Evangelization isn’t getting people to fall in line—it’s getting them to fall in love

Pope Francis greets a woman in a wheelchair during his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Aug. 8. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Ours is an antinomian age. It is a time when people are “spiritual but not religious.” Young people especially are counted among the “nones” who, while believing in God, eschew the doctrines and communal bonds of traditional religion. It is a time of individualism and a distorted notion of conscience that, in practice, becomes indistinguishable from self-justification. Ours is an age in which the moral law is seen as an outdated and unreachable ideal or even as an obstacle to self-expression and self-fulfillment.

Five years ago, Pope Francis gave an interview to America and other Jesuit journals in which he warned about the inadequacies of a church that too easily becomes “obsessed” with certain moral teachings, confusing the fundamentals of the faith for a “disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” If the church does not correct this imbalance, the pope warned, “the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards.”

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Will hagan lío prove a bracing call to evangelical boldness perfectly articulated for our time and lead to a rediscovery of the liberating Gospel?

What was needed instead, Pope Francis said, was to re-emphasize the church’s missionary character. Evangelization must be more about helping people to fall in love than about convincing them to fall in line. “The most important thing,” Pope Francis said, “is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.” He continued, “It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”

He wants to shake the church—to shake us—out of complacency and a tendency to moral abstraction. The pope’s oft-repeated advice—hagan lío, or “make a mess”—should not be dismissed as a quirk of Francis’ style. It is a deliberate evangelical strategy, and it is, perhaps, a strategy perfectly tailored to our times.

But this strategy of holy disruption is also risky, especially in this secular era.

The pope routinely denounces modern-day Pharisees and doctors of the law; he warns of gnosticism and neo-pelagianism. And rightly so: These are obstacles to the Gospel. But where is there a problem of people overly committed to following the church’s moral teachings on...well, on anything? Doesn’t it seem likely, or at least possible, that the human wreckage that requires a church as field hospital comes precisely from a culture of indifference toward the church’s moral teachings?

Ours is an age in which the moral law is seen as an outdated and unreachable ideal or even as an obstacle to self-expression and self-fulfillment.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the sexual abuse scandals that once again are rocking the church. The greatest obstacle to the church’s proclamation of the Gospel today comes from the scandal of those—including cardinals, bishops and priests—who have excused in their own minds the most repulsive and criminal violations of the church’s moral law. Immorality destroys the Gospel; sin—yours and mine—is precisely what puts people in the field hospital to begin with.

Simply restating moral doctrine is obviously not the solution—as Pope Francis has pointed out, as history shows and as many of his crankier critics would do well to remember—but the church’s moral doctrines are liberating and precious. To treat them as secondary to the Gospel plays precisely into the antinomian temptation so prevalent in our time.

Will hagan lío prove a bracing call to evangelical boldness perfectly articulated for our time and lead to a rediscovery of the liberating Gospel, experienced in the mercy of Jesus Christ and proclaimed with joy in word and deed? Or will the pope’s willingness to make a mess confirm the antinomians of our age in their belief that obedience to the moral law breeds hypocrisy, not freedom, and leads to bondage rather than salvation?

In truth, I do not know. I do know that I do not sit on Peter’s chair. I also know that Pope Francis needs my prayers more than my unsolicited advice. I say this not because I suspect that Pope Francis underestimates the evil of sin and the inseparability of the moral law from the Gospel but because I look all around at the church and the world and I see that almost everyone else does, including, if I am honest, the man in the mirror.

Jesus came to bring good news to the poor. It is no accident that the first word of that good news, the very first syllable of that Gospel, is “repent.” It is a good place to start.

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Susan Liang
4 months 1 week ago

Well, perhaps a restatement is required. The choice may not be a dualistic "either-or" -- " fall in line or fall in love".

It may be that in order to "repent", or daily turn away from sin, humankind can only do so by first falling in love with the God who saves (Shema), and by that all-consuming love, be enabled by the Holy Spirit that leads and teaches, to love others enough to shun sinning -- "sinning" that is by definition harming others -- in, by, and through, the power and might of the Lord our God.

