On the Church as a Sign of Contradiction

It is often demanded of the Church today (both by 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 to affirm and make sure we feel good about ourselves.

Perhaps, it is suggested if she is more appealing and less “alienating” then her membership will increase. And when the Church solemnly and unequivocally speaks on moral questions she is often criticized for being too harsh, judgmental 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, as the Body of Christ there is a teaching when Simeon held the small and infant Body of Christ, he 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. Jesus would not be the affirmer in chief but rather, as one who spoke the truth and feared no man, he would stand out clearly and announce the truth without compromise. He would be a sign of contradiction to the world and its ways. 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 people don’t like to be contradicted. Thus the faithful in the Church 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, left-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.

And since truth and beauty are connected, here is some of the beauty of the Church and faith:

43 Replies to “On the Church as a Sign of Contradiction”

  1. “It is often demanded of the Church today that she ought to strive to fit in more, be kinder and gentler than in the past, and that her essential mission is to affirm and make sure we feel good about ourselves.”

    I got this far and that seemed enough.

    As a liberal Catholic, I would reject this statement. I hope my conservative sisters and brothers would do likewise. I’ve observed that many people dislike disagreement, and that it is at least as common to hear sentiments like the above quote used in some form when conservatives talk about liberal Catholics. Such as …

    Those (liberal nuns) should strive to fit in more, be kinder and gentler (to the pope, bishops and clergy) and acknowledge the essential mission of the Church is to affirm (the Magisterium) and make sure we feel good about ourselves (and our common unity).

    I reflect back on thirty-some years as an adult Catholic and I think about a lot of causes espoused by the liberal wing of the Church: opposition to American foreign wars, ending the nuclear arms race, economic justice, pacifism, unions, capital punishment, Central American interventionism, materialism, racism, and the list goes on. I’ve pretty much opposed most of the policies of the last five presidents. My wife starts looking for the nearest exit when I get into a political or religious discussion.

    I think it’s possible to be contrary without being insulting. And I would caution my conservative sisters and brothers against thinking they invented going against the cultural grain.

      1. Labels can often be confusing so allow me to ask, what do you mean by “liberal catholic?” I see two possible meanings:

        1) A Catholic who, while professing all the Catholic Church professes and believes, tends toward the left on prudential issues, especially in the political realm, (e.g. the tax rate, nationalized health care, foreign aid policy)

        2) A Catholic who dissents from essential and magisterial Church teaching (e.g. favors gay marriage or women’s ordination or perhaps denies the divinity of Christ or the Real Presence in the Eucharist).

        Which definition do you use (or perhaps you have another in mind altogether)?

      2. Because that’s often where the lines of discussion are drawn. I don’t see a problem with people identifying themselves as liberals or conservatives. We are social beings, and we align with certain outlooks on life that suit our experiences and personal preferences.

        But if a less political tack were more accessible, I think the Church has always expressed itself in lived values that were contrary to what the world offers. My sense is that liberals did this more than conservative Catholics through the 70’s and 80’s. In the 4th century, it might have been the desert fathers and mothers who got fed up with the secular world and the accommodation of Christianity into mainstream culture.

        Honestly, I don’t hear people demanding the Church change to be nice. If they did, I vote we just shrug and discern as the Holy Spirit guides.

        1. OK Todd, but this is not a political blog, it is a Catholic one. Why call yourself a liberal Catholic and try to categorize others. Why not just be Catholic? And if you’ve never heard people demand that the Church be “nice” I don’t know where you’ve been. They often use different words to describe our doctrines as practices such as mean-spirited, judgmental, intolerant, naive, harsh, critical, negative, etc., because we don’t affirm fornication, adultery, homosexual acts, abortion, greed, or because we insist on forgiveness, love of enemies and forth.

          1. I’d say that some individuals in the Church do not represent the Gospel well. There is a lot of misunderstanding, not to mention clumsiness about how to present Christ and the Church to others. That is a challenge for all of us. The negative qualities you listed above, most are personality foibles of individuals. Doctrines are not “mean-spirited.” People can be, when they are unskilled in interpersonal relationships. Or they don’t care because they are right and the other person is wrong.

            In the work of evangelization, my sense is that we are obliged to attempt to be effective, and we do this through dialogue and mutual understanding. And so we need to communicate well, or as well as we are able. That involves a balance, of being able to be tolerant, subtle, generous, affirming, easy-going, and open, as the situation suggests.

            “Demand” is a pretty strong word. I find “disagree with” far more often, and what I prepare for in discussions with seekers or non-believers. People disagreeing with the Church: that’s nothing new.

