Friday, February 10, 2012

Gandalf and St. Paul Are Right

Hamburg 1936

When I preach, I prefer to talk about the Gospel, the virtues, the sacraments, prayer, and things of this nature.  When an important societal issue requires words from the pulpit, I usually feel as though time is being taken away from the Gospel. More so,  I just feel as though these topics are obvious and don't need a homily. Catholics should know easily enough that--for instance--government violating religious freedom, abortion, assisted suicide etc, are all immoral and deserving of condemnation.  But alas, such is not the case.  Valuable pulpit time, therefore, has to be given over to explaining to the Faithful why these issues are of such critical importance and why they need to engage the culture on these issues.  Although I often feel like they are an interruption to the flow of things, these topics are very much part of the Gospel.  They are where the Gospel meets the culture of today. 

Inevitably, whenever the gospel and a particular political issue coincide, somebody will declare "there is a separation between Church and state."  What is meant by this is that the Church should say nothing about political issues.  The Church, however, is completely free to speak on political issues.  The Church is called to speak the truth about how God made the world to be.  When the Church says, "love the poor," that is a political issue.  When the Church says, "Love your enemies," that is a political issue.  When the Church opposes racial hatreds that is a political issue. 

Sometimes, the Church only needs to preach the principles and then persons have to make prudential judgements on how to apply those principles.  For instance, the Church preaches that we have a duty to "love the poor."  Now, reasonable persons can disagree on how to love the poor.  How is the best way to assist them?  What programs are the most effective etc?  These can be left to prudent judgments.  But, if somebody proposed that the best way to love the poor was to kill them, then the Church would have to condemn this proposal.  For the Church knows that we don't love persons by killing them.

At other times, the Church has to preach not only the principles, but also the practical implications.  One such example would be abortion.  The principle is that it is never morally licit to directly kill an innocent human being.  The Church has to draw the conclusion that the unborn child is an innocent human being and therefore can never be directly killed.  There is no room for prudent disagreement on this.  Preaching against abortion is just a manifestation of preaching about the value of human life, the command of loving our neighbor, and the command of Jesus to love the poor.  Who is poorer than a defenseless unborn child?  Who is more a neighbor to a man and a woman than the child that they have conceived together? 

There is a sense among many Catholics that the Church should not talk about how people should vote.  They suggest that if a particular candidate espouses--for instance--abortion and you remind people from the pulpit that they have a moral obligation to support and promote the protection of human life, then you are telling them who to vote for.  I regret that the candidate that they like supports the taking of innocent human life, but it's not my fault that he does.  Every Catholic, when he or she goes into a voting booth, goes in as a Catholic.  They have to vote in accord with the Gospel.  In the same way that every Catholic who works in the business world must do so in accord with the Gospel.  Does that mean that sometimes a Catholic businessman might have to not lie, cheat, or steal like other persons in that particular company?  Yes, that's what it means.

The other day, I saw a photo (posted at the top of this post) of a massive crowd attending the launching of a ship in Hamburg in 1936.  The photo depicts the crowds all giving the Hitler salute.  In the crowd, one man--August Landmesser--is seen not giving the salute.  His daughter, years later, saw the photo and recognized her father. It must have taken extraordinary courage for one man not to succumb to the pressures surrounding him that day.  As Catholics, we too have a duty to bring our Faith to the culture.  Whether we are surrounded by the powers of hell or whether we are standing alone in the voting booth, we are called to live the Gospel everywhere and to transform society by our Christian Faith.  (To be clear, I use the photo above purely as an example of how when somebody acts with integrity in the public square even when it is difficult to do so, we admire them,  When I saw that photo recently online, I was touched by the courage and example of that man.  Use of the photo is solely about admiring the man's courage and no other implications are intended.  I hope that is clear enough.)

Last week, in St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians he wrote, "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel."  That's quite a statement and one that those entrusted with preaching the Gospel must take seriously.  At times, I wish that the culture and the Gospel were not at such odds.  At times, I wish that I were preaching the Gospel in old Christendom rather than in the midst of a secularist revolution.  I bet many priests feel that way.

This wishing reminds me of an exchange from the Lord of the Rings.  Frodo, recognizing all of the hardship that comes with the responsibility of carrying the ring says to Gandalf, "I wish the ring had never come to me.  I wish that none of this had every happened."  And Gandalf replies, "So do all who live in such times.  But that is not for them to decide.  All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us."

Preachers of the Gospel probably all wish that we were not living in a culture that is undermining marriage and families, promoting the killing of innocent children, coercing religious persons to violate their consciences, and a thousand other attacks on the truth.  When we were preparing to go forth and preach the Gospel, we weren't thinking about writing homilies on why killing the sick is wrong or why marriage can only be between a man and a woman.  Those weren't the homilies that we were writing.  We wish that none of this had happened.  But, that is not for us to decide.  All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.  Woe to us, if we don't use that time to preach the Gospel.

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