Eamonn Clark, STL
For those who are outside of “Church-news world”, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (to oversimplify by some magnitudes – the “doctrine officials” for the Catholic Church) put out a statement not long ago stating that the Church cannot bless same-sex unions, which statement was approved by the Holy Father Pope Francis. This has triggered a number of reactions…
My favorite comment was from Orthodox Jew and conservative political commentator, Ben Shapiro, posting a reply to the AP’s headline on Twitter (March 15)… the line read: “In which we learn that the Catholic Church believes in Catholicism.” This is the most appropriate reaction – it is a “nothingburger,” insofar as there is nothing new here, as even pointed out by a certain archbishop of Chicago. What is newsworthy is that such a statement was made at all, precisely given the fact of its lack of novelty. The impetus, of course, was primarily the “Synodal Path” in Germany.
Other reactions, ranging from shock to anger to sadness to accusations of various types, I submit, should be understood in light of the foregoing. Unless one was truly unaware of the constant teaching of the Church on marriage, sexuality, and sacramentals, the problem likely lies elsewhere, probably deriving from a warped understanding of what the Church is.
The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. When the Church truly teaches something regarding faith or morals, those data are to be definitively held as true – by the authority of God Himself, in Christ, through His Mystical Body. Surely, many people do not know that this is what the Church sees Herself as – they therefore wonder why the pope doesn’t just “update” Catholicism to suit the tastes of today’s Western progressive elites (or any other group). Such people could use a healthy dose of study on the topics of apostolic succession, papal infallibility, and basic Catholic ecclesiology. This would at least remove some of the surprise when the Church doesn’t “get with the times.” (For what it’s worth, St. Augustine noted similar criticisms of the Church in his own era, some 1,600 years ago.)
The Church is also not a club, or an ethnicity, or a “cultural heritage.” This was much the attitude of many of the Jews whom Our Lord dealt with in the pages of the Gospels. Being a “son of Abraham” in the flesh does not save a person anymore than having went to Catholic school, having been an altar server, having some kind of relationship with the local parish, etc., and yet this is unfortunately what “Catholicism” means to many people who consider themselves to be Catholic. The high priest Caiphas was not really a Jew, you see, or else he would have recognized the coming of the Christ which Judaism is all about.
What is more interesting than the uncatechized and unchurched masses of millennials and Gen-Z’ers having such a negative reaction to a direct reiteration of basic Catholic moral-sacramental teaching is a similar response from clergy. The cloud of priests and bishops trying to do “damage control” on the CDF’s statement are, unfortunately, a great starting point for considering the entrance into Holy Week. Minimizing the necessity of the need to suffer and deny oneself in order to do God’s will is not an admirable impulse in clerics, but it is not a new one either.
We turn to a small group of men gathered around the Lord one day in Caesarea Philippi. In that area, there was a very large rock, under which there was a cave with a spring gushing forth a little stream. This place (close to the Temple of Pan) was considered an entrance into the underworld, where the demons – or pagan deities, especially fertility “gods” – would come up from sometimes, especially in winter. All kinds of sexual perversion took place there in “worship” of these demons. This was all quite well-known.
“Who do others say that I am?” The answers were given – John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the other prophets – a report of empirical observations which anyone could make about what is going on in the world. “Who do you say that I am?” Peter gives his confession of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Flesh and blood did not reveal this, as with the answer to the former question; rather, it was God Who taught it to the blessed soul of Simon bar-Jonah, who is henceforth finally to be known to all as Cephas, Peter, the Rock. The Gates of Hell – as symbolized by the source of the little spring in Caesarea Philippi – will not prevail against the Church, which will rest upon Peter’s public teaching and public ministry, which will bind and loose in the power of the Holy Spirit, unlike the squabbles between the Jewish schools of Hillel and Shammai that were raging at the time, over how to wash one’s hands, how to pick grapes, etc…
Then it all goes south – first metaphorically, then literally, back down toward Jerusalem. Christ begins to speak about the Cross… and we know that Peter, the newly appointed public representative of the Twelve and of the whole Church, immediately fails in his new role, albeit in a semi-private conversation. Peter’s failures continue all the way until the triple-denial of the Lord while in the courtyard, when he finally completes the trajectory of his hope for a worldly messiah who would solve the problems of the day by natural means. Perhaps many are still following this part of Peter, the weak and private side of his life and ministry. It is a hope which will disappoint – there is no Resurrection without death.
