We live in times in which many call good or “no big deal” what God calls sinful. This is especially true in the area of sexuality, where whole sectors of our society not only tolerate but even celebrate sexual practices that the Scriptures call gravely sinful, and which will lead to Hell if not repented of. Acts of fornication (pre-marital sex) and homosexual acts cannot be considered acceptable by any Catholic or by any person who sincerely accepts the Scripture as the Word of God. And even for those who do not share our faith, acts of fornication and homosexual acts can be plainly seen to cause great harm in the manner in which they spread serious disease, harm marriage and family, lead to abortion, and for the children who do survive abortion, subject them to having single mothers, absent fathers, and a lack of the best environment which they are due.
I want to focus today on the terrible and mortal sin of fornication and present the clear biblical teaching against it. Tomorrow I will do the same regarding homosexual acts. Sadly, many Catholics say their pulpits and classrooms are silent about these issues. The hope in this post today is to present a resounding, biblical trumpet call to purity which leaves no ambiguity as to the sinfulness of sex before marriage. Scripture is clear: fornicators will not inherit the Kingdom of God. That is to say, fornication is a mortal sin and those who do not repent of it will go to Hell.
The usual conditions for mortal sin apply (grave matter (which fornication is), sufficient reflection, and full consent of the will). However, we ought not lightly conclude that these conditions are seldom met. I have met with many couples preparing for marriage who are sexually active and I have never found them to be surprised that I rebuke them for this. They know it is wrong. The voice of God stills echoes in their consciences. And as for consent of the will, it can be admitted that some fall occasionally in a weak moment. But consistent fornicating, with no measures taken to prevent it, is not “weakness”; it is sinful neglect of prudence and common sense.
We are in a sinfully confused cultural setting in which many either celebrate or make little effort to avoid what God calls a very serious sin. The Church cannot lack clarity and pulpits and classrooms have often been silent. Such silence has led to parents themselves being silent. And silence has been taken for approval.
But fornication cannot be approved of. It is sinful and may well exclude many unrepentant sinners from Heaven. Our charity for souls must compel our clarity about the grave sinfulness of premarital sex and cohabitation.
Let us turn our attention to the biblical text.
The following quotes from the New Testament are passages that clearly condemn fornication and other unclean or impure actions. Again, fornication is the most common biblical word for premarital sex. The gravity and clarity of such condemnations are helpful in the sense that they help us to take such matters seriously and steer clear of them. However, the condemnations should not be seen in isolation from God’s mercy, as He never fails to forgive those who come to Him with a humble and contrite heart. God hates sin but He loves sinners and is full of mercy and compassion for them. But this mercy must be accessed through repentance.
With this in mind, read the following passages from the New Testament, which condemn fornication and other forms of sexual impurity:
THAT THERE IS A PRESCRIPTION TO GENERAL SEXUAL PURITY - Among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or crude joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No fornicator, no impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with worthless arguments. These are sins that bring God’s wrath down upon the disobedient; therefore, have nothing to do with them (Ephesians 5:3-7).
THAT UNREPENTANT FORNICATORS ARE EXCLUDED FROM THE KINGDOM -
1. The one who sat on the throne said to me, “See I make all things new!” Then he said, “Write these matters down for the words are trustworthy and true!” He went on to say: “These words are already fulfilled! I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. To anyone who thirsts I will give to drink without cost from the spring of life giving water. He who wins the victory shall inherit these gifts and he shall be my son. As for the cowards and traitors to the faith, the depraved and murderers, the fornicators and sorcerers, the idol-worshipers and deceivers of every sort – their lot is the fiery pool of burning sulphur, the second death!” (Revelation 21:5-8)
2. Happy are they who wash their robes so as to have free access to the tree of life and enter the city through its gates! Outside are the dogs and sorcerers, the fornicators and murderers, the idol-worshipers and all who love falsehood. It is I Jesus who have sent my angel to give you this testimony about the Churches (Rev. 22:14-16).
3. No fornicator, no impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God (Eph 5:5).
4. I warn you, as I have warned you before: those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God! (Gal 5:21)
THAT SINS OF THE FLESH CRUSH THE SPIRIT WITHIN US - My point is that you should live in accord with the Spirit and you will not yield to the cravings of the flesh. The Flesh lusts against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh; the two are directly opposed. This is why you do not do what your will intends. If you are guided by the spirit you are not under the law. The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, bickering jealousy, outbursts of rage, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, orgies and the like. I warn you, as I have warned you before: those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God! (Galatians 5:16-21)
THAT EVEN OUR THOUGHT LIFE IS SUMMONED TO PURITY -
1. You have heard the commandment “You shall not commit adultery.” What I say you to is, Anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his thoughts. If your right eye is your trouble, gouge it out and throw it away! Better to lose part of your body than to have it all cast into Gehenna. Again, if your right hand is your trouble, cut it off and throw it away! Better to lose part of your body than to have it all cast into Gehenna (Matthew 5:27-30).
2.From the mind stem evil designs – murder, adulterous conduct, fornication, stealing, false witness, blasphemy. These are the things that make a man impure (Matt. 15:19-20).
3. Wicked designs come from the deep recesses of the heart: acts of fornication, theft, murder, adulterous conduct, greed, maliciousness, deceit, sensuality, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, an obtuse spirit. All these evils come from within and render a man impure (Mark 7:21).
THAT SEXUAL IMPURITY IS A FORM OF WORLDLINESS AND IDOLATRY - Put to death whatever in your nature is rooted in earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desires and that lust which is idolatry. These are sins which provoke God’s wrath (Colossians 3:5-6).
THAT MY BODY IS NOT MY OWN TO DO WITH MERELY AS I PLEASE – Can you not realize that the unholy will not fall heir to the Kingdom of God? Do not deceive yourselves: no fornicators, idolaters, or adulterers, no sodomites, thieves, misers, or drunkards, no slanderers or robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you; but you have been washed, consecrated, justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. Do you not see that your bodies are members of Christ? Would you have me take Christ’s members and make them members of a prostitute? God forbid! Can you not see that the man who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? Scripture says, “The two shall become one flesh.” But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun lewd conduct. Every other sin a man commits is outside of his body, but the fornicator sins against his own body. You must know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is within – the Spirit you have received from God. You are not your own. You have been purchased at a price. So glorify God in your body (I Cor. 6:9-11, 15-20).
THAT THE CALL TO CHRISTIAN PURITY IS NOT MERELY A HUMAN OPINION; IT IS GOD’S DECLARED TRUTH. FURTHER, SEXUAL SIN IS A FORM OF INJUSTICE - Now my brothers, we beg and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that, even as you learned from us how to conduct yourselves in a way pleasing to God – which you are indeed doing – so you must learn to make still greater progress. You know the instructions we gave you in the Lord Jesus. It is God’s will that you grow in holiness: that you abstain from sexual immorality, each of you guarding his member in sanctity and honor, not in passionate desire as do the Gentiles who know not God; and that each must refrain from overreaching or cheating his brother in the matter at hand; for the Lord is the avenger of all such things, as we once indicated to you by our testimony. God has not called us to sexual immorality but to holiness; hence whoever rejects these instructions rejects, not man, but God who sends the Holy Spirit upon you (I Thess. 4:1-8).
