The Good News needs the bad news to make sense. A call for the balance of orthodoxy.

One of the struggles that many people have an understanding the good news the Church proclaims, is that many people have either not heard, or are not in touch with the bad news.

Imagine a man reading the headlines of the newspaper announcing a miraculous cure for a terrible and deadly disease. But imagine again that the man has never heard of the disease, let alone knows that he has it. Thus, the headline of the miraculous cure would likely have little impact on him, and he would think to himself “Ho hum, let’s see what else is in the paper.”

Only in knowing the bad news, does the good news really have impact on him. And, to the degree that the bad news has impacted him personally, or someone he knows, the good news will be an even greater joy for him.

Imagine now, that his experience of the disease has been clear for him, and thus, having read of the miraculous cure that is available, he will have a kind of evangelical glee and zeal. Barely will he have read the column, when he will be on the phone calling family and friends to rejoice with him and to spread the good news!

Yes, somehow there is a paradoxical truth that only experiencing the depths of the bad news, do the heights of the good news look wonderful. There is a “test” in every testimony, a trial in every witness’ smile.

One of the difficult balances for the Church, and every individual preacher or disciple to get right, is the balance between articulating the bad news, and celebrating the good news.

The balance is set forth in the very opening words of Jesus, in his public ministry,”Repent, and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15) As Jesus himself clearly demonstrates, both truths are necessary: the repentance that calls us to be sober and sorrowful about sin, and also the belief in the good news, which summons us to accept the glorious news that the Lord can utterly transform us to be a new creation in Christ.

Some have argued that the church of the 1950s was all about repentance, and the following the rules more out of fear, than because they made sense. Having been born in 1961 I cannot personally verify this, but many who I trust have told me this, and I will except their word. Somewhere in all that the good news was either lost or postponed to some far-off heaven.

But if that was the case then it would seem that we over-corrected through the late 1960s and into the 1980s where there seemed, almost, to be an embarrassment in speaking about sin in any specific sort of away. And to the degree that sin was mentioned at all, it tended to be social sin, and described more in abstractions and generalities.

In both eras, exceptions were to be found among the preachers and the faithful, but it would seem, that finding the proper balance between “repent, and believe the good news,” has been hard to come by, either in the severe “old” Church or the anxious “new” Church.

As has already been stated, balance is needed. Heresy, when confronted by tensions like “repent and “good news” chooses one thing and discards the other. Heresy means “choice,” but orthodoxy says “hold both.”

In our own time the heresy, or the extremism tends to be to emphasize the “Good news!” part of the kerygma and reject or strongly downplay the “repent” part. But the ancient Kerygma, (a term which refers to the first and fundamental apostolic preaching), in the early days just after the resurrection contained a balance. The early preaching of the apostles spoke of this as being the time fulfillment, the “latter days” which the prophets foretold. The Lord has by his birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection, ushered in this new age and is now exalted at the right hand of the Father. He has sent the Holy Spirit on the Church as the sign of Christ’s present power and glory. And give all this, the time of decision is at hand: Choose the Lord! Repentance is needed with the offer of forgiveness, and with this repentance comes the Holy Spirit, and ultimate salvation. The Kerygma also incited urgency for the Messianic Age will reach its consummation in the return of Christ who will judge the nations and the secret intentions of hearts.

So there is good news, but there is also the need to repent and the urgency that we do so.

But again let us state, without a deep knowledge, a clear experience of the “bad news” of our sinfulness, the good news of the Savior, who was born suffered and died for us, and rose gloriously, is but ancient, trite, and sentimental story from the ancient world that has little relevance in our life.

It is no wonder that, as many in the Church who preach and teach stopped speaking in clear ways about sin, our churches began to empty, and people began to question the relevance of the Church, the need for sermons or sacraments, for prayer or scripture.

Who goes to the doctor? Only those who know they are sick, or those who, being aware what illness can do, seek to avoid it by regular check ups. But unless one is deeply imbued with a sense of how bad sickness can be, it is unlikely they will be motivated to go regularly to any doctor.

