Repent! Convert! Two Words that Need to Be Rediscovered.

080713Too many Catholics are uncomfortable using the biblical and traditional words, “Repent,” convert and conversion. To repent means to change your mind and come to a new way of living. To convert means to turn from sinful ways or erroneous teaching.

But too many Catholics, including priests are uncomfortable using words like this. We used to speak of convert classes etc. But now many prefer abstract descriptions like, “Inquiry Classes” or the even more abstract “RCIA”

Many draw back lest they seem to suggest that others are wrong, “going wrong,” need to change, or, heaven forfend, “sinful.”  Words like repent and convert more than suggest that there is right and wrong, true and false, sanctity and sinfulness, good and evil.

But the fact is, many, including us, need on-going conversion And a good number need outright conversion And a complete change of mind, heart and behavior.

Of course repentance and the call to conversion are a key biblical summons. repentance is not suggested, it is commanded, and without it we will not see the kingdom of God.

Perhaps a central reason for the embarrassment many feel at the call to repentance and conversion is that it runs a foul of a kind of  “consumer Christianity” wherein faith is reduced to using God’s grace to access blessings but not to give one’s life over to Jesus Christ in love and obedience. Consumer Christianity targets “seekers” looking for enrichment rather than disciples. The heart of discipleship is, as Jesus says, is to “Deny yourself, take up your Cross, and follow me.”

But when faith is reduced to personal enrichment, true discipleship seems obnoxious and words like repentance, conversion,  and concepts like self denial, and the cross are non-starters and rejected as negative, judgemental, and, to use consumer language, is bad marketing.

To be sure, the faith does enrich and words like repentance and conversion need not be accompanied with sour faces or with no reference to the joy of salvation. We need not act like the wild-eyed sidewalk evangelists screaming repent only as a tactic of cringing fear.

But as to the avoidance of any fear at all and the words repent and convert, nothing could be more unChrist-like, for Jesus led with the summons to repent. It was in the very opening words of his public ministry: He said, “The time is now! The kingdom of God is near! Repent, and  believe the gospel (Mark 1:15).

And why does Jesus lead with this? Because the joy and enrichment of salvation cannot be accessed except through repentance and conversion. Eternal Life cannot be accessed except through turning our back on this world and dying to it. Easter Sunday is accessed only through Good Friday.

Consumer Christianity cannot save. Repentance and conversion, even if not popular in marketing focus groups of “seeker-sensitive” mega-churches, must be recovered in the call and vocabulary of the Church. Watering down the very thing Jesus led with is no way to make true disciples.

Repent and be converted that the Gospel may fill you.

Fun but serious video I made two years ago.

On Piling On or Praying On – A Nation Reacts to the Meltdown of a Politician

We have witnessed in recent days the personal meltdown of a national politician. His private sins have come to public light, and his personal life is probably in ruins.

Disclaimer 1 – I want to say I had never heard of Congressman Anthony D. Weiner before last week. I still know nothing of his voting record, only that he is a Democrat from New York, serving in the House of Representatives here in DC. Whatever his political leanings, they are not significant for this post, because I want to talk about us, about this nation and how we behave when very personal things like this come to light. Some commentators may wish to tell me about his political views, or indicate that Democrats do this to Republicans, (they do), and that there is a double standard in the media (there probably is). But none of these is the point of my blog. The point I wish to explore is the soul of this nation, and what we do to the wounded among us.

Disclaimer 2 – Anthony Weiner has sinned. Indeed, from an objective point of view, he has sinned gravely. He has strayed from marriage vows, engaged in lewd conduct, indulged lust, likely made unwanted sexual advances, and drawn others into lust. He also lied, as do most who get caught in shameful situations. Like any sinner, like any of us sinners, he ought to repent and seek the forgiveness of God, his wife, family, and all others he hurt or offended. As to whether he should resign, I have no strong opinion. As a citizen I see no real need to demand it, unless significant civil laws were broken. But in the end, I want to be clear that I do not make light of the sins he has committed, and I preach and teach against such things regularly.

But, I want to ask about us, about our national soul in matters like this. I have grave doubts about our rush to utterly bring to ruin those who struggle with personal sins of this sort, and also matters like substance abuse.

Lets be clear, we live in a profoundly hypersexualized culture. Sex is everywhere, sexual misbehavior and promiscuity in our culture is beyond epidemic, it is beyond pandemic, it has become endemic. We casually display and treat adultery, fornication and now homosexual activity in our movies and TV sitcoms. We have normalized sex outside of marriage, and living together before marriage. We even sexualize children in our culture, as we have discussed on this blog before. Add to all this misbehavior the toll of AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, teen pregnancy, divorces, broken families, and hurt and confused children being raised in non-ideal settings in ever larger numbers.

And Internet pornography is a huge, utterly huge problem in our culture. Ever larger numbers of Americans not only look at it regularly, but many are also powerfully addicted to it. And the addiction is addiction in the worse sense, for they not only compulsively view it, but need more and more of the stuff, to satisfy the longing. And what is viewed must become edgier and edgier to “turn them on.” It’s big business. The pornography industry has larger revenues than Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, Apple and Netflix combined. According to compiled numbers from respected news and research organizations, every second, $3,075.64 is being spent on pornography. More on the truly staggering Internet porn numbers here: Internet Pornography Statistics.

As a culture we have become very ill, sexually speaking.