THAT FORNICATION AND OTHER SEXUAL SINS ARE NUMBERED AMONG THE MORE SERIOUS SINS - We know that the Law is good, provided one uses it in the way law is supposed to be used — that is, with the understanding that it is aimed, not at good men but at the lawless and unruly, the irreligious and the sinful, the wicked and the godless, men who kill their fathers or mothers, murderers, fornicators, sexual perverts, kidnappers, liars, perjurers, and those who in other ways flout the sound teaching that pertains to the glorious gospel of God — blessed be he — with which I have been entrusted (I Timothy 1:8-11).
THAT FORNICATION AND ADULTERY DISHONOR MARRIAGE - Let Marriage be honored in every way and the marriage bed be kept undefiled, for God will judge fornicators and adulterers (Heb 13:4).
Therefore do not be deceived; fornication is a serious sin. It is a mortal sin. It is a sin that excludes one who does not repent of it from Heaven. It offends God, harms children and the family, spreads disease, encourages abortion, is an injustice against children and society, dishonors marriage, and merits strong punishment, as God’s Word declares.
Do not despair of God’s mercy, but do repent. Mercy is accessed only by repentance. Little more needs to be said. It is wrong—seriously wrong—to fornicate. Repent at once and without delay.
One of the more misunderstood debates between believers and atheists is whether or not an atheist can have a morality. Some incorrectly understand believers to think that atheists are immoral or live lives that are sinful by our account. But this is not what is meant by wondering whether an atheist can have a morality.
It will be stipulated that many atheists and agnostics can and do live morally upright lives. For example, many among them get married, stay married, do not beat their wives, pay taxes, and may volunteer at soup kitchens and give to charities. Surely there is manifested in many atheists a natural virtue. It will also be stipulated that some who call themselves believers in God do not always live morally upright lives. And in both categories there is everything in between.
So the question about whether atheists can have a morality does not center around whether some or any of them can live good lives. Rather, the question centers around the basis of their assessment of what is moral, good, upright, just, etc. On what basis do they ascribe such judgments to certain acts? On what basis do they ascribe other assessments such as “wrong,” “unjust,” “bad,” and so forth?
For a believer in God, the usual answer regarding the basis of our judgments of certain acts is fairly straightforward. Christians make use of the biblical text wherein we believe God has set forth (among other things) a moral vision. He commands certain actions and forbids others. He praises certain attitudes and discourages others. Many believers (especially Catholics) also refer to what is called “natural law.” Natural law refers to the Book of Creation and to our capacity to use our intellect and reason to discern basic moral truths set forth by God based on what He has created and the intrinsic meaning He has given to His creation.
These are the basics sources of morality and the moral vision for the believer. But what are the sources of morality for those who both reject God’s existence and also deny that the created order manifest the intentions of the designer? Recall that atheistic materialists insist that creation occurred via a series of blind forces and random mutations with no intrinsic meaning whatsoever. For them there is no reality to go out and meet and then obey. Rather, for the atheist/materialist, reality is just “dumbly” there; it has nothing to say to us, per se. “Meaning” for them is merely something we ascribe, but which is not intrinsically there or discoverable. Everything is simply the result of random mutations manifesting no design, no law, no designer, no intelligence—no creator whatsoever.
Thus for them, there is nothing and no one extrinsic to whom all look for reference. Neither is there any intrinsic meaning in the material world, which according to the tenets of atheistic materialism has evolved in an absolutely blind process of random mutation. And who is to say what mutations might come next?
Thus, the question asked by believers is not whether atheists live moral lives by our standards, but rather what are their possible standards for declaring that they live moral or immoral lives?
Every now and again we hear vague attempts by atheists and secularists to answer such a question. We hear things such as “Be nice,” Don’t do evil,” and sometimes references to the “golden rule.” But how can there be rules in the random mutation world of the atheist? Is not everything for them just the blind lurches of random mutation? And further, what does it really mean to “be nice?” And even more deeply for them, who is to say what is evil or what is good?
As a faithful Catholic I hold that homosexual acts are wrong, unnatural, and sinful. Now suppose an atheist hears me say this and gets angry. On what does he base his anger toward me? If I am just a bag of chemicals interacting to produce a certain behavioral result, then why hold me responsible for what I think or say? Why call me names like “homophobe” or “bigot?” Why is there any indignity at all toward what I think? I am only doing what my brain chemistry randomly causes.
Further, if I believe in God, why get indignant or angry over that? After all, I am just a bag of chemicals producing a random result. In such a materialistic system, I am no more responsible for what I think or do than is a rock for falling from a cliff and hurting you.
But clearly atheists DO get upset with the behavior of others. But why? On what basis?
Perhaps, as some atheists and materialists posit, one is to look to the general norms of a culture for right and wrong. But as we all know, there have been some strange and ugly notions that have sometimes set up in the general thinking of the wider culture. Any look at human culture and we can see that genocide happens, so too slavery, concentration camps, holocausts, racial discrimination, Jim Crow laws, the eugenics movement, and so forth. Cultural norms of various times supported and even celebrated many such notions. Thus the wider or general culture seems to be a poor indicator of right and wrong because it changes and because it has suggested things that are pretty ugly and immoral.
Again we are left with trying to find some place that those who deny the existence of God go to find their moral norms.
For an atheist, who is to say that what one person calls “evil,” someone else will not call “survival of the fittest”? Maybe someone would hold that stronger nations should destroy weaker ones so that only the strong survive, systems are more efficient, and ultimately a nation of “supermen” emerges. Perhaps some would say that the weak and innocent should be killed, eradicated, wiped out, since the strong will usher in a better world, a superior race, etc.
I say that such things are evil, but I root my reasoning in what God has revealed, and what natural law indicates is necessary for civilization. But atheists have no such system to which they can refer. And this is why some wonder if an atheist can be moral. Who is to say? Perhaps they can be accidentally so, be accidentally in conformity with Judeo-Christian principles. But it would seem to be accidental, since there no real basis for them to say what is right or wrong without reference to God, or at least to the natural law set forth by God.
In the declining West, we have been engaged in a dangerous experiment as to whether there can be a “culture” without a shared cultus. Despite the bad connotations in English, “cult” is merely a word that refers to a common worship or belief. For culture to exist, there must be something bigger and higher to which all in the culture look and agree. It is this shared cultus that makes a culture. Without the shared focus and basis, a culture ceases to exist. As the modern age increasingly demonstrates, without a shared cultus a culture becomes instead a sort of “anti-culture.”
In America, while there have always been many sectarian divisions, there was once a basic and shared cultus wherein belief in God and His moral vision, as revealed in Scripture, was widely shared—at least in terms of basic morality and the vision for the human person, family, and community. Now this is gone and what is left of our old culture, rooted in the Judeo-Christian cultus, is quickly declining. The evidence is increasingly clear that a culture cannot exist without a shared cultus.
