In the past several weeks, a recent interview with Pope Francis has drawn enormous attention with headlines and reporting that lead Catholics to believe that we are about to abandon our sacred dogmas and moral teachings. This is sad, but no surprise. The media is notoriously bad at reporting Church news as well as the subtleties of philosophies, teachings, and even the structures of the Catholic Church. So, what did the pope say? Here’s one of his controversial statements and my reflection which I hope fills out what he meant:
“The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”
Some have interpreted this as the beginning of a “break” or “change” in the Church’s dogmas and moral teachings. This is not correct nor a response that is new. It is, however, a very serious challenge. He further said that our proclamation must be missionary in style where love and compassion come first. If we forget this, we as a Church will no longer be the “moral edifice” to the world, but a falling “house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.” These are very dramatic images to be sure. So what does all this mean?
First, the pope was reminding us that some dogmas and moral teachings are more central than others. For example, the belief in one triune God is more central than the reality that when either consecrated eucharistic species is divided, the whole Christ is present in each part of the species. Both are dogmas, both are essential parts of our Faith, the former being at the center, the latter being definitively true yet not as central. Committing murder and cheating on a test are both immoral. The former is more grave than the latter.
Second, the pope wanted his audience to remember that we shouldn’t spread the Gospel by starting with dogmas and moral teachings. Rather, the pope wants us to remember that the Gospel we are to proclaim starts with God’s love.
We are to love God and our neighbor (cf. Matt 22:39). That comes before all else. It is a commandment. We are to show to others that God is love. Certainly, we hold true to moral living and need to teach it, but it is a consequence of the most fundamental and compelling part of the Good News. Reading the Gospels makes it clear that Jesus did this very same thing. Just imagine Jesus saying that the Good News was to not commit adultery? How many followers would that inspire? And while Jesus did teach against adultery, this was not the center of his mission. And therein lies the pope’s point. Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God and secondarily would also teach about the moral life. Recall the woman caught in the act of adultery whom the Pharisees wanted to stone (Jn. 8:1-11)? How did Jesus react to the woman and in what order? He listened, showed compassion, forgave her sins, and then told her to go and sin no more. How did he react to those who were accusing? He listened, stooped down to write, then challenged them to a self examination of conscience. Some who are rigidly focused on only the moral life, the Pope commented, have gotten the whole thing backwards. I must admit that, at times, I have done this myself. So, I take the pope’s words to heart.
When we meet someone who is living a life of serious sin, we must first proclaim that God loves them and desires to be in full communion with him. We must begin with the person, not the sin. We should let them know that we love them. We should show authentic care and concern. We should remind them that God’s love and forgiveness is available to them and that God’s love is bigger than our sins. We should express the joy that comes from being close to God, his Church, and the Sacraments. We should, if the situation allows, invite them to walk with us or ask to accompany them in that journey of restoration. Such a proclamation is more likely to draw someone to the heart of God. Such a witness may woo one’s heart to burn for love of the truth. With one’s heart now open to the wonders of God’s love, they may be more likely to reexamine their lifestyle, repent, and be further transformed into the person they were always called to be. This is what the Pope was trying to say. We need to evangelize and share the “saving love of God” and then we must catechize. If we begin in the other direction, people are more likely to perceive us as simply a Church of rules and regulations and forget that the heart of the Bride, the Church, is focused on the heart of the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.
Every now and then, we get this right. For example, this past week, a pair of young adults entered our church without permission and began to shoot a music video. Several persons who happened to be in the church were shocked and didn’t know what to do. Rightfully so. None of these people came at these young men with vicious indignation or self-righteousness. That was a win for charity right off the bat. Instead, I was asked to come over to talk to the men, and so I did. The music was in a modern rap style and the main artist was using our church interior as backdrop for his music video. Clearly, it was inappropriate to do any kind of filming in our church without permission. Furthermore, the potential contents of the video might have been at issue. So, instead of accusing the young men, I honestly expressed my interest in their art, got to know them and their background, and then gently reminded them to call ahead for permission if they wanted to shoot any videos in the future. As it turned out, the main artist was crafting a video with music that described his love for his mother who died when he was young, how he missed her, and how much inspiration he has drawn from her as she looks down from heaven on her son. The young man shared with me a very troubled past. I tried to empathize and encourage him in his journey. Finally as they were leaving, I invited the main artist to return so we could talk some more about his struggles if he desired. We parted in friendship with a promise for the link to his video when it is available online. What church did this young man encounter? I hope a compassionate one. I hope it was a church that took interest in him as a person first before the rules. I hope this was a moment of success, a moment of compassion and not just an eviction from the church building by some angry Catholics. I hope this is true. I think it was. Have I resolved similar situation in the past with such peace? No. So, the challenge remains out there for me and I hope you too.
With recent unprecedented socio-political developments in our country, we have been challenged more directly on moral fronts and have felt the need to respond. Cardinal Dolan of New York and president of the USCCB would likely be the first to agree with the pope. You might recall that at the beginning of the heated debates about the HHS Mandate, Cardinal Dolan was quoted saying, "We didn't start this battle, and I'm kind of uncomfortable with it... We'd much rather be conciliatory." The heart of Cardinal Dolan is one about the mercy of God and care for the poor. It was the disregard to our religious liberty which mandated we pay for so-called medical procedures that would kill the poor which compelled our bishops to speak out. It is only when specific issues arise that our bishops step up and respond. Archbishop Sample is very much like this. In my own dealings with our archbishop, I could sense that he has the heart of a shepherd. He has said that he will speak on issues when needed. You see, being shepherds as our pope and bishops are, they desire to proclaim the Gospel first, love much, and correct little. None of this changes dogma or the fundamental teachings of our faith. But, the pope’s words remind us all of the challenge of charity. He reminds us of the hierarchy of truths. He reminds us of the importance of the human person and the need to reach out with compassion.
Finally, I apologize for the length of this letter, but the pope’s reflections are important. The two sentences that I have focused upon make up only 0.3% of his entire text. I highly encourage all of you to read the entire interview. He had a lot to share. I think readers will get a deeper insight into the heart and thought of our new pope. A link to to the entire text is available on our web site, stannechurch.com.
Fr. William Holtzinger