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Should Weeds Be Pulled Up?

One of Our Lord’s salutary stories was of a man who sowed wheat-seeds in his field. Subsequently an enemy secretly sowed weeds among them. When the wheat developed, so did the weeds. The man’s employees reported this to him and asked whether he wanted the weeds to be pulled up. He replied, ‘No, lest in doing that you pull up also the wheat. Let both grow until harvest-time, and then I will tell the reapers to gather the weeds and burn them.’ [1]

The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” declares, in paragraph 898, that it is the laity’s special role to seek the kingdom of God [for which, may it constantly be remembered, we profess – in the “Our Father” – to desire] by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will; that means that we must try to make everything conform to His will. We have the right and the duty, individually or grouped in associations, to work to make God’s message known and accepted by everyone throughout the Earth [that makes clear the fact that God’s will is binding on everyone, despite the fact that everyone has the ability – as distinct from an entitlement – to contravene it].[2] We are bidden to unite our forces for the purpose of rectifying institutions and circumstances which are an inducement to sin, so that they favour rather than hinder virtuous living.[3] No human activity is exempt from God’s dominion[4] [which, again, shows that there are no ‘no-go’ areas for God; as Pope Pius XI wrote, “all must obey his commands; none may escape them, nor the sanctions he has imposed” [5]].

There seems to be incompatibility between the ‘wheat and the weeds’ parable and the stated obligations of the laity. The parable’s lesson seems to be that the laity should do nothing to eradicate sin, but the “Catechism” says that we should. The parable is the word of God, but the “Catechism” is “a sure and authentic reference text,” [6] an act of the Magisterium on which we are called to rely.

Our Lord came to the Earth to bear witness to the truth[7] and to destroy the works of the Devil.[8] Can it be rational to believe that those purposes are served by allowing sin to thrive alongside virtue, and therefore that sin should be of no concern to us?

The ‘wheat and the weeds’ parable was compared by Our Lord with “the kingdom of Heaven.” What is that? It is the family of God, gathered around Our Lord; this gathering is the Church, on Earth the seed and the beginning of that kingdom (“Catechism of the Catholic Church,” paragraph 541).[9] Although the kingdom is present in the Church, its fullness will occur only when Our Lord returns to the Earth; until then the Church shares the tribulation of the Earth’s inhabitants.[10] So the fulfilment of the kingdom will be by means, not of an increasing ascendancy of the Church, but of God’s victory over evil in a final cosmic upheaval of the world;[11] nevertheless, progress on Earth is relevant to the kingdom in so far as progress takes the form of better ordering of human society.[12] Clearly the ‘weeds’ of sin obstruct such progress, so allowing them to flourish is a bizarre type of preparation for the next life.

A characteristic of Our Lord’s parables is that they show how He wishes people to behave: to gain the kingdom of Heaven, “words are not enough, deeds are required.” [13] In “What Did Jesus Mean?”,[14] Professor Anna Wierzbicka wrote that there is a very wide range of proposed interpretations of “the kingdom of God,” but that they are separable “into two broad categories: eschatological and non-eschatological, or eschatological and ethical. The term eschatological is understood differently by different scholars, but it is generally agreed that the key distinction is that between this world and the world to come, between a this-worldly and an other-worldly perspective.” Because the kingdom includes the dead, “it is indeed an eschatological reality, otherworldly and not only this worldly,” but “for the living, ethics and eschatology are inseparable” (as proved by the direct connection between how people have behaved on Earth and where they go at death).

When “the kingdom of Heaven” is construed to mean the state which will come in its fullness at the end of time, the ‘wheat and the weeds’ parable can be seen as an illustration of the separation of the virtuous and the evil which will happen then.[15] To construe it in that limited way is to ignore the problematic question of whether the parable is applicable also to what should happen in the meantime: in other words, did Our Lord intend the parable to teach us a policy to be applied while we are on Earth? The sower’s employees were told not to pull up the weeds, but to wait for ‘harvest-time’. Catholic teaching seems very clearly to exhort us to get on with the job while we are here.

Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, “Lumen Gentium,” said that by their very vocation, the laity “seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God,” [16] and its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, “Gaudium et Spes,” made clear [17] that self-absorption/ignoring society is not our proper role; Christianity, and the transience of temporal things, does not justify ignoring what happens around us; religion does not consist only of acts of worship; it is a serious error to think that religion has nothing to do with earthly circumstances. “The Christian who neglects his temporal duties neglects his duties toward his neighbour and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation.” It is the function of the well-formed Christian conscience “to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city…”

In accord with those statements, Vatican II’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, “Apostolicam actuositatem” (noting, with considerable under-statement, that “many areas of human life have become increasingly autonomous,” which “sometimes involves a degree of departure from the ethical and religious order”) sought “to describe the nature, character, and diversity of the lay apostolate, to state its basic principles, and to give pastoral directives for its more effective exercise.” [18] “In the Church there is a diversity of ministry but a oneness of mission,”[19] which is not confined to “bring[ing] the message and grace of Christ” to the world but includes also “penetrating and perfecting” how the world’s affairs run.[20] In striving to “penetrate and perfect” them, we should have the ardour of Christ’s spirit.[21]

The penetration and perfection is a matter of “the effort to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the community in which one lives;” [22] “The laity must… act directly and in a definite way in the temporal sphere. … Everywhere and in all things they must seek the justice of God’s kingdom. The temporal order must be renewed in such a way that… it may be brought into conformity with the higher principles;” [23] “Catholics should feel themselves obliged to…make the weight of their opinion felt in order that…legislation may conform to moral precepts. [24]

As if mindful of a widespread ‘norm’ of ‘just giving a good example by leading a quiet life and minding our own business,’ the Decree said [25] that “an apostolate of this kind does not consist only in the witness of one’s way of life; a true apostle looks for opportunities to announce Christ by words addressed either to non-believers with a view to leading them to faith, or to the faithful with a view to instructing, strengthening, and encouraging them to a more fervent life. … Since, in our own times, new problems are arising and very serious errors are circulating which tend to undermine the foundations of religion, the moral order, and human society itself, this sacred synod earnestly exhorts laymen – each according to his own gifts of intelligence and learning – to be more diligent in doing what they can to explain, defend, and properly apply Christian principles to the problems of our era in accordance with the mind of the Church.” In that regard, it is very important to note paragraph 31’s comment that the laity should learn doctrine more diligently, especially those main points which are the subjects of controversy.

A truth which is both a comfort to the frustrated and an ‘escape-route’ for the lazy is that ‘you can’t take the world on your shoulders’; a related semi-truth is that ‘God won’t hold you responsible for what other people do’. The first of those is a matter of practicality, but the other purports to be a matter of principle and is misleadingly-‘sweeping’. Sometimes, and especially in our own comparatively-small ‘corner’ of the world, we can incur what lawyers call ‘vicarious liability,’ meaning responsibility for other people’s wrong-doing. Clear authority for it is in the first half of Chapter 33 of the Book of Ezekiel, and in paragraph 1868 of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church.” Cases covered by the latter can be summarised as (i) participation, (ii) approval, (iii) silence or inertia, and (iv) protection. Paragraph 1869 adds that sin spreads from individuals to the circumstances and institutions in which they live: “Structures of sin are the expression and effect of personal sins. They lead their victims to do evil in their turn.”

This is the realm of ‘scandal,’ defined as “an attitude or behaviour which leads another to do evil.”[26] If the evil thereby caused is grave, so too is the scandal, and the immediate culprit may incur spiritual death (ibid.). Scandal can be the result of ‘one-to-one’ individual inter-action or by fashion, opinion, laws, or institutions, such as those which lead to the decline of morals, the corruption of religious practice, or which make virtuous living difficult and practically impossible.[27] It is particularly grave when its victims are weak and vulnerable and when those who cause it are in positions of authority, such as people who by nature or position are obliged to teach and educate.[28] Our Lord spoke especially severely of leading people into sin: temptations to sin are, He said, sure to come, but woe to him by whom they come; it would be better for him to be tied to a millstone and drowned.[29]

There is, of course, all-pervasive evidence of disagreement about whether this, that, or something else is a sin, or (even if a sin) a grave one, and confusion about the purpose of conscience (which derives its authority from ability to recognise objectively and to obey the truth [30]). Such disagreement and confusion result from insistence (fuelled by the mis-named ‘Reformation’) that we are entitled to make up our own minds about what the Bible means.