All of this makes the piling on when a public figure “falls from grace” quite astonishing. It is very true that Congressman Weiner has a problem and has done something that is very wrong. But the fact is also true that WE have a problem as a culture. Our leaders are drawn from our ranks and reflect us. In a culture sexually confused, debased and out of control, we will see our leaders reflect our collective ills. Every now and then, it would seem that we don’t like what we see in the mirror, and we go into attack and destroy mode.

It is a common trait that individuals will often be most annoyed by people who subconsciously remind them of themselves. If this is true at the individual level, it may well also be true at the collective level. And this may explain our strange need to pile on when someone has done something sexually shameful. Deep down inside, most people know, despite all the rationalizations and defenses our culture presents for its sexual “liberation,” that what we are doing, overlooking , or celebrating, is wrong. Yes, we know, deep down, underneath all the “stinking thinking” that fornication, adultery, pornography, immodesty, lewd conduct, and homosexual activity is wrong; we know. But we try to suppress the voice of our conscience. We smother it with hired experts, presumption, talk of liberation, and other versions of the previously mentioned stinking thinking.

Another way we try to assuage our guilt is to try and find some “poor slob” who is worse off than we are and say, “Look at that terrible person.” And for a moment we feel better.

Yet another way is to find a scape goat. In the Old Testament, on the Feast of Yom Kippur, two goats were designated to carry the guilt of Israel. One was slaughtered and offered in sacrifice. The other, the “scape goat,” was driven into the desert in order to carry away the guilt of the people. The scape goat bore the sin of the people. And this bespeaks not only a religious ceremony, but also a recognition by God that we often need something to focus our sin on, and ceremoniously drive it away. Other forms of this are writing one’s sins on a paper then burning it, or an addict smashing a liquor bottle in renunciation of sin.

But people are not meant to be scape goats. No where are we directed to destroy others for our sins, or drive them into the desert.

So, Congressman Weiner has done a bad thing. But, collectively we are also behaving very badly. Matters such as these are very private and ought to handled in a private manner. He has done something very shameful that has briefly come to light. As Christians we should use moment like this to reflect.

But I pray God, we who bear the name Christian are not part of the piling on, the ridicule, scorn and derision, that the wider culture is currently engaged in, and the media has rushed to cover like sharks in bloody water. There is probably not one of us, who does not have things we have done, we would prefer not come to light. We ought to be very careful before we engage in finger-pointing, and the glee that bespeaks a kind of Schadenfreude. Even if one were to conclude the Congressman does not have “our kind of politics” (and a lot of this is about politics), he is a human being who has ship-wrecked his life, and needs our prayers. So does his family, and the victims of his antics.

On a personal note, I am a priest, and I often deal with people who have done some pretty sinful and painful things, people who have made a ship-wreck of their life. And while the Church must clearly and prophetically speak against sin and injustice, she must also remain a hospital where sinners find relief, treatment and mercy. It is not unlike doctors, who night and day cry out against smoking, but must still treat patients who come to them with pulmonary problems and cancers related to smoking, now or in the past. Sinners (all of us) need the truth, but they also need compassion, love, and mercy, along with treatment. This is the Christian way, and as a priest I have grown to understand it more and more deeply.

In terms of sexuality, it may be that too many pulpits have often been silent about the serious nature of these sorts of sins. But I’ll say, not mine. Yet when some one comes to my door (or confessional) after a shameful fall, I am called to show them mercy and give encouragement, so they can start again, and rebuild their lives, often shattered.

Jesus said to the adulterous woman: I do not condemn you, Go now and leave your life of sin (John 8:11). But to this sinful and adulterous generation (cf Mk 8:38) the Lord is more pointed: If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her (Jn 8:7).

I pray that none of us who bear the name Christian have stones in our hands just now. A brother among us has sinned. Will we pile on, or pray on? Someone needs our prayers. I think I know what the Lord wants. I surely know what he did and said.

Photo Credit: Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt in the Liverpool Museum

On the Connection between Greed, Theft and Sexual Immorality

Over the years, as I have taught on the matter of sexual morality, to both young people and also couples getting ready for marriage, I have noticed a pattern in the Biblical texts: sexual immorality is quite often linked or closely associated with references to greed and theft. This link has become clearer and more understandable to me over the years. For, greed is excessive desire to possess wealth or goods, it is the insatiable desire for more. This is closely linked to lust which is an inordinate desire for the pleasures of the body.

Thus the lustful, the sexually immoral and unrepentant person says, in effect: I want sexual pleasure for myself. I do not not want to pay any “price” for it by seeing it in relationship to other goods and people. I do not want to see it in relationship to the institution of marriage, or the love of a spouse,  or family, or children. I do not want commitments or responsibilities. I merely indulge in sex because I want it. All that matters is that I want it.

Many go further to accept few limits on what they want, despising norms that in any way seek to limit their access to sex, or to place it in a wider and more responsible context.

For many today, sex is simply something they want. And merely the fact that they want it makes it right. Never mind that lust and sexual immorality have had devastating effects on marriage and family, that as promiscuity has soared so have divorce rates, abortion, single parent families, children without intact families, AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, broken hearts, and the like. Never mind all this. For many, the merely the fact that they want sex makes it right and excludes any one “telling them what to do.”