Hence a believer rightly questions an atheist as to the basis of the moral vision he claims to have. Some of the most pertinent questions must be these:
1. On what do you base your notions of right or wrong?
2. How are your notions better than mine or your neighbor’s?
3. Are not the very words “morality,” “right,” and “wrong” judgments? If so, what is the standard you use to make these judgments?
4. If I am just a series of chemical reactions, doing and saying what matter randomly “causes” in me, by what norm do you hold me responsible for anything I do or say?
5. And if I am not responsible for what I do, why are you angry with me when I do things you don’t like?
6. Whence your anger? And why don’t you like it? Is it not some sense in you that justice or what is right is being violated?
7. But where do these notions come from and why are your notions better than mine?
8. Again, if I may: on what do you base you notions of right and wrong?
9. Can you, an atheist, be moral? How? Says who? Where are your norms to be found if there be no God, no natural law, and if creation is without a designer and is simply a mindless succession of random mutations?
I. The Pattern of the Cross - One of the stranger passages in the Old Testament is one describing a command Moses received from God to mount a bronze snake on a pole.
The people had grumbled against God and Moses for the “wretched” manna they had to consume (Numbers 21:5). They were sick of its bland quality even though it was the miracle food, the bread from Heaven that had sustained them in the desert. (Pay attention, Catholics who treat the Eucharist lightly or find it boring!) God grew angry and sent venomous snakes among them, which caused many to die (Nm 21:6). The people then repented and, in order to bring healing to them, God commanded a strange and remarkable thing: Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live (Nm 21:8).
No Graven Images?? Now remember, it was God who had said earlier in the Ten Commandments, Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth(Ex 20:4). Yet here He commands a graven (carved) image be made.
Why does God do this? That is covered in the next point.
II. The Palliative Quality of the Cross - And yet when Moses made it of bronze and showed it to the people, those who looked at it became well (Nm 21:9).
In a way it is almost as if God were saying to Moses, “The people, in rejecting the Bread from Heaven have chosen Satan and what he offers. They have rejected me. Let them look into the depth of their sin and face their choice and the fears it has set loose. Let them look upon a serpent. Having looked, let them repent and be healed; let the fear of what the serpent can do depart.”
Jesus takes up the theme in today’s Gospel and fulfills it when He says, And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life (John 3:14). It is almost as if to say, “Let the people face their sin and see the ugly reality that it is and what it does to me, to them, and to others. Let them face their choice and seek healing repentance. Let them also see the outstretched arms of God’s mercy and find peace.”
There is something about facing our sins, our shortcomings, our anxieties, and our fears. There is something about looking them in the face in order to find healing. One of the glories of the Catholic faith is that it has never hidden the Cross. We have never run from it. There have been brief times when, shamefully, we de-emphasized it. But throughout most of our history, the crucifix has been prominently, proudly, and fearlessly displayed in our churches. We cling to it and glory in it.
Do you know how shocking this is? Imagine that you were to walk into a church and instead of seeing a crucifix you saw Jesus dangling from a gallows, a rope around His neck. Crucifixion was the form of execution reserved for the worst of criminals. It was shocking, horrifying, and emblematic of the worse kind of suffering. When the Romans saw or thought of something awful they would cry out in Latin, “Ex cruce!” (From the cross!) for they could think of nothing more horrible to compare it to. And this is the origin of the English word “excruciating.” Crucifixion is brutal—an awful, slow, ignoble, and humiliating death: ex cruce!
But there it is, front and center in just about every Catholic Church. There it is, at the head of our processions. There it is, displayed in our homes. And we are bid to look upon it daily. Displayed there is everything we most fear: suffering, torment, loss, humiliation, nakedness, hatred, scorn, mockery, ridicule, rejection, and death. And the Lord and the Church say, “Look! Don’t turn away. Do not hide this. Look! Behold!” Face the crucifix and all it means. Stare into the face of your worst fears; confront them and begin to experience healing. Do not fear the worst that the world and the devil can do, for Christ has triumphed overwhelmingly. He has cast off death like a garment and said to us, In this world ye shall have tribulation. But have courage! I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33).
III. The Paradox of the Cross - A paradox refers to something that is contrary to the common way of thinking, something that surprises or even perturbs us by its reversal of the usual standards. In a world dominated by power and its aggressive use, the humility and powerlessness of the Cross accomplishing anything but defeat both surprises and upsets the normal worldly order.
At the heart of today’s second reading is the declaration that Christ humbled Himself and became obedient unto death—death on the Cross. But far from ending His work, it exalted Him and brought Him victory. To the world this is absurdity, but to us who are being saved it is the wisdom and power of God. Consider that darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that. And pride cannot drive out pride; only humility can do that. At the heart of Original Sin and every personal sin is the prideful notion that we know better than God. Satan’s fundamental flaw is his colossal pride; he considers himself equal to God. He is narcissistic, egotistical, and prideful.
But the solution to conquering pride is not to have greater pride, but rather to manifest great humility, as Jesus did. And while Satan disobeyed God, Jesus humbly obeyed His Father. He did not cling to His divine prerogatives, but rather laid them aside, taking up the form of a slave and being seen as a mere human being. It was thus that He humbled Himself and obeyed even unto the Cross. Jesus was seen as the lowest of human beings, accepting a death reserved for the worst of criminals and sinners though He himself was sinless and divine.
So astonishing is Jesus’ humility, that it literally undoes Satan’s pride and all of our collective pride. It is the great paradox of the Cross that humility conquers pride, that God’s “weakness” conquers human power and aggression, that love conquers hate, and that light dispels the darkness.
It is the great paradox of the Cross that makes a public spectacle of every human and worldly presumption.
IV. The Power of the Cross - The gospel today announces the great power of the cross: So must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. Thus Jesus, the Son of Man, when He was lifted up from the earth called to the heart of every human person. And those who believe in him and look to him are saved from their sins and snatched from the hands of the devil. The power of the Cross is the power to save.
And not only are we saved from the effects of our sins, we are empowered to live a whole new life. For the text says that God does this that we might not perish, but that we might have eternal life. The word eternal does not refer simply to the length of life, but also to its fullness. And therefore, by the power of the Cross, we are given the gift to live a completely new life, transformed increasingly into the very holiness, freedom, joy, and blessedness of the very life of Christ. In dying with Him in baptism to this old life, we rise to the new life that He offers: a life increasingly set free from sin, a life transformed from vice to virtue, from sorrow to joy, from despair to hope, and from futility to meaningfulness and victory. Thus the power of the Cross is manifest as the power of the tree of life.
V. The Passion of the Cross - And why all this? Why this undeserved gift? In a word, love. “For God so loved the world…” Yes, God loves the world. Despite our rebellion, our unbelief, our scoffing, and our murderous hatred, God goes on loving us. He sent His Son to manifest His love and to obey Him within the capacity of His humanity. Cassian says that we are saved by the human decision of a divine person. Jesus loved His Father too much, and loves us too much to ever say no to Him. And the Father loves us too much to have ever withheld the gift of His Son from us, though Jesus is His only begotten Son, the greatest gift He could ever offer. And in His love, He does not withhold this gift, but offers Him.
