On Catholics speaking truth to power
Given the number of times in any given week that Catholics from the Pope on down say or write things which call the fundamentals of Catholic faith and morals into question, it is hard not to become exasperated. Sometimes specific errors are not stated; rather the error is encouraged by the refusal of those in authority to correct the beliefs and behavior of others who, in accordance with the spirit of the times, distort or lobby for impossible changes in the moral law or the Church’s ministry. Whether we encounter frank contradiction of Catholic faith and morals or “merely” a certain fuzziness—including an enthusiasm for blessing persons and groups who appear to reject Catholic teaching—there can be little question that a forthright defense of Catholic teaching against dominant errors is extremely rare.
Unfortunately, those who lack that frankness and firmness often mask this lack by relying on the assumption of others that they accept Catholic teaching on faith and morals but are merely attempting to express welcome and support for those who are struggling. This is the proposed (pretended?) message, for example, behind the blessing of same-sex unions—the presumption that the one giving the blessing is simply encouraging growth in God’s grace within the situation in which the homosexual couple currently find themselves. The problem, however, is that in such cases the priest or other Catholic representative is blessing a specific and formal commitment to sin, which the Church simply cannot do without turning that blessing into a curse.
In all such situations—wherever Catholic leaders claim to be emphasizing the Church’s “closeness” in “accompanying” others in acts, associations and organizations which are formally sinful in their purposes—the leaders in question do an immense disservice not only to those they bless but to those who witness or learn of this blessing, and to the Church as a whole. This is simply because, even if they are so clueless as not to intend it, they are engaging in a witness against Christ and the Church, a witness which wounds rather than heals both those who receive the blessing and those who learn of it.
Regardless of the intention, every encouragement and blessing offered in a context of formal rejection of the call of Christ is a gravely evil act, both in itself and in the scandal it causes by falsely indicating God’s approval of the sin in question. This does serious harm both to those falsely encouraged and to those who witness that encouragement.
Here are some very apt words of Our Lord and Savior on this very subject:
And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” [Lk 17:1-3; cf. Mt 18:5-9]
Temptations to Sin
Never mind for the moment that Our Lord stated clearly that if one of our bodily members causes us to sin, it is better to cut it off than for us to be thrown intact “into the hell of fire” (Mt 18:8-9). I am here speaking of those wolves in sheep’s clothing who, in the name of the Church, lead others astray by either deliberately obscuring or directly contradicting the will of God. For any one of these, says Jesus Christ, “it would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea” (Lk 17:2). In this context, I find it particularly apt to recall what Pope Benedict wrote in one of his posthumously published essays, namely that the term “these little ones” used in this same passage refers not to small children but to those who are still little and vulnerable in faith—those in the Church who can be easily and even trustingly led astray, especially by their ecclesiastical superiors.
This is the first of all the many problems—a multi-headed hydra—in the Church today. I mean the failure of so many from Pope Francis on down to speak clearly about the sins which our dominant culture no longer recognizes as sins, while emphasizing instead the merest peccadillos which our dominant culture regards as grossly evil. Compare and contrast, in this regard, the contemporary cultural celebration of nearly every form of sexual sin as a key to self-fulfillment and the cultural denunciation of the least environmental carelessness as a dramatic affront to both God and nature—and see how the main talking points of both Pope Francis and too many outspoken cardinals, bishops and priests track these popular trends almost to the letter.
There are, of course, also some dangers on the other side. I have taken up this discussion today partly because of a recent email exchange with a friend, who had alerted me to a book which spoke frankly and perhaps even reassuringly of the fallacy of treating the exponents of our modern hedonistic culture with respect. The author was prepared to brook no nonsense about the utter denial of reality by those who continually press us to live in an empire of desire which destroys both our souls and our personal relationships. He understood that there is a war between good and evil going on, and he made the case that the enemy must wherever possible be destroyed as a serious threat and, where that is not possible, the enemy should not be humored but mocked.
This rather obviously goes too far. Let us bracket out the question of political revolution to put the social order back on track, since nobody believes this is possible at the present time. Apart from that, the call to greater militancy in our Catholic life (as opposed to greater militarism in our political life) is certainly legitimate, as is the explosion of the myth that we can gain anything worthwhile by abandoning or compromising what God has revealed through His Church and the Natural Law. But it should be obvious to the proverbial schoolboy that the problem in the Catholic Church today is not that both we and our leaders are too often unwilling to call names but that both we and our leaders are too often unwilling to tell the truth.
Next to this, the problem of verbal and literary style is miniscule. I will not deny that we may at times engage in more spirited debate and denunciation. Polemical styles have varied over the centuries; many Catholic controversialists in the past have been far more pointed than our more recent cultural habits of discourse generally approve, and even Our Lord occasionally called names. But we must also remember that when Christ called names, he was not trying to delight his hearers so much as to warn those He accused of how far they had fled from God (e.g., “brood of vipers”, “hypocrites”, “whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones”). Nor did He hand out these names for the delighted use of others; He had the courage to call out the guilty when He was face to face with them. And we forget at our peril that He alone was capable of perfect judgment of his opponents’ souls.
When it comes right down to it, it is fairly easy for us to assess the overall deleterious trends, but not so easy for us to judge the disposition of every Catholic leader who acts in some way that seems to us irresponsible at best and evil at worst. For this reason among others, our task is not to have zero tolerance for ideological enemies as personal foes but to reject and correct both confusion and falsehood in current opponents whom we are called by God to love. The great Catholic scandal has never been gentleness; it has always been cowardice. What should concern us most as Catholics is not the sins and errors into which others may fall, but the sins and errors that are perpetuated and reinforced precisely by a simple refusal to tell the truth on the part of those who claim to be serving the Church.
I grant that it is difficult for us to know the personal guilt invested in each problematic statement or action by clergy and religious and undisciplined Catholic laity in high places. What we can see and do know is the immense harm that is done when representatives of the Church (or anyone self-identifying as a Catholic) affirms and encourages others in the context of either their sinful behavior or their defense of positions which are contrary to the teachings of Christ—that is, when anyone abuses his role in the Church by welcoming, commending, encouraging and blessing others precisely in the context of their rejection of the Gospel.
We will be wrong sometimes in our judgment of the failures of others in this regard. There may be times when we are scandalized by the behavior or words of a Catholic minister because we misunderstand the context or have read only the pull quotes. This is one reason it is much wiser never to call names. But we should not waver in our insistence that Catholics—and especially those in leadership positions—find the courage to tell the truth, and especially to speak the incisive truths which cut across our current culture’s grain.
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Posted by: grateful1 -
Oct. 03, 2023 6:01 PM ET USA
Who will speak truth to Francis? And to whom will he listen?
Posted by: frjt -
Oct. 03, 2023 4:02 PM ET USA
Reminds me of the time I went to the Vatican exhibition hall & there was Henry vii's petition for annulment...seals & signatures...except for the brave few who stood with truth...we have bishops who are cowards for fear that their mitre be taken away..one couldn't help but think how many in Henry's day sold their souls....plenty more today!!