Possibly the most important work in Christian ethics in the last decade has been Oliver O’Donovan’s trilogy of books subtitled “ethics as theology.” In researching for an essay I am writing on the importance of the final judgment in ethical debates, I draw on O’Donovan’s work, and it seemed the recent events in the Church might be helpfully illuminated by his claims.
O’Donovan makes a distinction between our “purposes” – the limited sense of what our actions will accomplish in “the future beneath our feet” – and the actual “end” of our action – which we can only know after the fact via reflection, and we can only know ultimately in the light of God’s reflection. O’Donovan insists that all our historical endeavors, whether for the self or the neighbor, however important they are, must recognize the limitations involved in judging according to standards of “utility” or (he amusingly notes) “impact.” “Impact” matters; but we are sorely deceived if we think the final court of judgment is measurable “results” or (worse) online likes. The grave danger is to think the measurable, immediate future IS the future, is “what matters” about our actions.
This is what eschatology – and more precisely, the notion of a final judgment – does for ethics: not give it a final “metric” we can grasp and righteously measure ourselves by, but rather “discloses and confirms the significance of our works, bringing them to their decisive appearance” in light of “the purposes of God.” We cannot, O’Donovan suggests, pretend to adopt that standpoint presently on our own action; all we can do in the meantime is do our best with our human resources as they are illuminated by the light given to us into the overall plan by Christ. If we ask ourselves: “are we doing the right thing? Do our lives genuinely contribute to God’s real purposes in the world?”, O’Donovan hopes for sure that they can and do do so – but he consistently reminds us about how such claims to pushing forward God’s true purposes in the world are in fact self-righteous deceptions.
Thus, it is a peculiar burden for Catholic bishops – and above all, the bishop of Rome – for their actions and purposes to be so closely identified with God’s purposes for the world. Of course, one could deny them such significance – in which case, Catholic ecclesiology would collapse, and we would be left inevitably seeking some other arbiter (the vox populi? The shifting sands of our own fallible hearts? The latest charismatic preacher to come to town?) by which to discern the purposes of God. Perhaps better would be to accept such an identification with a certain degree – perhaps a great degree – of fear and trembling.
For, even if we rightly qualify all this by recognizing the sinfulness of every Catholic bishop, who is obliged – just as all Catholic laypeople are – to sort through their own mixed and self-deceptive motivations, these men are left with an unenviable task. They are not privy to a supernaturally-perfected vision of the end of God’s plan. Thus, they too must look at the purposes of their actions in terms of “the future beneath their feet” – and yet their actions bear a peculiar significance for a future far larger than that. In this light, they must, more than others, contemplate the eschatological horizon of their action, and be careful not to confuse the eschatological horizon with the real, urgent, but still lesser horizons of worldly action.
It is in this light by which we should consider many of the ecclesial events of the past six months, and by which we ought to consider what has just happened in Baltimore. Spin and intrigue are the coin of the Twitter realm; perhaps unfortunately, they are so only because we now know too well – and who is pretending anymore to hide this? – how much spin and intrigue also goes on among these leaders of our church. Much of yesterday’s discussions seem to focus on what O’Donovan would call “purposes” – and frankly, very worldly, political purposes. Even the leading non-worldly explanation – the announcement had to do with canonical problems in the proposals bishops might have adopted – is itself plenty worldly, the classic language of technocrats and lawyers, seemingly ignoring the entire ecclesial and social context in which such interventions are being made. Moreover, it is mysterious why, if such is the explanation, it was not forthrightly stated, and instead had to “leak” out – and even worse, be announced completely by surprise on the opening morning of the gathering. I don’t see how any of this generates ecclesial trust. It generates mistrust. When there is already so much mistrust.
I am no cleric. I lament the current polarized quasi-civil-war being waged in our Church, and I doubly lament it when the occasion for such battles overshadow – and frankly, use – the sufferings of the victims of clergy sexual abuse. And I certainly agree with O’Donovan that I do not possess certainty about all the details of God’s larger plans for the world.
But I will say this: dear bishops and dear Francis, please help us, the lay faithful, better understand the true significance of your purposes by being honest and transparent about them. Moments like yesterday unsettle everyone, because they suggest that the very sort of palace intrigue among the powerful men running the church – the very sort of insider politics that are so clearly complicit in the scandals, across the ideological spectrum, and above all in the case of Theodore McCarrick – this palace intrigue… is still how you all operate.
Please stop the palace intrigue. I won’t even speculate on it – I have read and taught the Catechism’s discussion of the Eighth Commandment – and I don’t mean to play into one of the political sides in it. Instead, I simply ask: please communicate to us as clearly as possible what you believe is the significance of the actions you are taking. Don’t make us guess. Don’t make us speculate about how you are thinking about “the future beneath your feet.” And help us come to see all this as we hope you do, in the light of something much larger.
It is a hard job you have. You have taken on a great and noble charge, and yet like any of us, struggle to see beyond the future beneath your feet. But at least help us see what you think you are doing in the light of God’s ultimate purposes – and not simply internal machinations about which everyone is left to guess.