N.T. Wright, Pharisees, Journalists and… “temple police”?

One thing I like about reading N.T. Wright’s scholarly works, is that he often has amusing (and quite pointed) remarks. I annotate my books, and the special squiggle in the margin for these points is a smily face! :-)

In a passage in “Jesus and the Victory of God” (p.392), he is discussing the theories of some NT scholars that the construc of the 1st Century Pharisees in the Gospels is an “invention of the early church”, the implication being that the Pharisees of Jesus’ time were not some kind of “official thought police” spying on “ordinary citizens” to see whether or not they broke the Law. He gives the following analogy:

Contemporary analogies [with the Pharisees] are fraught with danger. But there exist certain persons in modern western societies who are elected to no office, hold no government position, carry no authority from the police or the judiciary, and yet to appoint themselves to be the guardians of public morality. From this official unofficial position they assume the right to scrutinise and criticise every movement of the royal, the religious, and the politically active – all of who gnash their teeth but remain powerless. I refer, of course, to journalists. Far be it from me to attack all members of such a noble profession with criticisms appropriate only to some; and yet it cannot go unremarked that some journalists not infrequently bind heavy moral burdens, hard to bear, and lay in on the backs of those whose activities they report, while they themselves do not attempt to lift such burdens with their little finger. This is not a mere digression. It reminds us of two important points. (a) One does not have to be a member of an official thought police in order to have considerable influence within a culture. (b) The self appointed guardians of public behaviour might not cross the street to inspect the private behaviour of an unknown individual. But they will happily go to the other side of the world, and hide in places far less congenial than Galileean corn fields, in order to take one surreptitious photograph of a princess wearing somewhat less and than she would normally put on for the cameras.

One can’t help but smile knowingly at his analogy. But I also wondered at the characterisation of many Catholic bloggers (and those who write to Vatican curial offices) as “temple police”. There is the danger that we can be like the journalists in Wright’s analogy: criticising but not lifting a finger to do anything about the situation. I would like to think not. I would like to think that what many Catholic bloggers do when they highlight the failings of the Church is a constructive exercise aimed precisely at “lifting burdens” and that, far from just writing, we are actively engaged in improving matters.

Also, we need to ask about the function of such criticism. Is it just because, like the Pharisees and like (some) modern day journalists we are aiming at some kind of pure moralism or society in which everything is just as we want it? I would hope not. I would like to think that our aim is not legalistic, but a desire to allow the full beauty of the Church to be seen and the authentic call of the Church to be heard. Food for thought anyway.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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21 Responses to N.T. Wright, Pharisees, Journalists and… “temple police”?

  1. Kate says:

    The first stage of change is acknowledgement of the true state of things, as opposed to the happy world view we construct for ourselves to avoid thiking about what needs to be done…

  2. Joshua says:

    Oh dear, David – beware! – this is the sort of headline that attracts that awful false Coyne! “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes…”

    But I certainly agree with Kate (funny, that) that we, and the Church at large throughout Australia, including our priests and bishops and bureaucrats (!), must seriously acknowledge the truth of how pretty bad, well, just about all aspects of Christian life and teaching and worship are here.

    To make a quite strong comparison, blogs and those little journals such as “Lepanto” and “AD 2000” and that one the John XXIII Co-op produces (I’ve forgotten the name!) are like the samizdat underground pamphlets produced and circulated clandestinely in Soviet states, trying to actually tell the truth against “the big lie”; while the “official” Catholic media, always telling us how wonderful everything is, despite all the very obvious evidence to the contrary, always looking through rose-coloured glasses, reminds me of Pravda and Izvestia in the days of the USSR – and the ironic Russian proverb that “there’s no news in the truth and no truth in the news” (for Pravda means “Truth” and Izvestia means “News”).

    • Gareth says:

      ‘Actively engaging in improving matters’ at a parish level can also be hindered by those in positions of influence, such as those on the parish council – which in my experience always seems dominated by ‘Sunday Catholics’.