And so it is today with any number of Catholics who either make light of sin, deny they are sinful, or that sin has any real and negative effects in their life. What possible relevance can going to Church and receiving her healing sacraments, or being ministered to by her sacred liturgy have for them? At best, they are left with a vague sense of fellowship as a motive for what is good about going to church. And while fellowship is good, one might just as well join a bowling league if this is the only value.

And thus we see a reaction to the severity of the 1950s, that was extreme and overthrew the fundamental call of the kerygma to repentance.

Imagine doctors getting together as a group and largely saying to the American people, “Sickness and disease are not really a problem to be anxious about. In fact, most of you are in good health don’t worry if you’re overweight, don’t worry about things like sugar and cholesterol everything is really just fine….No matter what we’re all going to live to be a ripe old age!”

We might not be surprised to find that, after a steady diet of this sort of pronouncement from the medical community, that doctor’s offices would largely empty of patients. And to the degree that anyone found their way to doctor’s offices, it would only be after their illnesses were fairly advanced and there would be little the medical community could do. Thus, after creating the impression that regular medical attention was irrelevant and unnecessary, the medical community with then suffer the notion about itself that it was also ineffective and further eroding its credibility.

If this scenario seems strange and non-credible to you, it is quite clearly what many priests catechists have done in the Catholic Church for many years now. In effect, our pulpits have grown silent about sin. And to one degree or another, the message was often and merely some version of “I’m okay you’re okay,” that sin is somehow no big deal, that basically everyone is going to heaven no matter what, and that somehow everyone is basically good, and means well.

Of course it should not surprise us that many would come to the conclusion that the Churches is unnecessary and irrelevant. Who needs to pray or receive sacraments? What’s the point of God’s Word or a sermon? If it isn’t really necessary, and everybody goes to heaven whether or not they undertake these things or not, why bother?

And thus we see how without the bad news, the good news seems pointless, irrelevant and uninspiring.

I do not argue here that priests and catechists, or parents are intentionally and consciously said “Sin is no big deal,” but that does seem to be the general message that was received. More often than not it was the silence of the pulpits the created this message, rather then the explicit formulation of this view. But silence can be very subtle, pernicious, and cumulative it its effects.

When there is no reference to the bad news, the good news fades into insignificance.

This reflection should not amount to swing to the other extreme where in the Church, or individual preacher merely shouts “repent.” Today’s common lack of balance should not be replaced tomorrow by another lack of balance.

Therefore, good preaching, it would seem, should not hesitate to vigorously set forth the need for grace, salvation, the sacraments, and the ministry of the Church, but it should also announce with joy the wonder-working power of God’s saving grace through these remedies offered in the Church. And every preacher, should witness constantly the magnificence of the good news, having established the foundation for it.

The Greek word for repentance, is metanoia which does not simply speak of conversion, but of a change of mind. It also implies a new heart. And the new mind and the new heart, while knowing well the reality of sin, are also able to authentically and powerfully rejoice in the good news of God’s saving love.

In the end, we ought to seek for the balance that orthodoxy requires. Good news without a context and the well-established antithesis of the bad news, does not stand forth as good news. Light, with no reference to darkness, is hard to define or distinguish.

Yet, also, the bad news, with no reference to the good news tends only to incite fear, and fear incites anger and avoidance. And even if one were to argue that fear motivates, the motivation is not usually long-lasting, and then, anger and/or avoidance are most sure to follow.

Ultimately, it is the ancient kerygma which sets forth the proper balance: Repent and believe the good news. Peter also says, Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–for all whom the Lord our God will call. (Acts 2:38-39)

Yes, balance. An articulation of sin and the need for repentance that has clarity and charity. And also a proclamation of the Good News of God’s grace and help in attaining the promises that are now operative for all who will joyfully embrace them.

Here is a new Catechetical program that has become available. I have not seen the series but have ordered one. It emphasizes the original and fundamental kerygma (hence it’s name “alpha”).

11 Replies to “The Good News needs the bad news to make sense. A call for the balance of orthodoxy.”

  1. I think a friend in the UK has done the Alpha course. Obviously, if Padre Cantalamessa has given his approvazione, tutto va bene!

