Friday, September 05, 2014

Confronting Sin in the Church: The 23rd Sunday of OT

I don’t like personal conflict.  I try to avoid it as much as possible.  Probably most Americans do.  I’m not sure what it’s like in other cultures, although I’ve heard of others where open social confrontation is more common.

This Sunday’s Readings deal with situations in which Christians have a duty to confront one another.  They don’t make for comfortable reading in a culture that puts a high value on keeping the peace and minding one’s own business.

The First Reading is the great “Watchman” passage from the prophet Ezekiel:

Reading 1 Ez 33:7-9

Thus says the LORD:
You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel;
when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me.
If I tell the wicked, "O wicked one, you shall surely die, "
and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way,
the wicked shall die for his guilt,
but I will hold you responsible for his death.
But if you warn the wicked,
trying to turn him from his way,
and he refuses to turn from his way,
he shall die for his guilt,
but you shall save yourself.

Now Ezekiel was a prophet and a priest, entrusted by virtue of his office with teaching the People of God the ways of the Lord and the distinction between virtue and vice, holiness and sin.

The moral sense of this Reading applies in the first place to those who are in an analogous situation to Ezekiel in the Church, namely, the members of the hierarchy: pope, bishops, priests.  One of the roles of the hierarchy is to warn the Church and the world of wickedness that leads to our death.  Mortal sin would certainly fit that category.

It is the responsibility of the bishop and the priests who assist him clearly to warn the Church—and the world, too, if it is listening—of sins which lead to death.  I can understand why this is not done more than it is—it is a very uncomfortable thing for a parish priest to speak clearly and openly about sins which are widespread and popular in the culture.  The parish priest, like all of us, would prefer to be liked by everyone.  It’s awkward to stand at the back of Church and shake hands with a whole bunch of people you have just strongly rebuked.  I’ve been in that situation during my Protestant pastor days, and it’s no fun.  I've had people stand up and walk right out of church during a sermon, never to come back.  It's not pleasant, even when you know you were speaking the truth.

This weekend poses a good opportunity for us lay faithful to pray for courage on the part of the hierarchy.  We need leadership that is not afraid to speak out about the favorite sins of our age, which all seem to be offenses against matrimony: masturbation, pornography, cohabitation, divorce, homosexual practice, contraception, abortion.  These offenses are widely practiced, tolerated, even encouraged and celebrated among American Catholics, and frequently not even recognized as sins.  They need to be addressed clearly and publically.  It ought not to be possible to be raised as a Catholic and never hear a clear, pointed, and loving explanation of why these activities are wrong and lead to spiritual (even physical) death.

The First Reading does not simply apply to the hierarchy, however.  All of us were baptized into Christ’s threefold office of king, priest, and prophet.  Lay Catholics do have a prophetic role in our society.  We don’t “get off the hook.”  We do need to warn family members, coworkers, friends, about behaviors that are leading to their ultimate death.  Obviously this takes a great deal of love, tact, and prudence—but if we remain silent, we may be tacitly approving evil.

The Responsorial Psalm puts us the shoe on the other foot.  In the Responsorial Psalm, we don’t hear a call to rebuke the sinner, but to accept the rebuke when we are the sinner:

Responsorial Psalm Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9

R. (8)If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Come, let us sing joyfully to the LORD;
let us acclaim the rock of our salvation.
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us joyfully sing psalms to him.
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Come, let us bow down in worship;
let us kneel before the LORD who made us.
For he is our God,
and we are the people he shepherds, the flock he guides.
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Oh, that today you would hear his voice:
"Harden not your hearts as at Meribah,
as in the day of Massah in the desert,
Where your fathers tempted me;
they tested me though they had seen my works."
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.

The Second Reading is another installment in our lectio continua through Romans.  Though not chosen to match the themes of the First and the Gospel, nonetheless when the readings are juxtaposed, we can see implications and relationships:

Reading 2 Rom 13:8-10

Brothers and sisters:
Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another;
for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery;
you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet, "
and whatever other commandment there may be,
are summed up in this saying, namely,
"You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
Love does no evil to the neighbor;
hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.

There are two implications of this passage in light of the Ezekiel passage.   

First, we need to remember that sin is a lack of love.  Every sin—anger, sloth, pride, lust, greed, envy, gluttony or any of their variations—is contrary to love.  Many of these sins are recognized as wrong by our culture, but others—the "popular" sins—are not.  The most popular sins of our culture, which currently seem to be sexual in nature, are nonetheless also failures of love, failures to act in others’ best interest and to treat them with their full dignity as persons.  Masturbation, pornography, cohabitation, divorce, homosexual practice, contraception, and abortion are acts of non-love, even if we think we think, in the moment, that we are “loving” someone by committing or condoning one of these acts. 

