Some time between World War II and the Second Vatican Council a small-town church in northeastern Vermont was destroyed by fire. The congregation immediately launched a vigorous fund-raising campaign to erect a new building. One of the members carried his canvassing so far as to ask the local Roman Catholic priest for a donation. “Now, Harold,” said the priest, “you know I can’t do a thing like that, give money to build a Protestant church! But,” he added, taking out his checkbook, “I’ll give you 50 bucks to tear the old one down.”
The priest’s distinction between what he could and could not do amounts to little more than a transparent equivocation; therein lies the charm of the story. Nevertheless, the priest’s reply also serves as a useful guide for those dilemmas that cannot be sorted out simply by some deft verbal maneuver. The priest seems to be telling us: Refuse what you must, but offer what you can.