On Finding a Holistic Expression of the Church’s Moral Tradition

I just finished reading Ross Douthat’s (pronounced DOW-that) book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. As I have told you before, I highly recommend this to your reading attention. The book is an excellent summary of what has happened to the Christian faith in the last sixty years, especially in this country.

Mr Douthat especially emphasizes how the careful balance of classical Christian orthodoxy tipped and an unbalanced, pick and choose, heresy took its place for most Americans. Hence where things tipped left we got things like liberation theology, the “god-within movements and the syncretizing of Oprah, new age and other odd blends. Where things tipped right we got things like the prosperity gospel, and an odd blend of country worship generally termed, Americanism.

The level of detail and keen theological insight make the book an important resource for anyone who seeks answers, and a strategy out of the current difficulties.

The answer of course is orthodoxy, and orthodoxy seeks to hold the tension of somewhat competing biblical and theological teachings in balance, rather than to choose some and discard others.

In the final chapter Mr. Douthat offers some thoughts on what a recovered Christianity might include. I want to reflect on one of those thoughts in this post, namely that Christianity should be both moralistic and holistic (respecting of the whole). In other words, we must courageously proclaim the moral vision of the New Testament, but we must also be careful to proclaim the “whole counsel of God” (cf Acts 20:27). For it sometimes happens that we emphasize certain moral teachings which agree with our view, and neglect to preach others which challenge our view.

Orthodoxy must present the balanced and complete moral vision. Otherwise it too easily looks co-opted by other lesser agendas such as politics, economics, social science etc.

Let me have Mr. Douthat speak for himself. He begins by asserting the need to courageously proclaim our moral vision:

No aspect of Christian faith is less appealing to contemporary sensibilities in the faith’s long list of “thou shalt nots,” and no prohibition attracts more exasperation and contempt than the Christian view of chastity and sex. But, recurring efforts to downplay the faith’s moralistic side, to make his Commandments general rather than particular, to recontextualize Bible passages that offend contemporary sensibilities, to make the faith seem more hospitable to America’s many millions of divorced people, cohabiting couples, and (especially) gays and lesbians, have usually ended up redefining Christianity entirely. The traditional Christian view of sexuality is more essential to the faith as a whole than many modern believers want to acknowledge….[And] it doesn’t just rest on a literal reading of a few passages in the Scriptures which can easily be revised to reinterpreted. Rather, it’s the fruit of centuries worth of meditation and argument on the whole biblical narrative, from the creation of Adam and Eve, to Jesus’ prohibition on divorce
It seems easy enough to snip a single thread out of this pattern, but often the whole thing swiftly unravels once you do.

Yet many conservative Christians often make a similar mistake; they have emphasize the most hot-button (and easily politicized) moral issues, while losing sight of the tapestry as a whole. There are seven deadly sins not just one, and Christianity’s understanding of marriage and chastity is intimately bound to its views on gluttony and avarice and pride.

….It is rare to hear a rip roaring Sunday’s sermon about the temptations of the five course meal, and the all you can eat buffet, or to hear a high-profile pastor who addresses to sin of greed in the frank manner of, say, St. Basil the Great in the fourth century A.D.:

The extra bread you possess belongs to the hungry. The clothes that you store in boxes, belong to the naked. The shoes rotting by you, belong to the barefoot. The money that you hide belongs to anyone in need. You wrong as many people that you could help. (Basil, Homily on Avarice)

Note that Basil isn’t arguing for a slightly higher marginal tax rate to fund modest improvements in public services. He’s passing judgment on individual sins and calling for individual repentance. There are conservative Christians today who seemed terrified of even remotely criticizing Wall Street tycoons and high finance buccaneers, lest such criticism be interpreted as an endorsement of the Democratic Party’s political agenda.

Douthat goes on to warn that our partial outrage over certain things weakens our overall credibility before a skeptical world, since it seems that something, other than true and sincere Christian adherence to biblical norms, drives the concerns we express. And, since the world is particularly skeptical of the Church teaching on sexuality and beginning and end of life issues, our seeming silence on other biblical norms undermines our credibility. For indeed, considerable ink is spilled in the Biblical texts on issues related to greed, envy, jealously, anger, hatred, and God’s passion about how we care for the poor, as well as on sexual matters and concerns for the family and human life.