And this is greed, the insatiable desire for more, or the inordinate desire for things, such that they are considered apart from wider norms that limit desires with the boundaries of what is reasonable and in service of the common good. Greed cares little for the common good, for the needs and rights of others. Greed just wants what it wants. Lust is very close to greed in that it is also and inordinate desire for bodily pleasures apart from any consideration of the needs of others or of what it just, right and reasonable.

Let’s take a look at some of the texts wherein the Scriptures seemingly connect greed and sexual immorality. Commentary by me on each of them follows in red.

1. But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people….For of this you can be sure: No sexually immoral, impure or greedy person….has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. (Eph 5:3,5)

The connection here between greed and fornication (porneia), translated here as sexual immorality,  is not spelled out. Reading the text by itself might permit the possibility that it is only coincidentally connected to sexual immorality. But as seen below there are a good number of texts that connect sexual immorality to similar notions of greed and covetousness. Hence we ought to note the connection. That the connection was not developed or explained my signal us that the early Christians saw the connection as more implicit and obvious that we moderns.

2. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. (Col 3:5)

Here the list is broadened to include lust, and all evil desires. These are connected in the text to greed, and greed in turn is equated to idolatry.

Idolatry values something or someone in a way that hinders or surpasses the love, trust and obedience we owe to God. It wants the thing, rather than God who made the thing. Through greed we excessively desire things, such as sex, money, power, creature comforts, and they take on greater importance for us than God, or what God sets forth for us to obey. Through greed these things become idols since they surpass God in importance for us. We prefer them to God, we obey our desires more than God. God can take a number and wait, I want what I want, and that is all that matters.

And for many today, and apparently when these text were written, sex is more important than God. Hence the connection to greed.

3. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. (Ex 20:17)

The 6th Commandment had already forbidden the act of adultery. But note here, how this commandment goes deeper, indicating that we are not to covet. In speaking of what it means to covet the Catechism says: The sensitive appetite leads us to desire pleasant things we do not have…These desires are good in themselves; but often they exceed the limits of reason and drive us to covet unjustly what is not ours and belongs to another or is owed to him. The tenth commandment forbids greed and the desire to amass earthly goods without limit…..When the Law says, “You shall not covet,” these words mean that we should banish our desires for whatever does not belong to us. Our thirst for another’s goods is immense, infinite, never quenched. Thus it is written: “He who loves money never has money enough.” (CCC # 2535-2536).

Hence, to covet the wife of another includes both a sexual desire for her and a greed that wants to have her.

4. For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, (Mk 7:21)

Here again note that in a verse that includes fornication and adultery, is included the word theft, referring to the unjust possession of something. The fornicator and adulterer  steals what does not belong to them. Sexual intimacy belongs to the marriage bed alone. Hence the unmarried person and adulterer take what is not theirs. Clearly antecedent to most, if not all theft, is greed.

5. For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; and that no man overreach and defraud his brother in this matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you. (1 Thes 4:3-8).

This text not only links sexual immorality to greed but also to theft, and in a wider sense injustice. For, to fail to live chastely both overreaches and defrauds.

The Greek word here translated as overreach is υπερβαινειν (huperbainein). This word means, “to go over,” to overpass certain limits, to transgress; to go too far, i. e., to go beyond what is right or due. Hence again, we can see how greed is tied into sexual immorality, for it is desire overreaching, going too far, beyond what is reasonable, due or right. The lustful person is greedy because they want what they want no matter if it is excessive or wrong. All that matters is that they want it. And this is greed.

The word translated here as “defraud” πλεονεκτει (pleonektei) is related to covetousness and greed since it emphasizes gain as the motive of fraud. Thus, the sexually immoral person defrauds others, the sexual partner, families and society as a whole. They do this by thinking more of what they want, than what is right or what it might negatively do to others. They act fraudulently for they act as though they were married when they are not, and they do this to steal the privileges of marriage.

6. Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:9-10)

Again, simply note that sexually immoral persons are numbered among or along side thieves and swindlers. They are  akin to thieves for they take what does not belong to them, and they swindle because obtain through deceit. The deceit is that they implicitly claim the status of a married person by grasping its privileges and rights,  but they have not taken up the duties of marriage.

Hence the mention of thieves and swindlers along with the sexually immoral may not be coincidental, but may imply  “birds of a feather.”

7. Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Let your manners be without covetousness, contented with such things as you have; for God has said: I will not leave you, neither will I forsake you. (Heb 13:4-5)

In other words, don’t be greedy and steal the privileges of marriage bed by adultery, premarital sex, or any indulgence of sexual pleasure outside marriage. If you are not married, it is not yours. If you are married, it is only yours with your spouse. Be content with what you have and stop being greedy or covetous.

Hence we see demonstrated a rather consistent scriptural connection between sexual immorality, greed and theft.

Sexual intimacy is a prerogative and privilege of marriage. It exists to build up marriage, to encourage recourse to marriage, and to help knit the spouses together in a fruitful love. To snatch sex away from its only proper place is to unjustly possess that which is not mine, it is theft. And scripture connects this stealing to greed and covetousness. Greed is the excessive desire to posses, beyond what is just or reasonable. If yielded to we take what is not ours, simply because we want it.

Many today claim they can do as they please in terms of sexuality and, many also boast of their sexual freedom and exploits. The entertainment media celebrates sexual freedom. But it would appear that scripture sees such sexual exploits not as liberation, but as theft and greed.