Love has an objective aspect.  It’s not just a subjective feeling.  You may really like someone, but if you mistakenly give them poison rather than medicine, your act is not objectively loving.  Society has completely lost sight of this fact.  Love is now confused with “niceness,” with complying with whatever a person wants.  But obviously, not everything we want is good for us.  This is certainly true in the case of food: we love sugary and salty snacks that aren't good for our long term health. We recognize that, with respect to food, our cravings alone don't constitute a "right" to have that food, nor do our cravings make a certain food "good for us."  Strangely, we currently grasp those concepts very well with respect to food, but can't grasp the same concept with respect to almost anything related to sexuality.  It's hard for us to understand that there are forms of sexuality which may not be good for us—whether physically, psychologically, socially, spiritually, or all of the above—and our desire for them will not make them good or healthy.

Secondly, a rebuke, when made with a correct intention, is also an act of love.  It is not loving to overlook the fact that people are in sin.  Of course, it is also quite possible to rebuke people out of arrogance and self-righteousness.  And, sometimes, we may have a right intention in offering a rebuke, and nonetheless be perceived as arrogant, which is painful.  We want to avoid the risk of being perceived as self-righteous, so we avoid confronting others.  Sometimes our failure to rebuke is motivated by self-love.  We want to avoid the pain of being rejected.  Truth and authenticity are sacrificed for the sake of social comfort.

The Gospel reading provides instructions about the proper way to confront others within the New Covenant community:

Gospel Mt 18:15-20

Jesus said to his disciples:
"If your brother sins against you,
go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.
If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.
If he does not listen,
take one or two others along with you,
so that 'every fact may be established
on the testimony of two or three witnesses.'
If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.
If he refuses to listen even to the church,
then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.
Amen, I say to you,
whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Again, amen, I say to you,
if two of you agree on earth
about anything for which they are to pray,
it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.
For where two or three are gathered together in my name,
there am I in the midst of them."

Jesus’ words are primarily addressed to the “disciples” (v. 1), which the Church has understood to mean the Twelve, who are the proto-hierarchy of the Church.  The guidelines in this passage are intended to inform their juridical and sacramental role, as those who will establish and enforce halakhah (practical interpretation of divine law) for the new covenant community (as we discussed last week), and will dispense the forgiveness of sin (see John 20:22-23).

When confronting sin within the Church, the watchwords are private and personal.  One begins by going to the person in private, and making a personal appeal.  The goal is reconciliation, not condemnation.

This principle applies to all life within the Church.  When offended, however, our tendency is first to go and tell all our friends and anyone else who will listen about how so-and-so did something outrageous to us.  This is called "triangulation" (bringing third parties into the dispute), and it spreads the circle of the offense while making no progress toward reconciliation.  It also starts a cycle of gossip and escalating exaggeration. The saints did not encourage this.  They spoke of making "fraternal correction," that is, a brotherly intervention to point out how a fellow believer could improve.  Sadly, this is an element of the Catholic spiritual tradition that has been almost forgotten.

If personal discussion does not resolve the issue, Jesus instructs us to bring along one or two others.  The Lord makes reference to Deuteronomy 19:15:

“A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed; only on the evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained.

The Lord’s citation of juridical instructions from the Old Covenant community may indicate that the primary intention of this passage is to set up the basics of a juridical process for the New Covenant community.  The principles our Lord expounds should form the basis of the Church’s internal law.

            If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the Church.

This would be a public ecclesiastical rebuke for grave sin. 

If he refuses to listen even to the Church, treat him as you would a tax collector or sinner.

This teaches that the judgment of the Church is the final court of appeal on earth.  Treatment as “a tax collector or sinner” means a withdrawal of recognition of the person as a member of the New Covenant community, which later in Church history would come to be called “excommunication.”  The person is “outside of” (ex) the communion; hence, excommunication.

But Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners (Matt 9:10).  So one does not give up on the excommunicated member.  The excommunicated person is moved into the category of persons who need to be evangelized, who have not yet received the Gospel.  If they “won’t listen even to the Church,” they do not realize that the Church is the mystical Body of Christ that acts with Christ’s authority on earth, which is a central truth of the Gospel.  So they have not truly grasped the Gospel, and must be re-evangelized.

