22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Note: Sometimes, I get an entirely homily written, and then decide I need to start again from scratch. In this case, it was because the homily felt like it was addressing a question that was not actually on my or my parishioners’ hearts. So I started again, trying better to address the spirit of the community at the moment. But there is no harm in publishing the first draft online, lest someone find some value in it, and so here it is.
As news continues to unfold about clerical sin and corruption in the Church, I am sure many of us continue to ask ourselves why we are Catholic. Now, there are two ways to ask that question. The first is “Why did I begin to be Catholic?” For most of us, that answer has to do with the fact that our parents were Catholic and chose to raise us in the Church, which is not an especially compelling or motivating answer in difficult times. The second question, though, is “Why did I continue to be Catholic?” which is a far more helpful line of thought.
See, the answers for why we continued to be Catholic, why we chose the faith for ourselves regardless of parental influence, are far more personal and powerful. For some, it was a moment of intense grace, of clear awareness of the presence of Jesus Christ in our lives. For others, it was a difficult time when the Catholic community was present and loving and helpful. For still others, it was the public witness of the Church which created a network of school and hospitals and foodbanks in its desire to serve the poor and the marginalized.
For me, it was the moral teachings of the Church. At my Catholic high school, we took Catholic morality during sophomore year, and I was deeply moved by the wisdom on display in the Church’s answer to what it means to lead a good life. Finally I was being given deep, logical reasons for choosing one path over another, reasons that were not based in the politics and feelings of the contemporary society, but reasons grounded in the assembled wisdom of humanity over scores of generations. I was particularly impressed by the prohibition against sex before marriage and the near inadmissibility of the death penalty. As an insecure fifteen-year-old, the idea that physical intimacy was so special and so personal that it should wait until life-long vows have been made to each other made perfect sense. True safe sex has little to do with STIs and everything to do with guarding each other’s hearts. And as a death penalty supporter, I was surprised when, in the course of my research project on the subject, I managed to convince myself that I was wrong and the Church was right. The fact that any innocent person had been put to death by the government, let alone the dozens who had experienced this fate, showed me very clearly that the death penalty should only be used if there is no other way to prevent a person from reoffending – which is exactly what the Catholic Church taught.
I am telling you all of this because this is exactly the prophecy of Moses in our first reading. He says “Observe [these statutes and decrees] carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations, who will hear of all these statues and say, ‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.’”
This is exactly what happened to me. I was exposed to the moral teachings of the Church, and I was convinced that the wisdom present there was truly the wisdom of God handed down and clarified through the ages.
Ever since that time I have had a voracious appetite for the teachings of the Church. In high school, in college, and then in seminary I read apologetics books, the teachings of the Popes, the Catechism, the Councils, the Code of Canon Law, and anything else that could be considered Catholic teaching. I wanted to know exactly what the Church taught, because I found that teaching to be an experience of God himself.
But all of this learning has had some adverse consequences. Some of you, for example, may have had the unhappy experience of asking me what I think about some topic related to religion. To be honest, I really do not like the phrasing of this question, and I struggle to hide that disdain. Why? Because my opinion has no power to save anyone! I do not even care what I think. What matters is what the tradition of the Church, in her generational wisdom, thinks. What do I think about such-and-such in the Mass? It doesn’t matter, let’s look at the Church’s instructions for liturgy and the Mass. What do I think about such-and-such idea about God? It doesn’t matter, let’s see what it says in the Councils and the Catechism. What do I think about such-and-such requirement for marriage or baptism? It doesn’t matter, let’s see what it says in the Code of Canon Law.
My friends, the greatest gift you can give me, both as your priest in generally but also for me specifically, is a discussion of the documents of the Church. Better, challenge me based on the documents of the Church. When someone comes up to me and says, “Father, I think the Catechism disagrees with you,” or “Father, it looks like the Church says we should do this during Mass,” I will rejoice exceedingly! I want to continue to grow in my understanding of the teachings of the Church, but that growth will be much accelerated if it is a community, rather than a personal, effort.
Now, before I became a priest, my mother enjoined me to ensure that every one of my homilies had a practical application, so what is the practical application today?
Besides the fact that I think everyone should read the teachings of the Church, I think the major lesson for today is that we should guard against being more Catholic than the Church. If the teachings of the Church reflect the wisdom of God, then we should never demand more than the Church demands.
For example, as important as the Rosary is to the Catholic tradition, nowhere does the Church ever require anyone to pray the Rosary, let alone pray it daily. But I have seen faithful people condemn fellow Catholics for not praying the Rosary. This is being more Catholic than the Church.
Or, for example, the Church requires that we abstain from meat every Friday of the year, not just during Lent, but the local bishops have the ability to modify that weekly penance. The United States bishops have given us permission to do other forms of penance on Friday instead of giving up meat, like fasting or helping the poor. So if someone were to say that the United States bishops were wrong and that we should only accept abstaining from meat as an acceptable penance, they would be more Catholic than the Church.
As a final example, the old Immaculate Conception church in Mount Vernon was purchased by a group that that has left the Catholic Church because it believes that the new Mass is not valid, that Jesus is not present when we worship in this way. And yet, the new Mass was given to us by the authority of the Church. To say otherwise is to be more Catholic than the Church.
This is exactly what Jesus is condemning the Pharisees for in the Gospel. The traditions the Pharisees are trying to impose are not required by the Law of Moses – they are admittedly helpful traditions, but traditions of men that were built up over time. The Pharisees were trying to be more Jewish than Moses, and in their zeal to enforce optional traditions, they forgot what was important.
The Church gives us her teachings like boundaries on an athletic field, inside of which we have great freedom to move and to live and to play. If the Church requires something, we should abide by that requirement. If the Church does not require something, we should never hold a fellow believer to that requirement or condemn them as not Catholic enough. And if the Church gives us an option, we should certainly feel free to discuss which is best for ourselves and our community, but we should not condemn someone who favors an option that we do not, since both are within the boundaries given to us by the Church.
My friends, the Church is greater than the sum of her parts, and her wisdom transcends any one theologian, Pope, or generation. I feel so blessed to have the depth and wisdom of the Catholic tradition at my fingertips, and I hope you will join me in plunging even deeper into the beauty of these teachings.
Update: A friend sent me this article in response. This is EXACTLY the kind of feedback and discussion that makes me leap for joy! https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/is-friday-penance-required
Another update: I ran across a different interpretation. http://canonlawmadeeasy.com/2009/03/05/are-catholics-supposed-to-abstain-from-meat-every-friday/
That is beautiful and so needed right now. We just need to make sure we don’t idealize some past when things were better. We need to move forward in our understanding and striving for holiness and that will mean something new (to us, not to God) down the road. We build on a rich and solid past which most of us would do well to explore by reading, as you suggest, the documents of the Church. Starting with Vatican II seems like a good idea – do you have any particular documents in mind? I never get tired of reading them. Thank you for sharing this.
Lumen Gentium seems especially appropriate right now, as it calls us all to holiness, while carefully exploring the role each segment of the Church plays in her overall mission.