There’s a pattern in papal and curial and chancery documents. In general, after the salutations and other blah blah, there follow status quaesitionis points which stand as the justification for the correspondence or decree. However, the business is nearly always towards the end, where, after the stuff up front, the stab comes.
The usual description of this pattern is the Latin “in cauda venenum… the poison is in the tail”, referring to the cuddly scorpion, mentioned by Our Lord as a singularly inappropriate gift from a father to his children (Luke 11:11-13). Having been distracted by the pinchers, the stinger strikes. It isn’t just the poison, it’s that the poison goes to the heart.
The pattern reveals itself fairly often in the Church as, for example, in the relationship of bishops to their priests or the Curia with the wider Church. Trust is given on one side and the deadly, disappointing stab comes.
At least as this year grew into senescence, the situation of “canceled priests” emerged into the light. Canceled priests have experienced from those who ought to be their fathers in the priesthood, the sting of the scorpion. The relationship often begins well, and at the end it’s one-way venom, often unexpected.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux, talking about the false teaching of Amaldus of Brixen, says, “conversatio mel et doctrina venenum, cui caput coumbae, cauda scorpionis est”… “his manner is honey and his doctrine poison; his is the head of a dove and the tail is of the scorpion.” He goes on, “quem Brixia evomuit, Roma exhorruit” … “Whom Brixen vomited, Rome abhors” (Ep. 196, 1).
Venerable Bede wrote: “Recte namquae inmutatio boni praepositi nociva et concupiscentiae carnalis repetitio veneno scorpionis quod retro, id est gestat comparatur cum dicitur: aut si petierit ovum, numquid porriget ille scorpionem? (Homelliarum evangelii II, 14).
Shifting gears but keeping the same idea, Ambrosius Autpertus in his Expositio in Apocalypisin says (2.2): “Apis in ore mel portat, in cauda venenum occultat” … “the bee carries honey in its mouth and hides the poison in its tail”.
At the tail end of 2021, we had a scorpion’s tail from our father figures hidden in loads of honey.
Scorpions are inevitable in the Church. Ask Tertullian. He wrote Scorpiace against the poison of gnosticism. That could be helpful today, with the rise of a new type of gnostic in the Church, in places of power.
Regarding the dear and ubiquious ecclesiastical and indeed prelatial scorpion, there are different ways to receive him. Let’s consider two fables.
Consider the naïve and vulnerable approach and then the suspicious and guarded. Both are willing to deal with the scorpion, but with differing outcomes.
First, you know the Russian tale of the Frog and the Scorpion. A scorpion wants to cross a river but cannot swim. He asks a kindly frog to give him a lift. The frog is afraid that the that the scorpion will sting him, but the scorpion assures him that he won’t using the argument that, the frog’s good is their common good: if he stings the frog in mid-stream, they will both die by drowning! The frog agrees. Off they go and, of course, the scorpion stings the frog. With its dying croak the frog asks the scorpion why he stung, given the consequences. The scorpion replies that he couldn’t help himself, because it is in his nature to sting.
This could be like the lesser, but still mortal, carnal sins people might commit from the appetites that are hard to control because of original sin.
Consider the backgrounds of some of the main figures involved in the Russian level pogrom against the Roman Rite, from the top down to the Curia and then highly visible archbishops. It’s in their nature.
Next, there is the Indian tale of the Frog and Turtle. This is similar to the situation of the Frog and the Scorpion, but with a difference. The turtle is protected by his shell from the scorpion’s repeated stings after his promise of good behavior. Again, when questioned on the other side of the stream, the scorpion says that it is his nature to sting. However, the scorpion knew that the turtle’s have protective shells. He stings anyway, knowing that he won’t die with the turtle. He stings because he is, by nature, a stinger. Stinging for stinging’s sake.
Again, I direct you to consider the nature of our gracious, pastorally-minded shepherds, with their power to hurt and demoralize, goals worthy of the graver mortal sins of the spirit that begin in lesser, more carnal sins, but move quickly into the graver sins of the mind and heart. Stinging for stinging’s sake, beyond just the drive to sting.
In cauda venenum.
At the end of this year, I propose to us all that we work on our protective shell.
The scorpions we have with us will do what they are going to do – try to hurt us more – because it is their nature.
In filial piety we might still be able to lend them a measure of trust – as the Lord counsels his disciples about the hypocrites who have the Seat of Moses (Matthew 23:2). They are owed some obedience, but not unreasoned obedience and not obedience that will kill us (cf. the fate of the trusting and unprotected frog).
The better approach is, sadly now, to expect that they will continue to attack and to hurt us in regard to the Roman Rite. Their documents will have the “poison in the tail”, just as the last line of Cupich’s scorpion to his spiritual children in Chicago says that the cruel and ultra vires restrictions he intends to impose was signed on Christmas Day.
That’s how they roll.
It’s in their nature.
Get ready for a New Year. Let us pray for each other and for our pastors.