The Church Must Be Willing to Be A Sign of Contradiction

It is often demanded of the Church today (bothby non-Catholics and Catholics) that she ought to strive to fit in more, be kinder and gentler than in the past,  and that her essential mission is merely to accept everyone and make sure they feel good about themselves.  She ought to be more appealing and less “alienating” then her membership will increase. When the Church solemnly and unequivocally speaks on moral questions she is often criticized for being too harsh, or perhaps of being judgemental and  intolerant, or out of touch with modern realities. In recent discussions on this very blog many critics of the Church’s position on same-sex marriage have accused her of being “on the wrong side of history.”

But is this really the role of the Church? Is it really her role to be with the times? Surely not, since she is the Bride of Christ and also Body of Christ (for in this holy Marriage she and her spouse are one). And of this Church, there is a teaching in today’s Gospel (the 5th Day of the Octave of Christmas).  Simeon turns to Mary and says:

Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce)so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Lk 2:34)

Simeon looked to Jesus and saw that he would be a sign of contradiction to many. Surely Jesus would not be the affirmer in chief but rather, as one who spoke the truthand feared no man, he would stand clearly and announce the truth without compromise. Some would love him and many would hate him, but no one could remain neutral. He would make us choose, tertium non datur (no third way is given).

And to the Church Christ said two very important things:

  1. If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me. (John 15:18-21)
  2. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.(Luke 6:26)

So, that world hates us is not necessarily due to the fact that we have done anything wrong. It is often a sign that we have done something precisely right for it is often our lot, as the Body of Christ,  to be a “sign of contradiction.” That is to say that we must announce the Gospel to a world that is often and in increasing measure, stridently opposed to it. St. Paul admonished Timothy to preach the Gospel, whether in season or out of season (2 Tim 4:2). Increasingly now it is out of season and the world hates us for what we say. But we can do no other, for if we are  faithful, we must speak.

Pope Paul VI said it so well in the very in the “out of season” encyclical Huamane Vitae:

It is to be anticipated that perhaps not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching. There is too much clamorous outcry against the voice of the Church, and this is intensified by modern means of communication. But it comes as no surprise to the Church that she, no less than her divine Founder, is destined to be a “sign of contradiction.”  She does not, because of this, evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical.  Since the Church did not make either of these laws, she cannot be their arbiter—only their guardian and interpreter. It could never be right for her to declare lawful what is in fact unlawful, since that, by its very nature, is always opposed to the true good of man. (H.V. # 18)

We in the Church must courageously accept our lot. Simeon spoke of it clearly in the beginning as he held the infant Christ (and thus the infant Church). And then, looking at Mary, who also represents the Church as mother and bride, he says. “A sword will pierce your heart too!” So the Church as Body of Christ and the Church as Bride and Mother cannot evade the fact that we will often be called to be a sign of contradiction. And we will often be required to suffer for our proclamation. The world will try and shame us, try to cause us to experience guilt through indignant outcries and labels such as: Rigid, backward, conservative, right wing, fundamentalist, homophobic, judgmental, intolerant, harsh, mean-spirited, hateful and so on. But do not be amazed and do not buy into the false guilt. Simply pray and accept the fact that the Church is a sign of contradiction and we must continue to address ourselves to the conscience of a world that seems bent on going morally insane. To this world our announcement of the Truth of Gospel must be courageous, clear, consistent, constant and quite often a sign of contradiction. This is our lot, we can do no other, we can be no other.

32 Replies to “The Church Must Be Willing to Be A Sign of Contradiction”

  1. In my humble opinion, where there is strong and faithful leadership in the church there is genuine vibrancy. In the parishes that have ‘get-a-long’ priests, religious, and laity, there is less faithful vibrancy, but sometimes more participation; especially among the crowd that is there more for themselves than for Christ. But, that participation is unsustainable and quickly withers. In very large parishes there will always be someone to take over for those disgruntled ones who choose to leave. In small parishes, such as my own, the disgruntled cause enormous upheaval when they start something and don’t finish it. I would wager Monsignor’s parish is very vibrant.