It is true some act in weakness, some fall, but are repentant. Surely God is rich in mercy for such souls as these.

But as for those who celebrate sexual immorality, they ought to consider that what they call good, God calls sin, God calls greed, God calls theft.

For those willing to see, God is waiting and God is willing. This video is a reminder of God’s saving mercy.

The Accent of Advent – Discovering our Need for a Savior

Advent is nearly over and what have we done? If we have prayed and reflected in the proper spirit of Advent then we have meditated well on our need for a savior, so that, as we celebrate his presence among us we may have great joy. Advent, to some extent lays out the bad news so that the good news of a cure will be experienced as fabulous.

One of the great problems in the Church today has been the suppression of the “bad news.”  Many in the Church prefer not to talk about sin in a direct and clear manner. If it is mentioned at all it is usually done by way of abstractions and generalities. The paradoxical result of this suppression is not a happier Church, but one which seems more lukewarm, even, in some ways, sadder. Largely gone are the religious festivals, joyful processions, and the confident and public expression of Catholic faith.

But in the end the point of Christmas is really to be the joyful “counterpoint” to sin: Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord! Advent is to set the stage for Christmas joy by reminding us of the drama of sin that threatens to destroy us. Suddenly Christ appears to cast out our ancient enemy! Today is born our SAVIOR! Christ the Lord.

Early in my priesthood I had occasion to work with a religious sister who often vigorously disagreed with my preaching. In particular it was my rather explicit mentioning of sin itself that upset her. She was in her 70s  and had grown up in what she termed a “very severe” Church. She said that she and her generation had worked hard to usher in a kinder, gentler Church;  a Church that was more consoling, encouraging, and positive. Mentioning sin reminded her of the bad old Church. But what really sent her over the edge was a book she’d read by a popular theologian of that time, Matthew Fox. The title of the book was Original Blessing  It amounted to a denial of Original Sin and presented a theory that everyone was basically good, and meant well. At least this is what Sister got out of it. (Fox has since left the Dominican Order and the Catholic Faith after his credentials to teach as a Catholic Theologian were withdrawn due to his denial of Original Sin).

“Everyone is basically good and means well? Does she really believe that?”  It seemed so crazy and naive to me. I know that there is goodness in all of us, but if we are all in such good shape why did Jesus have to save us? Each day I would bring her the newspaper and set it down before her. In every edition there was the daily fare of crime, political corruption, astonishing greed, another murder, another sexual scandal, the end of another celebrity marriage, statistics showing higher divorce rates, higher levels of teenage pregnancy, increasing dropout rates and on and on. “Sister,” I said, “If it isn’t Original Sin at work, what is it?” As you might imagine, she had a thousand different answers, any answer but the Church’s doctrinal answer.

OK, here’s the bottom line. We all need a savior! I have no doubt that there are things about most,  if not all,  of us that are fundamentally good and decent. Thank you Lord. But the bottom line is we’ve all got some “stuff” going on that isn’t good, we’ve got some “issues” that need addressing, or to use the old fashioned word: we’ve got sin. Joseph and Mary were told to “Name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sin.” (Matt 1:21).

One of the goals of Advent (at heart, a penitential season) is to meditate on our need for a savior. In daily Mass and in the Liturgy of the hours we read lengthy passages from Isaiah and the other prophets who speak boldly and bluntly about the people’s sin. Some of the passages are even humorous. Here are a few:

  1. Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth!  For the LORD has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows his master,  the donkey his owner’s manger,  but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption!  They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him. Why should you be beaten anymore?  Why do you persist in rebellion?  Your whole head is injured, your whole heart afflicted. From the sole of your foot to the top of your head  there is no soundness— only wounds and welts and open sores,  not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with oil. (Isaiah 1: 2-6)
  2. Hear this O House of Jacob, called by the name Israel, sprung from the stock of Judah. You swear by the name of the Lord and invoke the God of Israel, but without sincerity or justice….I know that you are stubborn, that you neck is like an iron sinew and you forehead is bronze! (Isaiah 48:1, 4)
  3. All of us have become like one who is unclean,  and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;  we all shrivel up like a leaf,  and like the wind our sins sweep us away.  No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you;  for you have hidden your face from us  and made us waste away because of our sins. Yet, O LORD, you are our Father.  We are the clay, you are the potter;  we are all the work of your hand…. Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! (Isaiah 64:6-8,1)

Negative or Necessary? Texts like these are not merely negative, self deprecating texts. They are truthful descriptions of the human family wounded by sin and are meant as a kind of diagnosis that will make us yearn for a cure, yearn for a savior. Any honest self assessment will reveal to all of us that we are in desperate need of a savior. Collectively the human family has been deeply wounded by Original Sin and all the “piling on” of sin we have done since. We have a fallen nature, live in a fallen world, dominated by a fallen angel.

And the problem is not just a collective one. You and I personally are sinful and need a savior. If we are honest we have to admit that we can be: selfish, egotistical, rude, insensitive, prideful, lustful, greedy, unkind and ungrateful. We can be dishonest, insincere, shallow, inconsistent, double minded and uncommitted. We can be stingy, selfish, petty, spiteful, hateful, wrathful, revengeful and just plain mean. We struggle with laziness, indifference, worldliness, lack of discipline and self control. We routinely fail to give witness to Christ and our faith. We fail to submit our will to God, to give good example, to act justly, show mercy or repent. We fail to obey God, lead a holy life, stand up for justice, speak the truth, call sinners to Christ and pray for others. Did I mention somewhere that we need a savior?

