Most of us struggle with the fact that God allows bad things to happen to us. Why does he not intervene more often to protect us from attacks of various sorts, and from events that cause sadness, setbacks, or suffering?
While mysterious, the clearest answer is that God allows suffering in order that some greater blessing may occur. To some degree I have found this so, since some of my greatest blessings required that a door slam shut, or that some suffering be endured. And so if my college sweetheart had not dumped me, it is likely that I would not have the very great blessing of being a priest today. Had I gotten some of my preferred assignments in my early years as a priest, I would not have been enriched by the assignments I did have. Those assignments have drawn me out and helped me to grow far more than the cozy, familiar placements I desired. Had I not entered into the crucible of depression and anxiety in my 30s, I would not have learned to trust God as much as I do, and I would not have learned important lessons about myself and about life.
So despite that fact that we understandably fear suffering and dislike it, for reasons of His own, (reasons He knows best), God does allow some degree of it in our lives.
Yet I wonder if we really consider often enough the countless times God did step in to prevent any number of disasters in our lives. We tend to focus on the negative things in life and overlook an enormous number of often hidden blessings, down to every beat of our heart, every proper function of every cell in our body – all the perfect balances that exist in nature and the cosmos in order to sustain us.
Just think of the simple act of walking and all the possible missteps we might have taken but did not. Think of all the stupid risks we have taken in our lives, especially when we were young, that did not end in disaster. Think of all the poor choices we made, and yet escaped the worst possible outcomes.
Yes, we wonder why we and others suffer, and why God allows it. But do we ever wonder why we don’t suffer? Do we ever think about why and how we have escaped enduring the consequences of some awfully stupid and foolish things we have done? In typical human fashion, we minimize our many, many blessings, and magnify and resent our sufferings.
I have a favorite expression, one that I have made my own over the years, that I use in response to people who ask me how I am doing: “I’m pretty well blessed for a sinner.” I’ve heard others put the same sentiment this way: “I am more blessed than I deserve.” Yes, we are all pretty well blessed indeed!
I thought of all that as I watched the commercial below, (aired during the Super Bowl). And while it speaks of the watchfulness of a father, it also makes me think of my guardian angel, who has surely preserved me from many disasters.
As you watch the commercial, don’t forget to thank God for the many times He has rescued you, through the interventions of your guardian angel. Thank Him too for His hidden blessings—blessings that, though you know nothing of them, are bestowed by Him all the same. And think, finally, of the wonderful mercy He has often shown in protecting you from the worst of your foolishness.
In the video below there is a fascinating demonstration of what is known as the McGurk Effect, wherein what we hear is strongly influenced by what we see. Though the sounds heard in the experiment are exactly the same, when the visual cues change we hear another sound. Even knowing the “trick” does not change the effect.
And this is a paradigm for faith, if you ask me.
Scripture speaks often of the fact that faith is a matter of hearing rather than seeing:
- So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ (Rom 10:17).
- For we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7).
- For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face (1 Cor 13:12).
- For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? (Rom 8:24)
- Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb 11:1).
- Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy (1 Peter 1:8).
- Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed (Jn 20:29).
So while many say, “Seeing is believing,” it really isn’t so. Seeing is just seeing. Faith comes by hearing.
Now this principle is very important, for many of the truths of our faith are “mysterious.” The use of the word “mysterious” here does not mean to imply that the truths are spooky or strange, but rather that what we “see” or intellectually grasp of them is but a small part, and that the greater part of is hidden from both our sight and our intellect. Since this is so, we must be taught the faith through hearing. Receiving the faith by hearing gives us a prophetic interpretation of the reality we perceive through our other senses.
Consider especially the sacraments. What we see is often very limited.
At a baptism, our eyes may see merely water being poured out. But with faith, granted though our hearing of the sacred words, we grasp the deeper meaning: that sins are being washed away, that new life is being conveyed, and that a heavenly inheritance is being bestowed.
At a wedding, our eyes may see merely a man and a woman. But as we hear their vows proclaimed, we must disregard what our eyes see (still two) and grasp through faith what our ears tell us from the very Word of Jesus: They are no longer two, but one and what God has joined together, let no one divide (Matt 19:6). Faith comes by hearing.
Regarding the Holy Eucharist, St Thomas lovingly wrote in the hymn Adoro Te Devote,
Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur. (Sight, touch, taste, in thee falter.)
Sed auditu solo tuto creditur. (But the hearing alone is safely believed.)
Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius; (I believe whatever the Son of God has said;)
Nil hoc verbo veritátis verius. (Nothing is truer than this word of truth.)
So again, the eyes deceive; we must believe through what we hear. The world and the flesh are always demanding to see, but faith comes by hearing. There may be some “motives of credibility” that seeing can give, but, frankly, the eyes are too easily deceived; we are often misled by what we see.
And that brings us to the video. As has already been mentioned, the sound in the video remains unchanged, but when the visual cue changes, we insist that the sound has changed. But it hasn’t. Yet even knowing this, we tend to trust our eyes more than our ears and insist on what we see rather than what we hear.
But then comes the strangest thing of all. The BBC announcer, almost in a subconscious illustration of the McGurk effect, comes to precisely the WRONG conclusion. She says, “The McGurk effect shows us that what we hear may not always be the truth.” Wrong! And exactly backwards! The McGurk effect demonstrates that what we SEE may not always be the truth. Stubbornly, she then reiterates, “So we can’t always trust what we hear.” But again, wrong in terms of this experiment and exactly backwards! It is what we SEE that we cannot trust in this instance. Indeed a very strange error on her part and almost Freudian in its psychological significance.
In the end, I hope you “see” what I mean: faith comes by hearing. And it is a very important dimension of faith to not let our eyes or other senses override our ears. The eyes and other senses can supply us with certain data, even motives of credibility. But in the end it is through hearing and the Word of God, heard, that we have a prophetic interpretation of the reality perceived by our other senses. Faith, which comes by hearing, is a prophetic interpretation of reality: Sed auditu solo tuto creditur.
Enjoy the video; it’ll mess with your mind but it confirms an important truth.
A former Archbishop of Washington was known to often remark, “There’s nothing deader than a dead priest.” Some wondered as to the meaning of this expression, and those who knew him the best explained that it was a sort of version of the old Latin expression Corruptio optime pessima (The corruption of the best is the worst thing of all).
Of all the men on the planet who need to be alive, vocal, clear, and active, the priest is one of the most critical. For if he is doing as he should, and like a herald, summoning the faithful to be true to the gospel. He can reach thousands, who in turn can reach thousands more. But if he fails, the whole chain of the gospel is broken at the critical link and falls to the ground.
The same Archbishop also told us priests that if we did not go to bed tired most nights, something was wrong. There is nothing deader than a dead priest.
Two images from Pope St. Gregory the Great come to mind in this regard. He writes them in his Pastoral Rule, which is must reading for every priest. But every father of a family and every leader in the Church can also benefit from Gregory’s reflections. Both images are drawn from the ancient Jewish Law in reference to the priests and Levites.
The first image pertains to the priest’s duty to work hard:
Both the breast and the right shoulder [of the sacrificed animal] are offered to the priest for food so that he may learn from the sacrifice that he has received to offer a corresponding sacrifice to the Creator of all things (Lev 10:14-15). Thus, not only is he to have right thoughts in his breast, but by putting his own shoulder to good works he invites to sublime heights those who watch him (Pastoral Rule II.3).
So, it is not enough for the priest to be learned in orthodoxy. That is clearly essential. But he must also be willing to work hard in proclaiming and teaching the doctrinally orthodox faith by patient and persistent work. He teaches not with words only, but also by his works and by his manner of life. He cannot merely speak of prayer, he must pray; he cannot merely warn of greed, he must live simply and humbly; he cannot merely speak of chastity, he must live chastely; he cannot merely counsel love, he must love. To adapt an old expression, he must live faith, heart and shoulder above the rest.
The second image pertains to his duty to speak, to preach:
Moses was enjoined that when a priest goes into the tabernacle, he should be canvassed with little bells, a sign that he must have a voice for preaching, or else by his silence he provoke the judgment of Him who sees everything from above. For it is written, “So that the sound is heard is heard when he entered and exits the sanctuary in the sight of the Lord, so that he may not die” (Ex 28:35). For the priest who enters and exits will die if a sound is not heard from him because he provokes the wrath of the hidden Judge if he goes about without the sound of preaching.
The bells are appropriately described as being inserted into his vestments because what else are we to understand the vestments of the priest to be but good works? The psalmist attests this when he says, “Let your priests be clothed with righteousness” (Ps 131:9). The little bells therefore are fixed to the vestment to signify that the works of the priest should be proclaimed by the sound of his voice and the way of his life (Rule II.4).
Pope Gregory’s ability to see the significance of seemingly small things is magnificent. Here he draws on the simple truth that the High Priest, gone into the Holy of Holies, wore a vestment with sounding bells. And as long as he moved and said the prayers the bells rang, signaling that he was alive before the Lord of Glory. But if the bells (of preaching) fell silent, then he was surely dead, for no sound came from him. All that could be done was to drag his dead body from the Holy place by the rope that was tied to his ankle.