        2. Todd: Of course man is a social being; we were made that way. We are political, economic spiritual etc as well. It is wrong to try and divide man into different beings and try not accept that we are an aggregate of these beings. It is irrational to claim to be Catholic, support political positions contrary to the Teaching of the Church and then somehow blame the Church for being out of step.

          Labels are a two edges sword. They can be helpful in simplifying communications but can also create misunderstandings by broadly categorizing people. I once was accused of being a RINO because I am opposed to capital punishment. No discussion of my reasons but if I wanted to be labeled as a Republican I had to tow the line.

          The Church itself has always had to battle against becoming too worldly. We must influence the world without becoming too much a part of it I think.

    1. Maybe I read the original post incorrectly. There was no political slant either worldly or within the Church itself. Our culture/world now seeks the license to do what they please and there must never be adverse consequences. If you question another’s decision, you are the problem even if their decision was harmful beyond themselves. Msgr. Pope taught today that the Church teaches the Truth and the world will not like this and this has been true from the beginning of the Church and will be until the end of time.

      If individuals only seek to defend their decisions and positions and never seek to form their conscience, then we get our current culture. The Holy Spirit has many times sent saints to our Church to save it from becoming too worldly. (Catherine of Sienna). The “liberal” nuns are being dealt with in a loving manner but are being told that they have strayed from the Truth. Of course they should be respectful of the bishops just as the bishops must be respectful of the religious. Find me a bishop who is asking for the LCWR to be excommunicated right now. The bishops are saying that the LCWR has strayed from the Truth of Christ. The response from the LCWR is that they need to have no adverse consequences for straying from the Truth and the most that should happen is a dialog without conclusion.

      Christ suffered many adverse consequences for proclaiming the Truth. Why should we expect any better treatment form the world. I see this as the message from Msgr. Pope but he can correct me. If you are causing scandal for your wife by getting into heated arguments over your positions then I would suggest that you sacrifce for her a bit and avoid the arguments. You have a great list of positions you espouse. I would be considered conservative within the Church and at this level we have the same list. If you oppose racism and someone looks at you as the problem then you are in perfect company with our Lord if you act out of love in a manner consistent with the teachings of Christ.

      I will say a prayer for your wife and you to have the Peace of the Lord and that you both stay counter to the popular things of this world.

      1. Yes, your observations are correct. I am speaking of being Catholic here, not liberal or conservative as some comments suggest. I get plenty of venom from all sorts of folks on this blog. It is Catholic vs. the world, not right or left which are lines that shift over the decades anyway and this problem is far from older than the present puny period of the last 50 years.

        1. And to be clear, I bear no venom to the blog host or other sisters and brothers in Catholicism. I don’t see it as Catholic vs the world. Our task is to convert the world to Christ, not insist on a battle with it.

          1. @Todd in terms of Catholic vs. the world.

            Speaking from my own pathetic understanding of God’s revalations to us, I do see us as Catholics who stand in face of the world. Christ, when He died, was not a mere man that died. He stood triumphant against death itself. And we are the body of Christ and so we are against the world in the same way Christ is against the world.

            We are called to do many things to the world: to embrace it, to convert it, to be against it. We are called to embrace the goodness God has created in his creation; to convert it by bringing the wayward children of Adam home to Christ and become Children of God; and to be against it by standing as a strong piller of truth and beacon of light against the splashing of the ways of the world trumbling, tossing, and breaking down everything in it’s wake. The Church is the giant unmovable Cross that God planted in the world to anchor the world in place next to God’s heart. Without a Church that penetrates the ground nor one that can withstand the ebb and flow of time and opinion, the human race is be washed away to every whim and wickedness that festers in the world from its first fall at the Garden. It was not just man that fell, all of the world fell with Adam in his disobeience.

            That is why the Church, the Body of the true man, Christ, must be unmovable else we would repeat Adam’s mistake. And being unmovable in this ever moving world, we literally are moving against the world.

          2. @joseph
            I agree with you. Truly, we in our course/goal of embracing and converting the world we should also be prepared to be against it. Especially in these times when moral relativism is the outcry of nonbelievers as well as those who are not convinced with the authority of the Magisterium, we should stand up for the Faith even if by doing this the world will hate us. However, we must not forget that we should that Love should be our response for the hate and persecution that we might receive because even our Lord prayed to The Father to “forgive them for they know not what they are doing”.

            omnes cum Petro ad Jesum per Mariam

    2. “Those (liberal nuns) should strive to fit in more, be kinder and gentler (to the pope, bishops and clergy) and acknowledge the essential mission of the Church is to affirm (the Magisterium) and make sure we feel good about ourselves (and our common unity).”