Why do you exist? Why is there anything at all? How are you saved? God so loved the world. God so loved you. God is love. And God, who loves us, proclaims the truth to us and invites us to except His truth. He does not force His love upon us, but invites us and gives us every grace to turn and to come to Him. But why does He care? Why does He not simply force us to obey? God is love and love invites; it does not force. Love respects the will of the beloved and seeks only the free response of love in return.
The Cross—nothing is more provocative; nothing is more paradoxical; nothing is greater proof of God’s love for us and of His desire to do whatever it takes to procure our yes to His truth, His way, and His love. Run to the Cross and meet the Lord, who loves you more than you deserve and more than you can imagine. Run to Him now, because He loves you.
Part of the battle is also the speed with which we recover. For the longer we stay down and ruminate, the deeper our wounds. Getting back up quickly is a great grace.
That lesson is beautifully illustrated in the video below. The picture is a bit fuzzy and the edits could have been better, but you won’t miss the point.
If you fall, fall on Jesus. And reach quickly for His hand to help you up.
Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win (1 Cor 9:22).
Back in my seminary days my liturgy teacher, Fr. Quinn, often reminded us that we prayed many of the psalms more in hope than as true claims about ourselves. For indeed many of the psalms make almost boastful claims:
- LORD, my heart is not proud; nor are my eyes haughty (Psalm 131:1).
- They have almost made an end of me on earth; but I have not forsaken thy precepts (Psalm 119:88).
- The deceitful and bloodthirsty man the Lord detests. But I through the greatness of your love have access to your house. I bow down before your holy temple, filled with awe (Psalm 5).
- Many are my persecutors and my adversaries, but I do not swerve from thy testimonies. I look at the faithless with disgust, because they do not keep thy commands. Consider how I love thy precepts! (Psalm 119:157-159)
Yes, such psalms are not full realities for us now, but we pray in hope they one day will be. Fr. Quinn also reminded us that they are also psalms that we, as members of the Body of Christ, pray with Christ and in Him they are true and fulfilled. But for us, they are not yet.
I think the same thing must be true for some of the hymns we sing. In my parish, we occasionally sing a hymn that says, “I surrender all, all to Jesus I surrender, I surrender all.” Sometimes I wink at the end of the song and say, “liars!” And we all laugh because we know we barely surrender half. But one day the Lord will get us there!
Another hymn came to mind today that also challenges me more than it describes me. And as it challenges me, I think it also challenges the Church. Although it is a Protestant hymn, we have sung it a lot in the parishes (mostly African-American) in which I have served. The hymn says, “There’s nothing between my soul and the Savior.” And each time we sing it I wonder if I can really say that. The answer comes back clearly enough: there are lots of things, too many things between my soul and the Savior.
So here is another song I sing more in hope than in reality. I sing of my goal and, I pray, of my end. “One day it will fully be so, but not now, not yet,” I say in shame and humility. Ponder with me the lines of this old hymn and use it as a kind of examen. After each verse in bold black italics please pardon my commentary in plain red text. The hymn is by Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933)
Nothing between my soul and the Savior,
Naught of this world’s delusive dream;
I have renounced all sinful pleasure;
Jesus is mine, there’s nothing between.
Is there really nothing between? Frankly for many of us there is a lot in between: politics, career, personal preferences, worldly priorities, the football game … you name it. And of this world’s delusive dreams, we often seem quite willing to buy in to the lies and false promises. We almost seem to WANT to be lied to and to have false promises made to us. Maybe it suits our fantasies and dreams. Maybe we want it all to be true somehow. Maybe it is because the world’s pleasures come quickly and we think we can ultimately ignore the bill (we cannot). The final line of this verse, however, may betray the real problem for many. It says, “Jesus is mine.” And while it is the last line, it is also the true premise of the whole verse. For only if I really experience Jesus as my Savior can my divided heart become clear. Only the deepest gratitude for His saving work and thirst for God’s face can wrench my poor heart from this world’s false promises.
Nothing between my soul and the Savior,
So that His blessed face may be seen;
Nothing preventing the least of His favor,
Keep the way clear! Let nothing between.
Here again, we easily permit many things to get between us and seeing the Lord’s blessed face. The fog of this world obscures our sight and darkens our mind. Too many would prefer to see anything but His face. Our preferences include sporting events, movies, pornography, and almost any foolish diversion. Even lawful pleasures, out of moderation, can enslave, blind, and hinder us. The hymn admonishes: keep the way clear! And this is good advice. It may not be possible to eliminate everything all at once. But what one thing is the Lord giving you the grace to set aside or to see less of, what one thing?
Nothing between, like worldly pleasure;
Habits of life, though harmless they seem,
Must not my heart from Him e’er sever;
He is my all, there’s nothing between.
Yes, it is critical to identify habits by name and to bring them to the Lord. Ask the Lord to break their power, for habits have a great hold on us. Seasons like Lent and Advent are great times to break off in new directions. Perhaps you could watch less TV, indulge in mindless diversion less frequently, or end the “nightcap” (or limit it to weekends). Maybe these things are not wrong in themselves, but they are too much and they get in the way. As before, the last line sets the premise: as the Lord becomes my “all” there is less need for “fillers.”
Nothing between, like pride or station;
Self-life or friends shall not intervene;
Though it may cost me much tribulation,
I am resolved; there’s nothing between.
Almost no one today even considers that the Lord may actually ask him or her to endure tribulation or to take up a Cross. In our hedonistic culture even Christians cry out, “Doesn’t God want me to be happy?” But in saying that, of course, most are referring to the happiness of this world. The happiness that God offers is tied to holiness and, paradoxically, it comes from losing our life to this world in order to gain what is far greater from the world that is to come. We need to be willing to forsake friends who tempt or mislead us. We may even experience the hatred of this world in order for there to be nothing between our soul and the Savior. Scripture says, Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (James 4:4-5). If the world is between you and God then there is also enmity between you and God. The last verse says, “I am resolved.” To resolve means to once again let go or release something (re- (again) + solvere (loosen)). Ask the Lord to help you let go again and again of whatever hinders you, whatever is between your soul and the Savior!
Nothing between, e’en many hard trials,
Though the whole world against me convene;
Watching with prayer and much self-denial,
I’ll triumph at last, with nothing between.
Our journey to there being “nothing between” is assisted first of all by trials, because they remind us that this world is filled with cruel disappointments. But trials can also hinder us if we allow ourselves to grow bitter and to blame God because the world is no longer paradise. Never mind that it is we who have made it so; we easily grow angry at God. And thus we must ask to be free of bitter disappointment and permit our trials to remind us that this world’s joys are passing; they cannot last. Further, if we seek to remove anything “between,” rest assured (as the song says) that the world will direct hatred toward us and turn up the temptation level. Only prayer and self- discipline, by God’s grace, can save us from giving in to temptation and returning to the foolish grip of this world. In the end, the world can only give us a grave. But for those who triumph in Christ, death leads us to that victorious place where there is nothing between our souls and the Savior, nothing between!
Amen! Pray, too, for the Church, that there will be nothing between our soul and the Savior—not compromise, not fear, not flattery, not politics, not political correctness, not silence. May the Church and Christ be always one and let no worldly concerns or strategies hinder us.