    Next, depending on the part of the country in which one lives, being Catholic means being contradictory by definition. We live among the Mormons – it’s like water and oil. It is a true privilege to live our faith here and be an example of Christ’s light in the world. We’ll take the hate; we’ll take the scorn; and believe me, we do feel it.

    1. I think you are right, there is real life when the Church stands up and has a bit of an edge. It inspires the faithful in general though it alienates some. But, as the post makes clear, that is inevitable that some will take offense. Jesus aliented, even lost some of his own disciples (eg John 6) but he taught any way.

      I would like to think that my parish is in fact vibrant. We have room to grow but we are surely alive!

    2. Some thoughts:

      On 10 August 2009, while speaking at the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt lake City, Utah, President Thomas S. Monson of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said, “How pleased I am to be here as we celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Cathedral of the Madeleine and its involvement in, and outreach to, our community,” President Monson said. “Since its dedication on August 15, 1909, this magnificent structure has been a vital and integral part of Salt Lake City.” Also, he “recounted times the Catholic church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have joined in serving in the community and the world and said, “Enduring are the friendships forged in serving together to meet the needs of others.””

      “The late Krister Stendahl, emeritus Lutheran Bishop of Stockholm and emeritus professor of the Harvard Divinity School, established three rules for religious understanding: (1) When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies; (2) don’t compare your best to their worst; and (3) leave room for “holy envy” by finding elements in other faiths to emulate. These principles foster relationships between religions that build trust and lay the groundwork for charitable efforts.”

      Myself, I love the feelings of worship and devotion, the great faith in God, and the service and sacrifice in behalf of others I see in the lives of my Catholic brothers and sisters (I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (colloquially, Mormon)) – as we have the same Father in Heaven, we are indeed brothers and sisters.

  2. The Church is destined to be crucified, because on the Cross hung two Bodies: Christ and us, the Lord and His Bride, the King and the Queen. He suffered to save us and to conquer all things – we share in His redemptive an glorious suffering; it is the shortest road to Heaven and we are citizens of Heaven, among the victors, the elect, the princes and princesses, co-heirs of the Kingdom of God! Let us than be courageous in public and in private: praying despite humiliation, loving despite persecution, being truthful despite torment, being holy despite embarrassment, for it is by humiliation, persecution, torment, and embarrassment and every cross that we are being saved and that we conquer the world. No evil, than, can discourage us, because as evil causes suffering, so it causes (unwillingly) our salvation and triumph, and I say unwillingly because all good things come from God.

    1. Alright Nick, make it plain. Well said. I might make one change in your image however. There really was only one body on that Cross and we are there by our incorporation into the one body of Christ. This occurs at our baptism where we become a member of the one body of Christ and are swept up into the paschal mystery.

    1. Ys it is nice. Interesting though, I am used to having John Shepherd songs feature soaring soprano notes. He really gives the treble a work out usually. Perhaps since this is a nunc dimittis he was more reserved? Beautiful piece.

      1. Either that, or he presumed that Simeon wasn’t a soprano 😉

        When I was growing up in Ye Olde Tymes (1960s – 70s) in a Missouri Synod Lutheran church, a Nunc Dimittis was part of the post-Communion part of the liturgy. At the time I didn’t give it much thought, but now I see it not just as a dismissal, but also as a reminder of who we had received with the bread and wine.

  3. Words of Bishop Sheen-

    “If I were not a Catholic, and were looking for the true Church in the world today, I would look for the one Church which did not get along well with the world; in other words, I would look for the Church which the world hates. My reason for doing this would be, that if Christ is in any one of the churches of the world today, He must still be hated as He was when He was on earth in the flesh. If you would find Christ today, then find the Church that does not get along with the world. Look for the Church that is hated by the world, as Christ was hated by the world. Look for the Church which is accused of being behind the times, as Our Lord was accused of being ignorant and never having learned. Look for the Church which men sneer at as socially inferior, as they sneered at Our Lord because He came from Nazareth. Look for the Church which is accused of having a devil, as Our Lord was accused of being possessed by Beelzebub, the Prince of Devils. Look for the Church which the world rejects because it claims it is infallible, as Pilate rejected Christ because he called Himself the Truth. Look for the Church which amid the confusion of conflicting opinions, its members love as they love Christ, and respect its voice as the very voice of its Founder, and the suspicion will grow, that if the Church is unpopular with the spirit of the world, then it is unworldly, and if it is unworldly, it is other-worldly. Since it is other-worldly, it is infinitely loved and infinitely hated as was Christ Himself. … the Catholic Church is the only Church existing today which goes back to the time of Christ. History is so very clear on this point, it is curious how many miss its obviousness…”

