Last Sunday’s Gospel reading, taken from Matt. 13:24-30, struck me — as the readings so often have in recent months — as eerily applicable to our present moment:
AT THAT time, Jesus spoke this parable to the multitudes: “The kingdom of heaven is likened to a man that sowed good seed in his field. But while men were asleep, his enemy came, and oversowed cockle among the wheat, and went his way. And when the blade was sprung up, and had brought forth fruit, then appeared also the cockle. And the servants of the good man of the house coming, said to him, Sir, didst thou not sow good seed in thy field? whence then hath it cockle? And he said to them, An enemy hath done this. And the servants said to him, Wilt thou that we go and gather it up? And he said, No: lest perhaps gathering up the cockle you root up the wheat also together with it. Suffer both to grow until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest, I will say to the reapers, Gather up first the cockle, and bind it into bundles to burn, but the wheat gather ye into my barn.”
There’s no point in drawing out the metaphor; ours is a Church obviously oversowed with cockle. The enemy has done his work. St. John Chrysostom saw in this parable precisely the meaning most apparent to us now — it is a warning about wolves among the shepherds:
What is the difference between this, and the parable before it? There He speaks of them that have not at all holden with Him, but have started aside, and have thrown away the seed; but here He means the societies of the heretics. For in order that not even this might disturb His disciples, He foretells it also, after having taught them why He speaks in parables. The former parable then means their not receiving Him; this, their receiving corrupters. For indeed this also is a part of the devil’s craft, by the side of the truth always to bring in error, painting thereon many resemblances, so as easily to cheat the deceivable. Therefore He calls it not any other seed, but tares; which in appearance are somewhat like wheat.
Something like this took place even at the beginning. Many of the prelates, I mean, bringing into the churches wicked men, disguised heresiarchs, gave great facility to the laying that kind of snare. For the devil needs not even to take any trouble, when he has once planted them among us.
And how is it possible not to sleep? One may say. Indeed, as to natural sleep, it is not possible; but as to that of our moral faculty, it is possible. Wherefore Paul also said, “Watch ye, stand fast in the faith.” 1 Corinthians 16:13
After this He points out the thing to be superfluous too, not hurtful only; in that, after the land has been tilled, and there is no need of anything, then this enemy sows again; as the heretics also do, who for no other cause than vainglory inject their proper venom.
And not by this only, but by what follows likewise, He depicts exactly all their acting. For, When the blade was sprung up, says He, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also; which kind of thing these men also do. For at the beginning they disguise themselves; but when they have gained much confidence, and some one imparts to them the teaching of the word, then they pour out their poison. [emphasis added]
Have we not all wondered at the confidence with which the current corrupters of Church doctrine operate? The hubris of doing so right out in the open? They have been given offices of teaching and governance, but they hand their sons serpents instead of fish and scorpions instead of eggs.
St. John Chrysostom speaks also to our present suffering — the seemingly endless question of how long our Lord will ask us to endure these wicked men in high places, and what He forbids:
What then does the Master? He forbids them, saying, “Lest haply ye root up the wheat with them.” And this He said, to hinder wars from arising, and blood and slaughter. For it is not right to put a heretic to death, since an implacable war would be brought into the world. By these two reasons then He restrains them; one, that the wheat be not hurt; another, that punishment will surely overtake them, if incurably diseased. Wherefore, if you would have them punished, yet without harm to the wheat, I bid you wait for the proper season.
But what means, “Lest ye root up the wheat with them?” Either He means this, If you are to take up arms, and to kill the heretics, many of the saints also must needs be overthrown with them; or that of the very tares it is likely that many may change and become wheat. If therefore ye root them up beforehand, you injure that which is to become wheat, slaying some, in whom there is yet room for change and improvement. He does not therefore forbid our checking heretics, and stopping their mouths, and taking away their freedom of speech, and breaking up their assemblies and confederacies, but our killing and slaying them. [emphasis added]
How many times have we asked why God waits to right His ship? How many times have we wondered at the forestalling of a justified chastisement? St. John Chrysostom seems to think that Our Lord only forbade the killing of heretics, but one wonders at this interpretation. Certainly, the Church did not hold to the line that heretics could not be slain. In Exsurge Domine, the 1520 papal bull of Leo X on the errors of Martin Luther, the following proposition was condemned as an error: “That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit.” Such drastic measures are, of course, no longer taken.
But I wonder, too, if St. John would have looked at our present situation, where the esteem and power of the papacy has been so built up in the minds of the faithful that they are afraid to believe that it can be infiltrated by a wolf, that he might not say that too aggressive an action — of formal correction, of denunciation — taken at the wrong time, might in fact scandalize the faithful in such a way that the wheat would be rooted up with them?
The time and caution that has been taken by those few faithful prelates in their presentation of the dubia and the possible formal correction are very likely the result of an awareness of this parable. Even so, as St. John said, Our Lord does not “forbid our checking heretics, and stopping their mouths, and taking away their freedom of speech, and breaking up their assemblies and confederacies”. It is not outside the realm of probability that even now, the formal correction has already been issued, but done first as Cardinal Brandmuller has said, “in camera caritatis” – which literally means “in the room of charity”. In other words: in private.
It is impossible to say. What is certain, however, is that the cockle has grown, and is even now in flower. The time for the harvest cannot be far off.