So "falling in line" becomes a choice arising wholly out of an unfathomable, Holy Spirit enabled, love for a God who is absolutely trustworthy, absolutely powerful, and absolutely inerrant. It is not an order. It is does not imply God's malice aforethought as the Serpent in the Garden suggested to Eve.

God is like no other.

It doesn't work, it's not the praxis of Jesus Christ in today's world, to compare Jesus who is God Himself to those human beings in our own histories or the history of the world, have told us for good reasons and evil, to "get in line."

God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is light-years different from a fallen humankind, to whom He offers eternal life despite humankind's rebellion as reflected in the "instinctive", reflexive repulsion and distrust human brings feel for the phrase " fall in line".

God's yoke, unlike that of sinful human beings, is light because He is Love and does Love unlike anything that which the world has imagined or seen of human actions, though it be called love.

Why else would He even deign to turn, and save, but Infinite Love?

There is no "falling in line" with God, but a willing choice God-enabled, not to harm -- empowered by the infinite power, might, and wisdom of God.

"Confession and repentance" -- a turning in the name of the love for God, from harm and harming -- occurs against this backdrop.

This is not of this earth in origin. The created is not the Creator.
Neither eye has seen nor ear heard, the glories of the one true God.

ron chandonia
4 months 1 week ago

Wow! This is exactly what has badly needed saying, and the latest scandal just makes it all the more timely. Thank you, AMERICA, for publishing it. (Frankly, I don't see how it got past Fr. Martin.)

Kara Hansen
4 months 1 week ago

I think the sexual abuse problems facing the church perfectly articulate Pope Francis’ encouragement to not be so “obsessed” with some church teachings. Many voices in the church have focused predominantly on issues associated with the culture wars in the US - abortion, contraception, traditional marriage - all while staying largely silent on the evils of abuse, the danger of power, the taking advantage of those who are vulnerable around us everyday. We lose credibility as a church when we hyper-focus on fighting so that contraceptives don’t become covered under insurance plans, but continue to have confirmed reports of the sexual abuse of minors by those within our own walls.

Tim Donovan
4 months ago

I'm fortunate that the priests at my parish are holy men who love God and people. Last Friday, a priest from my parish came to visit me at the nursing home/rehabilitation center where I live. I went to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and received forgiveness and consolation, then received the Eucharist. I believe that the great majority of priests are good, holy men. However, I'm appalled by the sexual abuse of minors and other vulnerable people by members of the clergy. When I was in high school, my senior year theology teacher who was a priest was years later found to have gotten a minor intoxicated and raped him. Fortunately, he was prosecuted, found guilty and was sentenced to a prison term. I believe that in the cases of bishops and cardinals (such as former Cardinal McCarrick) accused of sexual abuse that a council of respected laypeople should join a bishop who is beyond reproach in trying the accused in a church "court." If found guilty of the horrendously abusive and immoral behavior, he should be laicized, then turned into the police for prosecution . I agree that the Church loses credibility when our priests sexually abuse children. Pope Francis has certainly emphasized mercy. As a gay Catholic, I appreciate his compassionate attitude. However, the Pope has certainly spoken out against the violence of abortion. Pope Francis has wisely stated that "Abortion is capital punishment for the unborn." Also, the Pope has praised Blessed Pope Paul , who will be canonized as a saint in October. Finally, the Pope has upheld Church teaching that marriage is the union of one man and. one woman. I believe that the leaders of our Church, founded by Jesus, though it certainly has always had (and always will have) some immoral leaders (and as a layman I certainly include myself as someone who often sins) must proclaim the teachings of Jesus fully, even the "hard sayings."

Derrick Kourie
4 months 1 week ago

A great article that opens up a theme well worth debating. Here is my two-cents worth:

It seems to me that the fundamental question is "Fall in love with whom/what?" The traditional answer is "With Jesus who loves you and saves you." But that, in turn, provokes the question: "Saves me from what?" and the traditional answer is: "From hell fire and damnation."

