Saturday, June 05, 2010

St. Boniface and the zeal of Gideon

Today is the Feast of St. Boniface, the great missionary to the Germans, the destroyer of the oak of Thor and one of the patrons of this blog. The story of the chopping down of Thor's sacred oak in order to convince the Frisians that their gods were powerless reminds me of another great story, this one from the Old Testament - that of Gideon, as found in Judges 6-8.

Both Gideon and St. Boniface destroyed a pagan shrine in the name of the Lord; Boniface did so in a pagan land as part of a missionary work while Gideon did so within Israel as part of a "reevangelization", and at the Lord's command. Look at what God says to Gideon in Judges 6:

"That night the Lord said to him: Take a bullock of thy father's, and another bullock of seven years, and thou shalt destroy the altar of Baal, which is thy father's: and cut down the grove that is about the altar. And thou shalt build an altar to the Lord thy God, in the top of this rock, whereupon thou didst lay the sacrifice before: and thou shalt take the second bullock, and shalt offer a holocaust upon a pile of the wood, which thou shalt cut down out of the grove. Then Gideon, taking ten men of his servants, did as the Lord had commanded him. But fearing his father's house, and the men of that city, he would not do it by day, but did all by night.

"And when the men of that town were risen in the morning, they saw the altar of Baal destroyed, and the grove cut down, and the second bullock laid upon the altar, which then was built. And they said one to another: Who hath done this? And when they inquired for the author of the fact, it was said: Gideon, the son of Joash, did all this. And they said to Joash: Bring out thy son hither, that he may die: because he hath destroyed the altar of Baal, and hath cut down his grove. He answered them: "Are you the avengers of Baal, that you fight for him? he that is his adversary, let him die before to morrow light appear: if he be a god, let him revenge himself on him that hath cast down his altar." From that day Gideon was called Jerobaal, because Joash had said: "Let Baal revenge himself on him that hath cast down his altar" (Judges 6:25-32).

Both Gideon and St. Boniface act on the principle that was much later explicated by Leo XIII - that "error should not have equal rights with the truth" (Libertas, 34). Did not the Frisians have a "right" to worship their own gods in their own manner in their own land? Do not the worshipers of Baal have the "right" to maintain a temple to Baal in their village? Boniface and Gideon did not think so, and in the latter case, God even positively commanded Gideon to destroy the pagan shrine. Gideon is called by God a "mighty man of valor" and praised for his zeal in carrying out God's commands.

The implication behind these actions is that, like divorce among the Jews and idolatry among the Gentiles, the existence of pagan shrines is something that God tolerated for a time but never positively willed or endorsed.  St. Paul teaches this in Acts 17:

"Being therefore the offspring of God, we must not suppose the divinity to be like unto gold or silver or stone, the graving of art and device of man. And God indeed having winked at the times of this ignorance, now declareth unto men that all should every where do penance. Because he hath appointed a day wherein he will judge the world in equity, by the man whom he hath appointed: giving faith to all, by raising him up from the dead" (Acts 17:29-31).

While it is of course true, as Vatican II taught, that "elements of truth" can be found in all religions, it is also true that the importance of these scattered elements is often overstated. No doubt there were elements of truth in Baal worship, as in the worship of Thor, but Gideon and St. Boniface did not seem interested in these elements of truth, nor did St. Paul seem interested in dialoguing with the Greeks about their "elements of truth" but rather stated that God had in former times overlooked their ignorance but now called them to repent. And why would these saints be interested in mere elements of truth when they each possessed the truth from the source? I think Catholics that get too excited about "elements of truth" in other religions are a little mixed up in their focus - it's like showing a profound interest in the crumbs under your dinner table while ignoring the hot meal that is up on top and ready to be eaten.

Besides this, Gideon and St. Boniface both understood that pagan shrines and pagan worship are so offensive to God and so intrinsically evil that any other good that might be found within them was overshadowed by the great evil that idolatry is. Though Boniface labored in a foreign land, it was a land that was claimed for Christ, and the existence of any pagan shrine within this land was an offense to God and to Boniface. The chopping of the tree of Thor is an act of claiming the land for Christ, just as, in a lesser and more humble way, were the lovingly carved crosses of St. Isaac Jogues that the saint etched in the trees around Ossernenon whenever he could find a spare moment away from his Mohawk captives, "so that, seeing it, the demons might take flight...that the enemy might flee before it, and that through it, O Lord, my King, thou might rule in the midst of thy enemies, the enemies of the Cross, the unbelievers, the pagans who dwell in these lands and the demons who rule far and wide throughout all these regions" (Saint Among Savages, Talbot, 284). The chopping of Thor's oak, the destruction of Baal's shrine and the humble crosses of St. Isaac are all proclamations of divine victory and conquest of God over pagan error.