      I am not sure how many times in my own parish people have put foward a simple ‘criticism’ that the singing/choice of music is below par, but things never change.

      A family member on one occasion even dared suggest once to a former priest to include a rosary before every Friday midday Mass to no avail.

      Actively engaging in improving matters in the average Australian Catholic parish can at time be like banging ones head on a brick wall.

      Such is life.

      • Joshua says:

        Yes, so very true.

        I am reminded of a bloke I met in W.A. – he was a good singer, and, went work took him from Sydney to Geraldton, he did great work improving the choir and music at Geraldton Cathedral, until parishioners complained (he committed the unforgivable sin of singing some things in Latin), and the bishop told him not to persist. I seem to recall he just gave up and walked away from assisting with music at all, and was glad to leave Geraldton, such was the complete absence of any thanks for his efforts, which garnered only carping criticism from those apparently happy with mediocrity.

    • Stephen K says:

      I think, Joshua, that comparing the magazines you mentioned to the samizdat papers produced in the Soviet era is somewhat of a stretch. The samizdat were produced under very straitened circumstances and bringing considerable risk to the writers: the AD2000 publishers clearly enjoy friends in high places. But of course the other problem is the unresolvable of who is telling the “truth”. Ultimately people by and large accept news and opinion that sits in accord with their established viewpoint; one should not be surprised that most publications and forums speak to an agenda and a comfortable constituency. It is probably safer to say simply that x or y analysis fits in what you yourself think.

      • Gareth says:

        Stephen: the AD2000 publishers clearly enjoy friends in high places.

        Gareth: I challenge this Stephen. AD 2000 is actually very hard to come across unless one subscribes to it, which is a pity considering some of the contributors to articles and the fact that it is actually pretty informative.

        One always finds trash like the Tablet or Eureka Street when it was published and generally pretty hopeless publications like Australian Catholic in our parishses though.

        Would be nice if AD 2000 had more friends

        • Stephen K says:

          Gareth, your reply demonstrates what I was saying: you think it informative and the contributors worthy (as indeed I think some are) but others “trash” and “hopeless”. You agree with the former and not the latter: you’ll find agreement and disagreement, and that’s all one can say. One should not expect to get away with simply asserting that it and like magazines tell the truth and others of a different slant do not.

          I don’t know enough about most church leaders to say what they think of a magazine like AD2000, but though it may be true that it is not widely promoted, I think it true enough to say that the publishers are not threatened by arrest or imprisonment for writing what they do. As the gradual (if hard fought) process of post-Vatican II revision shows, there are enough people in positions of high leadership of sympathy with the sort of positions expressed by it to be confident in saying the publication will continue to speak to a solid, if smaller, constituency. (You may not realise that one does not have to subscribe to AD2000, as it is available on google.) The fact that articles by Cardinal Pell and other senior overseas clerics have appeared over the years in the magazine is probably sufficient for me to assert that it has “friends in high places”.

      • Joshua says:

        Please, I meant no disrespect to the samizdat writers and publishers of old, who endured real physical danger, even imprisonment and torture! I meant rather to emphasise the strange group-think whereby Australian Catholics seem to love to pretend everything is just fine and dandy, and there is no challenge, no problem, no controversy. As Kate says, the first step to making changes for the better is to admit there is a problem (much as the first step in AA is to admit there is a problem).

  3. Stephen K says:

    David, I understand the term “temple police” to denote a particular class of person, namely, someone who makes it their business to monitor what other co-religionists do and say and then put in an official complaint to the powers-that-be in the Vatican. They might also be a local nuisance, engaging in confrontation, but it is the elements of (a) self-appointment; (b) self-importance; and (c) covert anonymous complaint that appear to most arouse the epithet. A ‘temple policeman/woman’ implies someone underhanded and obsessive and self-righteous. No doubt some can think of some people who fit the term. It is not a term I have used myself, but it is probably inaccurate to ascribe the term to people who simply engage in religious polemic.
    Granted that people to whom the term has been applied genuinely believe in what it is they seek to establish, and genuinely hate what it is they seek to eradicate: but it is merely trite, since anything anyone is prepared to do anything about or say is probably a genuine conviction. Even Osama Bin Laden had genuine convictions. No, I think the point is that whatever constitutes ‘temple policing’ is at heart a desire to cause harm to someone.