We usually think of distractions or interruptions as coming form the world around us. But is that really the most common source? Consider the following parable drawn from the stories of the early Desert Fathers and from monastic experience:
Sometimes there would be a rush of noisy visitors and the silence of the monastery would be shattered.
This would upset the disciples; not the Master, who seemed just as content with the noise as with the silence.
To his protesting disciples he said one day, “Silence is not the absence of sound, but the absence of self.”
The fact is, our greatest distraction is usually our very self. And if this surprises us, we should probably chalk that surprise up to pride. Why? Because what God most often wants us to see and focus on is outside and above us: the beauty of creation, the wonder of others, the magnificence of God. These are not distractions; they are often exactly what God is saying to us, what He is revealing to us. We are called to a kind of ecstasy in which we look out and up.
St. Augustine described one of our essential problems as being curvatus in se (turned in on himself). And in so turning inward, a whole host of distractions assail us and we begin to think and say,
- I’m bored.
- I’m tired.
- What will I do next?
- What do people think of me?
- Do I fit in?
- Am I handsome/pretty enough?
- Have I made it?
- What does this or that have to do with me?
- What have you done for me lately?
- When will it be my turn?
- What about me?
- Why are people upsetting me? What gives them the right?
Yes, distractions like these and a thousand variations on them swim through our mind as we are turned inward. Most of them are rooted in pride and its ugly cousin, vanity.
But as the parable above teaches, it is the absence of self that brings truer focus and serenity. Indeed, I am a witness of this, for my freest, most joyful, and most focused moments have come when I was most forgetful of myself.
- Perhaps it was simply watching a movie that gripped my attention and drew me outside of myself and into the plot and the lives of the characters, even if they were only fictional.
- Perhaps it was being powerfully aware of the presence of others and listening carefully to what they said.
- Perhaps it was just being in the company of close friends where I was less concerned with seeking approval and could just relax in the moment and enjoy whatever was happening.
- Perhaps it was in those moments of deep appreciation of the natural world where I walked through a field and was captured by “the color purple” and was deeply moved by the beauty of God’s creation. (Some philosophers call this “aesthetic arrest.”)
- And surely there have been those moments of deep and contemplative prayer when, by a gift of God, I forgot about myself and was drawn deeply into the experience of God.
In moments like these, God takes us (who are so easily turned inward) and turns us outward and upward. The thousands of distractions that come from self-preoccupation are hushed for a time and we, being self-forgetful, are almost wholly present to others, to creation, and to God. The noisy din of anxious self-concern quiets and our world opens up and out.
The Psalms often speak of God placing us in a spacious place (e.g., 18:19; 31:8; 119:45; inter al): You have set my feet in a spacious place, O Lord (Ps 31:8). There is nothing more tiny and cramped than being turned in on ourselves.
Ask the Lord to set your feet in the wide spaces, to open you outward and upward. For the worst distractions are not the noises outside us, but rather the noises within us, noises that come from being too preoccupied with ourselves. The silence which we most crave is not really found in the absence of sound, but in the absence of self-preoccupation.
Those who would preach or lead in the Church must have great courage, for though we preach a gospel that contains consoling messages, it also contains much that is contrary to the directions and desires of popular culture and human sinfulness. And thus it is true that every preacher who would preach the gospel of a crucified (and risen) Messiah must have courage. And this applies not only to clergy, but also to parents, catechists, and all who are leaders in the Church, family, and community.
And if we must have courage it also follows that we must be encouraged. To be encouraged means to be summoned to courage by affirmation, good example, and when necessary, by rebuke and warning.
In the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours for today, there was a magnificent example of exhortation and the summons to courage by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. I would like to present his words here and then add a few of my own [in red]. Please recall that while his words were directed to his fellow priests and brothers, who had the task of preaching and teaching, they can just as easily be applied to parents and all who lead in the Church and in the community.
We read in the gospel that when the Lord was teaching his disciples and urged them to share in his passion by the mystery of eating his body, some said: This is a hard saying, and from that time they no longer followed him. When he asked the disciples whether they also wished to go away, they replied: Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. I assure you, my brothers, that even to this day it is clear to some that the words which Jesus speaks are spirit and life, and for this reason they follow him. To others these words seem hard, and so they look elsewhere for some pathetic consolation. And thus every preacher, teacher, and parent must recall that the message is not necessarily rejected because it is wrong or because we are being too insistent on what is hard. It is often rejected on account of worldliness and a refusal to consider the life that such words bring, a refusal to yield to them in the Holy Spirit, who prompts us to embrace the proclaimed truth even if it is hard to understand or live at first.
Yet wisdom cries out in the streets, in the broad and spacious way that leads to death, to call back those who take this path. And thus we who would preach must persevere and have an urgency that realizes that many are walking straight toward Hell. Because we love them, we will risk their wrath, even their revenge, and not hesitate to call them back lest they perish.
Finally, he says, For forty years I have been close to this generation, and I said: They have always been faint-hearted. Dead bodies float downstream. It takes a live body to resist the current, to run and not be weary, to be strong and not give way. Too many who preach, teach, and lead are weak, are faint-hearted. They must be strong and persevere despite opposition, setbacks, misunderstandings, and trials. And even if we err and are too harsh, or are too weak, or stumble on the way, we cannot allow this to hinder our godly course to proclaim the gospel with strong hearts, not faint ones. Every day we must claim new strength.
You also read in another psalm: God has spoken once. Once, indeed, because for ever. His is a single, uninterrupted utterance, because it is continuous and unending. Indeed, the Word of God does not change. Neither can our doctrines or our adherence to what God has said once and for all.
He calls upon sinners to return to their true spirit and rebukes them when their hearts have gone astray, for it is in the true heart that he dwells and there he speaks, fulfilling what he taught through the prophet: Speak to the heart of Jerusalem. And so must we speak, calling those who have strayed to return to their right minds and to the truth of the gospel. We must speak to their hearts, appeal to their consciences, where God’s voice still echoes whether they like to admit it or not. Deep down they know God is right.
You see, my brothers, how the prophet admonishes us for our advantage: If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts. You can read almost the same words in the gospel and in the prophet. For in the gospel the Lord says: My sheep hear my voice. And in the psalm blessed David says: You are his people (meaning, of course, the Lord’s) and the sheep of his pasture. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts. Hear also the prophet Habakkuk. Far from hiding the Lord’s reprimands, he dwells on them with attentive and anxious care. He says: I will stand upon my watchtower and take up my post on the ramparts, keeping watch to see what he will say to me and what answer I will make to those who try to confute me.
I beg you, my brothers, stand upon our watchtower, for now is the time for battle. Amen! To your battle stations! Stand up and be a witness for the Lord! Keep watch for the people of God!
Let all our dealings be in the heart, where Christ dwells, in right judgment and wise counsel, but in such a way as to place no confidence in those dealings, nor rely upon our fragile defenses. The Battle is the Lord’s but we are His soldiers.
Courage! Solidarity! Action!