The Image is clear: no sound, no life. A silent priest is a dead priest. And there is nothing deader than a dead priest. He is good for nothing but to be dragged from the Holy Place and buried underfoot.
Let priests and bishops who have ears hear. Let all leaders in the Church who have ears hear! Let parents, catechists, teachers, and elders hear! Let us heed Gregory’s warning: to be silent is to be dead, good for nothing but to be dragged off and buried.
Deep concerns remain in the hearts of many Catholics regarding the just-closed Extraordinary Synod on the Family. I have written much in the past two weeks and you know my own concerns, especially the need for clarity on Catholic doctrine in those teachings most disputed by the western world: marriage, family, sexuality, and the dignity of human life. We need to keep praying, a lot!
I must say, there are words in the Pope’s concluding address that I take to heart and hope will guide us going forward. He warns of serious temptations faced by the Church and her leaders to veer from the truth in the name of a false “compassion.”
I would like to review the temptations that the Holy Father lists and make a few remarks of my own. Although Pope Francis does list in the first temptation a challenge to those with more doctrinal concerns, I hope that you will read on and see that the rest of the temptations he lists are challenges to those who seek what I would call radical change or a departure from the clear teaching of Holy Scripture. Please read all these temptations. In toto, they are a summons to apply courageously the remedy of truth to what ails us. As usual, direct quotes from the Pope’s texts are in bold, black italics and my own remarks are in plain red text.
Noting the tense climate of the Synod, the Holy Father speaks of tensions and temptations, of which a few possibilities could be mentioned:
1. – A temptation to hostile inflexibility [trans. rigidity], that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.
While warning of rigidity (something which I would argue that “liberals” are also very susceptible to) the Holy Father does hasten to add that flexibility must be exercised “within the law, within the certitude of what we know.” Hence what flexibility we can find is to be rooted in the humility of obedience to the truth and also the humility that we do not know everything.
For example, a Thomist might adhere rigidly to the scholastic formulations in a way that would embarrass even St. Thomas Aquinas himself, who was usually quite gracious to his opponents and would argue, “Now, because we cannot know what it God is, but rather what he is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how he is not” (Prima pars, q. 3, prologue). Hence, again, humility is an important stance with respect to sacred theology: we must have obedience to what is revealed with certainty and taught by God through the Church, but also appreciation for what we do not know with certainty and for which there can be a range of views that Sacred Tradition proposes.
But what is true for a Thomist or any traditional theologian must also hold true for those of more modern systems of thought. For example, I have met adherents to the historical-critical method who are every bit as rigid and possessed of hostile inflexibility as an iron bar. So we do well to note the Holy Father’s first caution and be aware of the temptation to be rigid when we don’t have to but to find flexibility “within the law,” and within the boundaries of certitude.
2. – The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”
For in order to bind the wounds of sin we must first say and determine that there is sin. A doctor does not treat wounds by saying there is no wound. A true and good doctor says there is a wound, there is a disease or disorder, there is something wrong—and then proceeds mercifully to offer and begin treatment.
As the Holy Father states, there are a lot of so-called “do-gooders” who think that to do good is merely to please or ingratiate. He also warns that some are fearful, perhaps implying that they fear to offend or to cause the pain that healing sometimes involves.
We cannot be tempted to blindness, false compassion, or fear. Love and truth cannot be separated, though truth without love can be used as a bludgeon.
3. – The temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy, and painful fast (cf. Lk 4:1-4); and also to transform the bread into a stone and cast it against the sinners, the weak, and the sick (cf Jn 8:7), that is, to transform it into unbearable burdens (Lk 11:46).
As Christians, we cannot deny the Cross or be embarrassed by it. The Lord points insistently to the necessity of the Cross and the endurance of suffering, and we can do no less. Saints Paul and Barnabas went about, strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). Paul also lamented that many in his own day who live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things (Phil 3:18-19). But the same Paul also declared with conviction, We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:23-24).
Yet today, sadly, many Christians are ashamed of the Cross when it moves from being an abstraction to making real demands of people. And thus those who cannot reasonably marry must live celibately. It is sometimes true that a woman who is raped becomes pregnant and yes, she must carry the child to birth and may not abort. Suffering and dying are not permitted simply to “check out” at will. People in difficult marriages need to be encouraged to work out their problems and not consider divorce and subsequent remarriage. But instead of pointing to the Cross and summoning others to courage and being ready to help them, many Catholics either go silent or insist that such crosses are not required.
Too many Catholics are tempted by the hedonism of the day, which insists that pleasure and happiness are the sole points of life, and thus tempted, they insist that the Cross is not required. Many think that God’s only goal for us is that we be happy and content. But they forget that true happiness comes from holiness and true holiness is often the fruit of suffering.
And yes, as the Holy Father also insists, we must also avoid the temptation to forget that the cross IS heavy for many. Alone it may be an unbearable burden. And thus we must help people to carry the Cross, not just point to it. We must continue to help women in crisis pregnancies as we do through the Gabriel Project and Rachel’s Vineyard; we must encourage those with same-sex attraction to live celibately as we do through the Courage Apostolate; we must work hard with couples to preserve their marriages; we must provide quality palliative care to the dying, and so forth. Sinners who struggle but are repentant must find understanding, compassion, and support in the Lord’s Church.
4. – The temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfil the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God.
Of the Cross, I have already spoken above. Of the “worldly spirit,” the Holy Father says clearly that our job is not conform to it but rather to purify it and conform it to the truth and will of God: Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven. Worldliness and popularity are grave temptations.
5. – The temptation to neglect the “depositum fidei” [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it]; or, on the other hand, the temptation to neglect reality, making use of meticulous language and a language of smoothing to say so many things and to say nothing!
And here too, we can never neglect the glorious faith handed on to us. But neither can we allow it not to be fresh every day.
There are great challenges in preaching an ancient faith to a world that has lost touch with the vocabulary of faith. Yet the Church in every age, when she was strong and sure in her own faith and has not neglected the deposit of faith or been compromised by the world, has always used the arts, music, painting, song, drama, and preaching to convey the faith creatively.
We must continue to translate our unchanging doctrine to a changing world and bend the world, not be bent by it. The deposit of faith is non nova, sed nove (Not a new thing, but proclaimed newly (and freshly)).
I can only hope that these remarks are reflective of a mindset going forward. The Synod, at least “as seen on TV,” seemed to show in many the temptations described here. We who worship a crucified and risen Lord in our liturgy must be willing to take that Cross out into the world and announce that the Cross is the only way to glory. The Cross is the A440, the tuning fork that assures that our proclamation is pure and Christ-like. Whatever we might wish the truth to be, or however much we might wish Christ had said or done something differently, we must, in humble obedience to the truth, conform to Christ; we cannot demand that He conform to us or our will.
Toward the end of the talk, the Holy Father says the following words, with which I would like to conclude.
So, the Church is Christ’s – she is His bride – and all the bishops, in communion with the Successor of Peter, have the task and the duty of guarding her and serving her, not as masters but as servants. The Pope, in this context, is not the supreme lord but rather the supreme servant – the “servant of the servants of God”; the guarantor of the obedience and the conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ, and to the Tradition of the Church, putting aside every personal whim, despite being – by the will of Christ Himself – the “supreme Pastor and Teacher of all the faithful” (Can. 749) and despite enjoying “supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church” (cf. Cann. 331-334).
For spiritual reading, I am currently reading The Book of the Pastoral Rule by St. Gregory the Great. Pope Saint Gregory was a master at taking details from the Old Testament priesthood and applying them to the priests of the New Covenant. In one reflection, he remarks on the details of the breastplate of the high priest and what they signify.
In effect, Pope Gregory instructs the priest to guard his heart, keeping it safe from the poison of false doctrine and misplaced affections, wherein he fears man more than God and desires affection and approval more than speaking the truth.
And while his words apply especially to priests, surely they apply as well to any who would preach, teach, parent, or witness in the world today. I’d like to consider a few excerpts from his reflection on the breastplate that was worn by the high priest. As is often the case, I will present the original quote in bold black italics, and my own, inferior remarks in plain red text. The quotes come from the Pastoral Rule Part II article 2.
Thus, it was assigned by the divine Voice that on the breast of Aaron, the vestment of judgment should be closely bound by bands (Exodus 28:15, 28). This was so that the heart of the priest would not possess fluctuating thoughts, but be bound by reason alone. Nor should he consider indiscreet or unnecessary thoughts.
First note the use of the word “bands.” At the root of the meaning of the word “religion” is the same concept. The Latin root of the word religion speaks of being bound closely to or embraced by God (re = again + ligare = to bind). Thus the virtue of religion binds one’s heart, mind, and soul. One’s whole self is bound fast to God, held tightly by Him in an embrace of love and truth. Many people denigrate the word religion today as sounding too institutional. Many say they are “spiritual but not religious.” But as can be seen from its root, religion is a beautiful word describing an embrace with God.
