Archive for the ‘Catholic Teaching’ Category

The Absurdity and Danger of Gender Theory

Wednesday, November 4th, 2015

Recent news has once again brought to the forefront the issue of “transgender” people.

This phenomenon is based on something called “gender theory”. The whole idea of “gender theory” is, in my opinion, so patently absurd that it is actually hard for me to accept that anyone could possibly believe it. The theory is that “gender” is not determined by one’s biological sex, but is a separate matter that is defined according to the subjective desires of an individual. To them, one’s biological sex is a matter that is “assigned” at birth, and has no intrinsic connection with one’s sexual identity.

This is an echo of an ancient philosophical, scientific and anthropological error of dualism, which separates the body from one’s mind or soul. It rests on the proposition that one’s real essence is separate from, and merely resides in a physical shell, which can thus be used or manipulated however one wants.  This denies the integrity of mind and body, and soul and body, and makes a person’s identity something that can be determined independent of biological reality. This error — which was also an ancient Christian heresy of Gnosticism — continues to pop up in different forms, and the latest is “gender theory”.

It is a dehumanizing point of view, because it denies the logical and scientifically clear understanding that biological sexual difference is essential to human nature. Sexual difference has enormous significance for our biochemistry, physical structure (not just our reproductive system, our brains too), behavior, and psychology.  This is also at the heart of Christian anthropology, which recognizes the inherent complementarity of the sexes, and their dignity as creatures made in the image of God.

This is a critical matter in our modern world, and not just because of arguments about who can use which bathroom. It goes directly to the very heart of human nature, and errors about that key question can have disastrous effects on morals and on society.  The separation of mind from body inevitably leads to the misuse of the body, and even of nature in general.

Several years ago, Pope Benedict addressed this point definitively in his annual address to the Curia — what you might call his “State of the Church and the World Address”. His comments are worth quoting at length (my emphasis is added in bold):

[T]he question of the family is not just about a particular social construct, but about man himself – about what he is and what it takes to be authentically human

The Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, has shown in a very detailed and profoundly moving study that the attack we are currently experiencing on the true structure of the family, made up of father, mother, and child, goes much deeper. While up to now we regarded a false understanding of the nature of human freedom as one cause of the crisis of the family, it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question. He quotes the famous saying of Simone de Beauvoir: “one is not born a woman, one becomes so” (on ne naît pas femme, on le devient). These words lay the foundation for what is put forward today under the term “gender” as a new philosophy of sexuality. According to this philosophy, sex is no longer a given element of nature, that man has to accept and personally make sense of: it is a social role that we choose for ourselves, while in the past it was chosen for us by society.

The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious. People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves. According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed. The words of the creation account: “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27) no longer apply. No, what applies now is this: it was not God who created them male and female – hitherto society did this, now we decide for ourselves.

Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist. Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will. The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned. From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be. Man and woman in their created state as complementary versions of what it means to be human are disputed.

But if there is no pre-ordained duality of man and woman in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation. Likewise, the child has lost the place he had occupied hitherto and the dignity pertaining to him. Bernheim shows that now, perforce, from being a subject of rights, the child has become an object to which people have a right and which they have a right to obtain. When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being. The defence of the family is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man.

The Holy Father got right to the center of the question — the debate is, at its heart, about the nature of the human person. It is in the end a question about “who created me”. The modernist approach is to create myself in my own image and likeness, making myself into my own little god, answerable to no objective or higher truth.

We’re already at least fifty years into a society-wide experiment that denies the true purpose of sexuality, and we are now moving into an unknown territory with the denial of the nature of the human person.  We’ve seen the destructive results of this experiment all around us, and can only wonder about where “gender theory” will lead us and our descendants.


Thursday, October 29th, 2015

I’ve just finished reading Fr. Walter Ciszec’s amazing account of his years as a prisoner in the Soviet Union, With God in Russia.