  2. many people have either not heard, or are not in touch with the bad news

    Certainly that is largely true in the United States, but most people elsewhere throughout human history are well aware of the bad news or at least well aware of misery and suffering. It has been different here though. And although many like to point to the rich man and repeat Jesus’ warning that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, the truth is that nearly all of us in this country are that rich man.

    We are blind to our own materialism, as well as our attachment to it, and all too often we seek to make virtues out of vice, calling evil good. Just this evening, for example, I saw commercial after commercial after commercial condemning Candidate X for opposing abortion — indeed, based on the many ads I’ve seen this season, the militant promotion of abortion has been Candidate Y’s number one issue, the number one reason that he is advocating as a reason to vote for him and against Candidate X. And many people will vote for him, even many Catholics will vote for Candidate Y, insisting that they are voting for him for reasons other than their own complicity in the support of abortion despite his making it his number one issue.

    We are so used to being diseased that we do not even realize that we are ill, and to the extent that we realize it, we do not care; sickness is the new normal. We have been so dirty and filthy for so long that we can no longer even smell the stench that we give off. And thus do not fully appreciate the need for the Good News. To be sure, many people fear it, believing that the Good News is bad news, it is the bad news that they will have to give up their worldly pleasures even though, deep down, they will admit that those worldly things bring only fleeting pleasure which comes and goes and leaves one feeling worse than before.

    1. Very inspiring reponse. I see in this how we need a freedom from the obsession with worldly things that keeps us from truly looking beyond it to the genuine spiritual, rather than the latest fad of who’s selling the best, as in most comfortable, spiritual illusion.
      If I had the latest i phone it would do everything which I wanted, or needed, a ‘phone to do and more. Yet if a newer, and superficially shinier, one came along I have no doubt that I would be tempted to get one so as not to get “left behind”
      Left behind in what? An illusion of status – as opposed to a real growth? An outer shell of isolation going hand in hand with a claim ot be better than the rest?
      However a pursuit of true spiritual values; as needless conflict between my fellows becomes resolved and helping those less fortunate becomes a priority; we help each other to grow into a state of healthy spirituality which may seem like a static state that isn’t moving forward like competing for status does. But the status hunt just involves more waste of resources as the old and functional is discarded for the new and shiny – as we isolate into have and have not and argue about which “have this” group is better than the other “have that” group.
      Also, the resolutions of these conflicts of “divide and conquer” conflicts that we’ve bought into can be quite scary as we look inside and do the inner work of, first of all facing our comfortable (but destructive) misconceptions, realizing that only God’s power can lead us to overcome the enemy’s trickery, turn to God for help and guidance then … use nine more stages of hard work that involves developing the true strength of honest humility. All done among others like the early Christian communities we learn of through St. Paul’s letters so that unity develops
      Yet, where’s the static, sort of sitting on clouds and strumming harps that some story alludes to, as our first trip through spiritual cleansing and healing reveals deeper issues reveals more that needs another trip through these stages? Revealed for the trickery that it is?
      Where’s the payoff for this work? Peace of mind which is sometimes called serenity. Having experienced the beginnings of it; and the increasing eagerness to take on more challenges as the previous ones result in a hunger for this spiritual nourishment and its internal fulfillment instead of the unfulfilling external obsession with “more is better”; I find myself wanting more work while becoming content with the gradual growth which reminds me of Psalm 90:4.
      Thank you so much for this seed that brought things together for me like a crystal shaping into its natural form.

  3. I have heard people say that we don’t want to go back to the Church of the 1950’s because the Church of the 1960’s sprung out of it. That makes sense to me. One reason we have not to fear going back to the Church of the 1950’s is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. When I try to imagine what the Church was like back then, I think that priests, and people in authority generally, must have been the final arbiters on unclear questions of right and wrong. People, now, have recourse to the Catechism if they find themselves in a situation where authority is being abused. or misapplied. Also, priests, and people in authority generally, can point out to the sinner his sin, in the Catechism, now, with a clear and eloquent account.