Amen, I say to you,
whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Our comments about the halakhic significance of the terms “bind” and “loose” from two weeks ago (re: Matt 16:18 and context) are also appropriate here.  This authority to establish the correct interpretation of divine law (that is, halakhah), given personally to Peter, is now also conferred to the Twelve as a body.  The Catholic Church has understood this to mean that the Church speaks authoritatively either through the Peter (that is, his successor) or the Twelve (that is, the successors of the apostles, the bishops, as a body, i.e. an ecumenical council).

Let us note the fact that Jesus' instructions here presume that there is only one Church and that the Church can be recognized visibly and externally.  If there were multiple churches, to which would one go to "tell the Church"?  And what if these different churches had different moral teaching?  Then a person rebuked in one church would just go to another one.  In this way, denominationalism renders church discipline impractical or almost impossible.  Furthermore: if the Church were one but could not be identified with a visible body of persons, how could anyone tell anything to "the Church"?  And if the Church didn't have obvious and clearly identified spokespersons, how could the Church "speak" such that the sinner could "listen to the Church" or refuse to do so?  So we see the ecclesiology (doctrine of the Church) that Our Lord's instructions on church discipline presume, is the ecclesiology of the Catholic Church, namely, that there is one, visible body which can be identified as the Church of Christ on earth. 

Again, amen, I say to you,
if two of you agree on earth
about anything for which they are to pray,
it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.

This does not confer omnipotence to any group of Christians that agree together to pray about something, for we have all had the experience of communal prayer—perhaps for a sick member of our parish, for example—that was answered in the negative.

The juridical context and the address to the Twelve reminds us that the primary force of these words is the promise of divine assistance to the Apostles and their successors who will be responsible for establishing halakhah for the New Covenant community (the Church) and also for dealing pastorally for those who have difficulty accepting the halakhah, the teaching of the Church.  God will guide them through these difficulties if they seek his will in prayer.

For where two or three are gathered together in my name,
there am I in the midst of them

Christ is present in his Church: this is the source of all her wisdom, love, and authority.  This gives Her the ability to speak the word of warning to individuals and society as a whole—but always with the intent that we may all learn to act in love (Rom 13:8).


Susan Moore said...

Another one to print out, God bless.

max said...

God loves you Dr Bergma.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful! Awesome!! Thank you Dr. Bergma

Anonymous said...

Thank you for accomodating those of us with passwords and usernames in numbers beyond comprehension, by allowing free, anonymous posting.

It is my morally certain belief that those who force registration, in order to post comments, on overburdened souls such as myself, are guilty of gravely wrong behavior and choose NOT to see it. Consequently, they should not be seen at the communion rail until their blogs allow for easy access, not some form of extra registration.

Were I a bishop, any cleric under my authority would be given the choice to follow this understanding, which is humane and considerate(EVEN IF SOME WHO IT "LETS IN" ARE NOT), or close down their blog and do so by admitting why, on their blog, before they shut it down. If they complained, I would do all I could under canon law to try to "change their mind" either about their inconsideration or their vocation.

So, my thank you is quite sincere.

As to my post. It became obvious to me, long ago, that the Catholic Church no longer values repentance, restitution, truth or justice and its view of charity is primarily of the false denomination. This I am certain of with respect to marriage because I am living it.

End of my discussion. Eat me alive. I am used to it. I expect it. It is the Catholic way. That is but one of the reasons why I ceased attending Mass earlier this year.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

The Catholic clergy doesn't deal with people who come to mass after the canon of the mass has begun (which invalidates that mass as a fulfillment of their mass obligation thus requiring to attend another service that same day and hopefully before the canon has begun) so why should we expect the clergy to fulfill their apostolic duties for other matters?

Susan Moore said...

It seems I was awake most of the night, praying for you and wondering if I should respond. It seems you are hurting and angry, and yet asking for people to hurt you more. In that way, I fear I will disappoint you and therefore risk making you even angrier; because I do not want to criticize you, but encourage you instead.

I, myself, rebelled away from the Church when I was 17 (I am 53 now) because of all the imperfections I saw in the people there. Interestingly, instead of abandoning religion altogether, I took Jesus with me on my exile. That proved to be a wise decision because I wanted to be independent and figure things out for myself, but when I found my life jeopardized do to my isolation (rage, addictions, depression, anxiety, suicidality) I would run to Him, and He would run to me.

He never abandoned me. Nor will He abandon you or forsake you, for He is the only perfect person: He is faithful and true.
If you hold onto Jesus, when you get to the other side of your exile you will find you have grown into a more forgiving and compassionate person.

In the meantime, if you do return to the family, stare at Jesus and worship Him, not the humans; we are all sinners. Sorry if this disappoints you. Please forgive me.

Anonymous said...

Will Perez