That, I submit, is the turn-off point. Those who leave the church (and some of us who stay) simply do not see life as pivoted on a knife-edge, where we are constantly in danger of being lost "to hell" or saved through the shedding of the blood of Jesus. The notion of God's justice needing some kind of divine blood atonement to unlock God's mercy simply has no resonance in most of contemporary society.

It seems to me that Jesus life/death/resurrection inaugurates God's reign within / among us. His primary call is for us to collaborate with Him in building out that reign -- to be his hands and feet, so to speak. We are not primarily called to repentance in order to effect salvation (which was the message of John the Baptist). Our primary calling is to express God's work of mercy and salvation at all levels in our society in whatever way we can. Of course, we repent where we fail, but only to gather renewed energy to continue our divine calling.

The modern mind does not see itself locked in a static universe where we constantly cycle through sin, mercy, redemption, in order to reach heaven when we die. That is a medieval mindset. I don't see the Church growing again until it thoroughly confronts that fact.

Paul Hierholzer
4 months 1 week ago

Well put. I agree.

Tim Donovan
4 months ago

Although I attended Catholic school through college, and received a generally good education in the faith, I certainly don't pretend to be a theologian. For myself, I believe that I must fall in love with Jesus, who in turn loves me and saves me from sin, which if mortal and I don't repent, will lead to hell (which I believe is the external separation from the presence of God who is love).
Perhaps the "modern mind" doesn't see itself in a constant cycle of "sin, mercy, redemption in order to reach heaven" but at the risk of being medieval, I do believe, that as a very imperfect Catholic, that I should go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation for forgiveness and mercy.
Although the Church isn't a political institution (though it does properly in my view speak out on political matters with a moral dimension) as an American I am politically left-,of-center. For instance (and to not make a long, tedious recitation) ! oppose capital punishment, support stringent gun control laws, support reasonable laws and regulations to protect our environment, support war only as a last resort after all diplomatic efforts have been exhausted, and support reasonable laws to assist the millions of Americans in need. These include among others the disabled, (I'm_a retired Special Education teacher), senior citizens (I'm 56, and live in a quality nursing home with many elderly and severely disabled people), the homeless, veterans, those addicted to drugs, the mentally ill, victims of human trafficking, and battered women and abused children). However, as a matter of biology and human rights, not theology, I support the restoration of legal protection to the innocent unborn. As a gay Catholic who in past years had sex with men, I regretted my acts, and received forgiveness and consolation through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Although I have had a friend who's gay for many years, I do believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.
St. Paul wrote, " So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty f sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. " (1 Corinthians: 11: 27). Pope-emeritus Benedict, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote in his Collected Works: Volume II: " The Eucharist itself is not the Sacrament of reconciliation, but in fact it presupposes the sacrament. It is the sacrament of the reconciled, to which the Lord invites all those who have become one with Him; who certainly still remain weak sinners, but yet have given their hand to Him and have become part of His family. "

Anne Chapman
4 months ago

Agree completely.

ahlam majid
4 months 1 week ago

POS system Dubai like this post. Its very informative news. Hope you include more post.

Lisa Weber
4 months 1 week ago

The sex abuse scandals, the disregard for the church's moral teachings, and the lack of women in church leadership are all related. The Catholic church does not deal well with sexuality, mostly because it has no women to speak truths about sexuality. Humanae Vitae is one of the church's moral teachings that is widely ignored because it is not based in the reality of daily life. The philosophical musings of a 13th century monk on the subject of natural law are entirely irrelevant in a couple's decisions about contraception. When a church chooses to say something useless, it gives up its opportunity to say something wise. Sexuality is a complex subject and women need to have a voice in determining what the church says about it.

John Chuchman
4 months ago

Law is not what it's about. Try Love.

Donald Jones
4 months ago

I definitely think that love is so important. I know that no matter is you're looking for homes for sale or a church to attend that the most important part is love.

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