Therefore the bands of the high priest’s breastplate remind all of us of our need to be bound and held fast to God and by God. They remind us to not allow ourselves to waiver, wander, or be carried off from the love and truth of God. We are not to be enamored of the world or its lies; neither should we embrace or cling to them.
The bands of the breastplate of the high priest, drawn tightly and snugly, remind us to cling to God and be held closely by Him. And indeed, as Pope Gregory goes on to say, being thus held close to God and His truth, the priest will not easily fluctuate from the truth; he will not wander off in all sorts of different directions. Being held close by God, his own beating heart begins to synchronize with the heart of God. Cor ad cor loquitur (Heart speaks to heart). Gradually the priest’s heart will become much like the heart of God, loving the things of God and the people of God with proper and ordered affection, wanting only what God wants.
Further, being held fast by God will also preserve the priest from what Gregory calls indiscreet or unnecessary thoughts. Indiscreet matters are those matters into which we ought not delve or pry. All of us know that there are things we ought not seek to know, things that are none of our business. The priest should properly seek to know only those things he needs to know. He should also remember that there are many things he cannot fully know, many of the deep mysteries of God about which he must humbly admit he knows little.
As for unnecessary thoughts, this surely refers to the thousands of trifling things that often occupy many people throughout the day: discussions about sports, or Hollywood celebrities, or the minutia of popular culture. Some small diversions in life have their place, but most of these accumulate excessively in our mind. We think too much of frivolous things and not enough about eternal, glorious, edifying, and lasting things. Almost any silly thought can enter our mind and we are carried off in one of a thousand different directions. But to be held fast by God is to occupy our minds especially with His glorious truths, to begin to adopt His priorities, to think about the things that are most important, helpful, and edifying.
… It was strictly added that the names of the twelve patriarchs should also be depicted (Exodus 28:29). For to carry always the inscribed fathers on the breast is to meditate on the life of the ancients without interruption … To consider unceasingly the footsteps of the Saints.
Yes, every priest, preacher, teacher, parent, and leader in the Church should be deeply rooted in the wisdom of the saints and in the ancient and lasting truth revealed by God in Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition. To be a true Christian is to be deeply rooted in these things, always going back to that which is ancient and proposing it ever anew. The truths of God are non nova sed nove (not new things, but understood newly).
[The breastplate] is fittingly called a “vestment of judgment” because the spiritual director should always discern between good and evil … Concerning this it is written: “But you shall put on the breastplate of judgment, the doctrine and truth, which will be on Aaron’s breast … and [the priest shall] not add an element of human reasoning as he dispenses his judgments on behalf of God … Otherwise, personal affections might get in the way of zealous correction …
And here Pope Gregory warns against the human tendency to compromise the truth or to engage in rationalization. We can either add to the Word of God or subtract from it, but in so doing we render harm to the purity it should always have in our heart, in our mind, and on our lips.
Too easily, many priests, preachers, and teachers get carried away with trendy notions or theological speculations that can begin to substitute for the true word of God. Instead of preaching the Word directly from Sacred Scripture and from Sacred Tradition, too often he ends up preaching speculation or theories that serve more to raise doubts about or deflect from the true meaning of the Word of God.
St. Paul said to Timothy, Preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching (2 Tim 4:2). He did not say preach lots of theories and speculations. Speculative theology has its place, but the priest must be careful not to be carried off by so much speculation that the actual Word of God is neglected. All of his judgments about what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil, should be deeply rooted in the wisdom and the truth of God and not be tainted by dubious opinions, trends, fashions, popular opinions, or unbalanced notions.
The priest must also be aware of personal affections and preferences. Too often in human affairs, who said something becomes more important than what he said. Affection and admiration have their place, but everything must be judged by and squared with the truth of God, no matter who says it. No one should be so quick to esteem the opinions of so-called experts without first considering how and if what was said squares with the revealed truth of Scripture and Sacred Tradition. St. Paul says, Test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil (1 Thess 5:21-22).
If one fearfully considers the One who presides over all things then he will not direct his subjects without fear.
Here is a very deep human problem: fear. Too many priests, parents, teachers, and others in the Church fear human beings rather than God. God would have us simplify things in our life by fearing Him alone and then not having to fear thousands of others.
Yes, too many priests and other leaders cower before congregations and preach so vaguely and blandly that almost no one can remember what was said, and their obfuscations disguise the Word of God more than reveal it.
The first question every preacher and teacher should ask is “What would God think of what I have said today?” But too many of us who preach are more concerned with the opinions of men. The fear that a preacher should have is not whether his congregation is pleased, but rather whether God, who will judge him one day, is pleased. If he fears God, then he will direct his people with holy fear, not out of fear of man. He will have a proper and holy reverence for God, to whom we must one day be accountable for our office. May neither our silence nor our rash speech condemn us!
Two stories recently in the news illustrate that the path for religious liberty is going to get increasingly rocky in the days ahead. Up until now, the main dispute of the Church with the federal government has been over the “HHS Mandate” requiring us to provide contraception and abortion coverage. We have seen some legal victories on this front, but the battle is far from over and the cost in terms of money, time, and other resources has been enormous.
The two new cases involve same-sex attraction. One case centers on certain rights being afforded to “gay” (LGBTQ) citizens and religious objections to this. The second case involves requiring certified Christian ministers to perform same-sex unions.
With these sorts of cases, there are always going to be those who want to argue the subtleties of the particular case and thereby suggest we ought not get too worked up about things because there are just small technical issues at stake. But beware the incremental quality of these sorts of things. Abortion was originally championed only in those rare cases in which the “life or health of the mother was at stake.” The open sale of contraceptives was originally only to be to married couples and surely minors would be prevented from purchasing them. Now things have gone so far that children are not only supplied with contraceptives, but are referred for abortion without parental consent or even in spite of parental objections.
Yes, things begin in small, “restricted,” and subtle ways. Gradually we are desensitized and barely notice that our liberties are being stripped from us. Many think that it will never happen in America, that a minister speaking to his congregation about moral issues would face penalties for it. This is America, after all, and we have constitutional rights to speech and religious liberty!
Well, stay sober, my friend. Liberties of any sort are seldom taken away instantly. Rather, the thing to be more concerned about is their steady erosion.
Let’s look at these two cases. The first is from Houston and the excerpts that follow are from an article in Time magazine. The full article is here: Houston Pastors’ Sermons Subpoenaed
Houston, … in recent days … subpoenaed sermons of several pastors who oppose a recently passed equal rights ordinance for gay and transgender residents. The subpoenas are an attempt by city officials to determine how the preachers instructed their congregants in their push to get the law repealed …
The law, passed into law by Mayor Annise Parker in May, is often derided as a “bathroom bill,” because it allows transgender individuals to choose whether to use a male or female restroom.
… Mayor Parker, meanwhile, has pledged not to enforce the ordinance until there’s a court decision. But the move by the city to subpoena Houston’s pastors, who have been vocal on the issue and have urged their congregants to support a repeal referendum, has drawn national attention …
“The chilling effect of government scrutiny of our pastors is unconstitutional, and unconscionable,” Tony Perkins [of the Family Research Council] said in a statement. “Mayor Parker’s use of her bully pulpit to silence pulpit freedom must be stopped in its tracks.”
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott also issued a letter saying the city impinged on the pastors’ First Amendment rights and called for the subpoenas’ immediate reversal … “The people of Houston and their religious leaders must be absolutely secure in their knowledge that their religious affairs are beyond the reach of the government.”
… Mayor Parker and City Attorney David Feldman appeared to backtrack on the subpoenas Wednesday, saying they had only recently learned of them and that outside lawyers handled the lawsuit. They argued the city is merely looking for communications from those pastors regarding the petition drive, but that the subpoenas’ language was inappropriate.
“There’s no question the wording was overly broad,” Parker said in a news conference Wednesday. “But I also think there was some deliberate misinterpretation.”
Feldman, the city attorney, called the uproar over the wording “ridiculous,” but also has argued that if a pastor is speaking about political issues from the pulpit, it’s not protected.
Note especially the final line of the quote, wherein our concerns are called “ridiculous,” but even more important, note that the city attorney refers to concerns over the public advancement and legal protection of the LBGTQ agenda as “political.”
Never mind that for some 5,000 years the Judeo-Christian moral tradition has spoken of homosexual acts (as well as heterosexual acts of fornication and adultery) as sinful. That’s right, never mind all that. The city attorney gets to tell us that the concerns that these pastors are raising are simply “political.” Note that it is he who gets to determine that, and that it is the government that will back up his assessment with penalties simply because it is speech that he or other officials determine is “political.”
Many speak in the same way about abortion. Many a Catholic priest who has spoken about abortion from the pulpit has been scolded for “talking about politics” in church. But of course abortion is, first and foremost, a moral issue. Sadly, it is been usurped into the political process, where different parties largely take opposing sides.