    Yes, I know that one can say that political cut-and-thrust cannot routinely avoid this. And, as someone who firmly believes that starving underclasses have every right to appropriate the property of the Pharoahs, I certainly do not suggest that oppressive laws and conditions are to be swallowed meekly. However, deliberate hurt to persons is another thing, and is best left to the realm of fleeting private daydreams. Moreover perceived “heresy” is hardly an unequivocally oppressive state of affairs, especially in a situation where there are alternatives. If Masses are not celebrated to one’s theological tastes, if sermons contain unpalatable ideas, no-one is shot or imprisoned thereby; one can choose not to read the offending books, not attend the Mass, or walk out of the sermon. One can even express one’s view to the offender or their local superior. But serial reporting and complaining goes beyond, in my opinion, honest fraternal sollicitude of the kind you suggest.

    Sigh! One man’s freedom fighter is, alas, another’s terrorist.

    Mind you, I’m not sure of the size of any such problem. There are cranks in every social environment and sometimes the issue may be a case of personality clash and a mutual lack of respect getting out of hand. Perhaps the solution might lie if, like in the civil law, a plaintiff or complainant must be able to show that they have personally suffered real loss or damage before their complaint can be upheld.

    • Joshua says:

      No, that’s not at all fair.

      I have a right as a Catholic to a Catholic liturgy and to an orthodox homily. If I see horrendous abuses of the liturgy, real sacrilege, I have as much a duty to speak out and appeal to the proper authority as if I discovered a case of child abuse. (Though, to be honest, for fear of getting into trouble I have nearly always shut up and kept silent.) Indeed, the parallel is exact: too often men complained to their priest, or about their priest to their bishop, and the matter was hushed up, nothing was done, those complaining were victimized, and poor little children were raped and raped. While it is not as brutal a crime as that, to commit sacrilege and to spread heresy is to spiritually abuse the faithful.

      You also claim that it is easy for one not happy to simply walk out. What if that parish, that Mass, is the only one? That is the situation in many a small town in Queensland or elsewhere.

      What the hell is wrong with complaining to the Vatican if someone teaches out and out heresy (e.g. Jesus is not Divine, or the Blessed Sacrament is just bread)? What the hell is wrong if you complain when leavened bread is used for Mass, and the leftover consecrated bread is used to eat with sausages at a BBQ following – as happened in 1990 at a Mass in Queensland?

      I bitterly resent the imputation that “all is well and good, nothing bad happens here” when it does and has. Talk about Pravda and Izvestia!

      The truth is the liberals invented this use of “Temple police” as a term of abuse when faithful Catholics complained about terrible abuses of the sacraments, and, when local action proved fruitless, sent their evidence on to Rome. Strange to say, there are standards and rules and disciplines in the Church – as when a seminarian in Melbourne in the 1980’s put a Coke can in the tabernacle in the seminary chapel, and the Rector had to send an official report to Rome about the profanation of the sacrament. You may laugh, but it was no laughing matter.

      To dismiss any and all complains as “surely not that important”, as if heresy were impossible to prove or define, as if sacrilege (as described above in the case of that Queensland Mass, or in the case of a Mass I attended where the priest urged non-Catholics in attendance to also come and freely take Communion) were impossible to prove or define, is to sin against truth.

      I have a right to a Catholic Mass, not to a travesty.

      • Joshua says:

        P.S. I think I am a bit overwrought at present, please excuse the tone!

        • Stephen K says:

          Joshua, no worries, but I will attempt to clarify some of my thoughts here.