And even within the questions of sexual morality we need to be careful not simply to single out homosexuals and ignore many egregious examples of heterosexual misbehavior. Douthat writes:

…The Christian case for fidelity and chastity will inevitable seem partial and hypocritical if it trains most of its attention on the minority of cases – on homosexual wedlock and the slippery slope to polygamy beyond. It is the heterosexual divorce rate, the heterosexual retreat from marriage, the heterosexual out-of-wedlock birthrate that should command the most attention from Christian moralists……asking gays alone to conform their lives to a hard teaching will inevitably seem like a form of bigotry. [Kindle edition Loc 5771-90]

I have long held this same view and will almost never address the sin of homosexual acts without also cataloging and warning against heterosexual sins such as fornication, adultery, pornography, contraception, abortion, divorce and so forth. Frankly, it would seem the case can be made that, the emergence of more widespread homosexual tendencies,  and homosexual demands, has come in the aftermath of over sixty years of widespread heterosexual misbehavior and our own redefinition of marriage.

We have insisted on easy divorce (biblically prohibited), and turned procreation and raising of children into an option (via contraception), and a way of accessorizing marriage, rather than one of its most central tasks (again, completely unbiblical). In effect, for most heterosexuals, marriage has little more meaning than two adults being happy.

We cannot prophetically stand against gay “marriage” with such a vague and unbiblical notion operative in the lives of most Christians. Only the true and orthodox stance that the Scriptures proclaim, can withstand the charge of duplicity by an increasing number of Americans. Namely, that marriage is a stable and lasting union intrinsically oriented to the procreation and rearing of children.

And, to disagree with Mr. Douthat a bit, I do not think that most Catholic priests would be found guilty of of preaching “rip-roaring” sermons on sex or even focusing much on it. Frankly, and I think most Catholics would agree, Catholic pulpits have been too silent on sexual matters, and to be honest, on most moral topics. Too many Catholic sermons of the past sixty years are a collection of generalities and abstractions. Not only would most Catholics not hear a sermon about sex, but they would not likely hear all that much about what Basil says either.

Our outrage at homosexual acts (which I fully think we should have) can seem very hollow when, for some sixty years we have tended to ignore heterosexual promiscuity on a wide and huge scale, and worked with, and largely facilitated, the divorce culture. And then, when the homosexual community steps forth with their sinful demands, we should not be surprised that our claims to oppose to them is only about protecting the sacredness of the family, falls on deaf ears. We have sown in the wind and now we are reaping the whirlwind.

To be fair, some of this is changing and, especially younger clergy, are more likely to address specific moral topics. And if that be the case, then we clergy ought to be willing to address a wide sampling of the Christian moral vision in a non-political bu clear way, as Douthat admonishes and exemplifies by quoting St. Basil.

And thus we are brought back to St. Paul’s insistence to the Church at Ephesus that he preached to them “the whole counsel of God” Acts 20:27. For the true and orthodox moral vision of the Church is wide, and embraces all issues and all people. And it is not so much a faith that prohibits, as it is one that points to freedom by Grace:

  • Freedom to be able to experience and show mercy, forgiveness,
  • Freedom and have authority over our anger and hatred,
  • Freedom over our greed and the capacity to be generous and caring of the poor,
  • Freedom and authority to love our spouse, and children and be faithful to the commitments we have made, even in tough times,
  • Freedom and authority over our sexuality and the capacity to live chastely and joyfully,
  • Freedom and the capacity to welcome immigrants, and be free of the fears related to bigotry, ignorance and prejudice.
  • Yes, freedom, grace, power and authority over every sinful drive
  • And the joyful openness to greater love, mercy, kindness, chastity, generosity, joy, serenity, justice, piety and  growing love for God and neighbor.

This is orthodoxy: holistic (respecting the whole), wide reaching, comprehensive and transcending of political categories and boxes.

The whole counsel of God.

If you can tolerate looking at Bill Maher, Ross Douthat handles him pretty well:

22 Replies to “On Finding a Holistic Expression of the Church’s Moral Tradition”

  1. Thank you for your balanced commentary. We need a renewal or an internally-initiated reformation along these lines – not a wild swing to the right, but a “re-centering” and a renewed focus on Christian morality. Also, we need to translate this in terms which are undeniable by secularists, that is, supported by reason and therefore more easily applied in positive law.

  2. One could argue that we’ve always been a “Nation of Heretics.” The religious roots of this nation are clearly Protestant. We can’t forget the Protestants of the 16th c. were “pick and choosers” when it came to religion as much as any modern American. Groups like the Pilgrims were heretical even to the mainline Protestant denominations in Europe, which was a driving force in their moving across the Atlantic in the first place. Our Founders include among them many deists, especially Franklin and Jefferson. I think we’d be hard pressed to find two more prominent and less orthodox men in the country today. With this background is there anyone really surprised that we are, still, a “Nation of Heretics”? What then is the solution?

