“[W]hat can be done concretely, especially at a time in which the faith is being watered down more and more, even within the Church, and the ‘things with which the pagans are concerned,’ against which the Lord warns the disciples, threaten to become ever more the norm?”
~ Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “The Retractio,” The new conclusion to the 1972 article on the indissolubility of marriage, rewritten by Benedict XVI/Joseph Ratzinger in 2014)
Unless you were in a coma during October 2014, you know that the Extraordinary Synod on the Family in Rome raised many controversial doctrinal and pastoral questions (See the final “Relatio Synodi” as well as George Weigel’s overview).
I want to focus on one question that I think is particularly important, but not directly raised by the Synod fathers: Why does the Church so often let the world–specifically the Western, secularized world–set the agenda for her? From gay marriage and contraception to communion for the divorced-and-remarried and cohabitation, the Church allows the world to pick and package the issues, at least in certain respects, according to its secular worldview and relativistic value system.
What does not change
I’m not arguing that this is an entirely bad move. In fact, it can be a good strategy when done properly. For one thing, there is clearly a certain Christ-like humility involved in this approach. The Church, in preaching the fullness of truth, has to meet people not only where they are (this is the pastoral principle of what Pope St. John Paul II called, the “the law of gradualness,” Familiaris consortio, no. 34), but meet the issues there as well. And these issues are the Church’s issues too. Indeed, the Church’s social doctrine itself (a branch of moral theology) is largely defined as a teaching that arises out of the encounter of the Church and the Gospel with the needs of the particular age and society she lives in. The same is true of other areas of moral theology, including the Church’s authoritative teachings on marriage, family and sex.
Undoubtedly, the Church, as many of her perpetually petulant liberal members like to remind the more traditionally minded, does not have all of the answers to the world’s problems. But while Vatican Council II (1962-1965) affirmed this point, it never said that the Church doesn’t have any answers to these problems. It’s a non sequitur to say that just because the Church can’t answer every question, that she has no answers at all to propose. The Church has at least one absolutely definitive answer–and one that does not change: Jesus Christ. “The Church…maintains,” Gaudium et spes teaches, “that beneath all changes there are many realities which do not change and which have their ultimate foundation in Christ, Who is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever” (No. 10; cf. Heb. 13:8).
Being against the world to be for the world
Being relevant and being real
The late Catholic author Joseph Sobran wrote some decades ago of the ridiculousness of watching an ancient Church “huffing and puffing” to catch up with the modern world–often when that same world had already moved on to the next “Latest and Greatest Thing.” This is not an argument against the Church engaging the modern world–even at times on the world’s own terms; by no means. But it is argument against the Church forgetting her primary mission: to preach the same gospel of Jesus Christ in and out of season (cf. 2 Tim 4:2). There’s a difference between being “relevant” and being “real”. But the Church can be relevant only if she is real, as in being authentic, true to her human-divine make-up.
Note that the word relevant comes from the Latin word, relevare, to raise up, to lift. Thus, the Church is most real, and therefore most relevant, when she is being true to the evangelical mission her Founder entrusted to her. This involves “raising up” people and nations, not lowering objective principles of morality to subjective desires, especially when doing so would gravely harm the very persons involved (e.g., when satisfying these desires would be destructive of fundamental human goods such as natural marriage and family). Gaudium et spes speaks of the singular end of the Church: “to carry forward the work of Christ under the lead of the befriending Spirit. And Christ entered this world to give witness to the truth, to rescue and not to sit in judgment, to serve and not to be served” (No. 3; cf. 2 Cor. 5:15).
The Council Fathers saw no inherent contradiction between bringing Christ’s love and mercy to the world while simultaneously addressing behaviors that contradict human dignity. As the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus used to say, sometimes the Church must be against the world in order to be for the world. By showing how certain acts (those called “intrinsically evil”) strike at human goods and therefore human persons in radically harmful ways, the Church is acting charitably. If the Church truly believes from both faith and reason that abortion, fornication, contraception, same-sex acts, and so forth are harmful to those who do them (and to the other persons they affect)–and she does believe this–how can we then say the Church acts compassionately by denying this vital knowledge to those most in need of hearing it? The Church desires that all men and women be happy in this life and the next. Her moral teaching is both a safeguard of and a summons to this happiness. It is profoundly pastoral by nature: it seeks the salvation of the whole human person–body and soul together.
Editor’s Note: The next article in this series explores more specifically how the Church shows mercy through Her moral teachings.
Mark S. Latkovic, S.T.D. is a Professor of Moral Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit, MI), where he has taught for over 23 years. He is co-editor of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Law Tradition: Contemporary Perspectives (The Catholic University of America Press, 2004), as well as author of What’s a Person to Do? Everyday Decisions that Matter (Our Sunday Visitor, 2013) and numerous articles in scholarly and popular journals.
- The Five Phases of the Sexual and Cultural Revolution
- Is It Ever Immoral Not to Practice NFP?
- Fundamental Distinctions for the Upcoming Synod
- Speaking the Truth in Love
- Whose Agenda? Reflections on the Upcoming Synod