A good advent sets the stage for a joyful Christmas. Now joyful is different than sentimental. Without a deep appreciation of our desperate state, Christmas is reduced to a sentimental sort of thing: “Isn’t that sweet, the baby Jesus is so cute!” No indeed, Christmas is more! Today is born our SAVIOR, Christ the Lord! The crib leads right to the cross. Christ has come so we stand a chance! He took up our humanity to restore it and the gift that he is offering you and me this Christmas is a transformed humanity. Through the sacraments and the power of his Word Jesus sets loose a healing power that puts sinful drives to death and brings forth grace healing, peace, mercy, love, generosity, kindness, patience, chastity, self-control, serenity, a praying spirit, gratitude, confidence, countless gifts and talents, and an ultimate and complete transformation.

Deny sin, you deny the Savior.Deny the Savior and and the need for salvation and the incarnation and the cross are emptied of meaning. Hmm… looks like a soulful admission of sin is the necessary premise to rejoice this Christmas. Have you been to confession? No Advent is complete without it.

This video from West Side Story is one of the lesser known scenes. It takes up the modern attitude and refrain that everyone is basically good and that if one seems depraved it is only that he is deprived. In the end even these gang members know better. Sure they’ve have a tough life, but they are not without personal responsibility and one day they will face the judge. A savior, not a social worker is the only one who can help them on that day.

The Pope Reflects on Mystery of Iniquity and the Need for the Church to be Sober About It.

I just finished reading Pope Benedict’s Book: Light of the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald. There are so many excellent points in the book it is hard to know where to begin. I thought, perhaps over the next few weeks to occasionally present a clip from the book and make it the basis of a reflection and conversation. In my Kindle I marked a number of texts for this purpose.

There is a very helpful discussion in the book on the mystery of iniquity and the Church’s need to be sober about this fact even with, and especially in her own ranks. The matter surfaced in the discussion between Mr Seewald and the Pope about the clergy sex abuse crisis that has swept the Church, first in America, and then in Europe. Peter Seewald asks the following question:

The causes of abuse are complex. Aghast, one wonders most of all how someone who reads the Gospel every day and celebrates Holy Mass, who is constantly exposed to the sacraments and is actually supposed to be strengthened by them, can go astray in this horrible way.

And the Pope Answers:

That is a question that really touches on the mysterium  iniquitatis, the mystery of evil. One wonders also in this regard: What does someone like that think in the morning when he goes to the altar and offers the Holy Sacrifice? Does he actually go to confession? What does he say in confession? What consequences does that confession have for him? It really ought to be the major factor in extricating him from it and compelling him to amend his life. It is a mystery that someone who has pledged himself to what is holy can lose it so completely and then, indeed, can lose his origins. At his priestly ordination he must have had at least a longing for what is great and pure; otherwise he would not have made that choice. How can someone then fall so far? We do not know. But this means all the more that priests must support one another and must not lose sight of one another. That bishops are responsible for this and that we must beg the lay faithful also to help support their priests. And I see in the parishes that love for the priest grows when they recognize his weaknesses and take it upon themselves to help him in those weaknesses (Light of the World, Loc. 582-92)

While the context of their discussion was on priestly sins, one may also apply this to many circumstances. For example, how can a man who married his wife and once loved her intensely, fall so far as to be in intimacies with another woman?  What does he think as he returns home and his children run to greet him? How has he gotten to this point? How can he do this to his family? Or perhaps one can imagine that even murderous felons were once innocent children who played simple games and wept grievously if they but fell from their bike. What happened to them that they have become calloused and hardened to the point that, taking the life of another, or brutally harming them, causes them little compunction.

There is indeed a downward path or trajectory of evil,  though its intensity in some remains mysterious. But the fact is, little sins and insensitivities   lay the foundation for greater ones. As one gives way to repeated sin and fails to repent, that sin becomes custom or habit. But having descended one rung on the ladder, the next rung now seems not so far, nor the one below that. And as one descends further into the darkness the eyes adjust to an increasing dimness, such that the light above now seems quite obnoxious. And behaviors once thought shameful, even impossible to one, now seem within reach and somehow plausible. As the memory of the light fades, the once unthinkable now becomes a daily fare. The descent on the moral ladder continues, one rung at a time, and the light gradually disappears.

St Augustine put it this way: Because of a perverse will was lust made; and lust indulged in became custom; and custom not resisted became necessity (Confessions 8.5). Evil does grow, hearts do harden, intellects do grow dark, very dark. 12-Step meetings often reference the “stinking thinking” that reinforces addiction, bizarre behavior,  and makes every form of lust one’s “God-given right.”  The only way to break this cycle is honest,  frequent confession and authentic accountability to others.

Accountability – Hence the Pope rightly observes that priests must support one another and bishops must be responsible to shepherd their priests and hold them responsible and accountable for the health of their spiritual and moral life. Lay people too must not only pray for their priests but also be of active assistance. This assistance can take the form of simple encouragement, but it may also have to take the form of alerting those to whom a priest is accountable, if the matter is serious.