I am the proud father of a new book entitled simply The Ten Commandments (see at right). And you’ll be surprised, knowing me, at how brief it is—just 104 pages. But I wanted to keep it short, readable, connected to the catechism, and very practically related to living the Commandments on a daily basis. You can get it at the usual booksellers and there is also a Kindle version. I hope many will find it helpful, and it even fits neatly in your coat pocket.
A couple of thoughts on moral law, which is a very precious gift to us from God.
1. The moral life is not a burden; it is a precious gift. One of the dangers in trying to understand the Christian moral life is seeing it as simply a list of dos and don’ts. In addition, many Christians tend the think of the moral life in terms of something they must accomplish out of their own flesh and through their own will. This turns the great moral vision of God into a kind of heavy burden rather than a freeing transformation that God works through His grace.
But the Christian moral vision begins with grace; it is something we receive more so than something we achieve. The Christian moral life, then, is the life that Christ died to give us. It is a life in which, increasingly, we are freed from deep and sinful drives such as anger, greed, lust, pride, vengefulness, bitterness, and so forth. Christ died and rose to free us from such things and the Christian moral vision describes what the redeemed human person is like.
And thus the moral section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is entitled “Life in Christ.” In effect, the title teaches us that the moral life is the result of us living in closer union with Jesus Christ. As Christ lives His life in us, we are increasingly changed and transformed. The Christian moral vision thus answers the questions, “What is the transformed human being like?”, “How does he behave?”, “What is his thought life like?”, “What are his priorities?”, and so forth.
In the incredible Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), Jesus’ moral treatise, He paints a kind of picture of the transformed human person. He is saying, in effect, here is what happens to you if you let me begin to live my life in you. You will be poor to the deceptive riches of this world but rich in the things of God. You will long for holiness and proclaim the gospel even if it costs you. You will have authority over your anger and have tender love for your spouse and children. Purity and chastity will endow your sexuality and your thought life. You will love your enemy and not seek revenge. You will speak the truth in love and trust God more, calling Him your Father, and be less concerned about garnering the approval of the world or worrying about the things it says you must.
It is a rich picture of a person transformed by grace and living with increasing freedom and joy. It is among God’s most precious gifts; it is the gift of new life; it is the effect of His Love; it is the advance of the freedom that is His gift to his children. (Somebody say, “Thank you Lord!”)
2. By grace, the law is fulfilled and its “burden” lifted. In setting forth His vision of the law, Jesus says, Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them (Mat 5:17). To fulfill the law means to “fill it full.” In other words, we are called to observe the law not just in its narrowest legal meaning, but in its fullest sense, as a language of love and trusting fidelity. Lovers do not ask, “What is the least I can do to please my beloved?” Lovers ask, “What more can I do to please?” Love is, by its very nature, extravagant.
A young man who loves a young woman does not say to her, “Your birthday is coming and there is this silly custom that I am supposed to observe: I must buy you a gift. So, beloved one, what is the cheapest gift I can buy you to satisfy my obligation and not lose your affection?” This is not the language of love! The young man, if he truly loves the young woman, will be delighted to celebrate her birthday and will, if possible, buy her a gift that goes beyond minimal expectations.
And this is how it is with grace. The Holy Spirit sets our hearts on fire with love for God and trust in His goodness. Thus when God’s will or commandments are made known to us we are not angry or sorrowful, rather we are delighted and instinctively seek to know all the implications of what God asks.
For example, see how Jesus treats the Fifth Commandment and shows what it means to fulfill it:
You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Mt 5:21-24).
Most of us can get through the day without killing someone. In a strict, legal sense we have “kept” the commandment. But Jesus calls us to the love that seeks to fulfill this commandment. Thus we must see that clinging to bitter anger, seeking revenge, using intentionally hurtful language, and refusing to be reconciled to others are all ways that we fail in observing the full implications of what God teaches in this commandment.
It is evident that in one sense Jesus’ understanding of the law is far more demanding than previous interpretations of it. Yet it is less burdensome because of the power of His love within us! Those who love undertake even supposedly burdensome tasks with joy.
Again, consider an example. Suppose there is a young man who seeks to win the affection of a young woman. Suppose further that she asks his assistance with some major project she is trying to accomplish. He will be delighted that she has asked, even if it involves a significant amount of time and energy on his part. Even if he has to cancel some of his own plans, he will do so with joy. If even imperfect human love can lighten burdens and transform them into joys, how much more so will the love of God transform the weight of law into fulfilling joy?
God’s Law is a gift, as those who love him know. Whatever its challenges, its gifts are far greater.
I hope you might consider my book. It is a modest beginning of taking forward some of the work we have done here together on the blog. I hope to publish more soon.
Many troubles today within the Church, and also among Christians in general, come down to a problem of mistaken or false ecclesiology. “Ecclesiology” refers to the nature of the Church. What is the Church? What is the fundamental mission of the Church? How essential is the Church in the life of every believer? What authority does the Church have in our life? Who has the authority in the Church to speak for Jesus Christ and teach in His name? What is the Church’s relationship to Holy Scripture and the sacred deposit of faith? Is there but one Church, or many? And so forth. These are questions dealt with in the branch of sacred theology known as ecclesiology.
Many people today, including many Catholics, have come to accept a badly flawed ecclesiology. Many see the Church simply as a human institution. The kind of cynicism and scorn commonly directed in our culture toward institutions is therefore also aimed at the Church. But while the Church does have institutional elements and human members, the Church is not a mere human institution.
The Catholic Church is the continuing presence of Jesus Christ in the world—it is the Body of Christ. And this is not just a figurative way of speaking about the Church. Sacred Scripture gives this description a real, quite literal though mystical (i.e., beyond our full sight) sense. The Catholic Church is both visible and spiritual. It is structured hierarchically, like any body, yet is Spirit-led. It has human members yet is also the divine presence of Christ in the world today. The Church, as the Body of Christ, teaches in His name, sanctifies with His grace and Sacraments, and leads with His authority. Jesus still walks this earth, preaches, heals, teaches, forgives, feeds, and summons us.
Because the Church is the Body of Christ—we His members, He the Head of the Body—there cannot be many “Churches” any more than there can be many “Christs.” Jesus has one Body. The Church is not some ethereal, invisible reality. Rather, like any body, it is visible and has identifying marks and attributes. As with a body that has parts, organs, and “members” with different functions, the Church has members. But not all members have the same function or role.
These descriptions set aside many popular misconceptions about the Church.
The Church is not a club made up of people who gather for some specific goal or purpose of their own. Such clubs are fine in their own way, and often have a noble purpose, but the Church exists to bring forth Jesus’ stated goals and purposes, to proclaim His vision, His way, and His truth.
The Church is not a political party. Political parties reflect human preferences and opinion, and are organized to carry forth human goals and projects. This is all well and good, but the Church transcends passing political views and goals, and cannot simply fit into the self-defined boxes of political parties and movements. The Body of Christ cannot be reduced to or perfectly defined by any specific political philosophy or party.
The Church exists to proclaim what Christ has taught, whether it is popular or not.