For those who are not familiar with the story, Fr. Ciszek was a Jesuit, and was sent into Poland in the late 1930’s, with a dream of someday ministering to Catholics in Russia.  After Russia conquered the eastern part of Poland, he went into the Soviet Union to begin fulfilling his dream.  Unfortunately, after a short while, he was arrested as a spy, and then spent the next fifteen years in captivity first in the notorious Lubyanka prison, then in the labor camps of the Gulag.  He was tortured, harassed, forbidden to communicate with his family for twenty years, subjected to harsh punishments, and treated as a slave at hard labor.

But throughout it all, Fr. Ciszek never lost his faith and his trust in the Providence of God’s holy will.  Every chance he got, he celebrated Mass, heard confessions, baptized, married, and counseled the people he lived with — and was frequently punished by the Communists for doing so.  His story is a profound testament to faith, and I strongly urge people to read both With God in Russia and his magnificent spiritual memoir, He Leadeth Me. 

Throughout his memoir, Fr. Ciszek repeatedly writes about hunger.  Food was very scarce in the prison and the Gulag, and even after he was released, in the Siberian towns where he was living.  The prisoners constantly thought about food, schemed to get food, and even fought over food.  Deep physical hunger was a daily reality for these men, and it was rarely, if ever, fully satisfied.

But Fr. Ciszek also encountered another hunger — for the sacraments, for Mass, and especially for the Eucharist.  Religious practices were systematically suppressed in Soviet Russia, and the people rarely had the chance to worship and receive the sacraments.  At one point, Fr. Ciszek wasn’t able to celebrate Mass for over five years, until he finally encountered another priest in the Gulag:

… he asked me if I wanted to say Mass.  I was overwhelmed! … my joy at being able to celebrate Mass again cannot be described… I heard confessions regularly and, from time to time, was even able to distribute Communion secretly after I’d said Mass.  The experience gave me new strength.  I could function as a priest again, and I thanked God daily for the opportunity to work among this hidden flock, consoling and comforting men who had thought themselves beyond His grace.

I was reading this during the Synod of Bishops, which was meeting to discuss the challenges and pastoral needs of families.  Here in America, the awful media coverage of the Synod was dominated by their obsession with two issues — whether divorced people who enter into a civil marriage can receive Communion, and how to include homosexual people in the life of the Church.

Considering these issues, I couldn’t help but think of Fr. Ciszek’s experience of hunger that so rarely was satisfied.  These issues present hard questions, because they must be confronted within the very clear and unchangeable moral teaching of the Church and of Christ himself that all sexual activity outside of a valid marriage is immoral (see Mt 5:32, and Mk 7:20-23).

Yet they must be confronted.  There is a sizable number of people who hunger for the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.  Many of them have been led to believe that they may even be beyond God’s grace.   Too often, I take my daily access to Confession and Communion for granted, and can’t conceive of the hunger that must be in my brothers’ and sisters’ hearts.  I hope and pray that our bishops and the Holy Father can find an answer.

I think of the story of Jesus encountering the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4).  Jesus confronted her plainly but gently with the fact that she was living in an immoral relationship, with a man who was not her true husband.  And he spoke to her of the living water and the true food that all of us desire — His own body and blood.  This is a powerful story of Christ’s willingness to encounter and accompany the Samaritan woman — an outcast in the eyes of the Jews — while at the same time calling her to transform her life in accordance with God’s will.

There are no easy answers.  Chastity is a virtue that all must live, but it is very hard for many of us.  And the hunger in our hearts continually yearns to be satisfied.

The Mission is Always Outwards

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s redefinition of marriage, there has been much introspection among the faithful about the way forward on marriage, religious liberty, and the role of faith in the public square.  Perhaps because we’ve been fighting this battle in New York for so long, these are familiar discussions to us, and I’ve written about them before.