    1. Yes, fair enough, but I think, when considering America it is also fair to articulate a fundamental Christian orthodoxy that held sway and included fundamental doctrines held by both Catholics and Protestants, e.g. divinity of Christ, the Trinity, inerrancy of Scripture, the necessity of faith for salvation, and the fundamental moral vision of the New Testament. True there were a few deists running around, but there was a basic acceptance among most of the fundamentals of the Creed and the moral system.

  3. “I do not think that most Catholic priests would be found guilty of of preaching “rip-roaring” sermons on sex or even focusing much on it. Frankly, and I think most Catholics would agree, Catholic pulpits have been too silent on sexual matters, and to be honest, on most moral topics. Too many Catholic sermons of the past sixty years are a collection of generalities and abstractions. Not only would most Catholics not hear a sermon about sex, but they would not likely hear all that much about what Basil says either.”

    I am sure being a priest today is tough. In times like these, all who make up the Church in America should maybe think about being more like the Marines (up close and personal) than the Air Force (dropping bombs from 40,000 feet that nobody hears). I live in a wealthy parish and would love to hear the pastor say in a sermon one Sunday, ” Hey, there sure are a lot of fancy $50,000 Cadillac Escalades and Chevrolet Suburbans in the parking lot, maybe some of us should think about downsizing. Also, tell your kids to keep their pants on, sex is not a recreational sport! And, maybe eat at home more often as a family than spending all that money on take out.” I would not mind hearing something like that 2 times a year, just to keep folks on their toes.

    I’ve skimmed through the Catechism a couple times and have found it to be pretty clear and concise. Maybe, I’m missing something.

    1. No you’re not missing anything. We priest, collectively have not been on our J.O.B. But as I have said, I think the tide is turning with the younger priests.

  4. Somewhere in the Catechism I think it says that God loves man in the fullness of his being. I think all of the Church’s teaching on sexuality can be understood in the light of that statement.

  5. Part of the issue is that many priests have too little secular experience to talk of real issues. Although I have to say that as emn are aspiring to the priesthood at a later time in life, they bring a true sense of the world to bear in their homilies. My parish is fortunate enough to have 4 active and one retired deacons who worked in a multitude of situations and careers (firefighting, education, sciences, federal management) and are well read and active in the community in many diverse capacities, as are their wives; we’re comfortable with ourselves and with each other enough to work as an effective team of 10. Our pastor is also a good priest who knows his strengths, but also respects those of the deacons and wives enough to let us preach often and succinctly. Not all priests are that secure with themselves or with the prospect of turning to the deacons when falling on the grenades is what is needed. One major fallacy with the American way of thinking is that when one parameter is accepted, an inverse must be true as well; freedom of religion does not necessarily imply freedom of religious thought. Truth, throughout most of man’s existence, is the basis of human opinion. In America, however, many set their opinions in place, then building the truth that justifies the opinion, which, although is the inverse of the traditional way, is not a valid thought process, and the root of much heresy. Our recent pharmaceutical recalls over bad research techniques attests to the fact that this kind of thinking has permeated beyond philosophy and into the factual sciences, where it can be downright deadly. This is also the root of the recent Wall Street breakdown leading into our current financial crisis.
    The real solution to this is simply to differentiate between fact and opinion and making sure that we know the facts before turning on an opinion. Perhaps then the best and brightest might be more apt to enter the political arena..

  6. You are exactly right that you can’t be silent on hetero-sins yet credibly condemn the gay community.

    But where were/are those taking the parable of the servant forgiven 300 talents yet demanding 30 drachma be paid in full? Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, AIG, Merrill Lynch… they paid themselves big bonuses, yet are still forging, defrauding, and foreclosing. Say whatever else about Occupy Wall Street, at least they atr pointing the finger of shame where the churches aren’t.

    And in NY, there was a big program to put Muslims under surveilence and infiltrate Mosques. No warrants. Was any Muslim invited to the gatherings last Friday?

    Both Ghandi and Mother Theresa could speak from the moral high ground as they had no guile or hypocrisy.

    The best evidence of scincerity is when you help those who are your enemies out of principle – justice and what is right. It is easier to seek a corrupt exemption to a rule or other special favor than to truly advocate the good.

    Instead of urging civil disobedience over a rounding error in their health insurance bill, we could end abortion during athe same fortnight with nonviolent civil disobedience. But instead of calling us to greatness, we are called to pettyness. But perhaps I should rejoice that at least the thoroughly muted trumpet is at least being blown.

  7. Well, Bill Maher has his problems, just can’t ” look ” at him. You are right about the other things, we are pretty greedy, etc. I guess that is the ” American ” in us. And it is just as difficult to deal with as the other things. We all want or hope for a little acceptance by our peers and if we truely live the gospel in the way you and Basil have suggested we would all be living somewhere in the slums-we would be living among the poorest of the poor and sharing in their trials and tribulations. Perhaps one of the problems with today’s Catholicism is that it has become a ” religion of the berbs ” and you can’t live there and live as you suggest, that is just a fact.