      Except that is *not* what is being said in that case at all. It is simply mystifying why someone would become a Catholic nun if she didn’t agree with Catholic teaching.

      “I think it’s possible to be contrary without being insulting.”

      Without trying to be, perhaps. But the end result always depends on something which is always out of our control: that is, the disposition of the hearer.

  2. I always say, “Of COURSE the Church is out of step with the modern world! Have you SEEN the modern world?”

    1. I am determined for my 11yo daughter to be out-of-step with Modern Fashion. I have SEEN it, and I SHUDDERED.

    2. The modern world is out of step with itself.

      An interesting phenomenon I have noticed is that many in the intellectual left live very conservative personal lives. They do not preach what they practice. For example, I found one unashamedly pro-abortion blog talking about how essential abortion was for women’s well being and how no woman should be ashamed of having one. She believed that contraception was critical to women’s health and that women’s well being required highly reliable (and very powerful) contraceptives. But the author herself had never had an abortion. In fact, her own sex life was almost Catholic. She was faithfully married to her husband for many years and used NFP to avoid pregnancy. (Well, NFP with barrier methods during the fertile period, but that’s still more Catholic than most Catholics.) She was recommending abortion and contraception as the solution to all women’s problems, but not using them as a solution to her own.

      Same thing with the gay issue. The right is wrong: Gay people are not the ones trying to redefine marriage. Gay people are a very small percentage of the population and gay people who want to get married are an even smaller percentage. They could not on their own redefine anything. Instead it is straight people who are wanting to redefine marriage. More specifically, it is educated, affluent straight people. They see little difference between gay relationships and straight relationships. But this is not because they are trying to justify immoral behavior or because they have forgotten what marriage means, but that their experiences are so narrow that this idea actually makes sense.

      In a modern American city, people can live with people like them and have little contact with anyone else. For example, in metro Washington, those who are more liberal gravitate toward Maryland, while those who are more conservative gravitate toward Virginia. Educated affluent people live among other educated affluent people. What this means is that the gay couples most visible to educated affluent straight people are the gay couples who live the most like educated affluent straight people. Relationship and family stability is associated with both higher levels of education and affluence. There is no reason why this would be less true for gay couples than for straight ones.

      What this means is that the average affluent liberal looks out his newly gentrified neighborhood, meets his gay and lesbian neighbors who are all, like him, in stable, long-term relationships and concludes that there isn’t much difference between their relationship and his marriage–at least not enough to keep the state from recognizing their partnership. He does not go into the seamy underbelly of the gay subculture because he has no reason to. He has come to a reasonable, logical, conclusion based on a limited, unrepresentative sample.

      1. Hey Jim B. I live in Southern Maryland and if you care to cross over the Potomac and come to Sacred Heart parish in LaPlata I can introduce you to plenty of conservative Catholics who are living their faith every day. I don’t believe one can drive through paved over Northern Va. and throw a rock without hitting a liberal, oh sorry a progressive.

  3. To marry the present age with its ideals, is to become a widow in the next.

  4. According to himself, Todd Flowerday only read the first sentence of this article, and he came to remarkable conclusions about everything that sentence could possibly signify. God bless Pope Paul VI!

  5. For Todd Flowerdayand all interested, Please read Ecclesiastes 10: 1,2

  6. Where is the idea “to marry the present world with its ideals is to become a widow in the next” found beyond this page? I would like to learn more about it. Is it a quote or a paraphrase, Biblical or what?

  7. The problem is not that the Church is out of touch with the world. The problem is that the world is out of touch with the Church.

  8. How does someone honestly box one’s self into such a category as liberal or conservative Catholic? Isn’t calling one’s self a liberal or conservative Catholic contradictory to being Catholic? Monsignor Pope, you are doing a great job trying to get Catholic’s to think.

  9. I did not attend my sister’s (re)marriage ceremony after her divorce years ago. This, in combination with my asking her to seek an annulment before her (re)marriage was the cause of much contempt of me in my immediate family. Many called me judgemental. Many said I was unkind. While I did not attend, the rest of the family did attend. Now two cousins are seeking divorce. I believe in part, from the example set.

    When Christ commanded us not to judge, He meant hearts and motives. He certainly did not mean deeds. “by their fruits you’ll know them”.