From what I’ve seen so far, there are many calls to civil disobedience, although very few people have actually engaged the question of how that will be done and how extensive it will have to be (which will be the subject of a future post here).  Others have called for what some are terming a “Benedict Option”, modeled after the founder of the great monastic order, in which a groups of the faithful draw away from the general society in hopes of laying the seeds of reforming it.   Others emphasize the inward path of conversion of our own hearts, so that in our private lives, we are good witnesses to our faith.  Some have even advocated for shaking the dust of the world from our feet and leaving it on the path to its own destruction.

None of these is an adequate answer to the situation we find ourselves in.  Surely, we need to come together with like-minded people, to strengthen our faith communities and provide mutual support.  Our lives are always in need of conversion, and the best teachers of the truth are always those who witness to it in their everyday lives.  We undoubtedly will have to resist unjust laws, and bear the consequences.  All of that has merit, and each of us will have to find the path that the Holy Spirit is calling them to.

But in searching for our plan of action, we have to make sure that we don’t keep our focus only on ourselves.  If we do that, we will lose sight of a crucial point. In the Great Commission (Mt. 28:19-20), Our Lord gave the Church a very clear mission to the world:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.

The mission of the Church is never to pull away from humanity and turn inward, nor is it meant to be in a state of defensive warfare with the forces of power in the world.  We are not meant to practice our faith only in our private lives, indifferent to the state of society.  Pope Francis said it very well in The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium):

… no one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life, without concern for the soundness of civil institutions, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society. Who would claim to lock up in a church and silence the message of Saint Francis of Assisi or Blessed Teresa of Calcutta? They themselves would have found this unacceptable. An authentic faith – which is never comfortable or completely personal – always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better that we found it. We love this magnificent planet on which God has put us, and we love the human family which dwells here, with all its tragedies and struggles, its hopes and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses. The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters. If indeed “the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics”, the Church “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice”. All Christians, their pastors included, are called to show concern for the building of a better world. This is essential, for the Church’s social thought is primarily positive: it offers proposals, it works for change and in this sense it constantly points to the hope born of the loving heart of Jesus Christ.  (183)

These are difficult times, similar to those experienced by the Church in many prior ages, and in many places in our own time.  But we should always remember that the mission of the Church — and each one of us — is always to change the world, to transform it in light of the joy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Our mission is outside.

A Return to the Original Plan for Creation

Saturday, June 20th, 2015

“From the beginning, it was not so” (Matthew 19:8).  With those words in response to a question about marriage and divorce, Jesus recalled to our attention that the world has not turned out as God originally intended.  But he also held out the possibility that, with the help of grace, we could return to the original plan and live as God created us.

These words immediately came to my mind as I read the Holy Father’s new encyclical, Laudato Si.  The secular media has generally portrayed it as the Pope’s “climate change encyclical”, or more accurately as his “environmental encyclical”.  But this misses the most significant point in the Holy Father’s contribution to the Church’s rich social teaching.

More than any prior Church document, Laudato Si calls us to a personal and social conversion of heart, so that we can return to God’s original plan for humanity and all creation.

This central purpose of the encyclical is evident right at the beginning, when the Holy Father points out that the harms to our material world come from the sin in our hearts.  And he notes that we have forgotten the fundamental truth that we are an intrinsic part of creation, formed from the “dust of the ground” (Gen 2:7), and that our lives depend on the material bounty of the Earth.  This is evident to us, not just from divine revelation, but by a reasoned contemplation of nature itself.

The theme of returning to God’s original plan is then woven throughout the encyclical.  Again and again, Pope Francis comes back to the idea that the troubles of our world are the result of our sinfulness, particularly our loss of a sense of the universal moral law and the abuse of our freedom.  We see this in the underlying causes of environmental and economic exploitation and degradation —  a utilitarian and technocratic way of treating each other and the absence of solidarity between people.

All these problems rest on a faulty understanding of the nature of the human person, which the Holy Father analyzes with great care and detail.  Although he does not use this phrase, Pope Francis sees clearly that our modern world considers humanity to be “homo economicus” — a being whose entire existence is determined by self-interested material needs and pursuits, centered only upon themselves.   In fact, much of the criticism of the encyclical that we have seen from conservatives rests on this very assumption.  The Holy Father calls this an “excessive anthropocentrism”, a failure to understand our true place in this world, particularly our interlocking relationships with creation, or fellow beings, and our Creator.