But here too this is not a matter only for priests. Everyone benefits from frequent, honest confession and accountability to others. I am aware of an increasing number of individuals who struggle with Internet pornography and have made the decision to be accountable to certain close and trustworthy friends. These friends closely monitor the Internet habits of the one struggling by receiving access to the computer cache, and other data made available to them via an ISPN. Accountability, along with Sacramental confession are essential components of the moral life. Otherwise, the mystery of iniquity too easily grows and overwhelms

Salutary Punishment – In the life of the Church there is also need not only for accountability but also salutary penalties which exist, not only for the good of the offender, but also to protect the common good. Here is what the Pope has to say in Light of the World:

The Archbishop of Dublin told me…..that [in Ireland] ecclesiastical penal law functioned until the late 1950s; admittedly it was not perfect—there is much to criticize about it—but nevertheless it was applied. After the mid-sixties, however, it was simply not applied any more. The prevailing mentality was that the Church must not be a Church of laws but, rather, a Church of love; she must not punish. Thus the awareness that punishment can be an act of love ceased to exist. This led to an odd darkening of the mind, even in very good people. Today we have to learn all over again that love for the sinner and love for the person who has been harmed are correctly balanced if I punish the sinner in the form that is possible and appropriate. In this respect there was in the past a change of mentality, in which the law and the need for punishment were obscured. Ultimately this also narrowed the concept of love, which in fact is not just being nice or courteous, but is found in the truth. And another component of truth is that I must punish the one who has sinned against real love.  (Light of the World, Loc  468-76)

This, of course, is a consistent problem in the Church today, also in many families, and to a certain extent is the wider society. Fraternal correction has fallen on hard times and the results are disastrous. Grievous sins often go unremarked, let alone punished. Pulpits are too often silent, pastors, teachers, educators and parents are slow to teach and correct. In many western countries the criminal justice system is quite often askew and many serious criminals are only lightly punished, and too easily walk in wider society where they can, and do harm, again, and again.

I have written here before on the biblical teaching on Fraternal Correction (http://blog.adw.org/2009/11/fraternal-correction-the-forgotten-virtue/). There is no need to repeat it all here except to emphasize as the Pope already indicates, that Fraternal Correction is ordered to love, it is a work of charity and is also listed among the spiritual works of mercy.

Note however that Pope Benedict is speaking of more than correction, he also includes salutary punishment. For correction without any punishment ever, even on the horizon, is usually ineffective. Human nature, (at least the fallen version of it), usually requires more than merely verbal warnings and rebukes. There is a place in the Christian community for punitive measures. We do not punish for its own sake but rather as a medicine for the sinner and protection of the common good.

Both Jesus and Paul go so far as to prescribe excommunication for more serious matters, if the sinner is unrepentant (cf: Matt 18:15ff, 1 Cor 5:1ff). Sadly the Church has, at least collectively speaking, been loath to use many canonical penalties, let alone excommunication. The result is that error and misbehavior often go on openly, and for decades. The result is an uncorrected sinner who then harms the faithful by bad teaching and/or example. The Pope’s words here are powerful and one would hope they indicate a change of thinking at wider levels in the Church too. Mercy has its place but love must also insist on truth, respect the common good, and the true good of the sinner.

A fabulous book and conversation with the Pope overall and must reading as soon as possible.

What Is Original Sin?

Sometimes Original Sin gets simplified into the eating of an apple. Actually an apple is not mentioned. It is fruit surely but what fruit we do not know. But what’s the big deal about eating an apple or piece of fruit? OK, maybe they shouldn’t have eaten it. But really, did an apple lead to all the pain and grief we experience today?

As you may have guessed, No, it was not an apple or fruit  per se that led to all this. What was the Original Sin, what did it consist of? Consider that Original Sin was actually of cluster of sins: pride, disobedience, ingratitude, lack of trust, and a complete disregard for the wisdom and love of God. I am struck by how the Catechism describes Original Sin:

Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of.  All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness. In that sin man preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned him. He chose himself over and against God…Seduced by the devil, he wanted to “be like God”, but “without God, before God, and not in accordance with God” (CCC #s 397-398)

Notice the cascading effect that begins with a lack of trust. How did Adam and Eve (and all of us) fail to trust God? Simply in this, God had warned them of a certain tree, the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Pure and simple he warned they stay away from it for it would bring death to their souls. Now to “know” in the Bible always means more than intellectual knowing. To “know” in the Bible means to have deep intimate and personal experience of the the thing or person known. Hence it is clear that God did not want Adam and Eve ever to have to experience the horrible reality of evil. He sought to protect them from its devastating effects. So God’s forbidding was made in protective love. We were called simply to trust God that evil is dreadful and we shouldn’t insist on knowing  that for ourselves, just trust God.

But the Devil tempted us in this sort of way:

“You can’t trust God! He is holding something back from you. Sure he gave this nice garden and all but that is just to placate you. He knows that if you eat that fruit you will become like gods and begin to rival him. No! God is trying to keep you from your true destiny, to rule and even to tell him what to do! Do not trust Him or what he is telling you. it is only to keep you down, he isn’t really good at all. Listen to me. I promise you will not die, you will become like gods!

So there it is Adam and Eve. Who are you going to trust? God who gave you everything or the Devil who has given you nothing but promises something on the other side of the sin? Who will it be?

Sadly, you know the rest of the story. And Adam and Eve’s temptation is repeated in every sin we are tempted to commit.