That pagan shrines have no place in lands under Christian dominion or lands even in the process of becoming Christianized is such a well attested fact of our Tradition that it would take too long to cite all the instances in sacred history of pagan shrines being destroyed (but anyway, check here, here, here and here). Given this long tradition, what should our attitude towards the pagan shrines in our midst today be?

I think this answer is easy in those countries that are predominantly Catholic or Catholic officially, or in places which are officially set aside as Catholic shrines. One thing is for sure: any Catholics who were present at Fatima the day in 2004 when a Hindu prayer service was carried out on one of our Lady's altars ought to have rushed in their with the zeal of Gideon, thrown down those pagan idols and hurled those Hindu priests out on their ear. That was a unique situation, however. Even if physically destroying pagan shrines is no longer a reality, we ought to never rejoice when new pagan shrines are erected - like the nonsense that occurs in many big cities where a Catholic bishop will send congratulations when the Buddhists, Hindus or Muslims open up a new multi-million dollar pagan shrine. Contrast this with the attitudes that have been prevalent in our history - Pope Gregory the Great was noted for his justice toward the Jews; yet even he did not restore the synagogues that had been taken from them at Palermo by Bishop Victor and dedicated as churches, although he obliged the bishop to pay for them. During the Merovingian period a synagogue at Orleans was destroyed by the mob, and the Jews were unable to induce King Guntram to permit it to be rebuilt (584).

Perhaps the most well-known example is the protest which St. Ambrose made to Emperor Theodosius when the latter sought to rebuild a burned Jewish synagogue at the expense of a local bishop. Though Ambrose admits Christians were responsible for the burning of the synagogue, nevertheless he sees it as a positive evil for Christians to ever contribute to pagan worship under any circumstances:

"There is, then, no adequate cause for such a commotion, that the people should be so severely punished for the burning of a building, and much less since it is the burning of a synagogue, a home of unbelief, a house of impiety, a receptacle of folly, which God Himself has condemned... Will you give this triumph over the Church of God to the Jews? This trophy over Christ's people, this exultation, O Emperor, to the unbelievers? This rejoicing to the Synagogue, this sorrow to the Church?" (St. Ambrose, Letter XL:14,20).

The modernist mind no doubt recoils at these examples of religious intolerance from our history. The modernist can easily wipe away such embarassing examples, since for him there is no need to maintain anuy real continuity with tradition. But what is the orthodox Catholic to do? Start going out an burning down mosques? Hardly. Such an action would not be condoned today in a pluralistic society, much less in America where Catholics are a minority and don't really have any grounds on which to boast that this is a Catholic country - our position is more akin to those Catholics who lived in the Holy Land during the Middle Ages, just one minority among many other religious groups, finding themselves in a culture that was by and large hostile to their values, having to do what evangelical work they could when and wherever it was possible but also attempting to live in peace with their Muslim overlords. Things would not have gone well for them had they started burning mosques, nor would things go well for the Church in America if we started doing like things. What would be the norm in a thoroughly Catholic society where the Church's teaching was reflected in the government is different than what we would expect to see in a pluralist society like the United States.

Even if we have to tolerate pagan shrines in our midst for the time being, we ought to have some refutation to the modernist critique that the examples from our history cited above are completely incompatible with Christian charity. To those conditioned to see all religions as equally valid, it is indeed difficult to see how Christian charity can exist in the heart of somebody who is tearing down a pagan altar. But Romano Amerio in his excellent book Iota Unum reminds us that the opposition between charity and severity in a false dichotomy. He says:

"This setting up of the principle of mercy as opposed to severity ignores the fact that in the mind of the Church the condemnation of error is itself a work of mercy, since by pinning down error those laboring under it are corrected and others are preserved from falling into it" (Iota Unum, 40).

Mercy is not making pagans feel good about their false religion. Gideon was being merciful when he threw down the altar of Baal. Cortez is being merciful and charitable to the Aztecs when he breaks off the head of Huitzilipotchli and sends it toppling down the steps of the teocalli to smash apart before the stunned eyes of the angered Indians. St. Boniface chopped down the oak out of love for the Frisians and as an act of mercy for their souls, as St. Benedict did when he toppled the statue of Apollo, by which he hoped to deliver them from their ignorance. Ignorance of the truth is bondage, let us remember.

While destroying pagan places of worship is not a prudent course of action to take in our own country, let us remember the great deeds of men like St. Boniface and Gideon, and let us never grow accustomed to all of the paganism around us just because we are used to seeing it so much - let us see in these shrines the same horror and loathing that they inspired in the heart of Gideon and remember that "the gods of the Gentiles are devils: but the Lord made the heavens" (Ps. 95:5). It would be fitting to close with the words of the illustrious St. Paul, who reminds us that the pagan gods are actually demons, and some of the Church's most venerable saints:

""What then? Do I say that what is offered in sacrifice to idols is any thing? Or that the idol is any thing? But the things which the heathens sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils and not to God. And I would not that you should be made partakers with devils. You cannot drink the chalice of the Lord and the chalice of devils: you cannot be partakers of the table of the Lord and of the table of devils" (1 Cor. 10:19-21).

