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one small step

By Diogenes (articles ) | Oct 08, 2006

A commenter on Dawn Eden's blog gives us a view from the pews of contemporary homiletics in action. Father's message for his flock? What we've been taught to call the Word of the Lord, ain't.

I went to weekday Mass a couple of weeks ago at another Jesuit parish in Manhattan, and it happened to be on the day that the First Reading was 1 Corinthians 6:1-11, in which St. Paul lists a number of specific sins.

The priest, in his homily, accused St. Paul's letter of causing some of the very first divisions within the Church, separating "us" versus "them," and ostracizing the very sinners whom Christ loved most. He ended the homily with this: "Who are you going to follow -- Paul or Jesus?"

Got that? Father instructs us that the New Testament is to be blamed for fracturing the Church, and brings forward 1 Corinthians as evidence for the prosecution. "Do not be deceived," wrote St. Paul, "neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God."

Ah yes. D'you think it's the sad divisions in the Church between thieves and property owners that especially distress the good padre?

Neither do I.

But deeper than the problem of Father's personal ethical allergies is his setting up St. Paul in competition with Jesus, as rivals for our discipleship, by inviting us to choose between teachings of Scripture that he presents as contradictory. In this case, clearly, he wants us to see St. Paul as a fallible human author expressing false human opinions, and Jesus as the embodiment of inclusivity.

The un-named priest in question found it convenient to emphasize some particular Gospel passages and disparage St. Paul, but if it suited his purposes he might just as easily reverse himself and, say, contrast the priority of the Pauline letters with the later composition of the Gospels, stressing that the latter are more removed from the time of Christ's earthly sojourn and so less reliable, etc. The fateful step is to make Scripture subject to our human judgment, instead of submitting ourselves and our human projects to the judgment of Scripture. In a perceptive article in a recent issue of Crisis, Anthony Esolen recounts how, as an undergraduate, he was naively impressed by Hans Küng's swaggering partisanship of St. Paul:

Küng said, "I would trade all the Marian apparitions together for one additional sentence by Saint Paul." And I ... I was proud enough and dumb enough to agree with him.

Of course Küng was speaking nonsense. Nor do I now wish for another sentence by St. Paul; God made no mistake when He ordained that the Scriptures be as they are, no more and no less. [And this is the key point:] To speak as Küng did is to recast Paul as a theologian, not as the God-inspired writer of letters to the early churches. We might legitimately wish for another play by Shakespeare, but not for another letter by Paul, unless we implicitly assume that Paul is like any other author, only wiser.

Our Jesuit homilist assumes that Paul is like any other author, only wickeder. But he and Küng are playing the same game. Both treat the sacred authors as if they were engaged in a human enterprise, containing more high spots than blunders, perhaps, but not differing in essence from their own endeavors. Thus Scripture is split up into true bits and false bits, inspired and uninspired passages, dividing that which Dei Verbum insists must not be divided:

Holy mother Church ... holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on such to the Church herself.

Confronted with the question, "Whom do you believe, Jesus or St. Paul?" the Christian must answer "Both." Circumstances may make it tempting to argue that St. John was "more inspired" than St. Matthew, or that St. Paul was right in Galatians 3 and wrong in Galatians 1 -- and to succumb to the temptation may seem a small step to take. But in fact it's a small step out the window of a skyscraper. The free-fall might feel like an emancipation, but sooner or later will end, badly, on the pavement.

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Show 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Oct. 09, 2006 12:38 PM ET USA

    St. Paul does say that those sinners are excluded from the Church. He does not say that repentant sinners are excluded. The commentator wants us to believe that Christ preached just the opposite.

  • Posted by: Eagle - Oct. 09, 2006 7:02 AM ET USA

    Typical contemporary homiletics. When my wife and I went to Canada to fish on Labor Day, the sermon related to the irrelevance of civil and ecclesiastical law, and "infallibility" as nothing but "concensus". This past weekend, at St. Piux X Church in Granger, Indiana, after the readings about how God created woman and man for each other, and the proscription of divorce, the priest ended Mass by talking about now the "marriage counseling" group would talk about gays. It goes on and on.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 08, 2006 10:25 PM ET USA

    "If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don't like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself."--Saint Augustine Is it intellectual laziness in this Jesuit priest, or is it wishful thinking?

  • Posted by: Ignacio177 - Oct. 08, 2006 2:16 PM ET USA

    "Virtue epistemology" has more to do with intelectual virtues than moral virtues but analogically we can use the term and speak of how moral virtues and conversely moral vices are dispositions that control our epistimology - how we know. Or as my friend Billy - Bob says "some people just don't think with that head". With what body organ was that preacher thinking?

  • Posted by: Canismater - Oct. 08, 2006 1:48 PM ET USA

    By Father's argument you can't be a member of the Church of Christ without being a sinner. Wow. How do I join the Church where the Immaculate Mother of God is a member? I'm sure there's no arguing with Father, either. Because his faith has no grounding in theology, his priesthood has no grounding in Truth, so his ministry is vacant. You can call him Fr. Relativism, although in light of this story he might even be Monsignor Relativism. We've all met his kind because they are many.

  • Posted by: frjimc - Oct. 08, 2006 10:43 AM ET USA

    Right on point, Uncle Di. To suggest that more could be added (or, as is currently fashionable, some could be taken away) is to deny that God decided to reveal Himself (yes, HIM-self) to us fully through Christ, His eternal Word-Made-Flesh. If some of "it" is not-true, then God has deliberately deceived us; if there is more to "it," then God has withheld Himself from us all the while claiming that Jesus the Christ is fully one with Him. Scripture HAS TO BE an organic unity, one with God.

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