 “Come on” says the Devil, “God is trying to limit your freedom, keep you down and doesn’t want you to be happy! His demands are unreasonable, he is trying to take away your fun and fulfillment. Sin will make you happy. God’s way is restrictive. Do as you please. Don’t let anyone tell you what to do!”

And so often we buy into it. And are we happy? Maybe for a moment, but the misery of sin is too clear to be denied. The Devil is a liar. But what do we do when we sin? We trust him over God. In so doing the Catechism says we abuse our freedom. How? Because freedom for a Christian is “the capacity to obey God.” We are free when when are able to carry out what God says. Now the world and the Devil say that freedom is about doing whatever you please. No, not if it is sin because sin never leads to freedom, it leads to bondage. Jesus says, “Whoever sins is a slave to sin.” (Jn 8:34)  Look at the world today and try to tell me that sin leads to freedom. Look at the addiction to drugs, alcohol, sex, anger, revenge and greed and tell me that sin leads to freedom. No, sin is never freedom, it is bondage and many get so stuck in destructive behaviors that they don’t know how to stop. The video below powerfully illustrates the horror and bondage of sin, it shows its awful reality. It is not freedom at all, it is sorrow, bondage and humiliation.

In sin, we choose ourselves over God as the text from the Catechism says. We think we will become like gods, but in reality we sink lower than the animals and do things to each other and ourselves that even animals don’t do. God wants to raise us to share in his nature to be sure but we insist that we can do it ourselves. We cannot. Look at our grandiose attempts and tell me if you think we have been successful.

The following video does a pretty good job of depicting where Satan’s promises to Adam and Eve led. Watch it if you dare and remember that the Devil is a liar.

 

Satan Has Many Disguises

It would be easy if Satan came as he is often portrayed, with horns and a pitchfork. We would naturally flee this ugliness.

Alas, he often comes cloaked in beauty, in sheep’s clothing. He claims to offer us freedom and autonomy from an unreasonable God and Church, liberation from rules and being “told what to do.”  He cloaks himself in the false righteousness of being “tolerant” and “not judging others.” He exalts us by telling us we have finally come of age and can disregard the “hang-ups” and “repression” our ancestors had of sex and pleasure. He flatters us by extolling our scientific knowledge and inflates us by equating it with wisdom and moral superiority over our “primitive” fore-bearers. He reassures us by insisting we are merely the victims here, victims of biological urges, bad parenting, economic injustice, that we are not depraved, just deprived. He humors us by making us laugh at sin, making light of it in comedian’s routines, sitcoms, music and otherwise turning sin into a form of entertainment. He anesthetizes the pain of guilt and sin by sending us teachers who tickle our ears and assure us that what we know deep down to be wrong is actually fine, even virtuous. He affirms us by insisting that whenever shortcomings in us have been called to our attention it is simply unfair since other people are surely worse, that self esteem is something owed to us and others who lessen it are unkind.   He  sings us the lullaby of presumption assuring us that consequences and judgment will not be our lot and with this lullaby we drift off into a moral sleep of indifference and  false confidence.

But in the end, there is a wolf under the sheepskin. Satan is ugly. He enslaves, condemns, ridicules and ensnares. His “reassurances” bring pain and grief as the awful effects of sin unwind: hatred, fear, resentments, revenge, suffering, disease, addiction, bondage, strife, divorce, estrangement, war, insurrection, disloyalty, scorn, bitterness, depression, anxiety, depletion, poverty, loss and deep, deep sorrow.

Beware, Satan has many disguises and he seldom presents as he really is. The movie The Passion of the Christ brilliantly presented Satan in the Garden. At first there was almost a strange beauty. But a closer look revealed increasingly hideous details: cold, fixed eyes, sharp and discolored nails, sickly pale skin, suddenly androgynous qualities, and a disgusting maggot crawling in and out of the nose. An audible moan came from the audience in the theatre where I first saw it. Would that, beyond the movie, we could sense this revulsion and clarity as to the evil of Satan and his truest reality.

Here is a very powerful video on the disguises of sin:

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Praying for a Broken and Humble Heart: A Meditation on Love of the Sinful Woman (Luke 7)

The Lord links our love for him in terms of our awareness of our sin and our experiencing of having been forgiven: But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little (Luke 7:47)

I. The Pharisaical Problem – He said this in the house of a Pharisee named Simon. Now the Pharisees had reduced holiness to the observance of a rather precise and technical code of 613 precepts. Many of these were minor observances such at the purifying of jugs and cups, following a “Kosher” diet, and observing a myriad of Sabbath rules. Others were more weighty, involving fasts and prayer observances, paying tithes etc. But I hope you can see the absurdity of reducing holiness to a code of a mere 613 precepts. Jesus often excoriated the Pharisees for their intricate observances of the minute details while they neglected weightier matters of justice and failed to love others, see them as brethren or lift a finger to help them find God. Instead they were famous for simply writing off others with scorn and regarding them with contempt. Their arrogance troubled Jesus greatly.

At the heart of their self deception was the notion that they could be righteous on their own, that sin was something that did not touch them. They were “self-righteous.” That is, they considered themselves to be righteous on their own and that by simple human effort they had eradicated sin and were free of it. Again, it is hoped that you can see the absurdity of this. But notice that the delusion first involved a severely dumbed-down notion of holiness, reducing the matter to 613 rules. Then, if you try and put a little effort, presto – you’re “holy,”  righteous, and without sin.

