Come, Follow Me
State of the Union: Does the Christ of the Gospels allow for the “gradualness” Cardinal McElroy describes?
In an interview with America magazine, following up on his controversial essay on synodality and the Church's teachings on sexuality, Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego said the following:
When Jesus came to people, he didn’t say, “You want to follow me? You gotta be perfect.” If he had, the disciples wouldn’t have made it past the first week. [Jesus] takes us where we are and calls us to move forward. He doesn’t say, “Live life as you want, and it doesn’t matter whether it accords with the Gospel of Jesus.”
But Christ doesn’t say, “You have got a leap from where you are at this moment to perfection.” It doesn’t work that way.
There is a sense in which this is true. Perfection is the goal of the Christian life (Mt 5:48), but the disciples were not perfect men, either at the time of their call or after the Lord's resurrection.
The cardinal here is talking about "[t]he principle of gradualism." He invokes St. John Paul II's apostolic exhortation, Familiaris consortio, which mentions the "law of gradualness," which the pontiff defined as a "step-by-step advance" in the moral life. John Paul II is clear, however, to distinguish a "law of gradualness" from a "'gradualness of the law,' as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God's law for different individuals and situations." The "law of gradualness," the idea that Christians grow in virtue over time, is distinct from the idea that the moral law is subjective and applies to individuals differently based on circumstance. The Christ of the Gospels does not admit of that kind of "gradualness."
When a rich young man runs up to the feet of Christ and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, the Lord looks at him, loves him, and says, "If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me."
Our Lord does not say, "Sell what you have tomorrow." He does not say, "Take the night to think it over." He does not say, "Go, and slowly part with your possessions, one by one, over the course of several years." He tells the man to come and follow Him, now.
The young man "went away sad: for he had great possessions." Christ did not chase after him, beg the man to take small steps in the direction of total divestiture, or enter into "dialogue." He let him walk away, having failed to heed the Lord's call to perfection.
The obedience Christ demands cannot come tomorrow, or the day after. It must come now. When a man's father dies, and he meets our Lord on His way to Jerusalem, the Lord tells him, "Follow me." The man, reasonably, asks whether he might be allowed to first bury his father. Our Lord does not allow him to bury his father, to make arrangements with his relatives, or even to mull it over. "Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou, and preach the kingdom of God."
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The Christ of the Gospels is terrifying in a way that the warmed-over, therapeutic Christ of the revisionists is not. He does ask would-be disciples to "leap." He asks them to be perfect as their Heavenly Father is perfect.
Lord knows I am not perfect. I shudder at these words of Christ. But they are His words all the same.
"No man putting his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God."