Good News, Bad News

In a German television news segment just before Christmas, it was reported that the portion of the German population who called themselves religious stood at 70%. Another 18% within that considered themselves, "deeply religious," a definite highpoint within the last twenty-five years. [1] Only the "deeply religious," however, consider themselves churchgoing. When asked by a reporter why only 18% attend church, a pastor replied that for too long, the Lutheran and Roman Catholic Churches have spent too much time talking about personal morality instead of preaching the Gospel. Now was the time, he continued, for the Churches to take advantage of the religious sentiment and connect it to the Good News. In our own country, a recent UCLA study finds that students’ level of religiosity, defined as praying and churchgoing, decreases dramatically between freshman and junior year of college, while the number of students who consider themselves spiritual increases.[2] Moreover, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that although 31.4% of all Americans were raised Catholic, only 23.9% of adults still consider themselves to be Catholic; indeed, 10% or 30 million of all Americans are former Catholics.[3] I wonder whether the German pastor’s conclusions about the situation in his country can be applied to our own. Do we also spend too much time preaching personal morality instead of proclaiming the Gospel in its magnificent fullness? The central truth of Christianity is that we are redeemed sinners. Christ has poured out his blood for the salvation of the human race. Saint Paul untiringly reminds us of this fact in all his letters, especially Romans. Throughout the four Gospels, Jesus always accentuates and demonstrates his forgiving and redeeming love to the sinner; indeed, those who consider themselves morally upright have the roughest time with the Lord. The remarkable part of Christ’s vocation to those who are outcast both socially and morally is that once they have been touched by the love of Christ, they love God back and everyone in between as well. Love engenders higher standards of morality than legislation does. Saint Paul’s life furnishes a good example. He encounters Christ on the road to Damascus, and he ceases to persecute the Jewish Christians while reaching out to them and the Gentiles besides. So, whence this turn to ethical and moral rectitude as the defining point of the Church? I think it arises because of the human proclivity to control. We like to measure the degree of control by quantifying our experiences. Consequently, we find measure ourselves and accomplishments against a variety of standards, be it a diet, test score, or income. Love, however, cannot be quantified. And if it cannot be quantified, it becomes sloppy, and if it is sloppy, it is out of human control, and all our efforts in this area come to grief. And it makes no difference whether one is Protestant, Orthodox, or Catholic; each church has its own version of human control, though perhaps Catholics may be better organized at implementing it. In all cases, the results are just as deadly to a faith life, particularly when sin, or even what is perceived as sin, is used as an instrument of control. For example, should natural family planning, the fidelity of Catholic politicians, or civil marriage legislation ever have to be the Sunday homily? Doing so runs Pall Mall over the liturgical cycle of readings, which in their weekly unfolding proclaim the narrative of salvation history. Which is more important? Engendering the love of God among the praying People of God, or building a false sense of security for one group at the expense of another? Moreover, preaching on topics related to personal morality and others like them never convinces anyone of the speaker’s position. At most, it guarantees to anger and alienate a good number of people in the pews to the point of sending them out the door, never to return. Eventually, these discourses become a bishop’s or priest’s personal rant, a corrosive white noise that further erodes the Church’s ability to teach with authority. Wag a finger constantly in front of peoples’ faces, and someone will break it off. Am I alone in thinking that our Church is both following and contributing to what pundits have called the "fear factor" being played out in our national politics? Although the Department of Homeland Security is ever constant in reminding us, as the announcement goes in every major airport every fifteen minutes, "the terrorist threat is orange," I am not so sure what Catholics are supposed to be afraid of. The divorced and remarried? Couples who don’t practice rhythm? Gays and Lesbians with partners? "Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32). And for those of us who get anxious when faced with a variety of hells life sometimes deals us, let us keep Paul’s words at the forefront, "If God is for us, who is against us" (Rom 8:31) To be sure, we live in our incarnational faith by maintaining an eschatological focus: The Father’s only begotten son took on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, who will come again to judge the living and the dead. What we do in this life and on this earth matters. A life of faith in the love of God demands actions which correspond to that love. This love is the reason the Church emphasizes both personal morality and social justice. It is not the ends that I dispute; it is the means. If sin or fear of sin is, or appears to be the Church’s modus operandi, we deny the saving grace of Christ. When that happens, our life in the Body of Christ becomes a sham. Let me make a few proposals to back up what the German pastor observes. As a Church, let us assume that everyone wants to be good, do good, and do it well. Let our point of departure be that most people sin from weakness and not from malice. Let us then realize that the people most in need of conversion are we ourselves. The bad news is that everyone is a sinner; the good news is that everyone is a redeemed sinner through Christ. Then, let us listen to each other’s stories. Those who speak with power and authority should listen as well. Let us acknowledge that life is not easy or perfect. What we consider sinful may be the best a person can do in the daily circumstances of life; given an opportunity to change, he or she will. Christ did not condemn, and neither should any of us. Maybe an image will help here. They say that on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, a person can see, hear, and buy anything he or she wants. Fine and respectable restaurants stand side by side with jazz clubs and strip joints. There are straight bars and Gay bars. A smattering of Catholic chapels and voodoo fortune parlors. And walking up and down, taking it all in are natives and tourists, high life and low life alike. If it is night, and you look south at the corner of Bourbon and Orleans, you will see the back of Saint Louis Cathedral. Superimposed on that wall is a huge shadow of a spotlighted Christ with his arms outspread. He seems to be gathering in his embrace all the flotsam and jetsam of Bourbon Street, of the French Quarter, indeed, of the whole world, "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest (Matt 11:28). Let that statue and its shadow be an emblem of the Gospel. What a superb Gospel we proclaim, so let’s proclaim it. Michael Patella, OSB [1] Deutsche-Welle, "Every Fifth German Professes ’Deeply Religious’ Convictions," 17 December 2007. [2] Alexander W. Astin, "Spirituality in Higher Education: A National Study of College Students’ Search for Meaning and Purpose" Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, University of California. [3] Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
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