    1. David, I applaud your courage. It’s one of those really tough decisions but ultimately, we have to choose. There can be no middle ground. God bless you.

    2. Yep….I also think the judge executes a sentence (sends the guilty to jail) and we’re not supposed to think along those lines. But we are supposed to know right from wrong, light from dark, etc. and have strong opinions about that. That’s not judging, but people sure quote “Judge not…” in response to those opinions.

  10. Liberal / Conservative?? Does putting on a label count for anything? I see only ONE thing as absolutely essential; and that is to be a faithful Catholic – faithful to Christ AND the teachings of His holy Church.
    God bless you, Msgr. Pope.

  11. You cannot serve God and mammon! Same sex relationships, rock n roll music in church and the like are not acceptable to God. See Deut. Chapter 22. God does not change regardless of the changes in the world. Also this idea of liberal and conservative is not a good comparison. Rather we now have a group in the Church that wants to embrace Modernism which up to Vatican II was denounced by the Church. See the writings of Popes Pius X and Leo XIII. Since Vatican II the devil have been running a muck in the Church and we have this idea that the Church is a social reform movement rather that an instrument of God in the world. In short the post Vatican II Church has lost true worship and turned to protestant ideas and liturgy to attract people to the Church. We do not have to wonder why Jesus states in the Gospel…”but when the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth.” Luke 18:8. The Church has become a social club and nothing more!

    1. The true Church is a heck of a lot more than a social club…but You’re right about many Catholics who view the church as a social club or a comfort zone. Ironically, in my parish it’s the pre Vatican II orthodox types that are the socialites. They get together and bemoan the changes in tradition (as opposed to Tradition) that occurred in Vatican II. It’s more about the Liturgy that they want and their want to be satisfied by it. It’s more about them and less about Christ.

      When they complain to me, who was an altar boy before Vatican II, I tell them that if they long for comfort, they’re barking up the wrong tree because real conversion involves the death of ourselves and subsequent surrender to Christ and God’s will. There is nothing wrong with the Latin Liturgy…it’s beautiful and the Latin Mass is perfect….every single time. But so is the New Order Mass.

      If someone hates the New Liturgy in the vernacular, well they most certainly would hate going to a Mass in Africa, China or Viet Nam, because those cultures influence the Sacred Liturgy there.

      And they most certainly would hate the Mass as described in the Acts of the Apostles. It was in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek. I bet it only slightly resembled the Latin Mass…but it was as perfect as each and every Mass everywhere.

      But I understand their love for the Latin Liturgy. After all, I was catechized before the changes. I love the Latin Mass even though the Mass was celebrated for a millennium before the Latin Mass ever existed.

    1. “It is often demanded of the Church today that she ought to strive to fit in more, be kinder and gentler than in the past, and that her essential mission is to affirm and make sure we feel good about ourselves.”

      If you want to see what this thinking leads to in our liberal “Christian” churches check this out.


      Thank God for the Catholic Church for it’s teaching the truth and it’s traditions!

  12. On a long-term basis, those Christian sects that have “adapted” to the mores of the modern world seem to splinter, gray, and have declining memberships. For some reason, converts and young people seem drawn to those forms of Christianity that demand repentance from sin, reform of lives and learning about (and to love) Our Lord Jesus Christ.
    Within the Church, religious orders with traditional habits and strict rules tend to outdraw those wearing civilian clothing and elastic rules. Something about Biblically based Christianity seems inherently more attractive than a variety that portrays Jesus as a feel-good, “do your own thing” hippie.
    Something in our human nature craves contact with the Divine.

  13. I hope you write a book one day Msgr. so I don’t have to keep bookmarking all of your wonderful articles.

  14. I too thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking article. It is refreshing. Our country, increasingly, appears to be legislating the culture of death. Being authentically Catholic or the “salt of the Earth” may soon have serious adverse consequences right here in America. It is timely that you referenced Huamane Vitae. Self-insured Catholic institutions are currently trying to figure out what to do about regulations that will require them to pay for contraceptives and sterilizations. Let us remain committed to the Truth, to Light and to Life. The Church has always prospered in persecution. Thank you again for this article and for helping me understand what the Spirit said through Simeon.

  15. This was an encouragement for me (and sorry to have come across Todd’s comments which have the opposite effect). Sometimes we are hated by others at work just because we bear Christ in our souls and there is just no pleasing the crowd…it has no hint even of reason or logic to it such as ‘homophobia’ etc., it’s just is what it is. Thank you Monsignor. Pace et Bene +M

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