Why You Must Understand Analogy (or, the misrule of bad metaphors)

In an impassioned (and there’s part of the problem) post, today, that raises some good questions about our sense of priority–do we rule grace, or does grace rule us?–and profoundly conflates basic realities, while ignoring some fairly basic principles of reading and reasoning, Elizabeth Scalia (“the Anchoress”) ends up flatly contradicting rock-bottom authority on the subject of receiving the Eucharist:

What I understand today is that we are all deeply in need of medicine, and none of us can defile the purity that is Christ, nor can the Holy Eucharist defile any one of us.

(source: Synod Fathers, Fellow Catholics: Do We Still Not Understand?)

Compare the straightforward language that is, in a real sense, the very clearest and purest expression of ecclesial authority as divine mercy:

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.

For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.

But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world.

So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another— if any one is hungry, let him eat at home—lest you come together to be condemned. About the other things I will give directions when I come.

(source: 1 Corinthians 11:27-34 RSVCE)

Notice the three specific things that Scalia gets flatly wrong, and which are of the essence of Paul’s point:

  1. God reveals, as essential to the character of the Eucharist, that to receive unworthily means to receive affliction, not grace.
  2. God, not humans, reveals and determines the fact and severity of this “judgment,” this “chastening,” this risk that we “come together to be condemned.”  We are warned that it is real, and to avoid it!
  3. “Weakness” as well as disease and moribundity are consequences of unworthy reception.  You cannot treat the disease with more disease, and sacrilegious reception is the disease.

Now, I do understand the desire to upbraid those who are excessively anxious–the sausage-making is ugly, and it is dispiriting, and people do get fatigued.

And I am painfully aware that, for those whose everyday state is not a known, public condition of choosing against divine command, natural law, and Church teaching, there is an invisible struggle often waged that is not one bit less serious, against a tendency to turn “culpability” into the avoid-uncomfortable-confessions card that lets us “write down” our sins from “mortal” to “grave but venial,” ignoring our responsibility to confess all grave sins (988), not all “fully culpable and definitely mortal” sins, before approaching for communion (916)–or to make an Act of Contrition, including an intention to confess at the first opportunity.

I am not saying this is easy–no, it is hard.  It is the hardness of it which shows us our weakness, our entanglement, our confusion.  It is made almost unbearably hard, though, when attempting this good thing is itself portrayed as wrongheaded–when those who seek to do it are treated as though they needed therapy, rather than as though they realized that, not being whole, they desperately need a Physician.  When people recognize a need, they help each other provide for that need–by providing the wide access to Confession that our Holy Father has so bountifully provided.  But dismissing the need, waving it away, does not make it go away.  Telling people they need not become stronger, because they can avoid doing the hard thing, does not make them stronger–it cripples them.  Helping people do hard things, things which make for strength and health even though we who are so weak and foolish and diseased and maimed find the painful and difficult, makes them stronger.

It is completely understandable that some of us are frustrated with those who say “wave away the sin and grace will abound,” and others are frustrated with those who say “become whole, and then we’ll see about an appointment with the Physician.”  But neither of these is the same as saying, “take the proper medicine at the proper time, as the Physician has ordered.”

In her understandable frustration, Scalia needs to watch out, lest in a “strike the rock twice” gesture, she fling up her hands in opposition not only to some excessively reactionary, excessively anxious people, but also to St. Paul and the whole of divine revelation that agrees with him!

And this is why it is so profoundly dangerous to speak constantly in transient, ungrounded metaphors, and to use sweeping subjective characterizations where one ought to preserve distinctions.

The Eucharist is “medicine” from the point of view of those who can receive it healingly, and the Church is led by the Great Physician to administer the correct medicine at the correct time.  The Catechumenate is the proper place for those not yet ready for Baptism; hasty baptism is not better than proper preparation, even though we know that God’s saving love is exhibited to those who die suddenly “in desire of baptism” yet without the benefit of the ceremony.

The Physician’s healing love is well exhibited to those who, desiring to live in the faith, are given the grace and help to choose between the “use of marriage” in what is not a true marriage, and full Communion.  They may well not be ready to accept this; here the Eucharist summons them to become ready by the regular use of all the other means of grace.

Underlying the errors, here, is a strange belief that the Eucharist is magic, that it has one kind of properties that always tend in only one way–flatly contradicting the potent antithesis of salvation and reprobation that St. Paul (and the other Apostles) plainly learned from the Jesus Christ who deployed it so frequently, as abundantly recorded in the Gospels.  In fact, this “medicine” metaphor, used out of bounds, is exactly the kind of mastering, Church-as-dispenser metaphor that Scalia rightly rejects.

Steady, friends, steady.  When you solidly pin down the foundations, you can become creative, by God’s grace, about how to help people.  But when you untether yourself from those foundations, it takes surprisingly little to be “blown about by every wind of doctrine.”

Stay the course.  Hold fast to what is true.  Listen more to the careful and wise distinctions that have been tested by time than to the conflations that vent transient emotions and yield before wasteful passions.  Heed the Scriptures,

so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles.

(source: Ephesians 4:14 RSVCE)

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