To some degree the same thing is happening regarding homosexual acts and whether they should be affirmed or provided special legal protection. But just because this moral issue has been drawn into the political process does not mean that it is no longer a moral issue.
The government does not have an unrestricted right to tell ministers what is a political and what is a moral issue. It will be granted that outright partisan politics from the pulpit is a bridge too far. In churches that have tax-exempt status, the ministers ought not say, “Vote for candidate ‘X’ or “Vote straight party line ticket ‘B’.” But on an issue by issue basis, churches and ministers can and must speak to the moral issues of the day.
Things like theft, murder, lying, illicit sexual activity, greed, and so forth remain moral issues no matter how these things play out in the political process. A government attorney does not get the right to tell a minister that moral issues, constantly held by the Judeo-Christian tradition extending back 5,000 years into record human history, are now simply “political” issues. Any person of good will ought to see that this is chilling.
Not only are the government officials saying this, but they are threatening with penalties those whom they say transgress. The word subpoena, as you probably know, means (literally from the Latin) “to be under penalty.” In other words, if compliance is not forthcoming, penalties will follow. SO this is not just a debate over semantics of what is political and what is moral. This is a matter that, had the law gone forth, was going to carry the force of law and involve penalties.
Yes, stay sober, my friends. Although the government officials in Houston walked this back a bit, calling it just a big “misunderstanding,” this is just the first shot across the bow.
The Second Story is even more sobering:
City officials told Donald Knapp that he and his wife Evelyn, both ordained ministers who run Hitching Post Wedding Chapel, are required to perform [same-sex] ceremonies or face months in jail and/or thousands of dollars in fines. The city claims its “non-discrimination” ordinance requires the Knapps to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies now that the courts have overridden Idaho’s voter-approved constitutional amendment that affirmed marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
[A Lawyer for the minsters said] “Many have denied that pastors would ever be forced to perform ceremonies that are completely at odds with their faith, but that’s what is happening here – and it’s happened this quickly. The city is on seriously flawed legal ground, and our lawsuit intends to ensure that this couple’s freedom to adhere to their own faith as pastors is protected just as the First Amendment intended.”
“The government exists to protect and respect our freedoms, not attack them, The city cannot erase these fundamental freedoms and replace them with government coercion and intolerance.”
The Hitching Post Wedding Chapel is across the street from the Kootenai County Clerk’s office, which issues marriage licenses. The Knapps, both in their 60s and who themselves have been married for 47 years, began operating the wedding chapel in 1989 as a ministry. They perform religious wedding ceremonies, which include references to God, the invocation of God’s blessing on the union, brief remarks drawn from the Bible designed to encourage the couple and help them to have a successful marriage, and more. They also provide each couple they marry with a CD that includes two sermons about marriage, and they recommend numerous Christian books on the subject. The Knapps charge a small fee for their services.
[Last] Friday, the Knapps respectfully declined such a ceremony and now face up to 180 days in jail and up to $1,000 in fines for each day they decline to perform that ceremony. (These are excerpts, full story here: Government Threatens Ministers for Not Performing Same-Sex Weddings)
Let me say from the outset that I am not a big fan of this sort of “wedding chapel” ministry. Couples need to spend time to prepare and not rush out from getting a license and go across the street to a “hitching post.” However, the couple has been doing this for over forty years and are “ordained” ministers who do focus their effort in religious themes and settings.
Whatever my personal reserve about their catering to impulsive couples, it is surely though not the place of the government to compel them to perform their religious ceremonies for people whose clear behavior violates the ministers deep-seated religious beliefs.
Yet it would seem that this is exactly what is happening if the facts are reported correctly here. Carterers, photographers, and others are facing the same penalties nationwide.
Now this leads to a very critical point in the religious liberty issue: it is not the Church alone that has religious liberty, but YOU, the American citizens have religious liberty. The State should not be able to compel you to violate deeply held religious beliefs.
It will be granted that a compelling concern could permit the State to overrule a religious practice. For example if a religious group called for child sacrifice, that would create a compelling State interest in preventing the exercise of such a grave violation of natural and civil law. But the ability of a same-sex couple to be able to do as they please in terms of a “wedding” venue is not a compelling State interest.
Further, the religious concern in play here is not some obscure doctrine but one that has been operative for millennia, and only recently abandoned by some.
Yes, be sober, my friends, the steady erosion of religious liberty continues apace in this country. Political correctness, cultural change, intolerance, and expansive government power are becoming the “perfect storm” that is eroding the religious liberty of many. The storm may still seem offshore to many, but its outer bands are already spreading a dark mantle over the land.
Here’s a video that speak of storms that come when we do not resist sin:
The Gospel today contains lots of interesting juxtapositions: hatred for Jesus but grudging respect for him, real questions versus rhetorical ones, politics and faith, duties to Caesar and duties to God. The word “juxtaposition” is from the Latin juxta (meaning “near”) and positio (meaning “place or position”). Hence juxtaposition is the placing of two things near to each other in order to see how they are similar and yet different. In English, usually a juxtaposition emphasizes differences more than similarities.
Let’s look at these one by one, spending the most time on the juxtaposition of our duties toward God and toward “Caesar.” The essential lesson in all these juxtapositions is that God will not be reduced to fit into our little categories. He is God, not man.
I. The Plotting of the Peculiar Partners - The Gospel begins by describing an extremely unlikely set of “bedfellows.” The text says, The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech. They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians. A very unlikely set of allies here. The Pharisees hated the Herodians. It was a combination of political and racial hatred, just about as poisonous as you could get in the ancient world. Yet they both agreed that this Jesus fellow had to go.
Here is an important teaching: if you’re going to be a true Christian the world will hate you. Too many Christians think some segment of the world will agree to live in peace with us and so we strive to forge allegiances with it. In the modern American scene, some think that the Republicans or the Democrats are natural allies for us. As we will discuss later, we really don’t fit well into either party or into any worldly “club.”
Catholicism is an “equal-opportunity offender” if it is proclaimed in its unabridged form. Issue by issue we may appeal to one political party or another. But taken as a whole we’re a nuisance: pro-life, traditional family values, immigrants’ rights, affordable housing, anti-capital punishment. But in the end, we both please and annoy at the same time. Which is another way of saying we don’t fit into the world’s categories and everyone has some reason to hate us.
Welcome to Jesus’ world where even the Herodians and Pharisees, who seem to agree on nothing, do agree to hate Jesus.
II. The Praise that is (really) a Perilous Provocation - In their opening remarks to Jesus, His enemies give him grudging respect. But they do so not to actually praise Him but rather to provoke Him. They say, Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion … Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?
But this praise is largely a pretext and is used to provoke. In effect, they think they can they can force a definition on Jesus: “You’re the Man … You’re the prophet … You’re the answer man … You’re the only one around here who tells the truth no matter what.” Now none of these things are false and they bespeak a grudging respect for Jesus.
But they are only using this to draw Jesus into a worldly debate well below his “pay grade.” They want Jesus to take sides in a stupid human debate over politics and worldly power. They want him to get arrested and killed over something not worth dying for.
Prophets die for the truth revealed by God not for who the “big cheese” should be in human affairs or who human beings think are the best. They want Jesus to opine as if He were some sort of talking head on TV rather than the prophet and Lord that He is. A question of this sort is not worthy of Jesus’ attention. Ask this of the local senator or mayor but leave God out of human political distinctions and camps; do not expect Him to take sides. He is beyond our distinctions and will not be confined by party lines, national boundaries, or political philosophies.
We may well debate that certain systems better reflect the Kingdom than others, but in the end, God cannot be reduced to being a Republican, a Democrat, or for that matter an American. He is God and He transcends our endless debates and camps. He is not a talking head; He is God.
Generally speaking, rhetorical questions are statements or arguments posed in the form of a question. If I say to you, “Are you crazy?” I am not really looking for an answer. Though I have spoken in the form of a question, I am really making a statement: “You ARE crazy.” This is what takes place in today’s gospel. The questioners already have their own opinions and they are not about to change based on any answer Jesus would give. They don’t really want an answer per se. They just want something to use against Him.
If He says, “Yes, pay the taxes,” that is politically incorrect and will make Him unpopular with the crowds. If He says “No, don’t pay the taxes,” He will be arrested and likely executed.
In the end, Jesus calls them what they are: hypocrites, a Greek word meaning “actor.” And that is what they are. This whole thing is an act. No real answer is sought, just a showdown. This is not about discovering the truth; it is about setting a trap.
But Jesus will have none of it. He will not be reduced to human distinctions and categories. The truth He proclaims transcends the passing political order and struggles for human power. He will not be drawn into declaring one side or the other better. Rather, He will apply the ruler of truth evenly to all.
He is reality in the face of rhetoric, perfection in the face of politics, Divinity in the face of division.
III. The Protesting of their Pretext and Pretense - Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Not every one who engages us is truly looking for an answer or for the truth. We cannot always know things, but Jesus surely could. Often, when one is engaged in a discussion about the truth of the Gospel, one discovers that authentic dialogue is not actually taking place and thus it is permissible for us to merely proclaim the truth firmly, clearly, and with due charity, and end the conversation. Jesus thus called them on their pretense and authoritatively announced the principle with a goal to ending the conversation and sending them away to think.