Now this point is critical and too easily forgotten today by many who issue insistent demands that the Church “update” her teachings and conform to current notions and mores. Many cry out, for example, “Doesn’t the Church leadership know that most Catholics reject its teaching on contraception, or the priesthood?”
Many, because of a flawed ecclesiology think that our failure to conform to modern notions is not only odd, but downright unjust, wrong, or even sinful. This is because of the mistaken idea that the Church is supposed to reflect the views of its members and represent them and what they think.
But the Church does not exist to reflect the views of its members, but rather the views and teachings of its head and founder, Jesus Christ. It is His teachings that are to unite the members of the body and be the principle of our unity. Jesus entrusted His teachings to His apostles, who handed them down to us in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.
On this point we must be clear. The defined doctrines, to include the moral teachings of the Church, are not going to change despite even the strident protests of the world. Because of the highly sexualized culture in which we live, most of the demands that we change center around issues of sexuality and the family. But no matter how many secular news reports you have read in the past year or so speculating that “a change in doctrine is being signaled” (whether about divorce and remarriage (as we approach the Synod on the Family in October), or homosexual acts, or sexual intercourse outside of marriage, or abortion, or women being priests, or euthanasia), be assured that these teachings cannot change. There are just some things that the Church cannot do, no matter how heavy the pressure to do so. These doctrinal teachings are not going to change because Jesus, who spoke through his apostles, is not going to change. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings (Heb 13:8-9).
Opinion polls are not the source of our teaching, Jesus is. And just as Jesus was rejected by many of His time, the Catholic Church, His body, is often destined to be a sign of contradiction in the world. The same gospel must be preached, in season or out of season.
A proper ecclesiology can save us from needless fears and also from the mistaken notion that the faith revealed by Christ can ever fundamentally change. Courage, the Cross, consistency, clarity, and charity—in all things, Christ! At the end of the day, even with the likes of me and you, that’s what the Church is: Christ. And though crucified, He rose and His truth will prevail.
We live in times in which there is a widespread notion that to correct sinners is to “judge” them. Never mind that it is sin that we judge, not the sinner. Never mind that in accusing us of judging, the worldly-minded are themselves doing the very judging they condemn. Never mind any of that; the point of the charge is to seek to shame us into silence. And despite the fact that Scripture consistently directs us to correct the sinner, many Catholics have bought into the notion that correcting the sinner is “judging” him. In this, the devil, who orchestrates the “correcting is judging” campaign, rejoices; for if he can keep us from correcting one another, sin can and does flourish.
Today’s gospel is an important reminder and instruction on why and how we should correct the sinner and be open to correction ourselves. Let’s look at in four steps.
I. PRESCRIPTION – The text says, Jesus said to his disciples: “If your brother sins (against you), go and tell him.” I placed “against you” in parentheses because many ancient manuscripts do not contain this phrase, while others do. While some may want to limit this gospel to commanding correction only when someone sins “against you,” none of the other texts we will review contain this restriction and so the phrase seems superfluous. For the purpose of this reflection, I will favor those manuscripts that do not include the phrase “against you.”
Now, therefore, observe the brief but clear advice that when we see someone in sin, we ought to talk with him or her about it. Many prefer, probably due to sloth, to say, “It’s none of my business what other people do.” But Jesus clearly teaches otherwise.
In teaching this way, Jesus is obviously speaking to the general situation. Some distinctions are helpful and admissible in specific situations. For example, one is generally more obliged to correct people in grave matters than in less serious ones. One is more compelled to correct those who are younger than those who are older. One is more obligated to correct subordinates, less so superiors. Parents are strongly duty-bound to correct their children, but children are seldom obligated to correct their parents. And so on. But the general rule remains: all other things being equal, there is an obligation to engage in Christian correction. Jesus says, “If your brother sins, talk to him about it.”
There are many other scriptures that also advise and even oblige us to correct the sinner. Some of the texts also speak to the way in which we should correct.
James 5:19 My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
Gal 6:1 Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any sin, you who are spiritual should recall him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
Col 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom.
1 Thess 5:14 And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.
Lev 19:17 Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him.
Ez 3:17 Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand.
Hence, we have an obligation in charity to correct someone who has gone over into sin. In correcting we ought to be gentle but clear. Further, we ought to correct with humility and not fall into the temptation of acting “superior” and such. Our goal is to limit sin’s effects and to apply necessary medicine to the problem of sin.
We will see more “correction texts” in a moment. But for now, let the first point be repeated: if your brother sins, talk with him about it.
II. PURPOSE – If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. Here, let us just briefly note that the point of this correction is to win a brother or sister back to the Lord. The point is not to win an argument or to show superiority. The point is to contend with Satan, by God’s grace, and win the person, who is in Satan’s grasp, back for God.
III. PROCESS – The Lord next sets forth a process for fraternal correction. It would seem that the process here is generally for more serious matters and that all these steps might not be necessary for lesser ones. For addressing the general situation in which a brother or sister is in a state of more serious and unrepentant sin, the following process is set forth:
1. Go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. – This first stage is often omitted in our fallen, gossip-prone, human condition. If one is in sin, it is too frequently the case that we will talk to everyone except the actual sinner. This is usually not helpful and in fact merely compounds the sin. The sinner goes uncorrected and sin multiplies through gossip. Satan gets a high return on his investment, often netting dozens of sinners for the price of one.
Jesus is clear: speak to the sinner himself, FIRST. There may be situations in which we need to seek advice from someone we trust about how best to approach the sinner. And sometimes we may need to check a few facts first. But in the end, such lateral discussions ought to be few and only with trusted individuals. The Lord is clear: step one is to go first to the sinner himself.
2. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.” – This sort of option may seem rare today in our large cosmopolitan settings, but such things do occur in the right circumstances. Often these sorts of team efforts are called “interventions” and they are frequently done in the cases of addicts who are resisting treatment. Sometimes, too, it is used when a certain family member is engaging in hurtful practices such as severe anger, or the refusal to forgive, or causing division within the family. Such interventions are usually conducted by several family members that the person trusts and they often receive training of some sort before doing so. Depending on the gravity of the matter, these interventions are both necessary and counseled by the Lord as part of a method to end destructive and sinful behaviors.
3. If he refuses to listen to them, tell the Church. – Here, too, note the presupposition that the Church is experienced in a personal way and that the individual is somehow connected to a body of believers who matter to him in some way. The presumption is that these are people he knows (pastors, parish leaders, etc.). This is not always the case in modern parishes, which can be large and impersonal and where many can attend yet stay only on the fringes. Rather than simply dismissing this step of Jesus’ as unrealistic in most cases today, we ought to see it as setting forth an ideal of what parishes ought to be. I hope to work with this vision in a post later this week.
Nevertheless, for those who have some relationship to the Church, this step needs to be considered in cases of grave sin. As a pastor, I have sometimes been asked to speak to a family member in serious sin. Presuming other measures have been taken, I often do speak to him or her to warn about such things as fornication, shacking up, abortion, drug use, anger issues, disrespect for parents, and so forth.
