Two kinds of disasters made the news this week. The first kind were natural ones: typhoons and earthquakes that threatened the lives and welfare of people in the Philippines, Indonesia, and the South Pacific. The second disaster was closer to home—allegations in Antigonish that once again send Catholics reeling, asking ‘what’s next?’
There’s no avoiding the fact that these are difficult and painful days.
The natural disasters will, judging by past experience, have a positive side amidst the terrible human tragedy. Generous people will bring material aid and comfort to the victims, making visible the basic goodness of the world even in the face of suffering.
Moral disasters, however, rarely have an upside. They bring only discouragement and confusion, and when they involve the Church they make it that much more difficult to carry on the saving work of Christ.
The failures of Church leaders—and in the current case it’s important to mention that we’re dealing with charges still to be dealt with—lead both believers and non-believers to ask many question.
Today, I’d like to tackle just one set of questions: Why is the Church so concerned about human sexuality, about the institution of marriage, about what people do in their private lives? Why can’t the Church—and its celibate clergy—stick to a “religious” message? Why does it need to make an issue of “political” things, things like same-sex “marriage” and the like?
Aren't we just setting ourselves up for a fall, for the charge of hypocrisy?
I’ve heard these kind of questions often enough, even from loyal Catholics. So today I want to answer them by speaking about the Church’s mission; calling; duty; and obligation to preach a message about human sexuality and its place in securing the good of both individuals and society.
Of course we all know folks who consider themselves Catholic but disagree with various moral teachings of the Church. I’m not really talking to them today, but to rather to those Catholics who don’t see that the Church is compelled by her Founder to preach a message about the plan of God for all creation.
Do I fault people for that? I certainly do not. I can tell you that much of what I know about the Church’s divine calling to preach about God’s plan, about the natural order, about the natural law, I did not know until well into my seminary years and even later. We don’t do a good job of getting this message out.
As a result, there are sincere Catholics who think that the Gospel message is an exclusively — in quotation marks — “religious message.” They don’t realize that the Good News of Jesus Christ embraces both the truths we tend to think of as religious — forgiveness of sins or the saving sacrifice of the Mass, for example — and truths which are more broadly speaking natural, indeed pre-Christian.
Much of what the Church teaches about God’s plan for man and woman is found in the Book of Genesis. In the Hebrew scriptures—in the scriptures given to the Chosen People. Certainly we have in the New Testament an expanded and enriched understanding of the Genesis teaching. But foundationally, what is true at the order of creation, at the moment when God brought this world into existence, belongs to the deposit of Faith that the Church must preach in season and out of season.
I can’t underscore this simple point enough. The Church is called to preach the whole truth. And the Church is called to preach that truth to the entire world.
Many well-intentioned Catholics think that we should keep our nose out of public debates, and preach to our own. Many Catholics do not recognize that the Church has a mission to the world. We do not go out to the world and say, “Jesus Christ is Lord; be baptized so you can come to Mass and receive the Eucharist with us.” We say: “Jesus Christ has come to bring life, and to bring it to the full. To you, in every aspect of your being.”
There’s no such thing as a purely religious truth. Things are true or they are not true. And if they are true, if they bring life, then they are part of what the Church proclaims.
Both the first reading and the Gospel at Mass today present the divine plan written into our bodies: the creation account of Genesis reveals the distinct order of nature—man and woman we were created. Man and woman. And man and woman were created that they might be one. One flesh in the divine perfect plan of creation.
The Church must proclaim this. We cannot step back from these truths, for fear of consequences. They belong to the Gospel. They come to us from Jesus—how many times have I heard people say that the Catholic Church is against divorce and remarriage. This is not a teaching of the Catholic Church but of Jesus himself, as our Gospel passage today makes clear.
If our moral teaching is only rules and regulations, it can’t be understood as Gospel, surely. Yet I have a book on my shelf entitled “The Good News About Sex and Marriage”, and it’s remarkably popular with young adults in the parish.
Still, many Catholics have never heard a word about this kind of good news, and for that we preachers must apologize. In our defense, unless priests did nothing but talk year-round about issues of sexuality and creation and marriage, they couldn’t present from the pulpit a full and comprehensive explanation of why the Church’s teaching is wholesome and good and Good News.
It’s impossible first because we only have your attention for twelve to fifteen minutes a week—and sometimes we’re lucky to get that! Secondly, there are many other truths that must be shared in the course of a year. Finally, it’s impossible because there are limits to what one can say in a group that includes all ages. (Even today, if you’ve listened carefully you’ll notice I have used roundabout expressions to limit the questions that may come up on the drive home!)
And in fact, not everyone needs to hear every thing. At different stages in life we face different moral challenges.
The teaching on divorce, particularly, and the complex area of annulment is worthy of homily all to itself, but I’m not going to give it today. The Church’s teachings on responsible parenthood and artificial contraception … that’s really worth an entire sermon, and I will manage it someday soon, because these teachings are sometimes rejected by people who really haven’t heard them; no-one’s ever told them the reasons that might help them accept freely and joyfully what the Church proposes.
I’ll never forget Archbishop Carney talking about the controversy over Pope Paul VI’s letter on artificial contraception. “I didn’t obey Pope Paul,” he snorted. “I agreed with him!”)
This is a good moment to remind you that I’m not talking here about people who break moral laws. That’s quite a different issue. It’s possible to break moral laws—to commit sin—without rejecting the truth of the teaching or the authority of the teacher. We can choose what we know to be bad — I do it every time I go to McDonald’s!
But the fact remains: knowing and understanding is an aid to acceptance and obedience.
So let’s seek knowledge and understanding together. Give the Church a chance to share the good news about men and women and the family. Read. Talk. Express your doubts and ask your questions. Let’s exchange e-mails or have a visit. Contact our parish coordinator for natural family planning, Karen Magee; her number’s in the bulletin.
Whatever we do, let’s not let the daily paper and the other media distort the good news of the Church’s teaching. It’s enough that it has to be the source of bad news about the Church’s problems.
If I had the time, there's more I'd like to say at this painful moment for the Church in Canada. It is painful, certainly. But it’s a reminder that the times in which we live make it increasingly tough to remain a complacent Catholic. If we doubt that the Church has a message of truth from the Creator, and if out of embarrassment or sheer frustration over human failures in the Church we want to shrink Catholic truth to things around the altar, we will soon, I think, be dissatisfied with the broader, and indeed, true notion of Church.
Maybe more to the point, if we allow ourselves to conclude that the Church is just plain wrong about these important things, we’ll eventually love her less and perhaps stop loving her at all.
Let’s not allow that to happen. As a first step, many of us need to know a whole lot more about what the Church teaches, and why. To help with that, there’s an attractive booklet inserted in this week’s bulletin. It’s called Marriage in the Catholic Church: Frequently Asked Questions.* It tackles a whole lot of tough issues in a positive way, ranging from the Church’s view on sex to the best ways to strengthen a marriage. For the most part, it uses plainer language than most Church publications.
It offers a lot of solid information, nicely packaged, and it really deserves to be read by everyone sixteen years of age and up.
Most of all, the booklet needs to be read by all who want to understand Catholic moral teachings, particularly those most attacked today. Let’s discover for ourselves the good news about sex and marriage. And let’s be glad, not sad, that the Church can proclaim a liberating, holistic, helpful, and healing message… even in her human frailty.
*A pastoral document from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, adapted for Canada by the Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF), which is co-sponsored by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Supreme Council of the Knights of Columbus.