Weeds, wheat, and the perilous limitations of the human condition
By Msgr. Michael Heintz
“Hate the sin; love the sinner.” The Gospel about the wheat and weeds sown together reminds us about an inherent — and healthy — tension in Catholicism. The Catholic tradition gently and gingerly juggles in a careful balance two facts. First, there exists an objective moral order which is independent of any individual and the world he or she may construct or concoct for him or herself; thus there is objective truth and objective good and evil which do not depend simply upon the intentionality of any individual or group. Second, none of us are in the position to discern the status of another before God. The parable of the weeds sown among the wheat has been taken up — most famously by St. Augustine — to explain the complex ambiguity of the human condition and of our incapacity to make judgments with any degree of certainty about others’ moral or religious status. In fact, Augustine would contend, the distinction between “wheat” and “weed” is not simply found between individuals or among groups, but rather cuts down the very center (he would prefer the word heart) of each one of us.
In this gentle balancing act, maintaining objective moral standards and at the same time remaining circumspect about the position of others before God, we are apt to err in one of two ways. First, in an effort to avoid passing judgment (and the Gospel texts which warn against this danger are many), we can easily water-down or relativize that objective moral order. We can emphasize (to the near exclusion of everything else) the good intentions of the agent; or, perhaps worse, we can allow a seemingly good end to justify a less than morally acceptable means: we can say, “well, the world’s a messy place, and the small evil entailed is proportionately small,” or “chalk that up as collateral damage; the good we’ve done more than makes up for the harm done.” Alternately, in an effort to maintain the objectivity of the moral order, we slide quickly into judgments about others, easily categorizing and labeling them, subtly securing our own sense of superiority. The danger of such judgments is obvious. As Augustine would remind us, in this life we cannot be certain even of our own salvation: we can work for it, pray for it, and hope for it, but on this side of the veil, we can never be certain of it. And if we cannot be certain of our own salvation, we are in no position whatsoever to make judgments about others. Further, naming things is a divine prerogative, shared with Adam by God prior to the Fall. In a fallen world, our capacity to name things, infected by our pride, is reduced to labeling others and becomes a tool to control, master, and confine others into a neat little world we more often than not construct for ourselves, at the center of which (if we are honest and look carefully) is our own self-glorification.
What, then, are we left to do? First, simply continue, undaunted, the balancing act: fully aware of the dangers inherent in abandoning the moral order and in judging others, we should be clear about moral good and evil and at the same time be clear about our own inability to see or read the hearts of others. Second, pray. When we see words, deeds, or omissions which are objectively sinful or clearly unjust (and the world is rife with examples), we should pray for the conversion of their perpetrators, all the while — and at the same time — praying for our own.