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Christ and the Moral Life Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Sunday, 06 October 2013

A friend reports that, as a young girl in Latin America, she and a roomful of eager fourteen-year old girls were addressed at their confirmation by the bishop, who spent forty minutes regaling them with a disquisition on social justice. Nothing about Jesus, his sacrificial death on the cross, his glorious resurrection from the dead and sending of the Holy Spirit, made present to them in the sacrament they were about to receive. Just a lot of warmed-over partisan politics and second-rate liberation theology:  “No wonder so many Latin Americans, especially the poor, were going over to the evangelical churches. . . .At least there they heard about Jesus.” As for the promises of political “liberation,” she said, “we’d heard it all before.”

Actually, I’m sympathetic with this bishop. I teach theology, and I understand the temptation to lose sight of the forest for the trees. We can get ourselves earnestly and seriously involved in teaching the (to us) fascinating details about the sacraments or the liturgy or ethics and forget that all of this talk is meant to point us back to Jesus Christ. Enthralled in this way, it’s easy to forget that what distinguishes is that, as St. Paul says: “we preach Christ crucified.” So important is this central datum of the faith, insists Paul, that “if Christ is not risen, then is our preaching vain,” as is the faith of the Church. Indeed, when the Corinthians write to Paul imploring him to resolve their differences, he tells them simply: “While I was with you, I resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

The great nineteenth-century British evangelical preacher Charles Spurgeon once wrote (in the spirit of St. Paul) that, “The motto of all true servants of God must be, ‘We preach Christ; and him crucified.’” “No Christ in your sermon, sir?” he tells young, aspiring preachers,  “then go home, and never preach again.” “If a man can preach one sermon without mentioning Christ’s name in it,” he declares elsewhere, “it ought to be his last – certainly the last that any Christian ought to go hear him preach.”

I have been arguing in this space over the past several months that the Churchs moral teaching is based on the “good news” of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, his incarnate revelation of God’s love, his sacrificial death on the cross that redeems us from our sins, and the promise revealed by His glorious resurrection from the dead and sending of the Holy Spirit. Our goal is to “have life and have it to the fullest.” Many people mistakenly think that money, power, fame, or pleasure are the means to human flourishing. The Church offers something better, something more.


           Saint Paul by El Greco, c. 1612

The Church’s negative prohibitions must always been seen in the context of the Church’s positive teachings about human flourishing and our ultimate beatitude in communion with the Triune God. We need to keep repeating this positive view of human flourishing so as not to support the media’s characterization of Christians as nothing but nay-sayers. Our job is to preach the Gospel as “Good News,” not “Bad News.”

When we lose sight of the “Good News” of Jesus Christ, we become just another partisan political group. We preach “social justice,” for example, but nothing distinguishes us from other liberals because we shy away from the “life issues.” Or we preach “family values,” but nothing distinguishes us from laissez-faire capitalists because we shy away from the Church’s very clear affirmations about the primacy of labor and the dignity human person.

Catholic moral teachings should be understood in context – that is to say, in the Christian context. Catholics are exhorted to exercise a “preferential option for the poor,” but not because we believe in the struggle to establish the rule of the proletariat, but because we believe in the infinite dignity of every human person. Catholics are exerted to work hard and obey the legitimate laws of the state, not because “that’s what will make America great,” but because we believe in the dignity and value of human work as a communal act for the common good.

John Paul II repeated in every one of his encyclicals this line from Gaudium et Spes:  “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. . . .Christ, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown.” And it was Pope Benedict who wrote that “every tradition is infected with the forces of the anti-human, which hamper man in his efforts to become himself,” and that therefore “the Church knows only one saving tradition: the tradition of Jesus.”

Thus when we’re teaching or setting forth rules, we have to find some way of communicating more effectively to our interlocutors that all these rules are intended for our benefit, for our ultimate flourishing and happiness as full and complete human beings – not merely in the next life, but in this one as well. Sin, on this view, is life-destroying; Christ is life-restoring. So, like Paul, we must first preach Christ and let everything else (much of it absolutely crucial) follow from that.

 
Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where he has recently been appointed to the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
 
 
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, October 06, 2013
When my then-bishop asked me to leave my secular job and take over as director of diocesan Catholic Charities, one of my first acts was to have an all-day retreat at the local Trappist monastery on the theme: "What does the "Catholic" in Catholic Charities mean?" I was unprepared for the two reactions I received. First, overt hostility and second, perplexity about what I could possibly be getting at.

