Friday, June 16, 2006

Cutting Out Eyes and Hands

No, you haven’t accidentally stumbled onto a site that reviews horror movies. It’s still Word Incarnate, and I’m still writing about the Gospel of Christ. But our Lord does use some graphic images at times: “if your hand…causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you… And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than…to be thrown into the hell of fire” (Mt. 18:8-9). Though we cannot merely dismiss such language as idiomatic semitic hyperbole, I want to share today an allegorical interpretation that I recently came across.

St Chromatius of Aquileia, a 4-5th century bishop, wrote an interesting commentary on the above passage. When it is clear that Christ does not intend to be taken literally (He doesn’t want us cutting out eyes or hands—though He wants us to be clear that no sacrifice is too great when it comes to avoiding damnation), the fathers often interpret his sayings allegorically. According to Chromatius, the body from which the offending eye or hand are removed is the mystical Body of Christ. He says that the “eye” of the Body is the bishop. This is appropriate, not only because a bishop is required to keep careful doctrinal and moral watch over those entrusted to him, but also because the very word “bishop,” episkopos in Greek, literally means “over-seer.” The delegates and associates of the bishops, who carry out his task at a practical level, as the “hands” of the Body under the watch of the “eye,” are the priests.

All who are in any sort of position of authority need to take warning here. St Chromatius says that, according to Jesus’ words, if the eye or the hand causes others to sin, that is, cause scandal in any way, they must be cut off and cast away. We can assume that he enjoins this radical measure only after remedies have been applied unsuccessfully. If a person has a diseased or injured eye or hand, he doesn’t immediately opt for amputation, but tries to find healing in whatever way is possible. But let’s say the hand is full of gangrene. It must be cut off to save the rest of the body, to save his life. And that is St Chromatius’ point. If the faithful are so scandalized as to be led into sin (e.g. being taught by word or example that things condemned by Scripture or Tradition are now acceptable), or that the spiritual health of the body is so jeopardized that the salvation of souls is at stake, then the offending eye or hand must be removed so that the Body can live and be restored to health. For it is better, echoing Jesus’ words, that the “eye” or “hand” be cut off than for the whole body to perish with them intact, having been allowed to spread their disease.

This is a serious word for today’s Church. We are faced with the grievous specter of some bishops and priests who give scandal to the faithful by their immoral lifestyles and/or their teachings that do not correspond to the Tradition and Magisterium of the Church. Rome must be diligent and careful in applying the necessary remedies for healing and restoration, but if all efforts fail, Dr Benedict must use the scalpel on these “eyes” and “hands” so that the Body will be saved. Woe to those who lead others astray, and because of whom others share their sin by following the lead of their shepherds or pastors. Let us pray that all “eyes” may see clearly and all “hands” work faithfully for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. St Chromatius may have used an allegory, but his message is dead-on and must be heard today.