          I fully and readily agree that when one attends a place for worship, to express and participate in formal liturgy, it is reasonable to expect that it will accord with one’s sensibility and religious spirit. This is why some people go here, and others go there. If I wish to pray in a solemn formal manner, I do not enjoy being surprised by a folk liturgy. In the Father’s house there are many mansions. We bring our beliefs and attitudes and if these are confused or affronted when we do not expect them, it becomes a negative and fruitless exercise in nearly all senses of the term.

          In an important sense therefore, it sounds correct to speak of a “right” to get what you expect. I think it correct to expect Catholic priests to celebrate liturgies according to the approved forms and not import idiosyncratic elements. Sermons are a less clear-cut area, but generally, I accept that if priests have private faith doubts or dissents, the Mass homily is not the place to air them, though there may be a case for priests to express criticisms of practical Church affairs if they honestly thought the spiritual good of the congregation would be served thereby. In my opinion at least, priests should not be robotic ciphers or merely ‘company men’. Congregations also have a right (if not an expectation) to be communicated to intelligently, honestly, and encouraged to think and wrestle with their received faith, not merely served up platitudes or formulae.

          But the rightful expectation of a person who attends their Church for a service concordant with their beliefs does not necessarily translate into the sort of calculated crusading I thought characterised what their critics objected to in people whom they called ‘temple police’. I thought my consideration of the term was quite fair actually. I do really think there is a difference between a Catholic demanding Catholic ministry be made available to him or her, and someone anonymously and systematically reporting others behind their backs.

          David used the example where he spoke to a minister about what he thought was an unsatisfactory character of his sermon: this is entirely a different kettle of fish. The example you cite of the hushing up or inaction over rape and abuse is also quite a different case.

          I never implied or stated that all was well or good, nor did I or would I laugh about an abuse of sacraments. My attitude is that religious rites and sacramentals of all genuine religious traditions are to be respected and treated seriously. I don’t in any way dismiss as “unimportant” complaints about such things, but I tried to explain what lay behind the use of the term. I’m afraid I find “spying” to have negative connotations, and a lot of people might share this instinctive revulsion. It may serve a good but then again it may not.

          I hope this clarifies where I’m coming from.

    • Schütz says:

      I personally believe I have an “apostolate of sermon criticism”! I believe it to be a service to the preacher to take up his sermon with him and offer constructive advice. I heard a Lutheran sermon on New Years Day which completely failed to mention Jesus Christ even once. I pointed this out to the pastor afterwards, and I think he appreciated the observation… I think. If we don’t offer feedback, how will preaching improve?

      • Joshua says:

        Excellent – after all, you have much experience in preaching!

        It would make a fascinating post (hint hint) to compare and contrast Lutheran and Catholic preaching (relative length, structure if any, topics, tone, delivery, intellectual content, reference to the day’s readings, objective orthodoxy, subjective effectiveness, etc.).

        I remember being quite intrigued to find that Lutheran sermons (such as I have read; I’ve heard very few) seem to quote – Lutheran hymns! (I would have expected more Scriptural texts.)

  4. Tony Bartel says:

    I was reminded of Anthony Trollope’s account in his novel “The Warden”of the ficitonal newpsaper “The Jupiter” and its editor Tom Towers:

    From here issue the only known infallible bulls for the guidance of British souls and bodies. This little court is the Vatican of England. Here reigns a pope, self-nominated, self-consecrated–ay, and much stranger too–self-believing!–a pope whom, if you cannot obey him, I would advise you to disobey as silently as possible; a pope hitherto afraid of no Luther; a pope who manages his own inquisition, who punishes unbelievers as no most skilful inquisitor of Spain ever dreamt of doing–one who can excommunicate thoroughly, fearfully, radically; put you beyond the pale of men’s charity; make you odious to your dearest friends, and turn you into a monster to be pointed at by the finger!’ Oh heavens! and this is Mount Olympus!

