The Bad News about the Good News

We know from Greek, Latin, and Old English sources, that the word Gospel, means “good news.” It is, indeed, good news, for Gospel refers to the teaching and revelation of Christ. St. Paul says (in the Good News Bible translation): “I reckon my own life to be worth nothing to me; I only want . . . to declare the Good News about the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24)

In many liturgies and homilies these days, we seem to be thoroughly marinated in good news. Masses are happy, homilies are happy, Church music is happy, and everybody is happy as he leaves Mass, having shaken hands with the happy priest, who has sent us forth to be, well, happy.

The “Good News” of Christ’s mercy and love, as revealed to us in and by His sacred life and Paschal Mystery, has become the occasion for celebration (even some “liturgical dancing”), but only rarely the inspiration for sober reflection on the Bad News about the Good News.

We seem unable to meditate on the profound and real evil in and around us – which may be why our spirituality seems so shallow to many inside and outside the Church. By contrast, we are reminded, practically daily, that the grievous intolerance is, allegedly, woven into the very fabric of our cultural, governmental, and educational institutions.

We are regularly instructed now by the secular powers-that-be how evil it is to cling to our Bibles and guns; and we are told to dismiss any notion of universal ethical norms, which are, they say, incompatible with what currently passes for the democratic spirit.

So what used to be called holy Mass is now all about our feeling good. Mass is all about a convivial spirit; it’s about “lightening up”; it’s about having a happy time with your neighbor in the pews (be sure to introduce yourself), and having a respite from the important burdens of what life is really all about.

We most certainly don’t need some modern-day priestly Savonarola telling us about sin, sorrow, suffering, and salvation (or the danger of not attaining it). No need for some Rambo-in-the-ambo to tell us that evil runs through every human heart and every human culture.

All the “old stuff” about this being a vale of tears went out along with the Douay-Rheims Bible (see Psalm 83:7 there). Vatican II repealed all the fire-and-brimstone, didn’t it? Now, the heart of the Gospel message is non-judgmentalism, open-mindedness, and, yes, joyful liturgies.

Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven by Fra Angelico, c. 1424 [National Gallery, London]

We read, however, in what Vatican II actually said in the Constitution Gaudium et Spes that “The whole of man’s history has been the story of dour combat with the powers of evil, stretching, so our Lord tells us, from the very dawn of history until the last day. Finding himself in the midst of the battlefield, man has to struggle to do what is right” (#37).

That document also teaches that the Church must echo St. Paul, who warned us: “Do not be conformed to this world.” (Rom 12:2) “‘World’ here means a spirit of vanity and malice whereby human activity from being ordered to the service of God and man is distorted to an instrument of sin.”

The Salve, Regina seems strange to the ears of modern Catholics in its appeal to Our Lady: “Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness, and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee to we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.”

The Catechism similarly teaches us that sin – and the sorrow arising, ultimately, from it – is not “a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure.” (#387) It is, rather, part of the morally compromised human condition, in which all of us share.

Sin is evil. Sin is deliberate disobedience to God’s will. Sin rejects divine goodness and mercy, and it substitutes the self for the Savior, which is why it needs a Savior. That’s the Bad News. The Good News of the Gospel, by contrast, tells us that Jesus saves those with the will to follow Him.

All are welcome in the Church. But here, too, though, there is “bad news,” for the holy sacrifice of the Mass begins with this adjuration: “Brethren, let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.” We confess and repent, striking the breast: “I have greatly sinned [that is, I have participated in evil], in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”

Yes, a real “downer”! Doesn’t that sound as though we are in a self-made vale of tears, like the old “Catholic guilt” business again? Yes, it does; and it should.

St. Augustine was very clear: “God created us without us: but He did not will to save us without us.” (CCC #1847). The Good News only makes sense if we understand the Bad News: we are sinners very much in need of Our Lord’s teaching and saving grace. Therefore, we must first admit our sin and then seek, by divine grace, to amend our lives. We must try always and everywhere to follow the settled teaching of Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church. And we must work out our salvation fervently desiring to please God in all we think, say, and do. (cf. Phil 2:13)

James H. Toner

James H. Toner

Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary.

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