It is in his discussion of these relationships that we see most clearly the Holy Father’s true Christian anthropology, and his perception that God’s original plan is the antidote to our modern world’s problems.  In Chapter Two of the encyclical, Pope Francis sets forth an extended exegesis of the Scriptural passages that reveal God’s intentions for creation.  The key passage, paragraph 66, is so important that it needs to be quoted in its entirety:

The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself.  According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19). It is significant that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture. Saint Bonaventure held that, through universal reconciliation with every creature, Saint Francis in some way returned to the state of original innocence.[40] This is a far cry from our situation today, where sin is manifest in all its destructive power in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and attacks on nature.

Later, in a very profound passage, Pope Francis explores how the nature of creation reflects the image of the Trinity itself.  He cites St. Bonaventure, one of St. Francis of Assisi’s greatest followers, saying:

The Franciscan saint teaches us that each creature bears in itself a specifically Trinitarian structure, so real that it could be readily contemplated if only the human gaze were not so partial, dark and fragile. In this way, he points out to us the challenge of trying to read reality in a Trinitarian key….  The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures. In this way, they make their own that trinitarian dynamism which God imprinted in them when they were created. Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity.

It is certainly important to view Laudato Si as a document intended to address the environmental and social problems of our day.  But I believe that its true significance will only be known when we begin to absorb the Holy Father’s extraordinary treatment of Christian anthropology.  This encyclical is a call to all of us to try to recapture the remnants of God’s original plan for humanity, so that we can live as God intended, in peace and harmony with all creation.

“From the beginning, it was not so”.

God Doesn’t Accept Me

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

One of the things we hear over and over again is how the Church needs to be more welcoming of those who are in irregular situations — immigrants, single parent and blended families, divorced people, and homosexual people. That is absolutely correct. The Gospel is for everyone, the call to unity with Jesus is universal, and the Church is the ark of salvation for all humanity.

The problem comes when the call to be welcoming becomes a demand for acceptance.

Here’s the problem. God doesn’t accept me,  at least not as I am — a sinner. He wants me to change.  He wants me to reject my sins, to turn to him in repentance, and to live my life differently, according to his will and not by my disordered appetites.

The Christian life is not about acceptance, it’s all about conversion.  This is a fundamental truth of our faith. The very first call of Jesus himself was to repentance (Mk 1:15). His way was prepared by the great John the Baptist, whose entire mission was a call to repentence. He was preceded by the prophets, whose message was always to turn away from sin and return to God in contrition.

We are reminded of this when we ask for forgiveness at Mass, when we say the Our Father (“forgive us our trespasses…”) and the Hail Mary (“pray for us sinners…”).  We get the most vivid reminder on Ash Wednesday, when we are told to “repent and believe in the Gospel”.  Perhaps we have lost sight of this.  Perhaps we’ve been too busy singing bland empty stuff like “All Are Welcome” that we’ve forgotten the essential message of great hymns like the Attende Domine.

This was called to my mind by a propaganda video I recently saw, put out by a supposedly Catholic parish, trumpeting their ministry to homosexual persons.  It was very glossy, super professional, and totally misguided and dangerous.  The video was all about acceptance, and nothing about conversion.  In fact, sin and repentance were never even mentioned, and the Church’s teaching on sexual morality was openly rejected in word and practice.  The entire video was, in essence, a permission slip for people to continue in their sins.

If we welcome people without calling them to conversion, then we are misleading them and doing them no favors.  We are putting their souls, and our own, at risk.  God does not want me to be comfortable in my sins.  He wants me to reject my sins, seek forgiveness, and never look back.  Of course, we have to be gentle and kind, merciful and compassionate, and above all, patient.  Sin is an addiction for most of us — it certainly is for me — and it takes time for us to go through detox and rehab.  But God’s grace will help us go through this process, and to live clean and sober.  In fact, it’s impossible for us to experience real conversion through our own strength.  We can only do this through the grace of God, experienced through the ministry of other recovering sinners and dispensed through the Sacraments.