From that time on, one of my favorite things to tell staff was that, if we can replace the "Catholic Charities" sign outside our office doors with a "United Way" sign and no one could detect a difference in how we conducted ourselves, we were in serious trouble.

Far too many areas of the Church operate outside a clear identity with Jesus Christ. I would have ongoing discussions with the director of Human Resources for our diocese about hiring Catholics to do the ministry of the Church which means to proclaim the Good news about Jesus Christ. I often asked how someone could be expected to proclaim the Good News through their work for the Church if they themselves have not been evangelized. I was told only certain essential personnel needed to be Catholic (as if it was irrelevant if the rest were expected to proclaim the Good News). And we wonder why the Church is in trouble. We don't know who we are.
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written by Robert Leblanc, October 06, 2013
Couldn't agree more. I have long said that the problem with our (Catholic) catechesis is that we are afraid to proclaim and teach Jesus. We may teach and proclaim many good things: social justice, good liturgy, beautiful theology, profound philosophy, the importance of community. All of this is right and proper but the problem is that we don't teach these things in addition to teaching about Jesus: we teach them instead of teaching Jesus, the one thing truly necessary.
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written by Avery Tödesulh, October 06, 2013
File under: pivot to Bergoglio
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written by Chris in Maryland, October 06, 2013
Amen Randall Smith:

The Catholic Church is drinking from the River Lethe, the mythical river-of-forgetfulness (in Hades).

It needs to stop thinking, speaking and doing through the lens of the world, and proclaim the Gospel and devote itself to those who suffer, including - especially these days - those who suffer for Christ's sake.
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written by Walter, October 06, 2013
Amen!

Some of your regular fellow columnists on this website would do well to reflect on this wisdom.
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written by Randall Smith, October 06, 2013
Mr. Todesulh,

If by "pivot to Bergoglio," you mean that Pope Francis has said something similar, then yes. But please do keep in mind the quotations from Popes Benedict and John Paul II I've quoted above (both of which served as the backdrop of their entire papacies): this "pivot" to Christ is nothing new. I would rather call it "a reflex motion," back to the source.

Walter, I have no authority to speak for my "fellow columnists," but I have no doubt they would affirm the essence of what I've said (even if any number of them would have been able to express it more eloquently).

To write about the Church's teaching on abortion or contraception or social justice is not to ignore Christ, it is to do what the Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) indicated we must: that is, "to read the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the Gospel message."

You're not suggesting we refuse to adhere to the spirit of the Council, are you?
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written by Thomas J. Hennigan, October 06, 2013
As for your comment about Latin American, I am not sure that what you say is the case any more, now that Liberation Theology has lost its shine. I now live in Peru and have lived previously in Argentina and Chile. I think that the principal reason for people going over to sects is that there is a lack of evangelization and catechesis. Many are baptized, receive First Communion and maybe confirmation, but they are not evangelized and thus easy pray to agressive evangelicals who often offer them money to get them into thier storefront outfit, and later on get them to pay thithese to their community. In some dioceses parishes are being divided into small areas, called sectors and these have their local leaders who carry out an excellent pastoral plan. That way the Church is not a huge structure far from them and their concerns. Also, it is necessary to listen to the people and give them their say. Much more needs to be done. Evangelical sects are disloyal, agressive, have an inferiority complex and are mostly characterized by hatred of the Catholic Church, which they see as have rights and privileges which they don't have. They never stop harn with the false idea that we adore statues. Not even the most unistructed Catholics adore statues, but that is their interpretation of Catholic popular religiosity here. This idea has been beaten into their minds by the pastors and there is no way of changing it, or in general of dialogue with them. However, they fail to understand that their reduced brand of Christianity is an extraneous plant here, where the popular culture has been formed over centuries to a good degree by the Church from the time of the Spanish colonies. It is a combination of Spanish and indigenous elements.
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written by Avery Tödesulh, October 07, 2013
Stripped of my umlaut by Dr. Smth! I am bereft!
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written by Mike Hamann, October 07, 2013
Great work, Professor Smith! I shared this on-line article with my senior Catholic Social Teaching class today. Your idea that the starting point for social justice is a Christian anthropology and your admonition that we cannot reduce social justice to mere ideological assertions were particularly insightful. Mike Hamann
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written by Walter, October 07, 2013
Mr. Smith,

Thank you for your thoughtful reply. By all means, columnists should write about issues like abortion and homosexuality, and I did not suggest otherwise.

