Yesterday’s news fairly shouts at us to consider once again one of Our Lord’s most powerful and most scandalous statements:
Every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. [Mt 10:32-34]
There is also a related incident in which Our Lord sent out his disciples to preach the Gospel with this admonition: “And if any place will not receive you and they refuse to hear you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet for a testimony against them” (Mk 6:11; cf. Mt 10:14; Lk 9:5 and 10:11; Acts 13:51).
And yet it is far more common today to hear Christians, including popes, emphasizing their effort to promote peace without ever expressing a hard saying or even a call to “Repent, and believe the Gospel.” This approach was almost overwhelmingly apparent in yesterday’s news:
Now, as I must often say these days, please do not get me wrong. I realize that all of these problems are complex, and that there are good human and Christian reasons to avoid unnecessary conflict and to seek legitimate accommodations which can minimize hostility and suffering for all, including the Catholic faithful. But surely this cannot always be the Christian approach to potential conflict, which is rooted above all in sin. And just as surely, Christians cannot content themselves with a merely worldly peace—that is, the absence of conflict at any cost, the effort to settle on the lowest common denominator, or going along to get along. Christians cannot fall into a refusal to offer the challenge of the Gospel, that is, the refusal, whenever it entails risk, to state clearly that there is no solution to human relationships apart from the acceptance of Jesus Christ the Son of God, Who has come to redeem us from our sins.
Moreover, sooner or later (or so one would think), even Catholic leaders would realize that nothing is ever accomplished through hiding our witness to Christ. I am thinking here even of the history of ecumenism—the very legitimate mutual study and discussion among disparate Christian groups in order to sincerely seek the unity for which Christ prayed just before His death. Obviously mutual respect and study to overcome differences in theological understanding are good things among those who at least claim the Christian name, but does anyone seriously think ecumenical progress has been achieved thus far without a significant lessening of the ordinary person’s sense of the importance and inviolability of the truths of the Faith, the truths taught by Jesus Christ Himself?
Let me state more clearly the problem posed even by this legitimate example of accommodational Christian action: Has not legitimate ecumenism been largely confused, at the grass roots level, with secular accommodationism? Every ecumenical gain seems to have contributed to (or at least unfortunately corresponded with) the widespread cultural loss of the sense of the Faith. For example, do not many Catholics now think little of receiving the “Eucharist” in Protestant churches in which that Eucharist remains mere bread and wine? Is not the value of fraternity often held to render the truth irrelevant? This is an undesirable result of legitimate ecumenical study and discussion.
Now, it would not be fair to argue that nothing good has been achieved, but have the dangers been assessed, have the costs been counted, and have corrective measures been taken? Apart from the serious theologians actively involved in ongoing discussions, has it been clear to most Catholics that adherence to Divine Revelation as understood and expounded by the Catholic Church is just as important as it ever was—and that Our Lord Himself warned that He had not come to bring peace, but division and even a sword?
Obviously, ecumenical miscues are only one part of the much larger problem of relativism today. But perhaps we should tape these words of our Lord on our mirrors:
So every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. [Mt 10:32-38]
There is a time for every purpose under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3). But is it not possible that we have recognized only that there is a time to plant, a time to laugh, a time to dance, a time to embrace, a time to sew, a time to keep silence, and a time for peace; and we have forgotten about the time to pluck up, the time to weep, the time to mourn, the time to refrain from embracing, the time to rend, the time to speak, and the time for war? Or for martyrdom?
While ecumenism truly applies only among Christian churches and sects and is legitimately a very high priority, its possibilities become more limited as oldline Protestantism spirals away into plain old secularism polished up with a Christian veneer. We Catholics have seen the same tendency within the Church herself, and wherever that tendency is dominant, it renders authentic ecumenism useless. There is, indeed, a sense in which the ecumenical movement has simply been overtaken by events, though that does not mean it should be abandoned wherever Christians actually have real Christian convictions.
But since even ecumenism can have unintended consequences, Pope Francis’ trip to Kazakhstan raises a much bigger spiritual question. It reminds me of similar issues during the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II regarding his efforts to bring together religious leaders of all types at his famous meetings in Assisi, as a time for promoting mutual understanding and perhaps even clearing away obstacles to the reception of the gospel. But Pope St. John Paul II operated in this mode only a very small percentage of the time. He was, in contrast to Pope Francis, an extraordinarily firm and articulate expositor of the theological truths known by faith and the moral truths known through both faith and reason. Even in his more diplomatic efforts he contributed mightily to the fall of atheistic ideologies, especially Communism—not to their ascendency over the Church! Under JPII, Catholics learned better not only how to seek common ground with others of good will but when to be courageous, when to stand firm, when to resist error of every kind.
