The first requirement of Church renewal in our time
The Catholic Church has often been called “the Church of here comes everybody”. The reason is very basic: You typically do not find the Church to be representative of just one ethnic group, nationality or social class. Membership in the Catholic Church is rarely based on encouraging people “just like us” to join, and discouraging those who are “different”. But what about distinguishing between those who accept the Church’s teachings and those who do not?
In the West, at least, we inhabit a Church which is very reluctant to make anyone feel uncomfortable. Indeed, St. Paul was adamant that her members must never make anyone feel uncomfortable based on whether they are male or female, slave or free, rich or poor, Jew or Greek: For we “are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). But in another letter Paul expressed a very different view of spiritual and moral differentiators:
And you are arrogant! ...I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.” [1 Cor 5]
Where is this spirit in our day? Even our Catholic leaders seem more concerned with making everyone feel comfortable in the Church than with insisting on a genuine spiritual and moral commitment to Jesus Christ. This is why we are constantly told not to judge, even though we are enjoined by St. Paul to distinguish sharply between good and evil. This is also why, in the vast majority of Catholic dioceses and parishes, we seldom hear any warnings against those kinds of immorality which, despite their condemnation by Christ, are justified and even praised by the dominant culture.
“All are welcome,” goes the hymn. “All are welcome in this place.” But in fact that is not true. Only repentant sinners are welcome. Those who insist that the teachings of Christ’s Church are wrong, those who call evil good and live accordingly, are actually committing a variant of the “sin against the Holy Spirit”. Our Lord Himself clearly stated that this sin cannot be forgiven (see Mk 3:28-30; Mt 12:31-32). He said this because the Pharisees had accused Him of working through the agency of an evil spirit; that is, they called good evil, and evil good. The very same sin is committed with astonishing regularity even by those within the Church, who call what the Church teaches evil and what the Church condemns good.
The reason this sin is unforgivable is extraordinarily simple: It closes the sinner off from grace and renders it impossible for him to repent and believe the Gospel (Mk 1:15). Without repentance, there is no hope.
A dangerous game
There can be no question that the members of the Church tend to show but a feeble opposition to the sins which are endemic to, and honored within, the dominant culture from which they are called. Culture-bound Catholics are the primary reason the Church is always in need of reform. So it was with the worldly wealth and temporal power of bishops during the Middle Ages; and so it is with the overbearing sexual distortions of the present day. To paraphrase Douglas Farrow writing in First Things, at some point in confronting a sinner who refuses correction, it is necessary to say “to hell with accompaniment”. Or as St. Paul put it in another portion of the chapter from which I quoted above, “With the power of the Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 5:4-5).
Instead, our modern Catholic practice—too frequently encouraged even at the highest levels—is to “show mercy” by refusing to state the truth in the hope that, if only we can keep those who insist on rewriting God’s will around long enough, one of two things will happen: Either a somewhat greater understanding of Our Lord’s “ideals” will somehow rub off on them, or the Church will eliminate the problem by changing her teachings. Meanwhile, unfortunately, the Church (in her members) consistently fails to bear witness, and so continues to dwindle—disintegrating rapidly through repeatedly finding herself, as an old expression has it, “hoist with her own petard” (blown up with her own bomb).
When all else fails
When all else fails (and all else has most definitely failed), Catholics need to return to the way of Christ. This involves three fundamental distinctions which the Church always neglects at her peril. We must:
- Distinguish sharply between sinners who fall and sinners who refuse to stand. The former, sinful though they remain, are the very stuff of which the Church is made. They accept what the Church teaches, try more or less continuously to grow in obedience to God’s will, and can benefit enormously from membership in the Church. The latter, however, fail to accept and refuse to obey, and so cannot benefit at all.
- Recognize the difference between welcoming the repentant and accommodating the non-repentant. Offering redemption by welcoming the repentant is the very mission of Christ and His Church. Accommodating those who refuse to admit their need of forgiveness invariably undermines that mission, for it makes a mockery of the Word of God.
- Fathom the gulf which separates charity from “niceness”. To be charitable—that is, to love—is to desire the good of another; it demands that we know the truth so that we can help others to abandon all the heavily discounted counterfeit goods, enabling them to become repentant sinners. To be “nice” is merely to make others comfortable, which is so often, for all of us, the direct opposite of what we need.
Charity is rooted in courage; “niceness” in cowardice. Charity offers the sublime gift yet daunting challenge of mercy, the acceptance of which demands contrition. But “niceness” destroys mercy by confusing it with worldly comfort. It erodes our love of Christ by redefining Him to be more like us—and trust me, we are far less loveable. We must let our yes be yes and our no be no (Jas 5:12). It is only the lukewarm who make their yes to be no and their no to be yes, as convenience dictates. This is the reform the Church needs in our time; and she needs it desperately.
It is as St. Peter warned concerning “false prophets”, at the end of the climactic second chapter of his second letter. “They promise freedom,” he wrote, “but they themselves are slaves of corruption”. Then he said: “It has happened to them according to the true proverb, ‘The dog turns back to his vomit, and the sow is washed only to wallow in the mire’.” This refusal to demand a desire for transformation in Christ cannot continue to be the way of the Church in our time. Her members must learn again to exclude those who refuse to respond to God’s mercy, lest these make a mire of the Gospel, polluting the work of God at its source.
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Posted by: MWCooney -
Mar. 29, 2017 10:59 AM ET USA
Thank you for another excellent summation of where we are, and where we're headed. The distinction between charity and niceness explains much, and it applies to the culture in general as well as to the current condition of the Church.
Posted by: brenda22890 -
Mar. 29, 2017 5:48 AM ET USA
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said it plainly: "perhaps a smaller, but more faithful church".
Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 -
Mar. 28, 2017 8:48 PM ET USA
Well said! Now if only our pastors and Bishops would read and heed your excellent article.