Between Easter and Pentecost, Catholics around the globe are reading the Acts of the Apostles. The readings now are about Paul’s adventures along the coast of Turkey and Greece. And today’s reading is about a time when Paul got hauled into court by some brother Jews.
Paul looked over his accusers, and saw an old ideological split. Some of his accusers were dogmatic about their beliefs concerning a spiritual life that transcends daily experience, including angels and spirits and a life after death; others were equally dogmatic in denying such fuzzy-wuzzy. So he made an appeal to one side, asserting his roots in their beliefs. The two sides forgot about Paul and attacked each other. When the melee began to spin out of control, the Roman intervened and pulled Paul out. Case closed.
I find the reading immensely comforting, addressing a personal worry. When I was in court in the 1970s and 1980s, pro-life activists used to argue about whether to raise technical issues in court, or ignore technicalities and focus on speaking about children’s lives. I was generally a strong advocate for scrapping all the technical nonsense and focusing on the real issues at hand; I felt dirty when I descended to trivia amidst a slaughter. But I did it at times. Once, there were three of us on trial for blocking access to the Planned Parenthood abortion clinic in Silver Spring, when it was on Cameron Street. The court was on Georgia Avenue, a few hundred feet south of Cameron. Everyone in the courtroom knew exactly where everything had happened. But still, the prosecutor neglected to ask witnesses whether the events occurred in Montgomery County. No one bothered to say that Cameron Street, right over there, was in the county. And so there wasn’t any explicit testimony establishing the Montgomery County court’s jurisdiction in the case. So when the prosecutor finished, I asked for a dismissal, and got it. We didn’t argue about babies and go to jail; we raised a technical issue, and went home, to fight another day.
It is a delight to me to read that Paul did the same kind of thing. He expected to get convicted of some capital crime, sooner or later, and was at peace about that; but on the way, he felt free to wiggle and dodge at times. (Polycarp did the same, a few decades later.) So I can, too; and I don’t have to feel dirty because of it.
But Fr. Martin asked, this morning, whether anyone still argues about theological issues with the passion that caused the riot that freed Paul. I was startled by his question. Of course they do! (Hm. Of course we do.) Half the Catholic Church is convinced that God really cares about sexual morality, but doesn’t have a strong opinion about how to write laws defending a nation’s borders. The other half is equally convinced that God has been sending prophets to denounce injustice throughout human history, but doesn’t get too fussed about details of urination or fornication or other genital activity. Morality versus justice: which does the Lord care about? I think the division is weird beyond belief. But still, the current reality is, these two sides denounce each other with bitter passion.