IV. The Pointed Proclamation of the Principle of Jesus says, simply, and in a way that transcends worldly “all-or-nothing” scenarios, Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.
This of course generates the wish for elaboration. But in our demands for more detail, we too often seek to conceal the fact that we really know the answer. And we also betray the need of the flesh to specify everything so as to control and limit its impact.
But if a list is demanded we might include some of the following things we ought to “pay” to Caesar (i.e., in our scenario to pay to our country or locale):
- Obey all just laws.
- Pay legally assessed taxes.
- Pray for our country and its leaders.
- Participate in the common defense based on our abilities and state in life.
- Take an active and informed part in the political process.
- Engage in movements of necessary and ongoing reform.
- Contribute to the common good through work (domestic or market-based) and through the sharing of our abilities and talents.
- Maintain strong family ties, and raise disciplined children well prepared to contribute to the common good and the good order of society.
- Encourage patriotic love of our country.
- Strive for unity and love rooted in Truth.
And we might include some of the following in what we owe to God:
- Adoration, love, and gratitude
- Obedience to His Word and Law
- Support of His Church by attendance at sacred worship, financial support, and sharing of our gifts and talents
- Proclamation of his Word both verbally and by witness
- Devoted reception of the Sacraments
- Raising our children in His truth and in reverence of Him
- Evangelization (making disciples)
- Preparing for death and judgment through a holy and reverent sojourn here on earth
A glance at these lists reveals, however, that there is overlap, and one would expect this with God. For He defies many of our human categories and distinctions. In effect, we see a setting forth of the great commandment of Love: that we should love the Lord our God with all our soul, strength, and mind, and our neighbor as ourself (e.g., Matt 22:37). For while God is not Caesar and Caesar is not God, love unites both categories.
Hence we see that to love our country is to love our neighbor. To work for, support, and be involved in the common good is to love our neighbor. And to love our neighbor, whom we see, is to begin to love God, whom we do not see. Further, to seek to reform our land, secure justice, and ensure unity rooted in truth, is to help usher in the Kingdom of God. Yet again, to be rooted in God’s law, walk in His truth, and raise our children as strong and disciplined disciples of the Lord is to bless this country. To obey God and to walk in sobriety, love, and self-discipline is to render not only to God but also to be good citizens.
However, it must be clear that God is and must be our supreme love. And So Jesus is not setting forth a mere equivalence here. It remains a sad fact that this world is often at odds with God. And thus we who would be his disciples must often accept the fact that we will be seen by this world as though we are aliens from another planet. As we have already set forth, neither Jesus nor we should expect to fit precisely into any worldly category or club. We will be an equal-opportunity irritant to any large group. If you are going to be a faithful Catholic then expect to be an outsider, an outlier, and an outcast.
Rendering to God comes first. But too many people today are more passionate about their politics than their faith. They tuck their faith under their politics and world view. They are more inclined to agree with their party than with the Church or even the Scriptures. And if you try to tell them that, they’ll say you’re violating Church/State barriers (a phrase not in the Constitution, by the way), or that since something is not infallibly defined (as they determine it) they are free to entirely ignore the teaching of the bishops, the Pope, and/or the Catechism on any number of matters.
Hence the question goes up: is God really first? Is His Word really the foundation of our thoughts and views? Or are we just playing games? Loving this world and working for the common good are not at odds with our love for God. But submitting to worldly categories and human divisions and permitting them to drive our views IS most often opposed to God, who will not simply be conformed to human political movements.
God has set forth the Catholic Church to speak for Him but He has not anointed any political movement or worldly organization to speak as such. No Catholic ought to surrender to artificial and passing distinctions, or to organizations, or should permit worldly allegiances to trump what the Scriptures and the Church clearly proclaim. Sadly, today many do, and in such ways seem far more willing to render to some version of “Caesar” than to first render obedience and allegiance to God and to the Church, which speaks for Him. The Church is an object of faith; a political party is not. Render to God what is God’s.
This song says, God and God alone is fit to take the universe’s throne:
One of the great mysteries of God’s providence is that He often leaves things unresolved or unattended to for a very long time. Often, despite our fervent prayers, He doesn’t rush to fix everything, and He has His reasons for this.
Perhaps it is that we often grow through struggles. We discover strengths that we did not know we had.
Sometimes, suffering brings wisdom, and we learn more by living our questions for a while, rather than getting quick answers.
Suffering can also spur creativity. Many movies, works of literature, paintings, poems, and so forth are often the fruit of struggle and speak to the drama of our life and the conflicts we often endure.
Sometimes suffering brings growth. There’s an old saying, “Things do, by opposition grow.” Another one says, “Calm seas do not a mariner make.”
Perhaps, too, in rushing to solve things and frequently intervening, God would cancel too much human freedom, which He both respects and sees as necessary for us to be among those who love, those who are sons and daughters rather than slaves.
Finally, and most mysteriously from our perspective, fixing one thing often affects many other things. Very often, in a rush to fix many things in our culture we have caused a great deal of harm as well. Whatever our good intentions, many of our welfare programs have harmed our families and our churches, from which help, through the bonds of charity, traditionally came. Many of our technologies have had harmful effects on the environment. And despite our many labor-saving devices, most of us are busier than ever. Fixing things sometimes leads to more problems, or at least brings unintended consequences.
Yes, there are mysteries to God’s providence, and despite our many and seemingly reasonable requests that things be fixed (and quickly!), God in His wisdom often delays and leaves things unresolved. He has His reasons, but most of the answers as to why are none of our business.
I thought of this as I watched the video below. It is of a plumber who is determined to fix a leak. His frustration grows, and is understandable, but sometimes in fixing a drip too hastily we get a flood.
Be careful before you rush to fix things in your life or in the lives of others. Fixing is often required, but go slowly, carefully, and learn patience. Learn from God, who can fix everything instantly but usually does not.
The news from the Synod this day is improved. Thanks be to God, many, yes many of the bishops and synod participants have articulated how deficient and misleading the “rough draft” Relatio was. Keep praying! The struggles to lay hold of and articulate with clarity God’s stunning teaching on Holy Matrimony and family in a doubtful world will continue.
But, frankly, even at the moment Jesus uttered his unequivocal insistence that marriage was one man and one woman in an indissoluble bond, many were stunned and scoffed, If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better never to marry! (Matt 19:10) Jesus, of course, did not back down and went on to reiterate His teaching while also affirming that celibacy (never to marry) was a positive, not negative role (Matt 19:11ff).
Our struggle to recapture and reaffirm without compromise what Jesus taught is surely challenging, especially in a climate in which so many marriages fail. I was listening to an interview yesterday in which the question of how to stem the tide of failed marriages was pondered. All the usual remedies were discussed: better catechesis, better marriage preparation, more sermons on Holy Matrimony, etc. But both participants in the interview concluded that, in a culture as troubled as ours, the “education/catechesis” model was going to have only limited effects. Both agreed that deeper cultural changes and healing would be required in order for marriage (and many other things) to recover substantially and statistically.
Let me ponder with you a deep but often unexplored root of the trouble with marriage today. It is interesting because it actually emerges from something good, but something that is good in a detached and therefore unmoored sense: our high idealism about marriage. Let me explain.
We live in times that have become quite cynical about anything being good or noble or pure. But many today still have an extremely high ideal for marriage: that it should be wonderful, romantic, joyful, loving, and happy. Yes, this is quite an ideal, rather rooted in the dreamy wishes of romantic longing, but an ideal nonetheless. Amor omnia vicit! (Love conquers all!) Surely we will live happily ever after the way every story says!
But here’s the problem: Many want their marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal! Yes, many are wandering about thinking, as in the U2 song, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for!”
Yes, the problem is that there is no ideal marriage, only real marriage. Two sinners have married. A man and a woman with fallen natures, living in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, have entered the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. But, like the graces of any Sacrament, those of Holy Matrimony are necessary not because things are wonderful, but because they are oftentimes difficult. Marriage is meant to sanctify but, like baptism, its offered graces gradually unfold, and they do so to the degree and at the speed with which the couple cooperates with God’s work.
Real marriage is going to take a lifetime of joy and challenges, tenderness and tension, difficulties and growth in order for a man and woman to summon each other to the holiness that God gives. And some of God’s gifts come in strange packages; struggles and irritations are often opportunities to grow and to learn what forgiveness, patience, and suffering are really all about. These are precious things to learn and to grow in. Frankly, if we don’t learn to forgive we are going to go to Hell (e.g., Mt 6:14-15). Even the best marriages have tensions. No tension means no change.
This may not be the ideal, “happily ever-after” marriage, but it is the real one, full of joy, love, hope, and tenderness, but also sorrow, anger, disappointment, and stresses.
The real problem comes not from our ideals about marriage, which are good to strive for, but from the fact that we conceive of these ideals in a hedonistic and “instant-gratification” culture.
