The Challenges Are Many but the Charge Remains the Same: Be Authentically Catholic – A Reflection on a Pastoral Letter of Donald Cardinal Wuerl

Being-Catholic-Today-CoverRecently Cardinal Donald Wuerl wrote a pastoral letter to the Archdiocese of Washington setting forth the need to be clear on our Catholic identity. It is entitled Catholic Identity in an Age of Challenge.

His essential message is that in an age of conflict and challenge we must be clearly and comfortably Catholic. In the introduction, he states that he does not refer to a merely superficial identity, but rather to an identity that is essential, enduring, and true. We must talk about the identity we receive in Baptism. It cannot be taken away from us.

For indeed there are many who would pressure us to be less than fully Catholic, or bid us to seek our identity in other sources. We cannot do so if we are to remain faithful to the call we have received.

In the context of the pastoral letter, Cardinal Wuerl concisely describes a number of cultural factors today that make our task of living, witnessing, and re-proposing the Gospel more difficult. Naming these factors and coming to know their shape and “moves” helps us to be clear, sober, and strategic as we live in and speak to an increasingly secular world.

In what follows, I list the Cardinal’s descriptions of these challenging factors, though not necessarily in the same order that he presents them (he interweaves the factors creatively with other themes). The summary statements (in bold, black text) are largely mine. The italicized texts are direct quotes from the Cardinal’s pastoral letter. The numbers referenced are the page and paragraph within the document. Because the Cardinal’s purpose was not to fully develop these challenges (but more to list them), I have included a few of my own contextual remarks in plain, red text.

I would encourage you to read the full document, which is available by clicking on the title in the first paragraph above.

Let’s consider the cultural challenges that Cardinal Wuerl lists:

I. Freedom is understood as absolute autonomy

Human freedom—or as sometimes framed in contemporary discourse, “freedom of choice”—when fully and rightly understood, does not mean absolute autonomy to do whatever you want to do. We encounter limits to freedom, some of which are natural and proper, and some of which are wrong. It is in truth, Jesus said, that we are set free (John 8:32). If we do not know or recognize what is true and what is false, then we cannot make an informed and intelligent choice, that is, a free choice. “Truth and freedom either go together hand in hand or together they perish in misery” (Fides et ratio, 90). If we live a lie, we are not free. Thus, we are free not to do whatever we want to do, but what we ought to do, that is, to do what is true to who we are as God made us to be. Freedom is not exercised in a vacuum. We coexist with others, and so freedom is necessarily a shared freedom. Invariably there will be conflicts of interest and belief (17.4-17.6). Autonomy convinces us that fidelity to faith only restricts us (22.1).

II. Disagreement is equated with discrimination

Disagreement simply cannot be denounced as discrimination. Some commentators see this situation as a uniquely American way to live both freedom and diversity. It rests upon the understanding that diversity is real and disagreement is not discrimination. Such freedom cannot be negated by a newly created definition of discrimination (18.1; 23.2-23.3). Clearly this is a huge problem today. Many expect and even demand approval for behaviors and lifestyles, taking any disagreement with them personally. It is a kind of identity politics wherein some draw their entire identity from a narrow range of behaviors (often related to sexuality). Having done this, they take disagreement very personally, taking offense where none was intended. They then go further to equate disagreement with unjust discrimination that might even demand legal punishment.

III. Secularism

Indifference, de-Christianization, and atheism are found in their most widespread form in secularism. Two generations of secularization have fashioned this time when some do not even know the foundational prayers, or understand the most basic of Catholic devotions. Still others do not sense a value in Mass attendance, fail to avail themselves of the Sacrament of Penance, and have often lost a sense of mystery (21.2).

IV. Materialism

The Cardinal lists this but does not develop it. Basically, materialism is inordinate concern with that which is physical and material, while that which is spiritual is labeled unreal or even non-existent. It is also related to scientism (the notion that the physical sciences alone are able to account for every reality) (cf. 21.2).

