Making religion matter again

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 18, 2016

The statistics out of Germany are very sad. 180,000 Germans left the Catholic Church last year. But over and above those baptized as infants, fewer than 10,000 entered the Church. Yet Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich insists that the Church in Germany is “a strong force, whose message is heard and accepted.”

If that’s so, it must be that the Catholic Church in Germany is not sending a distinctively Catholic message.

To some degree, we face the same problem throughout the West, though Germany is a particularly chilling example. Too many churchmen see their role as assuring everyone that the Catholic Church firmly embraces the values that are already popular in the general secular culture. In that sense, the Church can be portrayed as having its message accepted. The same message would be accepted if the Church never spoke.

Let us try a thought experiment. Imagine that your bishop or priest speaks frequently about the need for inclusiveness and the need to treat all persons with dignity and love. At the theoretical level, our dominant secular culture endorses this language. It is, after all, its own lingua franca. All Churchmen who speak this way will be welcomed and applauded. Their words indicate to everyone that the Church is coming around, at last, to the dominant culture’s worldview.

But now imagine that your bishop or priest recognizes that the dominant culture does not understand what love is. He knows something the dominant culture does not. He knows that to love one must both understand the difference between good and evil and be willing to act on that knowledge. In this case your bishop or priest might devote a good deal of time to what we might call the caveats of love.

Certainly we must treat everyone with dignity and love (he will say), but human dignity and love demand that we properly identify those things that are beneficial and harmful in the moral order. We are bound by love to help others to transcend moral blindness and grow in virtue. Moreover, the common good demands that we work for laws which discourage vicious behavior, whereas many laws at the present time actually encourage it. Thus (he may conclude in the present context), treating someone with dignity and love means that we must recognize that sex outside of marriage is evil, that gay marriage is an inversion of the natural moral order, and that both are enormously destructive.

What we find on careful reflection is that the good of each person, just like the common good, imposes a single unbreakable rule: It is impossible to love the sinner without hating the sin.

In the second case, your bishop or priest will have conveyed a distinctively Catholic message, and the very fact that it is distinctively Catholic will ensure that the message will not be accepted by the larger society without conversion.

Unfortunately, the corollary is that the first message provides no reason for anyone to become a Catholic. A Church with nothing distinctive to say is not worth the bother of an interior commitment. But the second message, though it will be widely rejected, provides just such a reason. It will attract those who are ready to turn to Christ and be healed.

A distinctive Catholic message necessarily requires hard sayings. The matter is obvious; the easy sayings are already taken! Our Lord Himself exemplified this principle. It is the key to Catholic growth.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jul. 19, 2016 8:03 PM ET USA

    I have heard inspiring homilies far too infrequently in my 60+ years. The God loves you homilies are true but the second half which is we must love God as Jesus told us by placing God first in our lives and loving our neighbors as ourselves is seldom mentioned. There is massive material for homilies in explaining the second half so I am puzzled as to why so few homilies make the attempt at explaining what Jesus stated as being the most important things for us to do.