Luke gives us the following speech from Christ after Peter’s declaration of faith at Caesarea Philippi. “And He said to all: ‘If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when He comes in His glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.'” (Luke 9:23-26)
The Cross awaited the Lord down in Jerusalem, and so too do crosses await for anyone who wishes to follow Him. He said this Himself: “Anyone who does not pick up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.” (Luke 14:27; Matthew 10:38) And those who counsel the would-be followers of the Lord to avoid their crosses do no better than Peter at Caesarea Philippi. It was the Devil speaking through Peter that day. We know this not only from the words of Christ’s rebuke (“Get behind Me, Satan!”), but also from the experience already had by the Lord in the desert… He was tempted by Satan to jump from the Temple and fly around Jerusalem to coerce belief in His power by an open miracle, as opposed to the signs He worked in hidden ways (in the chaos of a crowd, in the obscurity of a storm, etc.), before dying and rising. No – the Cross must be endured… no short cuts, no softening of the blows, and no way out. Those who climb over the fence instead of going through the gate are robbers and thieves. (John 10:1) Here, on the Cross, the desires of the body must be denied, even the desire for biological life itself. And yet in giving up biological life, a higher life is obtained. With this consideration we can begin to enter into the heart of the Paschal Mystery… This is what Holy Week is the platform for.
The rebukes that the disciples will receive after the Resurrection are accusations of not having understood the teaching of the Scriptures that “the Son of Man must suffer and so enter into His glory.” The disciples were not stupid – but something blocked their minds nonetheless. There is some kind of willful blindness, both in reading the Scriptures and even listening to the Lord directly. One is inclined to make a connection between the darkness of the minds of the Apostles before the Resurrection and the failure of “academically sophisticated” clergy who either cannot understand that unnatural sexual acts are horrible offenses against the Creator, cannot make the clear distinction between blessing a person and blessing a relationship which constitutes and is even centered upon a near occasion of sin (a distinction which the CDF document went out of its way to stress), or both.
All who wish to explain away or even merely compromise the clear teaching of the Church on any number of moral imperatives often take up where the Devil left off in the desert and where Peter left off at Caesarea Philippi. The Devil gave good arguments for taking an easier way – “Use your power to eat and to feed many forever, to appear openly without suffering, to make a compromise to gain everything in the world…” The Devil used argumentation based on Scripture. He was quite sophisticated and apparently reasonable. And yet he was and is a liar.
A road that is wide and easy is rarely the way through the Cross, even if that road is “synodal” or claims to be “merciful,” “accompanying,” “pastoral,” and so on. The gate to life is narrow and the road to life is hard. (Matthew 7:14) Christ alone is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. (John 14:6) Those who wish to be saved from everlasting death must enter into the Lord through His Cross, the new “doorpost and lintel,” marked with the Blood of the Lamb, the Blood of the New Covenant. (Exodus 12:7) It is a gate that is narrow – our many sins and attachments cannot fit through but must be left behind… and yet it is a wide gate as well, ready to welcome all, Jew and Gentile both. And the “burden” of virtuous living is an easy one to carry for those who love the Lord as a true friend. (Matthew 11:30) True pastors encourage souls to carry their crosses and help them to do so – one gets the idea today that the opposite is the case: that the role of the priest is to convince souls they do not need to carry crosses, at least not “moral crosses,” and to help them put those crosses down.
We must not be ashamed of our Friend, or His Word, or His Cross, even if we gain the whole world thereby. We must follow Him all the way to Golgotha – a place where the Lord alone satisfies and where Divine Love was shown even more than on Mount Tabor, in the Transfiguration which directly followed the failure of Peter at Caesarea Philippi. To be deprived of Tabor is frustrating… but to be deprived of Golgotha is the ultimate tragedy.
The time for protests, petitions, and pressers will soon be at an end. Eternity will not allow for “nuanced” debates, and all souls will be utterly helpless before their destinies, then sealed forever. In the end, the Church and Her Faith will prevail. She will identify the demons that have crept up from the underworld and roam the Earth, and She will confess the Deity and Lordship of the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, Who will have all subjected to Himself. (1 Corinthians 15:28) Today, then, is the day – “Repent, and believe in the Gospel!” You can carry the cross which the Lord Himself has handed to you – and it is the only way to true happiness in this life, and it is the only way to everlasting glory in the next.
A blessed Holy Week to all my readers, near and far.