming of Christ this would be expressed in terms of love, not the emotion, but working for the good of the other. John’s preaching, however, was not superseded.

John did not proclaim a God outside of history (theism), but a God who through his Anointed One is present in our history and “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor.” In other words, He will judge history. John understood human history as God’s stage, one where he will judge all that he has made.

Such a history implies a sacramental world – more all-embracing than the technological world where we seem stalled – because, “all creatures speak of God and stand in an asymmetrical relation to him which is a creaturely participation in the asymmetric but mutual relations of the Trinitarian persons.” (Olsen)

The judgment on each individual and history would be in terms of people’s success in operating from this sacramental nature of the reality around us: “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40) The “me” of course is Jesus Christ.

         John the Baptist by Bartolomeo Veneto, c. 1550

Then the tax collectors asked: “What should we do?” John answered: “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” Their question was tied to their coming to him for baptism. John’s was a baptism of repentance and collecting taxes justly and responsibly would signal that the collectors were indeed repenting.

They were not going to collect more than the prescribed amount. The fact that society was monetized, thus, did not translate into an occasion for graft. (By contrast, we’ve recently learned that thousands of Washington D.C. employees were caught collecting salaries and unemployment benefits at the same time.)

From another perspective, the tax collectors were respecting the people whose taxes they collected. They were upholding the integrity of society because human society was and is more than a source of revenue for the authorities. It is composed of human beings with all kinds of social relationships, some of which produce income.

Thirdly, there were soldiers who came for baptism. They asked him: “what is it that we should do?” John’s answer was: “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”

The soldiers carried weapons and were trained in their use so they were a force to be reckoned with. The military was a distinctive element in a society that, when functioning properly, allowed the others in a differentiated social order to participate peacefully in a common life.

I have been emphasizing the differentiated kind of society that underlies John’s replies because we live in a culture that only vaguely connects with his preaching. With Locke and his “quest of a civil society distinct from the Church and from the ‘irrational’ bonds of traditional family and friends,” we have developed into a collection of monads that need to be coerced into an ordered body of some kind.

Thus according to Glen Olsen: “Traditional friendship, one form of which could be marriage, had been based not on equality, but on complementarity, the suitability for society of natural differences, the ways in which natural differences urge and advance social cooperation. Now the claim was, all are equal, all interchangeable.”

Once we accept a government that treats human realities with a crude egalitarianism instead of the way God created them, then we will reap the consequences. Because when we deny God, his revelation of himself in his creation and in his Son, we deny the multifaceted design of human society.

Among our other devotions, something well worth reflecting on during Advent!

Bevil Bramwell, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (7)Add Comment
written by JRW, December 16, 2012
Many thanks, Fr B. I suspect Olsen's arguments for concrete, traditional friendship, and yours against a state that uses coercion to enforce egalitarianism understood as dead-level equality, both in essence amount to a strong case for subsidiarity. Could you elaborate on Olsen's description of the Persons of the Trinity as "asymmetric"? I has always thought of Them, wrongly perhaps, as distinct but perfectly symmetrical.
written by Fr. Bramwell, December 16, 2012
Sure JRW, the asymmetry to which he refers shows up in terms of the relations between the persons. The Father is Father as pouring himself out eternally as Son. The Son is Son as eternally being poured out by the Father etc. etc. Does this help?
written by Manfred, December 16, 2012
What should we do? Why don't we try what some of the bishops are recommending?
1. Meatless Fridays as a penance.
2. Daily Rosaries to ask for succor from the Mother of God
3. Masses said Ad Orientem, preferably Traditionally.
4. Return to the Sacrament of Penance.
5. Reignite a Catholic identity by teaching the TRUTH.
6. Teach moral theology as part of the TRUTH.

BTW when will you review Prof. Olsen's book "Of Sodomites, Effeminates, etc....Sodomy in the Age of Peter Damien." It was Damien who wrote on numerous occasions to the pope of the rampant homosexuality in the Catholic priesthood 1,000 years ago.
written by JRW, December 16, 2012
Thanks, Fr B. I think it is a problem of semantics in trying to describe the indescribable. If God is love, and the Father's love for the Son is perfect and complete, and the Son's love is perfect and complete, and the love between them (aka the Holy Spirit) is perfect and complete, I would think of the relations among the Trinitarian Persons as symmetric, while our relations with God are asymmetric. But this does not alter the basic point of the sacramental nature of ordered reality and of our participation in that reality, the reality of God's personal love.
written by Fr. Bramwell, December 16, 2012
Manfred some of your suggestions make real sense. The question is much larger than that covered by my little column. The issue there is quite simply the Truth. Do we allow a Lockean philosophy of the human being to replace what we learn from the Church? Teaching more and better is certainly a big part of the solution. We do not make as much effort as Sony for example to get Catholic attention.
written by Fr. Bramwell, December 16, 2012
JRW. The issue is not semantics, it is ontology. There is a real asymmetry between the persons even in terms of their names.
written by Patrick, December 17, 2012
These modern political forms to which we are "subject" are not alien to us by any means, but are rather heretical forms of Christianity. The impulse to force the rich to support the poor is one that would never have been seen in a pagan society (which would usually be more inclined to worship the rich). It could only have occurred in one formed by Christianity.

But those proposing such laws will not only never acknowledge this -- they will moreover accuse the Christians of being patsies to the rich by not supporting forcible wealth redistribution. They therefore assume the mantle of: "More Christian Than the Christians."

They are the ones who will show Christians how to "truly" follow Christ's words, usually with state support and cushy jobs for them and their friends.

Rene Girard discusses these types; they are influential in France, and beginning to gain ground in the US.

When dealing with them, remind them that attempts to politicize or institutionalize charity outside of the Church has generally ended in mass murder.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author