But to be honest, unless the individual has more than a superficial membership in the parish, such talks are of limited effectiveness. Further, “Church” here should not be seen merely as meaning clergy. Sometimes there are others in the Church who ought to be engaged, leaders of organizations to which the person belongs, older men and women (to speak to younger ones), and so forth. I have often engaged a team to speak, especially to younger people.
4. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. - And here we come to a matter of some controversy: that of excommunication. Treating someone as tax collector or Gentile is a Jewish way of saying, “Have nothing more to do with such a one; let him be expelled from the community.”
Some today object to the use of excommunication and often suggest, with some superiority, that “Jesus would never do such a thing.” Yet Jesus himself is teaching us here to do this very thing. As we shall again remark, excommunication is not a punishment to be inflicted upon someone simply to be rid of him or her, but rather as a medicine to bring forth repentance. As we can see, too, excommunication only comes at the end of a long process and is not something that the Church rushes to do. But it IS taught here and elsewhere in Scripture. Consider some of the following examples:
2 Thess 3:6 We instruct you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who walks in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us.
2 Thess 3:14 If any one refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.
1 Cor 5:1 It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
1 Cor 15:33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” Come to your right mind, and sin no more. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.
1 Cor 5:11 But rather I wrote to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber — not even to eat with such a one. Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?
So a fairly strong and clear biblical mandate exists from both Jesus and St. Paul that excommunication may at times have to be used. It would seem from the texts we have surveyed that the purpose of excommunication is two-fold: to protect the community from the influence of serious sinners, and to be a medicine to urge the wayward Christian unto saving repentance.
And if any doubt the seriousness of excommunication or think nothing of the Church’s solemn declaration of it, note that Jesus indicates that he will in fact recognize the Church’s authoritative declaration. For He says, Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Thus, let no one make light of the Church’s solemn declaration in such matters.
In our times there is increasing demand for bishops to use this measure more often, especially for those who openly support and help fund abortion. It seems clear from the Scriptures we have surveyed that such a measure can, and at times should, be used at the end of a process like Jesus describes. If one is directly involved in abortion, either by having one, performing one, paying for one directly, or directly assisting someone to have one, he or she is automatically (self) excommunicated.
What of “Catholic” politicians and jurists who advance the availability of abortion and vote funding for it? Most (but not all) bishops have made a prudential decision not to make use of this measure for “Catholic” politicians who support abortion or same sex “marriage,” etc. Most of them say they have concerns that the matter would be perceived as a partisan political act rather than a moral shepherding of these wayward souls. And since it would be misread and falsely portrayed by the media, they consider it unwise in these circumstances to excommunicate.
Bare minimum – It is not my role as a priest to critique bishops on whether or not they choose to excommunicate. There are prudential judgments bishops must make. But at a bare minimum I would surely hope that every Catholic (politician or not) who even comes close to procuring an abortion or advancing its availability, has been privately instructed and warned by his pastor (or bishop in prominent cases) that if he does not change, and dies unrepentant, he will almost certainly go to Hell. Likewise those of any prominence who help advance other serious moral evils should be strongly admonished by pastors to return to the truth.
It is simply too serious a situation to leave a sinner of this magnitude uninstructed, unrebuked, or in any way unclear as to the gravity of the matter. The sinner should be instructed—yes, warned vividly—to repent at once and to refrain from Holy Communion until confession can be celebrated following true repentance.
IV. POWER – Again, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father
The Lord is showing here how our unity will bring strength. But how can we have unity in the Church when there is not agreement on basic moral principles and behavior. Thus fraternal correction not only helps the sinner, it helps the Church by helping to preserve our unity in the truth of the Gospel. Surely central to the truth that unites us is the moral law of Christ and his Church. Thus fraternal correction increases our unity and makes us and our prayer stronger.
Sadly today it is evident that our unity and the power of our prayer as a Church is greatly diminished by the disunity among us and the way in which many go on too long never being corrected in and by the Church. We are not a force for change since we are divided on the very truth that is supposed to unite us. Much of our division is further rooted in our failure to teach with clarity and correct the sinner.
Much work and pray is necessary today to unlock the power here of which the Lord speaks.
The Lord sometimes comes in unexpected ways and in unexpected packages. The Jews of Jesus’ time were expecting a Messiah who would ride in on a warhorse, and after a bath of blood, reestablish an earthly kingdom of David in all its glory with economic prosperity and military superiority. But Jesus defied their expectations and asked them to risk the unexpected. He came not in might, but humbly, riding on a donkey. He spoke with a rural “hick” accent common to Galilee and hailed from a town so lowly that only a footpath went to it. Even one of His apostles wondered what good could ever come from Nazareth. He ended his earthly ministry dying on a cross.
Yet to those who risked the ride, the Lord reappeared gloriously resurrected, with might and power in His hand. St. John, who saw Him in His glory, said, I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man … and his voice was like the sound of many waters (Rev 1:10,15). So He came in humility and mercy, but when He returns you’d better be ready, by His grace, for He comes in judgment. And the mighty shall be cast down and the lowly raised.
Some of this occurred to me as I watched this KIA commercial the other day.
It is filled with unexpected things. A rather well-heeled couple comes to the valet to get their luxury car. And yet a strange Christ-figure meets them and challenges to take the risk of a different ride. He tells them that the world of luxury has blinded them from the world of true luxury. (Pay attention, Christian!) He offers them a blood-red key (that brings to mind the Cross) to a different ride than their worldly luxury car.
At some point the couple is led to a KIA car—not exactly the first luxury car that would likely occur to this couple, that is clearly more used to a Rolls, or a Mercedes, or maybe even a Bentley. To them it must have seemed as meek and humble as riding on a donkey. What kind of luxury is this?
But entering the car with the strange, Christ-like figure they are surprised. Interestingly, after being handed their blood-red key, they are in a car with a resurrection-white interior. Driving past, they are grateful that no one outside seems to notice or be impressed. But they are, and the Christ-figure tells them that this is what true luxury is like.
And then in the most unexpected twist of all he lets out a voice “like a trumpet blast and the rush of many waters!” And the unimpressed, unbelieving world outside is literally blown away. Judgment day! This world cannot endure the war cry, the shout of Jesus, who shall come to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire.
Enjoy the commercial and pay heed, fellow Christian. Christ asks humility and a forsaking of the lies of this world. But only to usher in a greater glory!
Many of you have expressed concern about a blog post I wrote on the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which was removed. I am grateful for your concern about this and all the issues we discuss here. I removed the post upon further reflection due to the strong nature of the language I had used in parts of it. I apologize if the language I used caused offense.
I remain concerned about the central point of the article, namely, how we as Catholics can effectively engage a culture that increasingly requires us to affirm what we cannot reasonably affirm. There are many prudential decisions involved in the answer to this question, and my intent is not to directly criticize any bishop or diocese. But this is an issue we must all collectively wrestle with as our culture and our faith reach deeper differences.
I am grateful to the Archdiocese of Washington, which has generously sponsored our conversation on this site for five years. I am also grateful to all of you who read and comment. I ask mutual charity and understanding for all parties involved. The beautiful motto of James Cardinal Hickey, who ordained me, rings just now in my heart: Veritatem in Caritate (the truth in charity).