Hedonism is the “doctrine” that the chief goals of life in this world are happiness and pleasure. (The Greek word hedone means “pleasure.”) In the hedonistic view, any diminishment of pleasure or happiness is the worst thing imaginable, a complete disaster. On account of this “doctrine,” many insist on a kind of God-given right to be happy and pleased. Even many devout Christians fall prey to the very exaggerated notions of hedonism and excuse some pretty selfish and sinful behaviors by saying, “Well, God wants me to be happy doesn’t He?” And thus, when the Church or an individual suggests that perhaps someone should do what is difficult, the hedonistic culture reacts, not with puzzlement, but with downright indignation, as if to say, “How dare you get between anyone and what makes him happy!”
So, our notion of an ideal (happy, fulfilling, blissful) marriage is seen through the lens of hedonistic extremism. And thus if the ideal is not found, many sense a need, a perfect right, to end a less-than-ideal marriage in search of greener pastures.
And this is just one more thing added to our instant gratification culture of “overnight shipping,” “Buy it with one click,” and “Download now!” If the ideal marriage is not evident very soon, the disappointments and resentments come quickly.
Yes, resentments. There is an old saying: “Unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments.” How quickly our unrealistic notions of the instantly ideal, picture-perfect marriage are dashed on the shoals of reality. And thus we return to the premise: many want their marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal.
Somewhere, not only in the Church’s marriage preparation programs but also in our work of assisting personal formation, we need to teach and become aware that unrealistic expectations are ultimately destructive. Our ideals are not the problem per se, but we must become more sober of our conception of our ideals through the lens of hedonism and instant gratification. Growth takes time. Life moves through stages. Marriage is hard … but so is life. Cutting and running from the imperfect marriage, as too many do rather quickly today, is not the ultimate solution. Sure enough, one imperfect marriage yields another and perhaps yet another.
Rest assured, I do not sit in judgment over everyone who has ever divorced. I speak here to a cultural trend (perfectionism jaded by hedonism and instant gratification) that contributes to the perceived need and “right” to “move on” if happiness is not quickly and stably attained. In the (even recent) past we tended more to stick things out, to work through some of our differences and to agree to live with others of our differences. Life was more seen as hard, a kind of exile to endure on our way to our true homeland and to true happiness. Surely we looked to some joys here on earth, but we had more of a sense of the passing quality of all worldly things, whether good or bad. We would do well to regain something of this more sober appreciation that life here is a mixed bag; it’s going to have its challenges. Marriage is no exception. And though we may idealize it, we should be aware that we are setting ourselves up for resentments and disappointments if we do not balance it with the understanding that marriage is hard because life is hard.
Clearly there are many other problems that contribute to today’s high divorce rates. But here is one often overlooked root: many expect an ideal marriage, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal. (And we would do well to remember that in a world with adults behaving like this, it is the children who get the raw deal.) This is a deep cultural root of our divorce problem, a deep wound of which we should become more aware.
Most of you know that I write the Question and Answer Column for Our Sunday Visitor. And every now and then it is good to bring these works of mine together. An interesting question came in today (actually it is asked quite frequently) and I’d like to give my answer and add just a few things more that wouldn’t fit into the column. First the question, then the answer and a brief elaboration.
Q: Why does the Lord’s Prayer ask God not to lead us in temptation? Why would God do that? I have also read texts in the Bible about God hardening people’s hearts. Again why would God do that?
A: Part of the problem in understanding biblical texts like these comes down to the philosophical distinction between primary and secondary causality. Primary causality refers to God’s action in creating, sustaining, and setting into motion all things. From this perspective, God is the first (or primary) cause of all things, even things contrary to His stated and revealed will.
Thus, if I hit you over the head with a bat, I am actually the secondary cause of this painful experience. God is the primary cause because He has made and sustains all things that are involved: me, the wood of the bat, and the firm resistance of your skull.
As such, God is the first or underlying cause, without which nothing at all would be happening or existing. God is surely opposed to my action and even has Commandments against it. However, given His establishment of physical laws and respect for human freedom, He seldom intervenes by suspending these.
So to be clear, in my horrific little example, God is the primary cause since He is the cause of both me and the bat; I am the secondary cause of my shameful act of violence.
The biblical world was more conversant with and accepting of primary causality. Biblical texts often more freely associate things with God because He is the first cause of all things (without excluding the human agency that is the secondary cause). The Catechism speaks to this reality in Scripture:
The sacred books powerfully affirm God’s absolute sovereignty over the course of events: “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases.” And so it is with Christ, “who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens.” As the book of Proverbs states: “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.” And so we see the Holy Spirit, the principal author of Sacred Scripture, often attributing actions to God without mentioning any secondary causes. This is not a “primitive mode of speech,” but a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him (Catechism 303-304).
So the biblical world was more comfortable with primary causality. However, with the rise of the empirical sciences and secularism, we moderns are far less comfortable in speaking to primary causality (God’s world) and tend to focus more on secondary causes (our world).
When the Lord’s Prayer says lead us not into temptation, it is not asserting that God would directly and intentionally lead us into temptation, or tempt us himself (see James 1:13), but rather is alluding to the fact that God is the first cause of all things. We are thus asking that God’s providence allow fewer opportunities for us to be led into temptation by the world, the flesh, and the devil, and give us the grace to escape the temptations that inevitably do come our way.
Likewise, texts that refer to God hardening hearts employ similar thinking. God hardens hearts only insofar as He is the first cause of all things. But it is usually we who harden our own hearts. God merely permits the conditions and sustains our existence (primary causality); it is we as secondary causes who directly will the sins that harden our own hearts.
Primary causality is ultimately a confession of the fact that God is at the center of and above all things. God is existence itself and He sustains all things. It is not an untroubling doctrine in that it tends to intensify the questions surrounding the problems of suffering and evil. But even in permitted evils there is the mystery of providence at work. God can write straight with crooked lines and make a way out of no way. He is at all times and in all things provident in ways beyond our telling. Scripture says of the Lord Jesus as the King and sustainer of all creation,
In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word (Heb 1:1-3).
He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Col 1:16-17).
Thy bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
It streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
And sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.
There’s an old story told about the legendary football coach, Vince Lombardi. At one point he was so concerned that the players on his team had lost any sense of the basics of the game that he summoned them all into a classroom and had them all sit down at desks. Most of them expected a detailed review of the playbook, with diagrams on the board of X’s, O’s, and arrows. But to their surprise, the blackboard was empty and no playbooks were in sight. Lombardi walked in and stood in front of the quiet room. In short order he reached behind the desk and held up a familiar object, saying, “Gentlemen, this is a football.”
Talk about back to basics! Lombardi then proceeded to talk at length about the game and its most fundamental aspects. He described the object of the game, the different stances (such as offensive and defensive), the different positions (such as fullback and right guard), and so forth. To experienced players, the lecture must have been quite embarrassing. But sometimes people get so confused that we can no longer assume that even the most obvious things are obvious anymore.
Given the recent confusion about marriage, sexuality, and the family, and with the Synod that was called to address the confusion in some cases intensifying it (or at least the media reports have done so), it seems opportune for all of us to go back to basics. Perhaps it is time for one of us to reach behind the desk and hold up a book or two, saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a Bible, and this is the Catechism, and this is what they say about the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. There’s no need to reinvent, rename, or come up with new definitions. God has already taken care of all of that in what the Bible and the Catechism say.”
In the paragraphs that follow, I propose only a brief review of what these sources say. I recommend that you read the Catechism from paragraph 1601 to 1666. Can we not agree to go to sources of official Catholic Teaching? Despite what the Washington Post or the New York Times say, these teachings cannot change.
Back to basics! Here is what the Catechism and Sacred Scripture have to teach on marriage.
I. God is the Author of Matrimony – The Book of Genesis speaks to us not only of our creation but also of our very nature. In the first place, we are made for love because we are created in the image and likeness of God, who is love. A second and very important truth taught to us in the scriptural account of our creation is that man and woman were made for each other. God himself declares, It is not good for the man to be alone (Gn 2:18). So God created Eve from the very flesh, the very human nature of Adam. Note well that a woman is the suitable partner. A woman, not two or several women (hence bigamy and polygamy are excluded), and not another man (hence homosexual liaisons do not supply the suitable partner that makes a marriage). When Adam beheld Eve he was delighted and declared, Here at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh (Gn 2:23). God also teaches in the Genesis account that in His creative act is the origin and understanding of marriage: For this reason a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh (Gn 2:24).
Holy Matrimony is about Children – In Chapter One of Genesis, we are also given another important teaching about Matrimony. Adam and Eve are instructed by God, Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it (Gn 1:28). Thus, the love of Adam and Eve was to reflect the love of God, which is fruitful and life-giving. Marriage has a central goal of producing children, hence its structure is both heterosexual and lasting, since that is what is first necessary and then best for children.
