There is a place called Medjugorje at which the Virgin Mary is reported to be appearing to a group of Catholics on a daily basis. If true, these apparitions are the longest-running and most frequently occurring apparitions to date. Opinions on Medjugorje tend to be very polarized: most people have strong opinions one way or the other, and few have a “let’s wait and see” approach. It is not my purpose to rehash the debate here; for those who are interested in figuring out what this debate is about, read Patrick Madrid’s blog entries on the topic for a more skeptical approach, and Medjugorje.org for the believer’s perspective.
This post is about the proper interpretation of Matthew 7:16, which reads: “”By their fruits you shall know them.” I hope to advance the debate on Medjugorje by making a set of distinctions that I think are often overlooked by both sides. Both sides of the debate make different claims about the “fruits” of Medjugorje: those who support the apparitions often point to the massive number of conversions and the good work that is being done as a result of Medjugorje. How can so many good fruits be produced if they are the work of the devil or of con men? On the other hand, skeptics point to the infidelity of certain priests heavily associated with Medjugorje, the lack of religious vocations among the “seers” to whom Mary is appearing, and supposed lies told by seers to the bishop or anti-ecclesiastical or false statements made by the Virgin Mary herself.
I don’t think that many people in this debate have devoted enough time to examining what a “fruit” is. Jesus says that a good tree cannot produce bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot produce good fruit. Jesus does not seem to allow for any middle ground: he says nothing about mediocre trees producing mediocre fruit, or good trees sometimes producing bad fruit. And yet, we see bad people do good things all the time. For example Fr. Maciel, the now disgraced founder of the Legionnaires of Christ, created a vast organization that has done many charitable things in the Church; but when he died people realized that he was also a very good conman, building up the organization for his own personal gain. Are his fruits good, or are they bad? If Fr. Maciel’s fruits are both good and bad, then Jesus is wrong, and bad trees can produce at least some good fruit. But that is unacceptable; so how do we make sense of Jesus’ advice?
This post is in three sections: a) Reject the consequentialist account of ‘fruits’. b) Establish a virtue ethics account of ‘fruits’. c) Apply my account to Medjugorje.
a). Most people in the Medjugorje debate seem to think of a fruit as a consequence. (For brevity, I’ll consider just one side of the debate, albeit the side on which I think the error most frequently occurs). Medjugorje supporters point to the conversions, prayer, spiritual renewal as fruits of the events. Because all of these good things are happening, they argue, the seers must be telling the truth because these things would not be happening if God were not somehow involved. But this line of thinking seems problematic. Like any consequentialist account of the world, it is difficult to determine what counts as a consequence of a particular action or person. For example let’s say some man asks me for directions to Busch Stadium, and I give them to him, and he goes there and bombs the stadium. Am I responsible for the deaths of those people? If not, then why not? And if not, then what account of morally significant consequences can we give that would make me morally blameless in the Busch Stadium bombing but also allow that the seers are somehow responsible for the good fruits being produced at Medjugorje? Furthermore, if the many purported conversions are consequences of Medjugorje, then why can’t also the disobedient priests be a consequence of Medjugorje, too? How are we going to define “fruit” so as to include one but exclude the other? How do we define a consequence so that the bombing of Busch stadium is not the fault of the direction-giver while showing that the consequences of Medjugorje are the consequences of the seers?
Now some may object that I am making a sleight of hand: it is not the seers that are producing the good fruits at Medjugorje, but God or Mary. But if that’s the case, then Matthew 7:16 does not apply to Medjugorje–in fact, it is difficult to see how it would be useful advice at all! Read Matthew 7:15-19:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in the clothing of sheep, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. 16 By their fruits you shall know them. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? 17 Even so every good tree brings forth good fruit, and the evil tree brings forth evil fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can an evil tree bring forthgood fruit. 19 Every tree that brings not forth good fruit, shall be cut down, and shall be cast into the fire. 20 Wherefore by their fruits you shall know them.”