I remember also the much weaker personality of Pope St. Paul VI. It must have taken all his courage to reject the advice of the Commission he had established to study the question of contraception, and instead issue his justly famous, prescient and powerful encyclical On Human Life (Humanae vitae). Yes, and despite his irenic personality, I also remember that when Pope Paul went to New York City to address the United Nations, he began with the unforgettable words, “We are Peter.” It has now been nearly a decade since we had any guidance from the successors of Peter that was even remotely that bold and clear.
What can we expect by way of firm Christian witness now? After all, the Church has been struggling in our time to make herself appear more “hygienic” to the world, but can anyone deny that at times Catholic bishops, priests, religious and laity alike have been all too willing to throw the Baby out with the bathwater? My point is not that we must always be contentious, never seeking even a merely human common ground. My point is that we must not always be pacific, not always assume that focusing on shared human values is the best path.
It is, after all, rather the point of Christ’s coming that we humans cannot understand and live by even shared human values without a willingness to accept and grow in the grace that comes through Christ’s redemptive sacrifice. It is most deeply for this very reason that we must at all costs avoid making peace by ignoring or repudiating the immense gift that is Jesus Christ, hard sayings and all. I recall, for example, the occasion on which Christ insisted that we could not have life within us unless we received His body and blood in the Eucharist. The reaction was the same then as it is now: “This is a hard saying,” they said. “Who can listen to it?”… And they walked with Him no more” (Jn 6:60).
But perhaps we are not so honest or so forthright today. Now we say, “This saying is not to be taken literally.” Or “In the interests of peace, we may safely lay this saying aside.” As if this saying were not the key to peace.
In addition to the words of Christ concerning peace that I have already quoted, at least four times we find Old Testament prophets explicitly condemning false peace. Through Jeremiah, God says:
From the least to the greatest of them, every one is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, every one deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush. [Jer 6:13-15]
Apparently the message bore repeating, since Isaiah repeated it two chapters later. And each time the verdict was the same: “Therefore they shall fall among the fallen. When I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the LORD” (Jer 6:15; 8;12).
The prophet Ezekiel makes the same complaint about the false prophets who kept reassuring Israel that all was well:
My hand will be against the prophets who see delusive visions and who give lying divinations…. Because, yea, because they have misled my people, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace; and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets daub it with whitewash; say to those who daub it with whitewash that it shall fall!…. Thus will I spend my wrath upon the wall, and upon those who have daubed it with whitewash…the prophets of Israel who prophesied concerning Jerusalem and saw visions of peace for her, when there was no peace, says the Lord GOD. [Ezek 13:9-16]
Once again, this daubing with whitewash, and this refusal to proclaim the hard sayings of the Gospel, is what it means to be faithless, cowardly and culture bound. This can be as much true of popes, clergy and religious as of lay people, that is, of all Catholics who, at the expense of the “hard sayings”, disproportionately emphasize the human vectors of peace and accommodation in this world. Too often we can fall into a settled habit of going with the flow, of stressing the few good ideas our audience will approve and applaud, or we can simply abandon our own commitment to all those sayings that the present age finds hard, each one of us unwilling to stand consistently and seriously in opposition to the prevailing falsehoods of our time.
Must we not examine our consciences in this matter of the endless quest for peace as the world understands peace? For as Simeon said when he blessed Joseph, Mary and Jesus: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many…and for a sign of contradiction” (Lk 2:34).
Years later, when St. Paul was under arrest in Rome, the Jews who gathered to hear what the famous Christian preacher had to say for himself testified to this same reality: “We desire to hear from you what your views are; for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against” (Acts 28:22). And St. Luke tells the truth about this meeting. After listening to Paul, they did not come to a comfortable mutual agreement, a joyful shaking of hands, or even a false round of back-slapping. Rather, “And some were convinced by what he said, while others disbelieved” (28:24).
Many bishops, priests, religious and lay Catholics today never seem to find the right time to affirm the truths our culture finds to be “hard sayings”. Of course, if they did, some would believe and some would not, just as with St. Paul. That is the way it goes. But even though he was already at this time detained by the Romans, who had no use for Christianity at all, that did not stop Paul from continuing both to proclaim and to live the Gospel.
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