"All nations then had devils for their gods: those whom they called gods, were devils, as the Apostle more openly saith, ‘The things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice unto devils, and not to God.’ …For when he had said, ‘He is more to be feared than all gods:’ he added, ‘As for all the gods of the heathen, they are devils’" (St. Augustine, Exposition on Psalm 96, 5-6).

"The consummative cause of idolatry was the influence of the demons who offered themselves to the worship of erring men, giving answers from idols or doing things which to men seemed marvelous, whence the Psalmist says (Psalm 95:5): ‘All the gods of the gentiles are devils’" (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. xciv, a. 4).

"All the invocations of the pagans are hateful to God because all their gods are devils" (St. Francis Xavier, quoted in James Brodrick, S.J., Saint Francis Xavier [New York: Wicklow Press, 1952] p. 135).


Just another mad Catholic said...

Just a thought boniface, how does this question relate to protestant church buildings and are level of tolerance towards them? since although they are heretics they still worship the True God

Ben said...

To ask a related question, do Muslims and Jews worship the true God? I think especially of the words of St. John Chrysostom: "But at any rate the Jews say that they, too, adore God. God forbid that I say that. No Jew adores God! Who say so? The Son of God says so. For he said: "If you were to know my Father, you would also know me. But you neither know me nor do you know my Father". Could I produce a witness more trustworthy than the Son of God?
(3) If, then, the Jews fail to know the Father, if they crucified the Son, if they thrust off the help of the Spirit, who should not make bold to declare plainly that the synagogue is a dwelling of demons? God is not worshipped there. Heaven forbid! From now on it remains a place of idolatry."

Does this contradict Vatican II about adoring the one merciful God?

Boniface said...

Mad Catholic - In our current situation it doesn't apply at all really, but if we were living in a thoroughly Catholic country, I don't think the law would tolerate the construction of non-Catholic places of worship. I don't see that one could (or should) outlaw the private practice of another religion or ban individuals of a religious group, but allowing the public construction of such places of worship is a different (ie, public) matter.


This is tricky. As I recall, Aquinas (I think) somewhere said, "There are those who worship false gods, as do the heathens, and there are those who worship the true God in a way displeasing to Him, as do the Jews."

We cannot outright say the Jews don't worship the true God. They worship in accordance to what was revealed to them by the true God. But, since this was an impartial and incomplete revelation, we can say that their worship is incomplete. Since God wills us to worship according to the fullness brought with Christ, worshiping according to the old forms is displeasing to Him. Do they worship Him? Yes. Is the worship acceptable or pleasing to Him? No.

I may be wrong on this because I can't remember where I read this, but this is my intuition.

Anonymous said...

As I see it, post-temple Judaism with the Talmud is vastly different from Israel.

myth buster said...

What St. John Chrysostom is saying is that to worship YHWH in a false manner is as bad as idolatry, and that true worship of YHWH cannot coexist with blasphemy. Therefore, though the unbelieving Jews adore YHWH, their adoration is as worthless and loathsome as though it were idolatry, because they do not worship in Spirit and Truth, for it is written, "Merely slaughtering an ox is like slaying a man; sacrificing a lamb, like breaking a dog's neck; bringing a cereal offering, like offering swine's blood; burning incense, like paying homage to an idol. Since these have chosen their own ways and taken pleasure in their own abominations, I in turn will choose ruthless treatment for them and bring upon them what they fear. Because, when I called, no one answered, when I spoke, no one listened; because they did what was evil in My sight, and chose what gave me displeasure." -Isaiah 66:3-4 The Scripture is clear that external worship without love is loathsome to God, and that those who do such things may as well not be worshiping God at all.

What then, of the prayers of sinners? God will not answer hypocrites, but if anyone fears God, God will answer his prayers with the grace that leads to repentance, and if anyone rends his heart out of love for God, God will answer his repentance with sanctifying grace without delay. Jesus the High Priest knows well our weaknesses and intercedes for us with the Father. Never is this an excuse for sin, but we are called the Church Militant because we engage in battle daily against sin. If anyone loses a battle, let him confess his sin swiftly. Let the sinner rend his heart out of sorrow for offending the God he loves, and if he cannot muster this, let him at least tremble at the severity of God's judgment against sin. The power of sin is strong, but the grace of God is stronger. Though the sinner may stumble again and again, let him get up again and again, just as Christ fell three times on the way to the Cross, yet still got up. Mortal sin is lethal, but it is fatal only to those who do not return to God, but rather persist in their sin until death.