Resisting scandals and the purification of the Church

It is not every year that Christmastide and Septuagesima overlap. Seeing cribs still in place in churches while the priest is already wearing violet vestments is a rare sight, but one which we may have witnessed last Sunday. However, the feast of the Purification, which we will celebrate in a few days, is the perfect meeting point of the two seasons. 

The joy of the Nativity of Our Lord mingled with the sorrow of His looming Passion are wonderfully reflected in Our Lady on that day. She enters the temple with the baby in her arms, to be greeted with the prophecy of Simeon: “And thy own soul a sword shall pierce” (Luke 2:35). A sword will pierce her heart in a maternal union with this very Son whose heart will then be pierced with a lance. From that pierced Heart, baptismal water will flow to purify the human race of original sin and form the Church, which she again must nurture to life.

There are many facets of the feast of the Purification that resonate in the events surrounding us. First of all, we should not be surprised that sins against purity should constitute the fiercest attack on the Church today. The laudable and unprecedented episcopal resistance to the scandalous proposals of Fiducia supplicans gives us new hope and consolation. However, a much greater and more painful act of purification is needed. Insisting that scandalous “blessings” cannot be administered in certain areas for cultural or prudential reasons is good in itself but does not complete the mission of rejecting impurity in principle. The document must be rescinded for the good and honour of the Church, prefigured in the Immaculate Virgin.

We must pray for that. The forthcoming feast day is an excellent occasion on which to do so, as Purification stands between Incarnation and Resurrection — in our own lives and in the life of the Church. 

Purification is not about identifying and exposing corruption but obtaining the virtue of purity. It would be pointless to highlight the stains on a white gown when it needs to be thoroughly cleaned. Saint Paul writes to the Ephesians: 

“But fornication, and all impurity, or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints: Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving.”

Ephesians 5:3–4

Why does St Paul insist on that? Because dwelling on impure things and talking about them — even just to criticise them — amplifies them by fuelling the imagination with the images the words convey. Inevitably this pollutes our souls with that which we seek to condemn. 

This is a point made by Professor Roberto de Mattei in his recent commentary on radiomarialibera.org, where he also recalls that, until 1966, the Holy Office kept an Index of Prohibited Books. Reading the heretical and immoral books on the list was prohibited in order to preserve souls from the danger of falling into sin on an intellectual or moral level. Today, however, we appear to have lost the sensitivity to such sins as if they did not wound the purity of our mother, the Church. We speak freely and joke about scandals we deplore, but at the same time, we delve into their details. 

Reproducing or presenting obscenity to others has always been regarded as inadmissible. However, the rules of journalism have superseded the clear guidance of the pre-conciliar Holy Office.

Paradoxically, it was the Catholics justifiably scandalised by the book of Víctor Manuel Fernández, the current prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, who spread its contents, rather than those who might have welcomed it. The book in question, The Mystical Passion, Sensuality and Spirituality (1998), had long disappeared from the public eye, but, thanks to the shocked reaction of the faithful, it gained more attention than when it was first published — and not for the fact that it exists, which would suffice to prove that its author is unsuitable for the office he holds, but for its explicit content. And so, the new wave of readers of this obscene publication are traditionally-minded Catholics, however much we may be outraged by reading it.

The reasons for wanting to expose the details of such a scandal are fully understandable. However, it should also make us reflect on the reasons why the Church traditionally appointed prudent pastors to assume the burden of reviewing immoral material for the protection of the souls under their care. In the eyes of God, outrageous attacks on purity can never be the responsibility of those who are scandalised by them. However, spreading details about them might itself become an occasion of scandal.

Professor de Mattei also recalls that, on 7 June 1929, Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val, then secretary of the Holy Office, signed the preface to a new edition of the Index of Prohibited Books, the last published by the Holy Office, in which he wrote: 

“Through the centuries, the Holy Church has sustained great, terrible persecutions, gradually multiplying the heroes who sealed the Christian faith with their blood; but today a much more terrible battle is waged against it by hell, as subtle and bland as it is harmful, and that is the bad press. No greater danger threatens the integrity of faith and customs than this, and therefore the Church never ceases to point it out to Christians, so that they may beware. The irreligious and immoral books are sometimes written in a captivating style, often dealing with subjects that appeal to the carnal passions or flatter the pride of the spirit and then with crafts and quibbles of every kind they aim to gain a foothold in the minds and hearts of the unwary readers; it is therefore natural that the Church, as a providential mother, with her appropriate prohibitions, warns the faithful not to put their lips to the cups of easy poison. It is not, therefore, out of fear of light that the Holy See forbids the reading of certain books, but out of that zeal with which God inflames it and which does not tolerate the loss of souls, teaching the same experience that man, fallen from original justice, is strongly inclined to evil and has consequently extreme need of protection and defence”. 

As Professor de Mattei further recalls, the Holy Office condemned the so-called “mystical-sensual literature” in the instruction Inter mala, on 3 May 1927, which stated, among other things: 

“Among the most pernicious evils, which in our days totally corrupt Christian morality and are very harmful to the souls redeemed with the precious Blood of Jesus Christ, is above all the literature that favours sensual passions, lust, and a certain lascivious mysticism. Of this character are mainly novels, short stories, dramas, comedies: all writings which today are multiplying in an incredible way and are spreading every day, more everywhere”.

The book of Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández would most probably have found its place on the Index by the Office that he now presides over, and Catholics would have been prohibited from reading it. In fact, canon 1398 §1 of the old Code of Canon Law says, “The prohibition of books brings it about that the book cannot be published, read, retained, sold, translated into another language, or in any other way communicated to others without necessary permission.”

Of course, today, the tide of sexual impurity in the public sphere has risen so high — not only in printed material but also in images — that most cities are drowning beneath it. In this environment, the gravity of an individual instance of corruption seems less egregious when set against the overall scale of the problem. Suppressing the Index of Prohibited Books in 1966 suggested it was no longer relevant. But human nature remains unchanged and the importance of guarding purity remains the same as ever. What is impure should never be read, watched or propagated. Instead of studying immoral material to prove its awfulness, Christians are called to pursue the virtue of purity to counter the offence. 

There is also an intrinsic link between purity and humility embodied in the humble handmaid of the Lord whose fiat was the turning point in human history. True purity is always veiled with humility, which often makes it so undervalued. And yet, if Our Lady had been pure but not humble, she would not have been fit for the task of crushing the proud head of the devil. The Fathers say that there are many in heaven who were not virgins, but there is no one who was not humble. Satan, on the other hand, was cast into hell for his lack of humility, and those whom he lures to celebrate the sin which Fiducia supplicans appears to approve take “pride” as their banner and their battle cry. 

Purity and humility, however, bind us to Our Lady just as they defined her life from the mystery of the Incarnation to her suffering at the foot of the Cross and beyond. We also know that her suffering was immeasurably greater than that of all the martyrs put together, because of her purity. 

The Gospel says, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8). Purity, which is therefore both the cause for which we fight and the means by which we will secure our victory, will be solemnly celebrated this week, when the only creature who is Immaculate enters the temple to fulfil the law of purification. This is how much purity matters. Let us travel then by her side to Jerusalem and there renew our love for holy purity. Let us join our prayers to hers in imploring God once again to purify His Church.