Jesus is not telling us how to discern whether events are from God: he is telling us how to judge whether persons are from God. A real prophet produces good fruit; a bad prophet produces bad fruit; and it is by these fruits that we shall know them to be true or false prophets. The objector, therefore, is in a bit of a dilemma. If the many conversions are the fruit of the Holy Spirit and cannot be attributed to the seers themselves, and Matthew 7:15-19 does not test prophets at all, then Matthew 7:16 doesn’t apply to Medjugorje. But if we can determine the truth of whether Mary is appearing at Medjugorje apart from examining the prophets themselves in some way, then what good is Jesus’ advice in the first place? How can such events be called a prophet’s fruit if they have nothing to do with the prophet? Under the consequentialist interpretation, the only way Matthew 7:16 can be used as a test of prophets is if the good and bad consequences of Medjugorje can somehow be linked to the prophets themselves. It is in no way clear how this is possible. If it were, it would run into the same objections I presented above.
I think that the idea that a fruit is somehow a good or bad consequence following from an action faces too many difficulties and absurdities to be of any use. There just isn’t any good, non-arbitrary way to determine what is a fruit and what isn’t if a fruit is a consequence. My point is validated by reading debates about this topic: defenders will without fail point at the good things going on as signs of the authenticity of the apparitions while dismissing the bad consequences as not fruits. Meanwhile, those same fruits rejected by the defenders are touted as fruits by skeptics. In this sense, this discussion of consequences mirrors discussions in moral philosophy. What counts as a morally significant consequence is notoriously difficult to determine. And even if there were a coherent account of fruits-as-consequences, it is unclear that a faithful Catholic should adhere to it. My intuition is that one cannot import consequentialism in this instance without also importing consequentialism as a moral philosophy. I say this because the account I am about to give flows directly from my own moral philosophy, and I don’t see how my account of “fruit” can be separated from what I consider a fruit in moral philosophy.
b). I think a better way to conceive of a fruit is not as a consequence of an action, but as an action of an agent. Fruits are not consequences, but acts. This way of conceiving of a fruit has many advantages. First, it avoids the difficulties involved with consequentialism, which I discussed above In my account, a person can end up producing good consequences and yet still produce bad fruit, i.e. a bad act. For example, let’s say that a billionaire gives millions of dollars to the poor in order to feed his own good opinion of himself and seduce another man’s wife with his altruism. Despite the good consequences, the act is still immoral: for an act to be good, both the further intentions of the act (i.e. making himself look good and seducing another man’s wife) and the moral object (giving money to the poor) must both be good. If one is bad, the entire act is bad. The consequences may be good insofar as many poor people are fed and clothed. But these consequences tell us nothing about whether the act itself is good or bad. Consequences or circumstances can tell us the degree of goodness that the act has; it cannot tell us that an act is good or bad.
Second, it is now clearer what counts as a fruit and what doesn’t: if we are judging the Medjugorje seers by their fruits, we are not judging them on the consequences of their acts, but on their acts themselves. Are they honest people? Are they holy people? Do they act for self-gain or out of selflessness? Has their encounter with Mary made them desire to pursue virtue? (Brief side note: It still may be difficult–at least initially– to determine what the seer’s intentions are (and therefore whether their acts are good or bad), because intentions are sometimes hard to ascertain from an outsider’s perspective. Still, it is better than the consequentialist account because it gives us a definite way to determine what is a fruit and what isn’t; also, while intentions can be somewhat private, it is still possible to determine intent from people’s actions. Think of how we determine in court whether a murder is premeditated.
Third, my virtue account of fruits makes sense of Jesus’ words by giving a consistent account of why good trees only produce good fruit, etc. In Augustine’s and Aquinas’ account, “A virtue is a good quality of the mind, by which we live righteously, of which no one can make bad use, which God works in us, without us” (ST I-II q.55, a.4). Note that a virtue cannot be abused: if you have a virtue, you cannot abuse that virtue and act badly. Thus, a person with a virtue always produces good fruits, and a person with a vice always produces bad fruits. The “virtuous” person who knowingly does an evil act never had the virtue in the first place.
