In Pope Benedict’s remarks this morning, prior to the Angelus, he reflected on belief preceding understanding for those who remained with Jesus after many others had departed because of the teachings they found difficult to comprehend. He then added the following:
Finally, Jesus knew that even among the twelve apostles there was one that did not believe: Judas. Judas could have left, as many of the disciples did; indeed, he would have left if he were honest. Instead he remained with Jesus. He did not remain because of faith, or because of love, but with the secret intention of taking vengeance on the Master. Why? Because Judas felt betrayed by Jesus, and decided that he in turn would betray Him. Judas was a Zealot, and wanted a triumphant Messiah, who would lead a revolt against the Romans. Jesus had disappointed those expectations. The problem is that Judas did not go away, and his most serious fault was falsehood, which is the mark of the devil. This is why Jesus said to the Twelve: “One of you is a devil” (John 6.70). We pray to the Virgin Mary, help us to believe in Jesus, as St. Peter did, and to always be sincere with Him and with all people.
At first reading this is a stunning sounding commentary, having the suggestion that, for his own good, Judas would have been better off to leave with the others who found the teachings hard and depart from Jesus. After all is it not true that there are many of us who may find teachings of the faith at times difficult to grasp, to affirm, and to follow? There are times of doubt, sometimes serious doubts, as well as even perhaps feelings of having been betrayed by leadership. Surely the suggestion isn’t that it is better to leave if we disagree. But of course there is an important distinction being made. Judas stayed without any intention of continuing to grapple with this different kind of Messiah, these teachings, or with any openness to ongoing conversion. His mind was set and his intention was to take vengeance and change things, conforming them according to his own expectation.
But what about the requirement to follow one’s conscience from last week’s chapter? Wouldn’t that suggest that if we really are convinced there is a teaching/direction in error, that we should remain steadfast? Maybe even openly challenge the apparent error with the hope to bring about change? Was Judas’ serious fault of falsehood simply that his intention was secret? Should he have stayed and tried to convince them of another way, continuing as he did with the group as a follower of Jesus, but telling people of a different way, following his formed conscience based perhaps on long experience with the Romans and expectations that he had been taught, even from spiritual guides?
We are taught that while we are expected to follow our conscience, we do so recognizing that our conscience (even well-formed since that is a life-long process) can still be objectively wrong (USCCA p. 314f). Therefore, it seems that both humility and love would dictate extreme caution with that idea. For one thing, there is the possibility of leading another into error that can’t be taken lightly (Mark 9:42; 1 Corinthians 8:9-13).
Additionally there is the possibility of obscuring the witness of Christ for those who still do not know him. Does the issue itself, let alone the need to be right, really outweigh the appeal for unity: “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Corinthians 1:10, as just one example)? From other passages we see the call to live in harmony and peace… To what end? In Jesus’ prayer we hear him asking the Father for the disciples, that “… they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” (John 17:23)
Given that the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” is the Church who has the responsibility to articulate the faith and moral principles (USCCA, p.330f) what about the times we feel disappointed in our expectations and/or wonder if something being taught is meant to be different? Is it best to simply leave?
For some that might be the answer. But empty pews don’t make a very good witness either.
As long as our mind hasn’t become so convinced that it results in a zealous commitment to be right (over and above understanding), and to bring others along regardless of the cost, then – even if there is a period of waiting in doubt, struggle, uncertainty, studying together with other believers to come to understanding – staying the course like Peter and the other faithful disciples is the better way.
By believing first (and maybe echoing: “I believe; help my unbelief!”) and not denying disagreements, but rather grappling through questions with the goal of understanding, it may just be that together we find a way to help one another along the path of ongoing conversion to holiness. What’s more, by grace we may come to an understanding of even the hard things; and, seeing them through the lens of the love of a generous and good God, our unity may also help others to be encouraged in their faith and drawn to know God.
P.S. There is another obvious point that might be made. Whereas Judas felt an unjustified sense of betrayal, in the case of the Body of Christ lived through people vulnerable to the reality of sin, there are times of real betrayal at the hands of those who should be trustworthy. Anger, hurt, resentment, fear, unforgiveness resulting from either betrayal, or even from concern about how the teachings effect those we love, can be stumbling blocks to belief and understanding. These emotions may be woven through disagreement with the Church, further exacerbating a temptation to be in control of defining one’s own “truth.” … May God bring healing to wounded hearts, softening them to forgive, creating hearts of discernment open to trusting that the Holy Spirit is the faithful guide of the Church in Truth. May God grant to the Church wisdom and grace to faithfully articulate that Truth in authentic Love. (Laurie E.)