The Sadducees, the scribes and other Temple leaders also had similar minimalist notions. A rather memorable interaction took place between Jesus and one of the Scribes in Luke 10. They were discussing the Commandment to Love God and your neighbor as yourself. In effect the Scribe, like a true lawyer, wants to minimize the whole thing and keep the commandment manageable so as Luke reports: But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”(Lk 10:29). Notice, he wanted  to justify himself. This is want is meant by the notion of self-righteousness, to be righteous by my own power. But in order to pull off the self justification he first needs to make the loving of one’s neighbor more minimal and manageable. So he enters into a negotiation of sorts with Jesus to dumb down  the whole thing. Jesus does not take the bait but goes on to tell his famous Parable of the Good Samaritan which teaches that my neighbor whom  I must love is an expansive category that leaps beyond, family, local community, even nation. But here was the Pharisaical, tendency also shared by the Sadducees, Scribes and Temple Leaders: I can be holy on my own, I can be without sin if I just follow a set of rules. If that is the case, who needs a savior? Who needs Jesus? Who needs God to save him? It is the law which saves and all I have to do is follow it in the narrowest and most restricted sense and I am sinless. Or so they thought.

II. Our Personal Participation in the Problem  – Now, before you rush to scoff at the Pharisees be careful on two counts.

1. The Pharisees were a large religious group in Israel and like any large religious group there were varying interpretations and experiences of the Pharisee philosophy. Not every one was as cartoonishly absurd in their thinking as I have described. Some were however (e.g. in Luke above, and Simon the Pharisee in today’s Gospel) and all the members of the Pharisee movement had the tendencies described due to their minimalistic notions of holiness.

2. But more importantly don’t rush to scoff because we have ourselves  have become very Pharisaical in modern times. There is a widespread tendency today to exonerate ourselves from sin or at least to diminish any notion that we are a sinner. We have done this in several ways.

First, we have been through a long period in the Church where clergy and catechists have soft-pedaled sin. Talking about sin sin was “negative” and we should be more “positive.” After all if we talk about sin too much “people might get angry or hurt and we want our parish to be a warm and welcoming community.” Or so the thinking goes.

Second, there is the tendency to evade responsibility. “I’m not responsible, my mother dropped me on my head when I was two…..I need therapy, I went to public school etc. .”  This may be true but it does not mean we have no sin.

Third, and perhaps the most Pharisaical thing we have done is to reduce holiness to “being nice.” All that matters in the end is that we’re “nice.” Go ahead and shack up, fornicate, skip Mass, dissent from any number of Biblical and Church teachings, have numerous divorces, and be unforgiving of your family members (after all that’s a “private” matter). But as long as you’re “generally a nice person” everything is OK.  At least the Pharisees had 613 rules. We have only one: “be nice.”  Now here too I do not say this of everyone. But in a very widespread way we are like the Pharisees, completely out of touch with our sinfulness and desperate need for God’s mercy. “What me a sinner? – How dare you! I am basically a good (i.e. nice) person” as though that were all that mattered.  Or so the thinking goes. And let a priest or deacon get in a pulpit and talk tough about sin to some congregations and watch the letters go off to the Bishop or the priest be called negative.

III. Our Prescribed Perspective – In today’s Gospel Jesus tells a Parable about two people who had a debt which neither could repay. Note carefully, neither could repay. That is to say, both were sinners and neither one can save them self of be righteous on their own. The debt is beyond their ability. One had a large debt, the other a smaller one. It is a true fact that some on this planet are greater sinners than others. Moral equivalency is wrong. Mother Teresa was surely more holy than Joseph Stalin. (Nevertheless, even Mother Teresa had a debt she couldn’t pay and would be the first to affirm that she was a sinner in need of God’s great mercy). Now since neither of the people in the parable  could repay they both sought mercy. Who is more grateful? Obviously the one who was forgiven the larger amount.

The paradoxical font of love – But pay attention to the way Jesus words it: “Which of them loves him [the creditor] more?” (Lk 7:42). The one who love more is the one who is forgiven more. This is why today’s dismissal of sin is so serious. In effect we deny or minimize our debt and the result is that we love God less. Notice that, while many sectors of the Church have soft-pedaled any preaching about sin and emphasized a self-esteem message, our Churches have emptied. Only 27% of Catholics go to Mass in this country. It is worse in Europe. Obviously love for God has grown cold. As we have lost touch with our debt, we have less love for  the one who alone can forgive it. We no longer seek him and we love him only tepidly and in a distant manner. Jesus says it plainly (and it would seem with sadness):  But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little (Luke 7:47)

Pray for a broken and humble heart, a heart to know the astonishing debt of our own sin. It is a paradox but it is true: we have to grasp the bad news of sin before we can rejoice in the good news of forgiveness and redemption. Before we can really love the One who alone can save us, we have to know how difficult we are to love. You and I must pray for the grace to finally have it dawn on us that “The Son of God died for me….not because I was good or nice, but because I was bad and in desperate shape.” Only when we really experience this mercy is our heart broken and humble enough to really love the Lord.  But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little (Luke 7:47)

I am mindful of an old Gospel song that says, “I really Love the Lord! You don’t know what he’s done for me! Gave me the victory. I really love the Lord!”