V. Individualism

Individualism demands that we rely on no one but ourselves and our personal needs always take first place (21.2). Individualism is also at the root of relativism, wherein many claim the right to define the world merely as they see it. This view posits that what I think or feel is a sufficient basis for my argument to hold true (at least for me).

VI. Consumerism

Consumerism suggests that our worth is found in the things we accumulate (21.4).

VII. “Sloganism”

Our society prefers to listen in sound bites, rather than in semesters. Slogans replace thoughtful explanations (20.3).

VIII. Indifferentism

Here, too, the Cardinal lists this but does develop it. Indifferentism is a kind of false egalitarianism, which sees one thing as no better than another. It is a notion by which one either refuses to distinguish that which is best from that which is merely good, or even equates that which is bad with that which is good. But if everything is true then nothing is true; if everything is good then nothing is ultimately good (cf 22.1).

IX. Skepticism (Scientism)

Skepticism pressures us to trust only what we can observe and measure, and purports to destroy the classical and time-tested relationship between faith and reason and threatens to reject the basic right to religious liberty and freedom of conscience (21.4).

X. The Sexual Revolution

Sexuality recast as casual and recreational—the attempt to recast human sexuality as casual and entirely recreational has led to an untold weakening of and continued assault on marriage and family life (21.4).

XI. Activism

The popular absorption with constant activity leads us to believe that unless we are always busy and hectic we are behind schedule. In this setting it becomes commonplace to treat the human person as an object to be used and to focus almost exclusively on material gain (22.1).

XII. Entertainment and Popular Culture

The swift decline in standards of entertainment has exposed our youngest children to repeated displays of intense violence (22.1). There is also the tragic robbery of their innocence through pornography and inappropriate sexual content. Added to this are distorted notions of family life and the ridicule of authority and tradition.

XIII. Growing legal pressures to comply

Historically, people have faced many challenges to freely live their religious identity. In many parts of the world, Christians and people of other faith communities simply are not free. For example, in the Middle East, Nigeria, India and elsewhere, churches are being destroyed and Christians are murdered simply because they are Christian. Closer to home, religious freedom is also violated by laws, policies, and practices which seek to restrict us in the exercise of our Catholic ministries. Here in the United States, for example, priests, professors and others on college campuses have already been threatened with disciplinary action for expressing Catholic teaching. Other forms of infringement of religious liberty include government or social demands that we act contrary to our faith (18.3 – 19.1).

XIV. Expansive (intrusive) Government

These contemporary views of life discussed here often seek to bleach out recognition of God and marginalize the Church and limit her freedom and ability to function and live out her Gospel mandate. Added to this are the challenges of direct government interference as well as in some parts of the world, social violence, and persecution (22.2).

XV. Internal Ecclesiological Concerns

When I was a young priest in the 1960s and 1970s, there was much experimentation and confusion in the Church. Teachers and clergy were encouraged by some to communicate an experience of God’s love, but to do it without reference to the Creed, the sacraments, or Church tradition. It did not work very well. Catholics grew up with the impression that their heritage was little more than warm, vaguely positive feelings about God. Those years of experimentation left many Catholics weak, spiritually and intellectually, and unable to withstand the tsunami of secularism that came in recent decades. We lost many people because we failed to teach them about right and wrong, about the common good, about the nature of the human person. This left many no longer able to admit that we are sinners who need Jesus because many no longer know what sin is. This lived experience of people not being fully or correctly presented the truth of the faith illustrates why we are called to the New Evangelization. It also demonstrates why it is so crucial that we reassert and strengthen our Catholic identity, and that our freedom to do so be respected in society and in law (16.1-16.3).

This is a lengthy and vigorous list to be sure, but it is immensely helpful. Our task remains the same, but it is clearer and more necessary than ever before: Teach, preach, and evangelize. Be Catholic—identifiably, authentically, consistently, and comfortably Catholic.

