For over fifty years, there has been a relentless campaign to reinterpret the Gospel in order to remove the Cross from Christian life. This has been done in the name of love, mercy, and realism – but it is none of these. It is a denial of God’s love manifest in the suffering of Christ that abandons people to sin, fear, and error. It is an apostasy that declares our sharing in God’s love sometimes impractical or impossible.
This crisis arose because Christian life ceased to be understood as a personal, communal participation in Jesus’ life. Had that awareness remained vigorous, Christians would not be scandalized by divine love’s call to share his suffering. The Cross would be recognized as the perfect revelation of love, not something to flee. Apart from it, we cannot really know love. (I Jn 3:16)
Love unites, making the loved one “another self” whose joys and sorrows become the lover’s own. Jesus could have known sin and evil abstractly (and thus painlessly) had he chosen to distance himself from us. Instead, he united himself to us intimately, thereby experiencing in his own humanity the concrete damage done to us by sin and evil. The physical agonies of his crucifixion paled in comparison.
Jesus suffered not only because of our sin, although that is the greatest evil. He also suffered because of the evil that befalls us in our innocence, especially when it is directed against our love for him. He bore all the neglect, abuse, and violence in our lives.
This loving union with Jesus, in turn, causes us to share his sufferings over the sin and evil that afflicts us and others. In this way, divine love unites us to God in Christ, brings us true contrition, arouses hatred for sin and evil, and moves us to suffer over others.
The Cross – our encounter with sin and evil – has thus changed from an experience of isolation, alienation, and destruction into a place of personal communion with God, Christ, and all humanity, which offers victory despite our powerlessness.
Jesus’ suffering on the Cross reveals that sin and evil are not so much violations of abstract principles as concrete ways in which human life is spiritually, psychologically, and physically damaged. In every situation, culpable or not, they are contrary to our well-being. Hence, they are contrary to God and his love for us. That is why both sin and evil were so painful for Jesus – and why they should pain us.
Christians, then, suffer in a particular way on account of past sins or innocent encounters with evil. This can be excruciating, but never destructive. On the contrary, this particular pain signifies that God is with us and that his love is drawing us deeper into the crucified heart of the Risen Christ. Divine love unfailingly enables us to hope all things, to endure all things, and not to be separated from Jesus, even when this love results in death. (I Cor 13:7-8; Rom 8:35-39)
Once this perspective is forgotten, Christian life is readily misunderstood as a submission to abstract teachings rather than a participation in the life of Jesus. Consequently, the demands of love take on the distorted appearance of legalistic obligations that sometimes seem merciless or unrealistic because they require suffering.
This false perception leads revisionist moralists (including some bishops) to claim that a merciful escape from “abstract norms” can be found by considering practical factors such as ignorance, pressure, feasibility, or private conscience. They believe this is a loving accommodation to human limitations.
Thus, they argue that contraception or abortion preserves the life of a mother; continuing an adulterous second marriage prevents a spouse and children being abandoned; gay marriage encourages commitment; or that assisted suicide avoids an agonizing death. Some revisionists claim these are not only tolerable options, but can actually be moral duties.
This is not love or mercy. It denies that Christ’s love frees us to suffer willingly rather than to be mastered by sin, pressure, or error. It claims it can be right to avoid Christ’s freedom, especially when that freedom leads to the Cross. It prevents our setting others free or suffering over them by declaring their situation and actions acceptable when, in reality, these remain harmful and inhuman (even if not culpable).
Jesus did not come to end suffering in life, and certainly not to call Christians down from the Cross. He proclaimed a love that draws everyone to the Cross in order to share his sorrow and joy. (Jn 12:32, 17:13-15; Mt 16:21-27) He warned that we would suffer precisely because we love him more than others, the world, and ourselves.
Christians have accepted horrifying agonies for themselves and their loved ones rather than deny God or even appear to do so. Why, then, should a Christian deny God under pressure through contraception, abortion, a false marriage, homosexual union, or assisted suicide?
Isn’t martyrdom rather than the slightest sin required of us all, not as an abstract norm, but as a matter of love? That’s the path Jesus chose. How realistic, then, are the revisionists’ alternatives?
The Church understands that fear or ignorance can lead people to fail to love as they should, harming themselves and others. That is why she showed mercy to those who lapsed during persecutions. But she affirmed they had failed to act according to Jesus’ love and needed to change. Holy Communion was withheld until they rejected the sin, fear, or error that led to their lapse.
If bishops and theologians wish to be merciful and realistic, they will once again proclaim Jesus and his Cross, boldly admitting that sharing his life and love leads to sufferings that could otherwise be avoided. There’s no greater or more realistic mercy than to help others embrace Christ, sharing his agony, rejection, and death.
Only those who have forgotten this, the heart of the Gospel, could abandon others to the evils that beset them, declaring the path of love infeasible, impossible, or something to escape.
*Image: The Crucifixion by Nicolas Tournier, c.1635 [Louvre, Paris]