One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received about leadership – even before I was a priest (probably when I was in Boy Scouts!) – was given to me by my father. I don’t remember his exact words, but the essence was that even though I might have to say ‘no’ to something, that I should always try to offer some accompanying ‘yes’.
As a priest, this has proven invaluable in pastoral care. When someone wanted ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ for their loved one’s funeral Mass, the answer was clearly ‘no’ – but we sang it outside the church as we processed to the hearse. When a divorced-and-remarried couple wanted to receive communion, the answer was clearly ‘no’ – but we talked through the possibilities laid out in Familiaris Consortio #84 and how to best pursue marriage in the Church. When my choirs wanted the Mass setting to be chosen according to their (differing!) preferences, the answer was clearly ‘no’, but we talked about how we might incorporate their desires into a larger liturgical plan.
The examples could go on and on, covering any number of situations or groups. More than the actual options at hand, the effort to find a way forward – as well as the honesty of what the options were and weren’t on the table – elicited appreciation and respectful conversation. Things didn’t always end up happily, but the effort to find something to offer rarely goes unnoticed or unappreciated.
Ministering to those wounded by the Church
Over the last several days, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith released two documents: a brief letter responding to a dubia (question) from a bishop and a significantly longer declaration (titled Fiducia Supplicans1). The letter was essentially an exhortation to not deny single mothers the sacraments (or tell them they must abstain). The declaration addressed questions around blessings, particularly blessing couples living in objectively disordered lifestyles such as same-sex couples.
The first document elicited no small amount of ‘why do we need this?’ from commentators as they expressed skepticism that anyone in the Church would so mistreat single mothers. The second document has inflamed an already-polarized debate, with folks on both the ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ side painting it as a change in Church teaching and practice.
Lost in all of this is the real hurt of our brothers & sisters that this is all meant to address. And I must admit, I might have been right in there with the unhappy ‘why do we need these?’ crowd not too long ago. But then I started encountering people – some of them faithful Catholics – who had been told by their priest that they couldn’t receive communion because they were divorced. Not subsequently remarried, mind you, but simply because they were divorced. One woman shared an awful account of how the priest stopped her during communion at a Sunday Mass to scold her and tell her she was not free to receive due to her divorce. She obediently stopped receiving – even as she continued to faithfully attend Mass every Sunday, albeit elsewhere. It was while waiting for her daughter to finish a First Holy Communion class that she spontaneously – and tearfully – shared her sorrow at having been unable to receive in the years (!) since that encounter.
I can’t tell you how many conversations I have had with same-sex attracted individuals – some who were couples – who desperately want to just come to Mass, but were convinced that they weren’t welcome even to cross the threshold of the church. One young man offered how he knew God was calling him back to the faith, but he didn’t know how to even start since the Church clearly disapproved of everything about him and his boyfriend. He knew that he might – probably – would have to make some hard decisions about the nature of their relationship, but he desperately wanted to know if his efforts would be met with welcome or rejection.
Lest anyone think these stories are outliers, be assured that they are not. Whether in spontaneous conversation, the sacrament of Reconciliation, or hesitant request to meet, there are many (many!) more instances where folks – Catholic and non-Catholic alike – have shared how they have been hurt by laity & clerics of the Church in the name of Church, using Church teaching as the cudgel. Even when not done with malice (though it often was), these wounds have proven to be deep and lasting.
These people need healing – and we owe it to them to actively reach out and offer what we can to assist them in that healing.
The Gospel of the Lord
It seems to me that the reactions to these latest efforts of the Church are based on a desire to get what we want – though the desires of a given ‘we’ are often at odds with those of others. Some are anxious and angry that the Church might make Herself vulnerable to being taken advantage of and abused – Her teachings twisted to permit and bless sin. Others are anxious and angry that the Church might make them vulnerable to being changed and live differently – that Her teachings would impose expectations that they don’t want to meet.
This sounds pretty Christ-like to me! He ate with tax collectors, talked with prostitutes, and gathered a group of shmucks around Himself to become His Apostles. He lovingly – usually quite gently – called out those same tax collectors, prostitutes, and shmucks – even while sharing Himself with them.
The strongest critique I’ve heard of these documents is one that is just as easily applied to the words of the Lord Himself: that people will take them and twist them to their own purposes. This has the virtue of being true….. as individuals with free will we can choose to interpret and act as we decide. Touched by sin – often clinging to it! – many will do just that.
And yet, Jesus considered that risk one worth taking. He even gave up His life on the chance that if not all, at least some might choose eternal life.
Hermeneutic of charity
Around this time last year, Deacon Greg Kandra wrote a reflection titled “One key number for the new year“. In it, he spoke about number 2478 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which starts “To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way”. Remembering those four numbers has helped me immeasurably over the last year – I am certain this will continue to serve me well in the coming years.
Does that risk us making fools of ourselves? We’d certainly be in good company! Thomas Aquinas, after being mocked by his brothers for rushing to see the flying pigs they claimed were nearby, legendarily said “I would rather believe that pigs can fly than believe that my brethren could lie”.
Charity doesn’t demand that we change Mother Church’s doctrine & dogma – quite the opposite, if we truly believe that She and Her teachings are given to us by the Lord for our fulfillment & happiness! In our approach to our Mother and to those who so deeply need Her ministrations, let us say ‘no’ without compromising charity while finding the ‘yes’ that affirms the truth. Let us approach each other – both those in the Church and those wounded by the Her – with hearts open to both the yeses and no’s that the Lord presents us.
- In English, the declaration is titled On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings ↩︎