Jesus told the Apostles to “make disciples of all nations” by baptizing them and teaching them to observe all that he commanded. At present, however, the Church is not united in this task and many Catholics no longer believe that unity of faith and practice is essential for the Christian life. They advocate allowing the understanding of Christ’s commands to vary among individuals, dioceses, and regions. This deprives the world of the compelling, communal witness to the abundant life Jesus died to bring us. (Jn 10:10-11 and 17:21-23)
Note that Jesus didn’t simply direct the Apostles to baptize and to teach, but to foster the actual observance of his commandments in the life of the community. Baptism is essential because it’s the means by which God comes to dwell in us and we in him. That indwelling unites us in sharing Jesus’ life and work as members of his Body and Bride.
But our participation, our communion in Christ’s life within the Church is for a purpose. It enables metanoia, the ongoing conversion of mind and heart by which we are transformed and purified in order to enter more fully into his life and to become a means of bringing his life to others.
If we aren’t clear about the nature of this new life, we can’t hope to bear an authentic or effective witness to Jesus and the gift he brings. He didn’t come merely to pardon our sins or to open the Gates of Heaven. He came to draw us to himself so that we could share his divine and eternal life here on earth (although we do so imperfectly). This is the more abundant life that he promised to the fallen human race.
Many within the Church, including clergy, have forgotten that this abundant life is damaged not only by sin but by error. We can cause harm innocently, but the injury is still real. For example, people once believed mercury was a helpful medical treatment, but it slowly killed them. Individuals and industries thought it was impossible for their actions to significantly damage the atmosphere and sea, yet that’s what happened.
Ignorance or good intentions are not enough to protect people, their loved ones, or the world from the consequences of bad behavior. The ethical environment can be degraded just like the material environment. If you oppress others, create unjust economies, kill the mentally ill, promote divisive ideologies, distort sexuality, act inhumanely, etc., there will be personal and communal consequences – even if you do so innocently.
We need to recognize the enormous suffering in the world caused often without malice. Those actions burden everyone affected by them even though they don’t separate anyone from God. Jesus loves us and redeems such sufferings by allowing us to endure them as a sharing in his Cross. But he also desires that we not make life more difficult or harmful for ourselves and others through ignorance and error.
It’s equally important to realize that innocent bad behavior can cause scandal; it can create circumstances that tempt others who know better to sin. This can happen directly by fostering social settings that permit or encourage such actions. It can also happen indirectly by creating pressures to conform or by establishing unjust situations that drive a person to sinful reactions.
In our culture, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to speak of truth and error or to confront scandal. We’re trained to believe that individual autonomy permits us to construct our own identities as well as the meaning and goal of our lives. Proclaiming a truth that goes beyond private opinion or that critiques someone’s self-created view of the world is considered impolite, judgmental, or hateful. Opposing policies that would compel cooperation with evil is considered bigotry.
Many Catholics, like other Christians, have adapted to this culture by replacing Jesus’ commandments with their own conscience. That is, they claim that those who sincerely follow conscience don’t need to observe Christ’s teachings as proclaimed by his Apostles and Church. Even priests and bishops embrace this error.
The mission of the Church, however, is to announce that Jesus is Lord and to summon her members and the world to share his life through the ongoing conversion of metanoia by actually living according to his teachings. That conversion requires us not only to turn away from sin but also from innocent errors which distort our mind, heart, and conscience.
Conversion isn’t first of all about authority and obedience, it’s about love and truth. Jesus called on all of us to acknowledge sin and error and to change our lives. The rich young man walked away. Some who became disciples later left because they found his sayings hard. He was saddened by their rejection because he loved them, but he didn’t chase after them or apologize for confronting their mistaken attitudes, opinions, and actions.
Christ acted and spoke as he did because love and truth go together. To claim to love someone and then to pretend their ethical errors or sins don’t exist or aren’t important isn’t kindness; it’s evil. To accept people into your home or into the Church while telling them their continued abuse of themselves or others is a matter of private conscience isn’t an act of hospitality. It is a callous disregard for them and those they harm.
Since Jesus would never abort infants, exploit workers, or commit evil acts, how can Christians be given permission to approve, promote, or commit such offenses against him, themselves, others, and the Gospel? How can the Church fail to correct and denounce the false witness of Christians who outrageously claim these inhuman actions are compatible with Christ and his love?
More to the point, how can priests and bishops abandon the Church and the world to such destructive errors despite Jesus’ mandate to bear witness to him and the abundant life he offers? The resulting scandal obstructs the path to healing the errors and sins that threaten us all. Better a millstone be tied around our necks.
*Image: Narcissus Admiring his Reflection by Francesco Curradi, c. 1650 [Palatine Gallery, Pitti Palace, Florence, Italy]