The Christian life is not easy.  It is difficult to lead a life of holiness and be saints.  But we’ll never get close to that goal if we’re looking for mere acceptance.  We have to acknowledge and renounce our sins, and turn to God for healing.

Please, God, don’t accept me.  Change me.

The Way Forward on Marriage and Family

Friday, October 24th, 2014

The dust has now settled a bit after the tumultuous Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family.  Viewed from afar, the two-week meeting of bishops was filled with fascinating stories, from allegations of internal intrigue to the emergence of the African bishops as major players in the universal Church.  Western news sources, of course, fixated on their favorite issues — homosexual and divorced couples — and treated the deliberative assembly as if it were an American political convention (or a mixed-martial arts match).

Since the issue at hand — the health and care of the family — is so important to me, I thought it would be worth adding a few reflections of my own about what has happened.

The first thing I would note is that I have virtually no interest in the internal politics of the Vatican and the episcopacy, and I think it’s probably unhealthy for people to focus on such things.  I’ve had a limited view into the engine room of the barque of Peter for 20 years now (to use Ronald Knox’s phrase), and if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that fretting about all these kinds of things accomplishes nothing for the state of my soul or to advance the Kingdom of God.

Of course, it’s still frustrating to watch the internal operations of the Church in action.   But I just don’t see that I can do anything worthwhile about it, beyond praying that the bishops and the Holy See (particularly the press office) someday become acquainted with the notion of message discipline.

As far as the substance of the Synod, it seems clear to me that the Holy Father has a pastoral agenda that he intends to implement to lead the Church.  It’s laid out in the Aparecida document (issued by the Latin American bishops in 2007, which the Holy Father helped write when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires) and his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.  It’s a renewed focus on evangelization and outreach, particularly to those who are marginalized and alienated, with an emphasis on the basic proclamation of the Gospel as a source of meaning and hope.  The bishops as a body are generally on board with that agenda.

In the context of the specific topic of the Extraordinary Synod, I think that it may prove to be a significant turning point for Church, and that it will help the bishops to focus on responding to the real problems with the family and marriage.  Instead of getting bogged down on the “hot topics” that the Western media is obsessed with, I hope that the bishops will now be able to recognize the real crisis in marriage — under the baneful influence of moral relativism and gender and sexual liberation ideology, as well as the sinful human tendency to hedonism, society has lost a notion of the importance of authentic marriage, and why it should be encouraged and supported.  I don’t know what the pastoral strategy will ultimately be in response to this, or how the bishops will respond to the special cases of divorced people, or those living in same-sex relationships.  But if they can keep their eye on the ball of how to preach the truth about marriage, and work to strengthen actual marriages, I think they’ll be on the right track.

So for me, the challenge is to prayerfully assent to the will of the Church, as expressed by Her hierarchy, to be obedient to my superiors, and not to be too distracted by speculation and second-guessing. Psalm 131 is wonderfully consoling to me in this regard.  In the meantime, I have to continue the apostolic work that God has given me, and strive to develop the virtues necessary for that work, trusting that God’s providence is somehow guiding it, and guiding the Church as a whole.

Tone and Substance

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

There has already been a great deal of controversy in the Catholic blogosphere over the document released on October 13 by the Extraordinary Synod on the Family.  The Relatio, as it is technically called, is an interim document that essentially is a summary of the discussion so far by the bishops at the Synod, and a prelude of the next phase of the discussion.  It bears no doctrinal weight at all.  It’s like a working early draft of what will be discussed at the regular Synod of Bishops in 2015, and that eventually may form a part of an apostolic exhortation to be issued by the pope in 2016.

Much of the controversy has centered on the alleged change of tone in the document regarding homosexual persons.  And, admittedly, the document says some startling things about the proper attitude we should have towards our homosexual brethren, such as:

The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies… must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.