    It is a fact amazing to ordinary mortals that The Jupiter is never wrong. With what endless care, with what unsparing labour, do we not strive to get together for our great national council the men most fitting to compose it. And how we fail! Parliament is always wrong: look at The Jupiter, and see how futile are their meetings, how vain their council, how needless all their trouble! With what pride do we regard our chief ministers, the great servants of state, the oligarchs of the nation on whose wisdom we lean, to whom we look for guidance in our difficulties! But what are they to the writers of The Jupiter? They hold council together and with anxious thought painfully elaborate their country’s good; but when all is done, The Jupiter declares that all is naught. Why should we look to Lord John Russell–why should we regard Palmerston and Gladstone, when Tom Towers without a struggle can put us right? Look at our generals, what faults they make; at our admirals, how inactive they are. What money, honesty, and science can do, is done; and yet how badly are our troops brought together, fed, conveyed, clothed, armed, and managed. The most excellent of our good men do their best to man our ships, with the assistance of all possible external appliances; but in vain. All, all is wrong–alas! alas! Tom Towers, and he alone, knows all about it. Why, oh why, ye earthly ministers, why have ye not followed more closely this heaven-sent messenger that is among us?

  5. Christine says:

    It would make a fascinating post (hint hint) to compare and contrast Lutheran and Catholic preaching (relative length, structure if any, topics, tone, delivery, intellectual content, reference to the day’s readings, objective orthodoxy, subjective effectiveness, etc.).

    Joshua, IMHO it depends very much on which Lutheran body one is engaging.

    When I was growing up there was more or less a “common” service in most of the Lutheran churches and the sermons were reasonably similar. Today, if one is visiting a “liberal” (for lack of a better word) Lutheran congregation such as the ELCA here in the States one is likely to encounter a sermon based on social justice themes and inclusive “ecumenism”. The ELCA is having the same struggles as the Episcopal Church here, some congregations trying to maintain a “historic” way of being Lutheran while others are clearly altering that.

    The more conservative “Confessional” Lutheran bodies are also divided, some having embraced a more American Evangelical culture while others are trying to adhere to the historic Lutheran liturgy and preaching. Even here, there are variations. One congregation may base its sermons on the lectionary readings of the day (most Lutherans now use the three-year RCL lectionary, a few in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod still use the one-year) while in others, such as one I visited, the entire sermon was based on the pastor’s opinion that too many people are not attending church, taking the Bible literally as God’s word, etc. etc. I wondered how this struck the small congregation that actually WAS there. Seemed like preaching to the choir to me.

    Of course, Catholics are also bound to hear some “good” and “not so good” sermons. from parish to parish. I feel fortunate that at my parish, which is staffed by Benedictines I regularly hear preaching that is very edifying.

  6. Fr. John Cox says:

    “I fully and readily agree that when one attends a place for worship, to express and participate in formal liturgy, it is reasonable to expect that it will accord with one’s sensibility and religious spirit.”

    Is this comment indicative of the outlook of Catholics generally?

  7. matthias says:

    I gew up in the suburb of Bentleigh here in Melbourne,just around the corner from ST Pauls Catholic Church. We had neighbours who were ‘Sunday catholics’ opposite our place,and a neighbour next door who was a Sunday Anglican.
    a new priest came to St Pauls,I suddenly noticed that our Catholic neighbours came alive in the Faith and conversed with my parents on subjects that were usually that great gulf between ardent Proddy and ardent Catholic. Two Redemptorist priests-American and also brothers- came to st pauls and there was a movement of the Holy Spirit. Some months later the priest was moved on because the temple police-conservative elements in the parish who came from conservative Catholic communities in the ladns of their birth-kicked up a stink. Our nieghbours were very uspet and likened the complainants to the Pharisees. The priest went to found the then new parish of St Andrews Clayton South,and built a solid foundation -sadly he died I think two years later. i wonder if those who complained ever said a prayer for his respose. I know that he would have said a prayer of forgiveness for them-I have an aunt who was a friend of his.

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