Qui bene distinguit bene docet
It is now abundantly clear to all of us, I hope, that St. Paul’s warning about the eternal battle “against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12) is not just a rhetorical trope. It’s raging all around us with a palpable intensity. One of the clearest signs is that more and more of our institutions are taking up and loudly proclaiming the ancient lie first whispered by the Father of Lies to our first parents: “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5) The New Orthodoxy, in fact, goes beyond determining good and evil for ourselves: even external realities like male and female must bow before the the power of the “awakened” human will. Anyone with the temerity to question the new teachings will be told, as Lot was by the men of Sodom: “This fellow came to sojourn, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” (Genesis 19:9)
When you consider the nature of the current struggle, it seems clear that language is one of the main fronts in the war right now. Above I referred to Satan as the “father of lies”. That title is bestowed on him by Jesus himself: “When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But, because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.” (John 8:44-45) To the extent that we’re wading through a sea of lies, we’re fighting on the Enemy’s chosen ground. We need to find a way to move the battle back to dry land, to the truth.
That’s where the Latin adage above comes in: Qui bene distinguit bene docet, “He who distinguishes well, teaches well”. A sure way to deceive people either by misdirection or by appealing to their desires, is to obscure the distinction between the truth and a falsehood that bears a passing resemblance to the truth. Promoters of killing embryonic human beings for their stem cells, for instance, will leave out the important qualifier “embryonic” and say that those who oppose the practice are “against stem cells”. In this way they suggest that opponents of embryonic stem cell mining are also against the morally benign and medically beneficial use of adult stem cells, and that they are therefore “anti-science,” and “against medical treatments”, etc. etc. That’s a lie, because most opponents of embryonic stem cell research support the use of adult stem cells.
I should make a caveat at this point: yes, whenever we lie, and whenever we distort or corrupt the language in order to deceive, we are by definition doing the Devil’s work. That doesn’t mean that everyone who gets on board with a false narrative is in League With Satan. I’m sure most such people believe that they are on the side of the (unfallen) angels. At the same time, that doesn’t mean that they (or we, when we do it) aren’t at fault. We are responsible for properly forming our consciences, and when we ought to know better, well, we ought to know better.
This brings us to the second half of our legal maxim, bene docet, “teaches well”. If we don’t know the truth because we failed to distinguish well, we will not be able to teach well. How well could I teach Latin, for example, if I couldn’t (or didn’t) distinguish nouns from verbs? As it happens, there are more important truths to be taught than proper Latin grammar (if you can believe it). There are truths, or maybe better there is Truth, that is essential for our eternal salvation . . . and there are men who are specially commissioned to teach it.
I’m talking about the bishops of the Catholic Church, of course. The three most essential tasks given to a bishop are these: to teach, to govern, and to sanctify. One of the most important things they are responsible for teaching is, in fact, just what we are celebrating this weekend: Christ’s real Presence, Body and Blood, in the Eucharist. How well are they teaching it? According to a study published by the Pew Research Center two years ago, not very. You’ve probably heard the bottom-line finding: 70% of Catholics don’t believe in the Real Presence of Christ in Eucharist.
That figure alone doesn’t tell us anything about why they don’t believe, but a deeper dig into the report turns up some interesting details:
Most Catholics who believe that the bread and wine are symbolic do not know that the church holds that transubstantiation occurs. Overall, 43% of Catholics believe that the bread and wine are symbolic and also that this reflects the position of the church. Still, one-in-five Catholics (22%) reject the idea of transubstantiation, even though they know about the church’s teaching.
The vast majority of those who believe that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ – 28% of all Catholics – do know that this is what the church teaches.
What’s striking here is that the largest segment of Catholics, more than four out of every ten, don’t believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but not because they’ve rejected the doctrine: they don’t even know that it is the doctrine. That is a huge failure on the part of those responsible for teaching in the Church, but a great opportunity as well. Who knows what might happen if somebody tells them what the Catholic Church really believes?
A smaller group, but still much too large, are those who say they know the teaching, but reject it. This is a tougher nut to crack. The Pew survey doesn’t go into why they don’t believe or why, despite rejecting a foundational Church doctrine, they still consider themselves Catholic. No doubt they don’t think it’s terribly important. Isn’t that the message they get from the institutional Church? It’s unlikely they’ve heard much of an explanation or defense of the doctrine of transubstantiation, unless they’ve actively sought it out.
Speaking of teaching, here’s another Latin maxim: exempla docent: examples teach. The reception of Communion seems a pretty casual affair in many places without the patens, communion rails, and reception on the tongue that served as concrete reminders to earlier generations of just what, or better yet Whom, they are receiving. And not only that: everyone receives. Everyone and anyone, it seems, is worthy to receive the Body and Blood of Our Lord, even promoters and purveyors of a practice as abominable as abortion.
Let’s go back for a moment to bene distinguit. We need to distinguish between doctrinal teaching and mere opinion. We need to make the distinction between a state of grace and a state of sin. We need to distinguish the Body and Blood of Christ from ordinary bread and wine. The Church tells us that the Eucharist is the Summit and Source of the Christian Life, but millions of Catholics are at risk of losing their Life in Christ, and they don’t even know it.
Qui Non Bene Distinguit, Non Bene Docet
That is the issue that many of our Teachers in the Church fail to discern in the current controversy over Eucharistic Coherence, which, as we saw recently, simply refers to the question of whether to admit public, unrepentent advocates of legal abortion and other evil practices to Holy Communion. Those who say that to exclude such people is to “politicize” or “weaponize” the Eucharist are failing to distinguish between the practice of faith and mere politics. In doing so, they endorse the view that the deliberate destruction of innocent human life is not an issue of Good and Evil, but simply a policy disagreement. Qui non bene distinquit, non bene docet.
The issue isn’t political advantage for one party or another, the issue is life itself . . . eternal life. Let’s add a little Greek lesson to the Latin. In secular parlance, a “scandal” is when a prominent person is publicly embarassed. That’s not the original meaning , or the Catholic meaning of the word, however. In Greek σκάνδαλον originally meant the trigger of a trap, the stick that, knocked out of place, causes the snare to catch the victim. From there we get the Christian meaning of scandal, a practice or behavior that blurs the distinction between right and wrong, and in so doing ensnares people in Sin.
Bene Distinguant Episcopi Nostri
The issue here is not that the politicians in question are politicians per se, it is that that as prominent people who represent themselves as Catholic they are publicly using their influence to promote things that are gravely sinful. When those responsible for teaching, governing, and sanctifying fail to distinguish the true dimensions of the problem, and fail to govern by allowing those who persist in openly promoting sin to receive communion, the appointed teachers are teaching by their actions that the Body and Blood of Our Lord is simply not that important. As St. Paul reminds us, unworthy reception of communion is not sanctifying, but condemning:
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. (1 Corinthians 27-30)
The real issue is not politics, but the saving of souls, the souls of the politicians in question and the souls of those whom they ensnare by their example. Bene distinguant Episcopi nostri – May our bishops distinguish well.
Feature image: “The Anti-Christ” from the Cathedral of Orvieto, painted by Luca Signorelli 1499-1500.