For better or for worse, most priests and bishops today try to be relevant. In 1965, Pope Paul VI released the documents of Vatican II. Among them was Gaudium et Spes, “The Church in the Modern World.” Henceforth, with renewed vigor, we would engage the world. It didn’t take long for the new spirit of worldly occupation to crowd out our devotions. But a funny thing happened on the road to a relevant Church.
In 1968, I was a freshman in a Catholic high school run by the Christian Brothers, dressed in proper habits. A local priest taught religion, and I learned traditional moral tools such as “the principle of double effect.” By the following year, the Christian Brothers had become relevant. As the school year opened, they cast off their religious garb and sported Beatles haircuts and sideburns. In religion class, we listened to groovy music, such Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence.”
The Mass got relevant. Vatican II merely permitted English (the vernacular) in the Mass but did not mandate it. Pastors, inflamed with the spirit of Vatican II, went even further than English. We got hootenanny Masses, then folk Masses, and even polka Masses for the elderly. That’s entertainment! But it’s not worship.
Soon the hierarchy got relevant. The (Jesuit) Berrigan brothers became prominent anti-war activists, pouring blood on draft records and practicing other radical antics. Priests married nuns. Back in the day, they called their new and exciting ministries “raising consciousness” (the precursor of “woke”).
Many people wanted “relevant Church doctrines” – which is more polite than “Don’t tell me what to do!” In 1968, when Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the immorality of contraception, many priests and religious rebelled.
Rebellion was easy back then. Priests like Andrew Greeley (the Chicago sociologist and best-selling author of dirty books) suggested we would lose many Catholics by holding to “irrelevant” Church teaching. You know, just like Jesus losing most of His disciples during the Eucharistic Discourse: “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (Jn. 6:53)
The USCCB (under a different name back then) got relevant. Over many decades, the USCCB commented on every known social issue. Does anyone take the endless documents on immigration, the economy, global warming or global cooling, or climate change – whatever – seriously?
Indeed, to a large extent, priests and bishops ceased to be relevant shepherds and became sheep of the culture, wholly-owned subsidiaries of liberal fashions. Over the past fifty years “The Role of the Church in the Modern World” became “The Role of the Modern World in the Church.”
Fifty years of “Please, like me!” tactics haven’t worked. Despite our best efforts, we have become irrelevant. Let’s try something new – and old. Let’s try the truth of the Gospel:
• Men, be faithful to your wives in marriage. Be kind and considerate. If you are involved with porn, give it up. Just do it.
• Ladies, this is from the Book of Proverbs: “It is better to sit in a corner of the housetop than with a quarrelsome wife and an unruly household.” (Prov. 25:24)
• Fathers, your kids don’t need you as a friend. They need you as a father. Expect their respect. Discipline them in charity and justice.
• If you have kids in public schools and are oblivious to the family-life education program, you are bad parents. Never allow that brood of vipers to corrupt your kids. Begin by making principals cringe at the sound of your voice.
• Speaking of broods of vipers, do not allow Catholic authorities who dissent from the Church’s teaching on human sexuality to ruin your life. They risk the fires of Hell and threaten to take you with them.
• You never pray as a family outside of church and neglect their religious education? Shame on you!
• Do not allow misbehaving children to manipulate you. If they are leading immoral lives, don’t be shy in measuring their actions against the Ten Commandments. They are not rejecting you. They are rejecting God.
• Kids, if you’re spending countless hours in the basement with video games, get a life. Do your chores, study hard, pray.
• If your smartphone is in your hand or in front of you at the dinner table, you are rude and disrespectful.
• You are not a victim. Christians in Africa and the Middle East who die violently because of their faith are victims. Grow up. Take responsibility for your life and keep working.
• Lousy job? Be honest and hardworking until you find a new one. Don’t whine. Support your family. “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31)
• Have you ever heard of “Catholic guilt” – a form of whining and complaining about the burdens of the faith? Get over it. Guilt is usually good. It’s part of the nervous system of the soul.
• Don’t make Jesus sick. “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:15-16) Practice your faith with increasing fervor.
Afraid that you won’t practice what you preach? Go to Confession often – it won’t disqualify you from preaching the Gospel. Invite critics to join you. There is always room for one more sinner who is confident in the truth but not confident in himself. But please don’t ask us to change the Gospel and abandon common sense in order to be “relevant.”
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He lays down His life for His sheep, and He never minces words or equivocates. He lost a lot of parishioners during His three years of public ministry. His courageous honesty throughout His ministry led to the Cross. But that Cross is the great sign of His relevance in this life and for eternity.
*Image: Saint John the Baptist Bearing Witness by Annibale Carracci, c. 1600 [The MET, New York]