    1. I think you have missed the point. The Church of the 1950’s was not a problem, it was the clergy’s attempt to feel relevant a rapidly changing society with very adverse concepts to teachings of the faith. In turn, it became a failed attempt at accommodating a generation or two affected by secularism. I guess you just had to be there.

  4. Wow! That’s the New Evangelisation summed up better than I’ve seen it summed up anywhere else. It does not really matter whether the version given of the 1950s is true or not; all that matters is that we now strike the right balance. An Evangelical friend of mine claims that the liberal Protestants will die out and that it will only be the Evangelicals who prosper. I would imagine that he thinks that way because he thinks that only the Evangelicals are giving both the bad news and the goods news. But I just wonder if the bad news needs to be spelled out even more clearly. Nowhere in this article is the word ‘Hell’ mentioned. Just as the word ‘sin’ has been avoided, so has the word ‘Hell’.

  5. Just as the word ‘sin’ has been avoided. Can I make it clear that that refers to recent preaching/Catechism and not to the article.

  6. I was born in 1951 and attended Catholic school through the fifth grade at which time we moved to a small rural town south of Dallas that had no Catholic school. My maternal grandparents being devout Irish Catholics raised a son and daughter who became a priest and nun so I was involved in my faith from many influences early on. I am not nearly as knowledgeable in the ways and history of the Catholic Church as many but I am well experienced. I discount the assumption that the Church of the 1950’s was all about repentance and following the rules more out of fear than because they made sense. Personally I would say the Church of the 1950’s was more in line with orthodoxy (kerygma). The Church of the late 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s seemed to be more for the convenience and peace of mind of the clergy. The laity seemed well founded in their faith. It was the clergy seeking renewal from following the rules more out fear and the embarrassment of social issues in the era of Vatican II. As you know the civil rights movement was coming to a head, the Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King were assassinated as well as the Vietnam and cold wars being fought on the world stage. There were socialist and communist elements at work within the Vatican sovereignty during the years of Vatican II. This was fact not fiction. I’m not claiming the pope or council were Marxist but many of the clergy were seeking liberal changes, not the laity. What we have experienced in the Church through the late 60’s, 1970’s and 80’s was from the top down. What we have now is a matter of ” Physician heal thyself ” and a generation or two of misinformed and misguided flock. That doesn’t absolve us faithful of our sins, as we are all in this together but mistakes were made and many have seen the good, the bad and the ugly.

  7. I agree with Robertlonglifecatholic in that there were elements in the Vatican who whether they were just progressive liberals Marxists or even Freemasons the result after the Council was a disaster. At least we saw this with Cardinal Leo Suenens who said after Pope Paul published his last encyclical it was not infallible when it really was because he stated he was acting on his authority as Pope and it involved Morals it WAS. Also we saw this kind of Marxist type mentality that made such a big deal about “right’s” Women’s Rights to be ordained priests Homosexual Rights the right to have married priests. Even the “right” to use contraception IVF Abortion. The way orthodox priests were treated in the seminary as “rigid” or Old New Church. is all classic Marxist talk. We see this still in the yearly CCHD appeal every November even though many of the programs they found violate Church teaching. We need to admit to this and try to root it out of our Church. Year of Faith or no Year of Faith

    1. I wouldn’t go calling for a witch hunt. They did that back in the fifties with the senator McCarthy anti-communist investigations and it became a fiasco. My point is not to start a movement but point to the historical facts of what happened rather than try to blame it on the Church of the 1950’s. The laity as a whole was quite a peace with the orthodox state of affairs of the 1950’s.. It was the clergy in general that felt they needed or wanted a modernization of the system. In the four to five years of Vatican II, there were three popes, a number of changes in cardinals and their various board members. The ensuing game play was ” The pope hikes the ball to the cardinals, the cardinals lateral pass to the bishops and the bishops punt to the parish priests.” The opposing team was the orthodoxy and forty to fifty years later the clergy complains the Catholic Church is behind and they have to keep going back to the original play book to make up for lost yardage. It wasn’t broke to begin with but along comes some guys that feel a need to re-invent the wheel and bring it up to date? Things in the Church were rolling along just fine until

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