  4. Dear Father,

    I do agree with the sentiments that it is not for the Church to be concerned with whether the world hates her or not, for the Church should always stand on the side of Christ, even when Christ is unpopular.

    This said, I think it may be slightly incorrect to say that the Church should not also strive to live in the now; Christ is now and his message is eternal. Fitting in with the times isn’t so much the point, there is a principle that survives throughout all times and appeals to the hearts of all men: Love.

    What I think many people get angry over with some Christians, calling us intolerant and homophobic, can often possess a seed of truth. I am extremely distressed by the tones of finger wagging that many in the Christian community possess and I do not want to believe that Christ ever intended for the Church to be a tool to beat others over the head with the hands of piety. I would much rather like to believe that Christ intended this rock to be a safe place, without the fear of being condemned, without the fear of being teased, without fear of being judged by those who have no place to judge at all.

    What so many call happy face Catholicism, I call true Christianity. Christ did not call the prostitutes out as whores beating them in the streets, Christ did not look at the lepers and call them dirty. Christ did the only thing that creates any kind of an endeared following, Christ showed the down trodden and the sinner a love that they were searching for. To mentor the sick, in spirit, morality, and health, means much more than preaching a right moral path; mentoring means being the kind soul that will continuously forgive and continuously love.

    For some that run in the circles priding themselves on being the cultural contradictions to modern morality, I fear they go too far into the direction of the Zealots – who, though interested in Christ, preferred to ignore the tolerance and love for transgressors of Christianity.

    1. I am inclined to accept most of your distinctions. My blog post tend to be too long anyway and I cannot make them all but that is the good thing about blogs, further discussion can take place in the comment threads. I might add that the Church does not look for a fight or intend to be conflictual merely as an end in itself. Rather it simply results in adhering to a truth that the world has come to hate.

      That said, I am not entirely sure that you are clear in who you mean when you speak of finger-wagging. I have surely heard sermons of Protestant preachers on TV and radio that are not as careful as the Catholic Church would be, for example in distinguishing between homosexual orientation and homosexual activity. However I think the Catholic Church is quite careful, at least in her official documents on moral issues to include pastoral sensitivity, acknowledging that many people do genuinely struggle to come to overcome sinful habits and patterns. At the parochial level I think we sometimes exhibit this quality to a fault, losing the edge to the preaching that Jesus himself had. Jesus was kind with many sinners who approached him but his preaching (eg Sermon on the Mount) was stunningly clear and exacting when it came to moral integrity. How could it be anything less when it would be his grace that would accomplich an absolute perfection in the believer? In amny ways too, Jesus was an equal opportunity “offender” There is a funny scene in the Gospel where He was laying out the scribes and pharisees and an lawyer objects saying “Teacher, when you speak this way you offend us too!” And Jesus turned to hiim and said, “Woe to you lawyers also!”

      (By the way, the secularists do more than a little finger wagging themselves)

      At any rate I understand your concerns. I beginning to sense a blog post on “finding the balance” which I think overall the official CHurch documents have. (I don’t think the Church even comes close to calling sinners dirty) But it is a worthy discussion so that we can all be reminded that, even as we strive to rediscover our zeal that we not overcompensate and lose the love that Christ clearly had for sinners, a love that spoke the truth.