  8. I’ve seen where the priests are ready to – and even do! – preach the hard stuff. But the Bishop doesn’t back them up when parishioners complain. That is so sad. I would never want the enormous responsibility that a Bishop has: all those souls are his responsibility! And I would not want to be a priest, who feels he must tip-toe ever so carefully when trying to preach what he knows his parishioners need to hear, while fearing a reprisal from an unsupportive Bishop. So, I encourage everyone to pray and fast for our priests and Bishops. St. John Vianney, pray for our priests! St. Michael, defend them. St. Joseph, protect them. Immaculate Heart of Mary, intercede for them! Lord, have mercy on them!

    1. Well let me just say, it is my experience that Bishops usually do have our back. While there are some examples or bishops in particular where there may be a problem, most priest I know feel supported. In this diocese for example, if a nasty letter goes in, the priest is informed and given a chance to respond and the clarifications by the priest are generally considered very helpful by the diocese that presumes good will. Sometimes where there is a disciplining of a priest or some seeming rebuke, I usually find there is more to the issue than just the one event and if it comes to disciplines, it is only after a significant hitory of problems with the priest.

  9. If every priest on every Sunday gave outstanding homilies, it wouldn’t really change much, although it certainly would help a little bit. The hour in Church on Sunday doesn’t compare to the overwhelming number of messages coming out of the media that contradicts the Church’s teaching. I don’t view the media as orchestrating a grand assault on the Church, although those are frequent enough, but the fundamental nature of consumerism stands in opposition to God. Our debt-ridden, overweight, oversexed society is a testament to consumerism’s success. And people need to stop blaming Wall Street for their own consumption habits and take control of their lives. Hopefully, the Church can help all of us do just that because it is unlikely individuals will succeed on their own.

    1. The problem you describe is “because” people take control of their lives…and not let God take control. That’s what thew fall is all about.

  10. Basil the Great was saying that CHRISTIANS must be generous with their earthly goods. Basil the Great was NOT saying that the Empire should levy a tax on all subjects to pay for charitable works. The great fault I see American Christianity as having is its (by and large) abdication of its support of the poor in favor of governmental programs supposedly to help the poor. This abdication, in part, has led to the abandonment of Christianity by the culture, which labels Christianity as selfish because the government is the well-publicized charity giver in the USA, not the Christian/Catholic churches. Shame on us for abdicating this responsibility and assisting the increase of socialist inclinations in our country and world.

    1. Yes. By the way your first sentence is almost an exact quote of Douthat in the quoted section. Hence I don’t see any disagreement here. However, the question still remains as to how we Christians walk back our abdication without doing sudden and great harm to the poor. We got into this pickle in stages and will likely have to walk it back in stages. But how. Paul Ryan has some ideas. maybe start there?

  11. While the man is passionate and articulate about being a conservative, I thought Mr Douthat was a bit selective in his reading of recent history. “Orthodoxy” has become a sort of a number one pc term for the Catholic Right. But too often it has morphed to mean, “Stuff I don’t agree with.”

    Matthew 21:28-32 gives an illustration that’s very apt for our times. People do well enough to parrot the catechism, or their favorite part of it. The challenge to modern believers is less a lack of being able to articulate an orthodox faith and more a matter of failing to strive for an orthopraxis. Less talk among believers, especially petty political arguments, and more action, especially with joined hands.

    1. I think Douthat would largely agree with your assessment, as do I. Especially that heresy means (simply) “stuff I don’t agree with.” On the other hand, I’m afraid your “orthopraxis” reference is also jargon that has come to mean on the left, “stuff I think is right.” As for your reference to Matt 21 it can cut either way for self-righteousness is not just a problem on the right, the left has it too. In the end, I think we agree, the church needs two wings (social justice and social issues) to fly.

      1. This is why, in part, I think the Church is stronger with both left and right active and acting as a filial check on the other, rather than either in ascendancy. It doesn’t make for good discernment. Younger clergy are sometimes good for the Church, but many lack experience and judgment, especially prudence.

        “Orthopraxis” has hardly become as de rigeur as “orthodoxy.” I think you miss my meaning about two wings–I was thinking more along the lines of action and contemplation. And I think it’s most important not in large movements, but in the expression of individual believers.

        By the way, the crack about Bill Maher seems out of place. I’m not a fan of videojournalism, but the man is what he is, and does what he does. In return, I almost felt I had to take a swipe at one of the sex scandals of one of our young priests, but I’ll pull my hands away.

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