Here then is God’s plan for Holy Matrimony: a man and a woman in a unity of life and fruitful love so profound that they may be said to be one flesh. Adam sees Eve as his equal, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. He is delighted to behold her and acknowledges that it is not good that he should ever be without her and that he is completed and helped by her. Although the scriptural account does not record Eve’s reflections, we may presume that they were similar. Alone it was not possible for them to be fruitful and multiply. Alone and apart they could only find death; together as one they would experience the gifts of life and family.
To all demands that the Church recognize same-sex unions, polygamous unions, second (or third…) unions, or other irregular or unnatural unions as “marriages,” can only come the firm and clear answer, “No.” We recognize God as the author of marriage and are bound to what He has given and set forth both in Holy Scripture and Natural Law.
II. The Painful Reality of Sin – The wondrous communion of Adam and Eve intended by God and described in the book of Genesis was seriously disturbed by the consequences that flowed from the Original Sin they committed. This is dramatically illustrated by Adam’s response to God. When God noted that they had eaten from the tree of which he had forbidden them to eat, Adam blamed Eve, saying, It was that woman you put here with me, she gave me the fruit and so I ate it (Gn 3:12). See how strongly this contrasts with his former appreciation of Eve, whom he described as one with him, as bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh! Now division and hostility are experienced and expressed.
It is also highly significant that both realize that they are naked (Gn 3:7). Whereas before, their relationship was one of complete openness and trust, now they experience embarrassment and vulnerability before each other and before God. They feel they must cover up; they feel compelled to hide significant aspects of themselves.
God himself describes the consequences that will flow from the awful reality they have chosen. His words to Eve are particularly poignant: I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you (Gn 3:16).
Adam, too, shall now have to toil for food to eat and the experience of Eve as his helpmate or co-worker seems greatly diminished (Gn. 3:17-19).
It is quite clear that sin and evil inflicted great harm on the original joy and communion between Adam and Eve. The Catechism describes these sad realities quite well:
This experience [of the evil flowing from Original Sin] makes itself felt in the relationships between man and woman. Their union has always been threatened by discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts that can escalate into hatred and separation. This disorder can manifest itself more or less acutely, and can be more or less overcome according to the circumstances of cultures, eras, and individuals, but it does seem to have a universal character.According to faith the disorder we notice so painfully does not stem from the nature of man and woman, nor from the nature of their relations, but from sin. As a break with God, the first sin had for its first consequence the rupture of the original communion between man and woman. Their relations were distorted by mutual recriminations; their mutual attraction, the Creator’s own gift, changed into a relationship of domination and lust; and the beautiful vocation of man and woman to be fruitful, multiply, and subdue the earth was burdened by the pain of childbirth and the toil of work (Catechism 1606-1607).
The consequences of the divisions caused by sin continued to be felt down through the pages of the Old Testament in the polygamy of the patriarchs, which only gradually came to be forbidden, and in the permitting of divorce under Mosaic Law. Our Lord Jesus would later indicate that the fact that divorce was permitted was an indication of the “hardness of your hearts” (Mt 19:8).
III. Still a noble grace – Yet despite the distortion caused by sin, God continued to point to marriage’s lofty status by presenting it as one of the primary images of His covenant with His people. God was the faithful spouse of His bride, Israel. Through the prophets, He reminded His bride that she was espoused to Him. Sin was infidelity, but God’s love was everlasting and, though He chastised Israel, He would never forsake her. God even used romantic imagery. Consider this example from the Prophet Hosea:
“Therefore, behold, I will allure Israel, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her … And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. “And in that day, says the LORD, you will call me, ‘My husband’ … and I will make you lie down in safety. And I will betroth you to me for ever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD (Hosea 2:14-20).
And so it was that God never cast aside the lofty ideals of marriage. He continued to proclaim them to His people.
IV. Established by Christ as a Sacrament – It is in this context that Jesus proclaimed an absolute return to God’s original plan, which the regime of sin had distorted.
In the Gospels, Jesus proclaims His intention to return to God’s original plan for marriage. Divorce had entered the scene through sin. But Jesus came to destroy the ancient power of sin and cancel its effects. He is able to empower couples, through His healing grace, to live up to the original vision of marriage given by God.
This, too, is clearly taught in the Catechism: In his preaching Jesus unequivocally taught the original meaning of the union of man and woman as the Creator willed it from the beginning. Permission given by Moses to divorce one’s wife was a concession to the hardness of hearts (Mt. 19:8). The matrimonial union of man and woman is indissoluble: God himself has determined it “what therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder”(Mt 19:6). This unequivocal insistence on the indissolubility of the marriage bond may have left some perplexed and could seem to be a demand impossible to realize. However, Jesus … himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God. It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to “receive” the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ (Mt. 19:11). (Catechism 1614-1615)
It is in the context of His solemn teaching on marriage that Christ established marriage as a sacrament and St. Paul could declare it a great mystery (sacramentum) . The Catholic Church has acknowledged it as such ever since.
Note the phrase used in the Catechism, which speaks of Christ’s unequivocal insistence on the indissolubility of the marriage bond. The word “unequivocal” is a strong one, and must be insisted on, especially to those who wish to equivocate on this matter. Let this be clear: no validly conferred marital bond can be broken. What God has joined is not to be separated. To leave a valid marriage and enter another sexual union is to be in an ongoing state of adultery.
V. The Outward Sign of the Sacrament – The outward sign, that which is seen and heard, is the exchange of consent (vows) before the Church. The Church is represented by a priest or a deacon. The vows are usually worded in this or similar fashion: I take you to be my wife/husband. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.
Note here the rather all-encompassing quality of these vows! Often a reminder of these vows can help to overrule notions that a marriage should end. For, indeed, there will be some bad times, sickness, and even poverty. But marriage is for better OR worse, in health AND in sickness, for richer OR for poorer.
Too many want their marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal they want a new deal. But the vows speak directly to the fact that while marriage does bring joy and many graces, no marriage is perfect. Difficult times must be endured as part of the expected picture.
VI. The Graces of the Sacrament – The three most basic qualities of Christian marriage are that it is permanent, faithful, and fruitful. The graces of the Sacrament all serve to create and preserve these realities.
Permanence: Since God himself is the author of every valid marriage, there arises a bond between the couple that can never be broken. This stable and faithful relationship is itself a great blessing since it provides the couple a sturdy foundation on which to live and experience trust, mutual support, and encouragement. It also provides the best environment in which to raise children. It can seem difficult, even impossible, to bind oneself for life to another human being. This makes it all the more important to proclaim the Good News that God loves us with a definitive and irrevocable love, that married couples share in this love, that it supports and sustains them, and that by their own faithfulness they can be witnesses to God’s faithful love. (Catechism 1649)
Faithfulness: Marital love is also of its nature always undivided and exclusive. This love is a special love, which is never to be shared by the spouses with others. In addition to these graces, Christian couples receive all the graces they need to perfect their love for one another and strengthen their unity. By these graces they assist one another to grow in maturity and holiness. Marriage helps to overcome self-absorption, egoism, pursuit of one’s own pleasure, and to open oneself to the other, to mutual aid and to self-giving. (Catechism 1609)
Fruitfulness: Children are the supreme gift of marriage and contribute greatly to the good of the parents themselves. God’s love is fruitful and marital love is to be a reflection of that love. When God established marriage, He instructed the first spouses as to its nature, Be fruitful and multiply (Gn 1:28). So by its very nature the institution of marriage and married love is ordered to the procreation and education of children. This of course includes more than a college education. It includes every aspect of the personal development of children: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and supernatural life. God grants to parents an awesome dignity when He entrusts the care of immortal souls to them. This of itself helps us to recognize the high calling of marital life and helps us to understand how crucial and necessary the Sacrament of Matrimony is for the Church and for the world.
VII. The structure of marriage as being both heterosexual and stable (permanent) is due to its essential work of raising children.
Our modern culture speaks of marriage as being about and for the happiness of the adults. The Lord, however, sets forth marriage as being first and foremost about children and what is best for them. Our culture prattles on endlessly about the rights and feelings of the adults in the marriage, but it is what is best for children that should be the first priority in speaking of Matrimony, its proper structure, and the conduct of the spouses.
The modern world has wholly shifted the focus to adults, insisting on their absolute “right” to resist children through contraception and even to kill them through abortion. And this is all so that adults can follow their own wishes. In separating children from marriage and sex, we have separated what God has joined and are now reaping a whirlwind of confusion along with bad and destructive behaviors.
Back to basics, fellow Catholics! Read the Scriptures; study the Catechism; respect Natural Law. And above all, get on your knees and pray for an end to the confusion. It will take a miracle in this darkened and decadent world, but God is able!
The so-called “midterm” report of the Synod is out. Please remember, it is only a rough draft and the final report may in fact look very different. Frankly, I am not sure why we are even being permitted to look at a rough draft. Nevertheless, presuming the Pope is serious about inviting discussion, let me consider a certain aspect of the report and a few particulars.
A governing principle that seems to permeate the report’s reflections is one that some refer to as “gradualism.” As a pastoral strategy, gradualism can be an effective, even necessary approach in order to lead people more deeply into the moral and spiritual life of the Church. However, as with any pastoral strategy, there are serious concerns and pitfalls to avoid.