      1. Dear Father,

        You are absolutely correct in everything above. I should have been more clear about who I could sense it coming from. All sides are guilty, but I think we as Catholics should be most wary about it since the Catholic Church is the rock. That said, I also think the Catholic Church does the best out of any group and Catholic organizations and members tend to be more gentle and kind than most other types of faiths (and anti-faiths) I’ve encountered.

        Thank you,


  5. How refreshing it is for a Washingtonian to read this written by a Washingtonian priest! and, I am sorry to say, how surprising.

    I was just talking with a friend last night about how the Church has always been weird, and there have always been those, who measure the success of the Church by worldly goals, who are trying to normalize it. And I said, the day the Church becomes completely normal is the day it ceases to exist in this world as we know it.

    For all our freedom, our society (and any society, so some extent) will only allow a man to exercise his freedom as long as he is not doing something too weird. When he departs too radically from what is normal, the rest of us step in and take away his freedom, even if what he is doing doesn’t hurt anyone or only hurts himself. Now of course this covers a wide variety of behaviors, and different people will have different ideas of how far they are willing to let someone else hurt himself. For example, I was recently reading Basil’s homilies on Genesis (The Hexaemeron), and I mentioned one passage in particular to my friend, in which Basil addresses husbands and wives in his congregation, telling the wives, “Does your husband beat you? Stay with him; he is your body. Is your husband rough and ungentle? What God has joined let no man sunder. Does he drink too much? The two have become one flesh” (paraphrase).

    Would I be willing to give or receive such advice? And would our towns and states let us? I don’t know the answer to either.

    1. Thanks. I suppose Basil’s advice would not be generally followed. It is usually presumed that physical violence requires physical seperation. One would hope however the seperation would be medicinal and after proking the couple, epecially the physical offender, to get help.

  6. Finding the balance is important. There is nothing wrong with the Church and her members being kind and gentle. There is nothing good in the Church being alienating. But on the other hand, to be a true Christian in the world is like the Jews in exile in Babylon.

    Never has any churchman in this city suffered more hate that what the conservatives launched against Cardinal O’Boyle when he announced intergration of the Catholic parishes and schools. (It made the opposition to Humane Vite look like a walk in the park). Yet, the Cardinal responded with charity and kindness. He moved gradually and in small steps. This is much different than when the Archdiocese took the unpastoral stance (in the opinion of some) in favor of laws to imprison homosexuals. Balance. It is all about balance.

      1. See testimony of the ADW before the DC Council Committee on the Judiciary against the repeal of the law penalizing homosexuality by up to 10 years imprisonment and a fine of up to $1,000.

  7. Mnsr. Charles Pope, how do you find a relevant video for every blogpost. It is like some grace! But I feel you give the reader a takeaway gift while they are about to finish reading and leave your blog. Thank You

    1. Well thanks be to God there are a lot of videos out there and a good ole google to find them. Occassionally I make a video of my own like yesterday’s video on the Holy Innocents. I made that one but 99% of the time there is something out there to reinforce the post. Thanks.

  8. When it is thrown in my face that the Church is out of step with modern society, I counter that perhaps it is modern society that is out of step with the Church.

    The Church, as the perfect truth of God, cannot be changing; thus, if society is changing, it is either moving toward or away from the perfection of the Church. If the gulf between modern society and the Church is getting larger, then society must be moving away. But always, perfection–that is, God and His Church–must be the measuring stick; you cannot measure against the moving target, in this case society. Therefore, it must be society that is out of step, not the Church.

    And to those who do not accept the Church (or God) as the measure of perfection, assuming that all must conform to the changing vagaries of modern society does nothing but arrogantly raise mankind to the level of gods or, as we know them better, false idols.

  9. I think I see what Niccolo was saying about the “finger wagging” being a demartia ie an arrow that misses the target. When righteousness becomes self righteousness in a spirit absent of Godly mercy

  10. Thank you for writing this. I wish more Catholic leaders would speak up. At my own parish the priests are also very outspoken and I am grateful for that.
    What is right is not always popular, and what is popular is not always right. That certainly holds true in our time.

    I enjoy your blog very much and read it often. Finally, a place to come for a bit of sanity in an insane world.

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