St. Peter wrote that no scriptural prophecies are a matter of personal interpretation, because they were God’s word, spoken by the Holy Spirit through men.[31] All interpretation of Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church,[32] to which everyone owes the obedience of faith (complete submission of intellect and will),[33] accepting it as “not just the word of men but truly the word of God” and therefore free from error.[34]

So, in view of the above-highlighted teachings and the Church’s directives about making the world conform to Catholic teaching (ipso facto correct) (no human activity, even of the temporal order, is exempt from God’s dominion [35]), and despite the obvious and long-established aversion of Catholic clerics to declare that teaching candidly and confidently, it seems unlikely that the ‘wheat and the weeds’ parable is correctly interpreted as a divine instruction to take no action to eradicate sin.

It may seem puzzling that God delays His own action against sin, but He “has not willed to reserve to [H]imself all exercise of power.[36] He relies on the ability of His friends to help Him. St. Faustina Kowalska, when allowed by Our Lord to see the enormity of sins, asked Him how He could tolerate it. He replied, “I have eternity for the punishment of these.” [37] Yes, He has, but why does He leave it until the sinners’ departure from this world? Because He sent His Son into the world not to condemn it but that it might be saved through Him.[38] St. Peter, in his second Letter[39] wrote that “The Lord…is forbearing…, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” Similarly, St. Paul wrote, “[d]o you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” [40] He is always waiting for that. “Let not even the weak and very sinful fear to approach me: even if their sins be as numerous as all the sands of the Earth all will be forgiven in the fathomless pit of My Mercy. … Let no soul fear to come to Me, even if its sins be as scarlet.” [41]

That is no excuse for our neglect to help God by counteracting the Devil’s works. Mankind’s problems started in the Garden of Eden. Even though they are all around us, surely God wants every generation of gardeners (currently us) to pull up the weeds rather than to ignore them?

[1] Matt. 13:24-30.
[2] Ibid., paragraph 900.
[3] Ibid., paragraph 909.
[4] Ibid., paragraph 912.
[5] Encyclical Letter, “Quas primas,” 1925, paragraph 14.
[6] Pope St. John Paul, Apostolic Constitution “Fidei Depositum, promulgating the “Catechism,” 1992, section 3.
[7] Jn 18:37.
[8] 1 John 3:8.
[9] “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” paragraph 541.
[10] Ibid., paragraphs 671 and 672.
[11] Ibid., paragraphs 677 and 1042.
[12] Ibid., paragraph 1049.
[13] Ibid., paragraph 546.
[14] Oxford University Press, 2001, at p.17-18.
[15] Matt. 25:31-34, 41, & 46; “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” paragraph 1038.
[16] Paragraph 31.
[17] Paragraphs 34 and 43.
[18] Paragraph 1.
[19] Paragraph 2.
[20] Paragraphs 2 and 5.
[21] Paragraph 2.
[22] Paragraph 13.
[23] Paragraph 7.
[24] Paragraph 14.
[25] Paragraph 6.
[26] Ibid., paragraph 2284.
[27] Ibid, paragraph 2287.
[28] Ibid., paragraph 2285.
[29] Ibid., and paragraphs 2287 and 2285.
[30] Ibid., paragraphs 1755, 1756, 1783, and 2039.
[31] 2 Pet. 1:20-21.
[32] “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” paragraph 119.
[33] Ibid., paragraph 143.
[34] “Lumen Gentium,” paragraph 12.
[35] Ibid., paragraph 36; “Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 912.
[36] “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” paragraph 1884.
[37] “Handbook of Devotion to Divine Mercy,” p.22-23; D. M. Publications, Ltd., Ireland; www.divinemercy.org
[38] Jn. 3:17.
[39] 2 Pet. 3:9.
[40] Rom. 2:4.
[41] “Handbook of Divine Mercy,” op. cit., p.20-21, and 31.

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