What is often lacking, however, is precisely what you highlight: an explicit Christian context. As other commenters have noted in the past, a fundamental yoking to Christ is somehow lacking if the name of Jesus or Church teaching are only mentioned occasionally in TCT columns. (I recall someone a few years ago counting the number of times "Jesus" appeared in TCT columns during a month vs. "Obama." Obama won by a landslide. Something is way off when this happens.)

To your point, if we only occasionally or indirectly reference Christ, we are at risk of sounding like an extension of Fox News or the National Review, even if they are cultural allies and their outlook happens to coincide with the Church's outlook on specific issues. US political conservatism does not equal Christianity.

Take Mr. Ruse's column on Friday, of which I was critical. He indeed highlighted some cultural truths about political activists. But Mr. Ruse never references Christ when discussing homosexuality, nor does he present the fullness of Catholic teaching, especially to those who need to hear it. Quite the opposite - he seems to delight most often in mocking them.

If we are only cultural warriors without an explicit Christian identity and a primary mission of sharing the Gospel, what purpose is served? True believers don't need convincing, and those most in need of conversion don't hear anything about the Gospel or any reason to hope.
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written by Chris in Maryland, October 07, 2013
But Walter:

Mr. Ruse is not giving homilies, he's working in the public square for "C-FAM," i.e., "Catholic Family."

Fighting the culture war being waged against us, against our will, is an explicit mark of Chritian identity.

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written by Walter, October 07, 2013
@Chris in Maryland. Are we reading the same column? Mr. Smith's suggestions are the responsibility of any Catholic in the public square, not just clerics giving a homily:

"We need to keep repeating this positive view of human flourishing so as not to support the media’s characterization of Christians as nothing but nay-sayers. Our job is to preach the Gospel as 'Good News,' not 'Bad News'.”

This is not just a clever PR-strategy. It is the reality of living out the fullness of the Christian faith.

There is a role for Catholic writers in the public square who relish their role as cultural warriors, but this can't take place in a vacuum. It should be clear not only what they are fighting for, but also who they are fighting for and why. Just wearing a badge that says "C-FAM" does not suffice.

Specifically on the subject of homosexuality, Mr. Ruse has never even hinted at "our ultimate flourishing and happiness as full and complete human beings." On this particular subject, it's always about rhetorical aerial bombardment. Were he only to bring a measure of the depth and compassion that he displayed in his "Littlest Suffering Souls" series.

There is also a larger danger of over-emphasizing the cultural warrior motif. At some point, we will come to believe that our salvation depends not on God's grace, but on our ability to crush our enemies in the culture war. At the point, we will have converted no one and put our own souls at risk.
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written by Pay, October 07, 2013
Walter,
Every single utterance is not about evangelization. You have to be able to speak to these matters in a variety of ways and venues. Your charge simply does not apply.
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written by Walter, October 07, 2013
Pay, every single utterance need not be a sermon or theological discourse. But if our lives, including those in the public square, do not fundamentally point toward evangelization,, our priorities need re-examination. The same if we spend more time talking about winning culture wars than evangelization.
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written by Hay-looo!, October 07, 2013
I have to go with Walter and Deacon Ed here on selling ourselves so cheaply and trying to out-secularize the secularists. They are not impressed. Look where that attitude got the Catholic universities.

The only nit I would like to pick is that Mr. Smith says that the moral life is good for us - the "rules" have "benefits". But atheists who live moral lives could say the same thing! We can't live our lives based on good consequences v. bad. It is Christ who informs our moral lives. He is the source of our orientation toward treating our fellow man as "person". Without Christ, our fellow man is "it". Without Christ, we are condemned to a life of cataloging consequences and making calculated prognostications. With Christ, we break free from that paranoia-inducing life and cross over to a life in Christ where we ask him to guide our choices and protect us from our stupidity.
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written by Pay, October 08, 2013
Walter,

Again, it is not always about evangelization. Our priorities are to do good and avoid evil. Context is key. The culture wars are misnamed. It is not about winning. It about defending others in particular children.
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written by Walter, October 08, 2013
Pay,
Yes, it is about evangelization! It sounds like you believe that evangelization belongs primarily in the clerical realm, like a sermon delivered at Mass, a Protestant-style tent revival or a theological essay. Evangelization is everyone's duty and is nothing more than spreading the faith in the living God through Jesus Christ. That is the very foundation of the Church, the only context for distinguishing good from evil and the rationale for defending the innocent children. At some basic level, a Catholic's work in the public square must point to this.
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written by Palo, October 22, 2013
I would've agreed with every word of yours about being less worldly, and then - "not merely in the next life" - What do you mean, MERELY?

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