St. Paul gives this charge:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the Word; be prepared to do so in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound doctrine, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. But as for you: always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

Cardinal Wuerl describes our charge:

We have received something in the Church that is not ours; it is the Lord’s. As his faithful stewards, we are accountable to the Lord, not to the contrary demands of the culture. We need to remain connected to Christ and be true to the mission he has entrusted to us. “Since faith is one, it must be professed in all its purity and integrity. Precisely because all the articles of faith are interconnected, to deny one of them, even of those that seem least important, is tantamount to distorting the whole,” explains Pope Francis. “Indeed, inasmuch as the unity of faith is the unity of the Church, to subtract something from the faith is to subtract something from the veracity of communion” (16.4-16.5).

Be Catholic—wholly, entirely, and integrally. Proclaim the faith Christ has given us. Proclaim it in its entirety, charitably, but without compromise. The world may change, but our charge remains the same: Be Catholic—identifiably, authentically, and completely Catholic.

The Love of the Law and the Law of Love – A Homily for the 22nd Sunday of the Year

The LawToday’s readings teach a proper understanding of the Law and its relationship to our hearts. The readings go a long way toward addressing the false dichotomy that many set up between love and law, as though the two were opposed; they are not. For if we love God, we want what He wants and love what He loves. And the Law goes a long way toward describing what God wants and loves. Indeed, the Law is letting love have its way.

God is Love and His Law (no matter how averse we are to “rules”) is ultimately an expression of His love. In all of the readings today God asks (even as He commands it) that we let love have its way. Let’s look at four teachings on the relationship of Law to God, who is Love.

I. The PROTECTION of the Law – Note that the text from today’s first reading frames the Law, and the obedient hearing of it, in terms of a promise of God, seeing the Law as a doorway to the loving blessings and promises of God. The text says, Moses said to the people: “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you.”

So the Law comes with a promise. It is the basis of life and the doorway to the further blessings of the land. Many today see God’s Law as prison walls, as a limitation on our freedom to “do as we please.” But the walls are not prison walls; they are defending walls.

Every ancient city had walls, not to imprison its citizens, but to protect them from the enemy. Within the walls there was security and the promise of protection. Outside the walls lurked danger; there were no promises of safety.

It is like this with God’s Laws. For those who keep them, they are a great source of protection and also contain the promise of ultimate victory. But outside this protective wall there is every danger and no promise of victory.

In his famous book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton wrote,

Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground … We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the center of the island; and their song had ceased. [1]

God didn’t give the Law to take away our fun, but that we might find life and happiness. The devil, of course, is a liar; he tells us that we’ll be happier if we sin, that God is limiting our freedom by hemming us in with His Law. But sin does not make us free. Jesus says, Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin (John 8:34). Indeed, how much suffering and pain would vanish if we all just kept the commandments? Most of our wounds are self-inflicted, by insisting on journeying outside the walls of God’s loving and protecting commandments.

Moses reminds us that our decision for or against the Law brings either blessing or curse:

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Deut 30:15-20).

II. The PRECISION of the Law – Regarding the Law of God, Moses says, In your observance of the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it.

Here we might the Law to be like a set of directions to a destination. If you give me directions to get to your house, I am probably not going to get there if I only follow half of the directions. The compliance must be complete to bring me to the right place. And so we are directed the follow the Law of God wholly. Scripture says elsewhere,

  • Instruct me O Lord, in the way of your statutes, that I may exactly observe them (Ps 119:33).
  • I intend in my heart to fulfill your statutes always to the letter. I have no love for half-hearted men, my love is for your law (Ps 119:112-113).
  • For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it (James 2:10).

Here we must see God as a healer who is not exacting and precise for His sake, but for ours. Imagine a man who goes to a doctor with two broken legs and the doctor says, “We’re gonna aim for 50% here. I’ll set one leg but leave the other one broken. But don’t worry about the broken leg; that’s why God gave you two!” We would surely hold such a doctor in contempt. God, who is our healer, points to full health, not crippled or partial health.

When Jesus says, You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48), He is indicating the kind of healing He offers. And St. Paul adds, [God who] began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:6).

Thus the precision of the Law is taught to indicate the healing power of God’s law with grace.