What, then, about the people who have neither a particular virtue or its opposed vice, but are only self-controlled or incontinent? Both of these people are capable of doing good things and evil things, but they are only good or evil analogously, i.e. not in the same way that a virtuous person is good and a vicious person is bad (Aristotle argues this in Book VII of the Nichomachean Ethics). To see why, let’s explain what each of these terms mean:
-a virtuous person’s reason and inclinations are in harmony, aimed at the good.
-a self-controlled person’s reason masters unruly inclinations.
-an incontinent person’s reason cannot overcome his inclinations.
-a vicious person’s reason and inclinations are in harmony, aimed at the bad.
Now if intentions make an act good or evil, then the virtuous person and the self-controlled person both do good, but not in the same way. The virtuous person loves the good and does the good for its own sake. The self-controlled person does the right thing, but must struggle because they desire to do evil. Thus, they do good, but they still must master their desire to do evil, and thus they do not intend the good the same way the virtuous person does. The same analysis can be given to the incontinent, the vicious person, and evil actions.
Returning to Matthew 7:16: “Good” and “bad are analogous terms. In my account, a “good tree” is a virtuous person, and a “bad tree” is a vicious person. Thus good trees produce only good fruit, and bad trees produce only bad fruit. The self-controlled and incontinent, whose acts are sometimes good and sometimes bad, are not discussed by Jesus, at least not directly. Jesus’ advice, while not telling us how to deal with an incontinent or self-controlled prophet whose acts are sometime good and sometimes bad, is nevertheless wise and sound advice when the prophets are virtuous or vicious. For the non-virtuous and non-vicious prophets, I suggest we use two tests, which build on Jesus’ advice without altering it: a) Examine the supposed prophet’s general character. Are they generally dishonest? Do they seek holiness? Etc. b) Has their possible-encounter with the Virgin Mary changed their lives and led them to greater conversion of heart and soul? Since these people produce neither virtuous or vicious actions, we need to judge them by how deeply they seek the things of God.
Finally, my account gives a very neat and clear way of telling why someone like Fr. Maciel was a false prophet, whereas I’m not sure the defenders of Medjugorje can. Because Maciel built the entire Legionnaire organization for his own person benefit, he is a false prophet regardless of whatever good consequences followed from that organization. So even though Fr. Maciel is a false prophet we can still argue that the people within his organization did good and holy work without attributing those good works to Fr. Maciel. Furthermore, we can argue that God’s work was being done in the Legionnaires despite their founder’s many sins. Similarly, it’s possible that God is doing good work at Medjugorje even if the prophets are lying about Mary appearing to them. This is because Jesus’ test in Matthew 7:16 is a test of prophets, not consequences. If we judged Fr. Maciel on the consequences of his actions, what would count as fruits? The founding of the order which did so much good? The lack of conversion in his own life? Would it be possible that he did so much good that he is to be considered a prophet despite being a morally depraved man who apparently even refused to receive the Last Rites before he died?
c). Do we yet have enough evidence to ascertain whether the seers at Medjugorje are true prophets? Perhaps a definitive answer is difficult to ascertain at this point. After all, it took many, many years for Fr. Maciel’s evil actions to come to light. It is even said that his children came to see him at his death bed, and he refused to receive the last rites. He made his Legionnaires vow never to criticize those in authority, in part so that his own scandalous acts would be covered up. This, in spite of the many good deeds done by those under him, and despite years of deceiving John Paul II and many powerful cardinals and laymen. Also, it took many years after Mother Theresa’s death to see how amazingly holy she really was. The correct way to judge a prophet’s character is prayer, personal conversion, and time. Prayer to know God’s will; conversion to develop a sense of what is good and what is not; and time, because God works in his own time.
Returning to Medjugorje. If my account is correct, then there are immediate consequences for future debates. First, the good and bad consequences of Medjugorje–the conversions and the evil Franciscans, the prayer and the constant bickering among Catholics–have no place in a debate about what is a fruit of Medjugorje. Matthew 7:16 is a test for prophets, a test which examines character, not consequences.