More on “It’s the Culture, Stupid” or “Having the bishops we want”

I’ve been arguing that we pretty much have the bishops we want. Evidence for this is abundant. One obvious argument in reply is “The Pope should give us *leaders* not what the laity want.” One could, of course, observe that it’s hard to square this with the other fervent wish we hear: that the bishops be elected by the laity for limited terms and be subject to things like recall votes, but I’d like to set aside this entire hopeless attempt to graft Jeffersonian thinking into the Tradition, and talk about something else: Scripture.

We have, in Scripture, an incident which rather closely parallels today’s problem: Deuteronomy 32. In that passage, we read of a sin which, for many rabbinic commenters, is as grave a primoridial catastrophe in the history of Israel as the eating of the apple was for Adam and Eve: the Golden Calf. You recall the basic story from the Charlton Heston version: Moses is gone to long on Mt. Sinai, so Israel obligingly illustrates my “It’s the culture, Stupid” thesis as follows:

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron, and said to him, “Up, make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 And Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the rings of gold which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received the gold at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made a molten calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” 6 And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.

Note how Aaron, the high priest, conforms with jellyfish-like courage to the demands of the people. That doesn’t excuse his sin, it compounds it since he, of all people, should know better. Note also the connection between idolatry and sexual misbehavior (“rose up to play” is a Hebraic euphemism for an orgy.)

And yet, the fascinating part is that Moses does not kick Aaron out of the high priesthood and replace him with somebody more moral. Instead, the rites of Levitical sacrifice are inaugurated and the priesthood is instituted as a sort of permanent penitential reminder to the people of their sinfulness. The things which Israel worshipped are things which the nation is now called to sacrifice (bulls, etc). Both priest and people are made to suffer through the consequences of their sinful choices. Moses doesn’t simply yank Aaron outta there and stick somebody faithful (like Joshua, f’rinstance) in his place.

So there’s precedent, you see.

Now, it’s true that the Christian priesthood is not levitical, but Melchizedekian (see Hebrews for a thorough discussion of these two priesthoods). Christian sacerdotal priesthood participates in the priesthood of Christ and administers sacraments which can actually take away sin, which levitical priests could not. But that’s neither here nor there with respect to my point, which is that one biblical model for dealing with cultural sin that infects the leadership is to force leaders and people to endure the consequences of their choices until both leaders and people are serious about choosing something else.

Just something to think about.


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