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The Language of Retreat

A priest friend, who is in the trenches as a pastor, was recently confronted by a man whom he would not allow to be a sponsor for a baptism, since the man was not a practicing Catholic. The man argued that he was basically a Catholic in his heart, so what’s the big deal?

The priest explained that there is a very big deal in play. What is at stake, in the final analysis, is the man’s own personal salvation, and the important example that he could not give his nephew in the future, were he allowed to be a godparent while refusing to change his ways. The Church has good, logical reasons for requiring a sponsor to be a practicing Catholic. The man went away, not sad like the rich young man, but angry. And he vented his anger with his brother, the father of the child about to be baptized.

The father called my friend and asked what was going on. The good priest patiently explained the nature of baptism and the important spiritual responsibilities of a sponsor. The man was very patient and asked more questions. At the end of the conversation, he thanked the priest and revealed that he was in an invalid marriage and wanted to do something about it as a result of their conversation.

The process is now underway to restore this man and his family to a full life in the Catholic Church. That simply would not have happened had the priest failed at his own responsibilities for the care of souls and simply signed the sponsor certificate to avoid being “offensive.”

When I heard about this pastoral event, I had just read about the Primate of Ireland’s comment suggesting, not too subtly, that Cardinal Burke’s comment on the Irish referendum was offensive – when Burke had simply stated that even pagans in the past had never considered a homosexual relationship equivalent to marriage.

The Primate insisted that we have to be very careful never to be offensive in any way to Catholics who favor homosexual marriage or the homosexuals themselves who insist upon the right to marry. But what especially caught my eye was that he saw no problem with baptizing a baby of a homosexual couple: “there’s no difficulty. . .what we’re interested in is that child able to be raised as a member of the Church, and of course they are.”

No difficulty? And “of course they are” able to be raised as a member of the Church? What can that peculiar interpretation of canon law possibly mean to the average Catholic? Doesn’t it suggest that the Church now sees no important difference between the situation of an invalid but natural union, say of divorced Catholics, and the invalid and totally unnatural union of a same-sex couple, when it comes to raising a child, let alone raising a child as a Catholic?

Indeed, the way the Irish primate puts it makes rather clear that this is already the general practice of the Church in Ireland. That fact may give us a clue as to why the referendum went the way it did, and another reason why the Church has lost its credibility in Ireland.

The idea that a homosexual couple, civilly married or not, can meet the criteria of Canon 868.2, “there be a well-founded hope that the child will be brought up in the Catholic religion” or otherwise “the baptism is, in accordance with the provisions of particular law, to be deferred” is bizarre to say the least. How does this mesh with the much lesser responsibilities of a sponsor, who to be permitted to be such, must “live[s] a life of faith which befits the role to be undertaken.” (874. 3)

What perception of reality must one have to think there is a “well-founded” hope of the child being raised Catholic by a couple whose state of life and public posture so totally rejects the Church’s teaching on marriage, chastity, and family? It’s a virtual textbook-definition of scandal when the parish priest has no problem in ignoring the rational interpretation of those canons and sees no reason to defer such a baptism? What does it mean to be raised a Catholic or even to be a Catholic anymore in such a lax Church environment? Why bother?

We have long been living in a Church environment that often seems to have no serious discipline when it comes to the sacraments and their reception. The one overarching principle is never to offend anyone: use no language that could be interpreted by anyone as offensive; no denials of the sacraments even to people who are Catholic in name only but never practice; and no real respect for canon law and its common sense application e.g., no real difference between a well-founded hope and blithe wishful thinking.

Where there is no real discipline about the most sacred of the Church’s institutions, it’s no surprise that people no longer take the Church seriously enough to bother practicing its “religion.”

Finally, just what is the end result of the contemporary obsession never to be offensive. Who determines what, exactly, is “offensive”? That’s a rather critical question. And the answer is: it’s most often the very people who find the Church’s moral doctrine offensive, period, no matter what language is used.

At times, one has to speak the truth harshly, though charitably, just to be heard, as Flannery O’Conner pointed out. Jesus Himself did not hesitate to refer to the Pharisees as whited sepulchers, or to warn them that they would “die in their sins” if they refused to believe in Him.

A British priest once quipped that some think the trouble with Jesus was that he never had a proper education in an elite (British) public school. Under the current warped etiquette, could Jesus get a see in Ireland or most of the Western Church today?


Fr. Mark A. Pilon (1943-2018) was a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA. He received a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Santa Croce University in Rome. He was a former Chair of Systematic Theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary, and a retired and visiting professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. He writes regularly at littlemoretracts.wordpress.com.