What is gradualism? While I myself have never personally called it this, gradualism is a way in which we meet people where they are and seek gradually to draw them more deeply into the true life of a Christian. All of us who have journeyed toward Christ realize that we have we have not always been where we are today, and that future growth is necessary. Growth usually happens in stages and by degrees, ideally leading us more deeply to Christ.
Perhaps an analogy involving a doctor and patient may help. Suppose a doctor meets a man in his late 50s who presents with a large number of health issues. There are many things wrong with the man (obesity, hypertension, diabetic tendencies, pulmonary and cardiac issues, etc.). Many aspects of the man’s lifestyle (drinking and eating to excess, poor diet, smoking, lack of exercise, etc.) may be contributing to this deterioration in his health. Seldom does a doctor give a patient a list of 25 things to do immediately. Such a “prescription” might leave the patient discouraged and unlikely to comply. So most doctors choose to chip away at the problem. What are some small changes that the patient can reasonably make in the next month? Perhaps it is beginning to take short walks, or making small changes in his diet. And thus the doctor begins with what he thinks is reasonable and achievable right away, and then gradually draws the patient to a more healthy lifestyle and better health. Small changes can eventually lead to a lot of progress.
In the pastoral ministry, similar strategies are often employed and they sometimes make good sense. People who show up at the front door of the rectory (or at our RCIA or marriage preparation programs) often present in a state of extensive spiritual disrepair. Many unhealthy and sinful moral issues or spiritually irregular practices are evident. Many have also been influenced by modern errors and misinformation. In many cases, the best place for a priest to begin is with a conversation, laying a foundation of trust that will assist the person in being conformed once again to the truth of the Gospel. During these conversations, the priest can clarify doubts and errors, display careful reasoning based on Scripture, and explain why we teach certain things. This approach can inspire repentance from sinful habits or patterns.
Priests and other pastoral leaders engage in this process frequently even if we don’t use the term “gradualism.” Not everyone is ready to go right into the confessional. Most people must be carefully prepared and led back to the truth. It is obviously a process that will vary considerably from person to person depending on his or her needs.
However, as with any pastoral strategy, there are pitfalls that must be avoided. Here are a few concerns that the practice of so-called gradualism might raise:
1. Gradualism works best when the one who administers it remains committed to seeing the whole process through and is not simply trying to evade the difficult work of restoring people. Again, for example, the doctor who begins in small ways to help a person to better health must remain deeply aware of how serious things like heart disease, pulmonary disease, etc. are. Well-trained doctors must have a proper sense of urgency for the overall goal of actually restoring health. Today in the Church, however, it is not certain that a similar urgency is evident among the laity, the rank and file clergy, and I would suppose even some bishops.
However, the prevalence of “universalism” (the unbiblical view that all are saved in the end no matter what) in the Church has led to a profound lack of urgency. Very few in pastoral leadership today have a strong sense of concern about the fact that so many people are confused, are in darkness, and are living in serious, unrepentant sin. In the midst of a great moral crisis, many pulpits remain strangely silent and most parishes seem more focused on the next chicken dinner or the upcoming fundraiser than about how to reach out to those who live in darkness.
It is very troubling, akin to a doctor suddenly saying, “Well, heart disease, cancer, etc. are not really big deals, so in the end it doesn’t really matter whether we do anything or not.” And yet for many in the Church this is exactly the way they speak, at least implicitly. Apparently, for many, it is no big deal that people are living in great moral confusion, or that many are not coming to Mass, receiving sacraments, or explicitly confessing Christ, or that many are fornicating, divorcing, and engaging in or celebrating homosexual acts. If, as universalism implies, everyone will be saved in the end, who really cares all that much that people do these things?
This widely held pastoral stance has left many in the Church without an appropriate sense of urgency to reach out to people who may in fact be lost.
In such a climate, gradualism is not likely to work well since there is no necessary goal to which we must urgently summon those to whom we minister. In such a climate of little urgency, the emphasis is more on how people might feel. And even if gradualism is attempted, at some point, even in gradualism, there are difficult things that have to be said and unpopular truths that must be announced. Without that urgency to drive it, it’s hard to imagine a “gradualist” approach really moving the ball much.
Only if the priest or pastoral leader is deeply committed to the truth and is aware of the urgent need for people to live that truth, can gradualism bear the necessary fruit. Do such leaders exist? Yes, but how numerous they are is debatable in the Church today, so infected is it by universalism.
2. Gradualism as a strategy is poorly attested to in Scripture, where an urgent call to conversion and repentance is more the norm. The biblical evidence paints a picture of prophetic urgency and a strategy that strongly, even sternly asserts a clear contrast with the sinful world. The call to come away from worldly thinking is unambiguous and is to be done singularly and without lots of careful steps laid out.
For example, Jesus says, If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent me (John 15:18-21). And Paul admonishes, Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:2).
Some will argue that Both Jesus and St. Paul were dealing with a small window of time and thus had to work urgently and in this manner. Fine. But Scripture cannot be wholly set aside as a model for evangelization. And even though our culture may prefer the “kinder, gentler” approach, and gradualism has its place, it must be balanced with other pastoral strategies that emphasize contrast and urgency.
3. Gradualism is a personal pastoral strategy, not a global strategy. That is to say, it is directed to a specific person. The skilled pastor will have to adapt such a strategy to the specific needs of different people. Gradualism is a very complicated thing to try to pull off toward a group.
On any given Sunday, a pastor looks out upon a congregation filled with people at all different stages of spiritual and moral growth. He cannot possibly have a homily perfectly crafted to draw every one of them in stages, gradually closer to the truth. He will have to speak generally, but also very clearly, to the issues.
St. John Vianney was reputed to have remarked that a pastor should be tough in the pulpit and more gentle in the confessional. This illustrates to some degree the problem with gradualism applied to a large, diverse group such as a typical Catholic congregation. It works better as a personal strategy wherein a confessor or pastor can help a person work on particular areas in order to lay the ground for other areas. But this is very personal and varies widely from person to person.
And this leads to the next point.
4. The cultural climate also presents challenges for the widespread use of gradualism. Generally, in these days of rapid cultural collapse and deep cynicism about biblical morality, a silent, quiet, or highly gentle approach is likely to be regarded as evidence of implicit agreement. Many today will say, “See, I went to this parish or that confessor and no one said anything to me about what I’m doing; no one seems concerned. So I guess it’s all right.” Thus, gentleness is confused with approval.
The Synod “midterm,” as published, contains a lot of ambiguous language about being “welcoming” and finding what is beautiful in non-traditional expressions of family and sexuality. OK, I get it; even a broken clock is right twice a day. And in certain personal settings, we can sit down with people and find areas of agreement. But when “gradualist” notions are issued to a wide, unbelieving, skeptical world such broad notions are subject to a thousand interpretations and may signal to some that the Church has “moved” in her doctrinal stance. Gradualism must be more carefully articulated. Signaling this approach without proper distinctions clouds more than it clarifies; it blurs the Church and her teaching.
Thus, when the document speaks about homosexuals and being open to the gifts they bring, to whom is it really referring? To those homosexuals who are living celibately? Or to those openly living in unions and engaging in activity that the Catechism calls gravely disordered and sinful? One can surely see that celibate homosexuals heroically living chastely in a world gone mad would indeed have the gift of heroic witness to offer, among other gifts. I am less certain that whatever gifts an openly practicing homosexual would bring would not be eclipsed by the scandal and confusion caused by that open practice.
When the document speaks of “accepting the reality of civil marriage and also cohabitation …” and goes on to state rather generally that many such “unions” have “reached a notable level of stability through a public bond … characterized by deep affection, responsibility with regard to offspring …” one wonders what “gradualism” is necessary for seemingly so lovely a thing. It sounds like the Synod is equivocating between true marriage and the endless arrangements of the world that clearly vary from God’s plan.
One can see a pastor working quietly with a cohabiting couple and encouraging them to validate their union, even telling them that their relationship appears beautiful and strong and that the Church’s blessing will make it even better. But for a Roman document to use such broad and affirming language to an unspecified audience is to invite the notion that affection equals approval.
Our modern culture is not usually going to understand these “outreaches” as an invitation to come to Christ, but rather as a capitulation by the Church to the status quo. The subtle approach of gradualism does not translate well to a culture that takes a mile when the Church offers an inch.
The better approach is that reputed of St. John Vianney: the Church should be clear in the pulpit and work quietly and in stages with people who struggle to meet the norms (and that is all of us, really). Let the norms and teachings of the Church be clear. Let local pastors and clergy work carefully within guidelines to clear obstacles, apply canonical remedies, and draw people (gradually) through preaching and teaching to a deeper adherence to the true and clear teaching of Christ and His Church.
Gradualism has its place: as a local and very personalized strategy under the direction of Church norms. I do not think it is viable as a worldwide pastoral strategy, one which will surely be misunderstood and likely misapplied.