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On being wise as serpents

  • FATHER GEORGE W. RUTLER

The opening line of a children's poem by Mary Howitt in 1828 is a caution for growing up in a duplicitous world: "'Will you walk into my parlour?' said the Spider to the Fly."


zenCardinal Joseph Zen

Christians must be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16) because we are sent as sheep into a world of wolves.  So there we have a whole menagerie of metaphors, all making the same point about naiveté.

The best diplomacy secures amity, but at its worst it lets loose ministers who are innocent as serpents and wise as doves.  Charles de Gaulle, who was not subtle, said, "Diplomats are useful only in fair weather.  As soon as it rains, they drown in every drop."  Without succumbing to cynicism, it is possible to see a mixture of calculation and callowness in the provisional agreement between the Holy See and Communist China, recognizing the primacy of the Pope, but at the price of an unclear arrangement giving the government a role in the appointment of bishops.

Ever since Constantine, and certainly since Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne in 800, ecclesiastical and civil threads have been intertwined.  The mediaeval Investiture Controversies were background for the sixteenth-century appointment privileges granted to the French crown and the Concordat between Pius VII with Napoleon.  In the year that Mary Howitt wrote about the Spider, nearly five of every six bishops in Europe were appointed by the heads of state.  Right into modern times, Spain and Portugal invoked the PatronatoReal and the Padroado, but these involved governments that were at least nominally Catholic.  The 1933 Reichskonkordat with the Nazi government was not the proudest achievement of the Church.  The Vatican's accommodationist "Ostpolitik" in the 1960s, made Cardinal Mindszenty a living martyr.  The Second Vatican Council sought, largely successfully, to reserve the appointment of bishops to the Sovereign Pontiff (Christus Dominus, n. 20).

It was my privilege to know Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei of Shanghai, who endured thirty years in prison, and Archbishop Dominic Tang Yee-Ming of Canton who was imprisoned for twenty-two years, seven of them in solitary confinement.  The eighty-seven-year-old Cardinal Archbishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen, sees a betrayal of those who have suffered so much for Christ.  Time will tell if the present diplomacy is wise.  An architect of this agreement, Cardinal Parolin, said: "The Church in China does not want to replace the state, but wants to make a positive and serene contribution for the good of all."  His words are drowned out by the sound of bulldozers knocking down churches while countless Christians languish in "re-education camps."

A fourteenth-century maxim warned: "He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon."  For spoon we might now say chopsticks.  When it comes to cutting deals with governments, it is sobering to recall that of the Twelve Apostles only one was a diplomat, and he hanged himself.

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Acknowledgement

Rutler5smFather George W. Rutler. "On being sent as sheep into a world of wolves." From the Pastor (October 7, 2018).

Reprinted with permission from Father George W. Rutler.

The Author

Rutler1rutler46smFather George W. Rutler is the pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City.  He has written many books, including: The Stories of Hymns, Hints of Heaven: The Parables of Christ and What They Mean for You, Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943, Cloud of Witnesses — Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive, Coincidentally: Unserious Reflections on Trivial Connections, A Crisis of Saints: Essays on People and Principles, Brightest and Best, Saint John Vianney: The Cure D'Ars Today, Crisis in Culture, and Adam Danced: The Cross and the Seven Deadly Sins.

Copyright © 2018 Father George W. Rutler
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