Or this:

These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

Or even this:

Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

Scandalous abandonment of the traditional Catholic condemnation of homosexuals, right? How could they have forgotten to say this:

The Church furthermore affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman.

Well, actually, the first three passages aren’t from the supposedly-liberal/radical Relatio at all — they’re direct quotations from the allegedly arch-conservative Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 2358 and 2359, issued by Pope John Paul II and written under the direct guidance of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict XVI).  Only the last passage is from the new Relatio.  

Maybe it’s not such a ground-breaking ecclesiastical earthquake, after all.  The fact of the matter is that the Relatio reflects a mindset among the bishops that is very much in keeping with the Catechism, and that is — or at least should be — old hat among Catholics.  While we cannot accept the morality of any sexual sin or the validity of same-sex “marriages”, we still have to relate to homosexual persons as people made in the image and likeness of God, subject to the same sad legacy of concupiscence (i.e., “disordered inclinations”) as all of us, but who are loved by God and should be loved by us.

That’s nothing new in Catholicism, even if we have sadly failed to make it clear in our public statements.  I am as guilty of this as anyone.

There are some rather striking passages in the Relatio, in which the bishops note the existence of positive elements in imperfect relationships (such as cohabitation of men and women, and in same-sex unions).  In my mind, this is a crucial hint as to the pastoral strategy that our bishops — and most likely the Holy Father — are leading us towards.  It will not involve the slightest adjustment of doctrine, but it is indeed a change in tone and emphasis.

To get this, we need to think long and carefully about what, to me, is the most interesting phrase in the Relatio.  It is a very striking statement about the mission of the Church:

Following the expansive gaze of Christ, whose light illuminates every man (cf. Jn 1,9; cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22), the Church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings.

The gaze of Christ is one of invitation, which calls us to a response, which has consequences for how we live.  But the love comes first, and that’s what will attract people to the Lord.

Encounter and Evangelization

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

In this time of rapidly shifting cultural values — usually not for the better — the Church and Catholics are struggling to find the right way to proclaim the Gospel and live according to our faith.  The public witness of the Church and Catholics is becoming increasingly difficult, as our government and secularized culture becomes more hostile to us.  Each new day seems to bring a new challenge, and everyday Catholics are confused, uncertain, and frequently upset.

I think that in times like these, it’s crucial to make sure that we remind ourselves of the fundamentals.

The entire purpose of the Church is not to decide who can attend what dinner, or who can be part of a parade. The mission of the Church is to bring people into a loving encounter with Jesus Christ. That means we have to bring people to the real Jesus, and the model for this is the story with the woman caught in adultery (John 8:2-11).

That meeting involved two things — compassion and conversion. Both are essential, and can never be separated. The woman was treated with compassion and mercy by Jesus, and thus was open to his call to conversion. If we fail to present both aspects of the encounter, we are lying to people and presenting a false Jesus — he’s not just about mercy, and he’s not only about conversion (and he’s never about condemnation). The real Jesus simultaneously says “I love you even when you’ve sinned”, and “come, follow me”.

I think our Holy Father and our own Archbishop have realized that there are significant impediments in our culture to hearing the Gospel message, and thus people are unwilling to come to meet Jesus.  In the minds of all too many people, we are not seen as merciful and compassionate, but judgmental and condemnatory.  In response, our leaders have decided that we have to emphasize the message of mercy, so that people will be more open to hearing the message of conversion. In his closing remarks to the young men and women who attended World Youth Day in Rio, Pope Francis said this:

Every one of you, each in his or her own way, was a means enabling thousands of young people to “prepare the way” to meet Jesus. And this is the most beautiful service we can give as missionary disciples. To prepare the way so that all people may know, meet and love the Lord.

This is the task of the New Evangelization, and of the Church.  We have to make sure that when people encounter us, they’re encountering Christ, and feel both his compassion and his call to conversion.  When they see his face in our face, we will be fulfilling our mission.