At the beginning of this thirty-first week of Ordinary Time we arrive at one of the oddest and most challenging counterpoints in the whole of the liturgy: the two day juxtaposition, in the Office of Readings, of 1 Maccabees and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of Vatican II. I didn't catch much of it this year, yesterday having been All Souls and opting for John XXIII's beautiful homily for the canonization of Martin de Porres today, but I did the readings anyway because they strike me so strongly each year at this time.
In the reading from Maccabees today, the great Mattathias is so filled with zeal to follow the Law that he not only kills the messenger bearing the king's demand of cultural assimilation, but even another Jew who was going to comply. He and his fellow zealots, after having left the city in order to protect the purity of their religious observance, go about destroying pagan altars and forcibly circumcising any uncircumcised boys they find.
After having meditated on all of this, one then turns to Gaudium et spes and is exhorted to "cooperate, willingly and wholeheartedly, in building an international order based on genuine respect for legitimate freedom and on a brotherhood of universal friendship." We are to "cooperate actively and constructively with other Christians" and to share resources "without being uniform and inflexible."
It's the classic question of how people of faith who value religion are supposed to relate to the unbelieving, persecuting, or lax world around them. Do we separate ourselves so as to protect the purity of our life, or do we assimilate to the world a little so as to include more souls in what really matters? What is our duty to the lapsed or unobservant among us? Do we come at them honey or vinegar, with cooperation or separation, with 'relevant,' 'updated' activities or a bomb?
Is it good to have a Catholic politician, even if they don't seem to believe and work for everything the Church teaches? Or is it an unacceptable scandal?
Christians have always enjoyed the right of 'plundering the Egyptians;' we may take the tools of the unbelieving world and use them for the benefit of the Gospel. (What else does it mean to be a Catholic blogger?) But in our relationship to the world, how willing are we to risk allowing its errors to infect the purity of our faith? It's a hard question, to know where to draw the line. If we run up into the mountains and refuse any relationship to the earthly city, we will fail to be the missionaries that we are called to be. But if we live in too close a spirit of cooperation with the unbelieving world, we will soon find--as we have!--that the faith becomes distorted by those of us who start to accept and support the world's crimes and absurdities, like abortion and various other things.
There have always been Christians firmly planted all over the map on this question, and it remains a challenge for each individual and community.