III. The PRIORITY of the Law – In today’s gospel, Jesus rebukes the Scribes and Pharisees saying, “[You] teach as doctrines human precepts. You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”

Now, as then, many set aside the priority of God’s Law in favor of human thinking. Politics has become a pernicious influence in this regard. Many Catholics of both parties are more passionate about their political views than about God’s teachings as revealed through Scripture and Church teaching. And if there is a conflict between what God teaches and the political party view, guess which gives way and which gets unexamined allegiance?

Be it questions of abortion, immigration, or same-sex “marriage,” all too easily Catholics will turn a deaf ear to what God teaches, never rebuking their own party when correction is needed, and even cheering as their political leaders champion positions contrary to God’s Law. Too many Catholics place political priorities and popularity, human traditions and agenda, over God’s Law.

The Lord Jesus goes on to say, Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me. He says elsewhere, [you] make void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do (Mk 7:13).

Be very careful; the pernicious effects of partisan political thinking, worldviews, and mere cultural preferences have caused too many Catholics to cease to be the leaven, the prophetic voice they are supposed to be in this world. All of the political parties, most worldviews, and many cultural trends need purification. A Catholic must be a Catholic before he is a Democrat, a Republican, or a Libertarian; before he is a fan of a Hollywood star or musician; before he touts the latest trend or raves about the most recent bestselling book. None of these things usually stand blameless before God, and the unquestioning, unqualified, and silent allegiance from Catholics and other Christians toward such worldly things is a huge problem today. We are too easily compromised and have often elevated human teachings and movements above God’s Law.

To all of this, the Lord gives rebuke and reminds us that His Law must the standard by which every other thing is judged. A Christian should see everything by the Light of God’s Law, exposing error and evil, approving goodness and truth wherever they are found. Nothing has priority over what God teaches.

In the end it is a question of what and whom we love more: God and His Law, or this world and its ways of sin and compromise.

IV. The PLACE of the Law – The Lord goes on to indicate that our fundamental problem can be that the Law of God is not in our heart. He warns that the heart, since it is the locus of human decision and action, must be the place of His Law for us. The Lord says, Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.

Hence there is the need to have God’s law in our heart. It is not enough to have a cursory and intellectual awareness of God’s Law. The Law must drop the 15 inches from the intellect to the heart.

And what is the human heart? While there ambiguities in the biblical text distinguishing mind and heart, this much is clear: the heart is the deepest part of the human person, the place where we are alone with our thoughts and deliberations. The heart is the place where we discern, ponder, and ultimately decide. The heart is “where we live.” It is in this deepest part of ourselves that the Law of God must find a home.

Jesus makes it clear that it is from the deep heart of the individual that come forth the behaviors that determine our character and our destiny. It is here that the Law of God must find a home. And it will only find a deep home here through prayer and meditation; through the careful, persistent, and thoughtful reading of God’s revealed truth, coupled with gratitude and love of God.

It is no mistake that the summary of God’s Law is simply, “Love the Lord the your God with all your heart and your neighbor as your very self.” For it is only love that unlocks the door of our heart. And in loving God we begin to love what and whom He loves. To love God is to love His Law. Scripture says,

  • My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times (Ps 119:20).
  • Your statutes are my delight; they are my counselors (Ps 119:24 24).
  • The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold (Ps 119:72).
  • For I love your commands more than gold, however fine (Ps 119:127).
  • I open my mouth and sigh, longing for your commands (Ps 119:131).

Yes, in the end, the Law comes from Love, the God of Love, who is Love. And thus it is love that unlocks the Law, love that makes us realize that the Law is a gift of God’s love. He gives us His law in order to protect us, precisely guide us, and heal us. Thus He asks us to make His Law a wholehearted priority.

Love the Law and come to experience the Love that the Law is.

This song says,

We need to hear from you
We need a word from you
If we don’t hear from you
What will we do?
Wanting you more each day
Show us your perfect way
There is no other way
That we can live

Destruction is now is now in view
Seems the world has forgotten all about you
Children are crying and people are dying
They’re lost without you, so lost without you
But you said if we seek
Lord if we seek your face
And turn from our wicked, our wicked ways
You promised to heal our land
Father you can!