Modern Morality Chitchat
by Rev. Jerry Pokorsky
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index
Matthew wrote to show that Christ was the
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.
Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people: "What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, 'Son, go out and work in the vineyard today,' He said in reply, 'I will not,' but afterwards he changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, 'Yes sir,' but did not go. Which of the two did his father's will?" They answered, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him.
In Sunday’s Gospel we read that Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people, "Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him." It’s a biting rebuke for those who, as we say today, “talk the talk” of religion but don’t “walk the walk.” But aren’t we always looking for increasingly creative ways to circumvent God’s prophets and law?
Recently there has been a lot of chitchat inside and outside the church about a “new springtime” and “inclusion” of contemporary cultural expectations with respect to the Sixth Commandment. In time, we are to expect a re-examination of divorce and remarriage with new and improved “pastoral solutions”; relaxing and redefining the church’s teaching on contraception; and openness to same-sex unions. The narrative template is familiar to those who lived through the post-Conciliar years leading up to the release of “Humanae Vitae” in 1968. The presumption was that the church’s authority was not that of prophetic witness, but legislative and creative — issuing and revoking rules and regulations like those of a tax code. In this view, Catholic moral teaching is merely juridical and positivistic.
The facile suggestion that the church can somehow change its teaching — like a new president changing political policy positions — reveals a pattern of moral thinking that fits nicely into the relativism of modern culture. But it isn't Christian. It's really a demand for priests, bishops and popes to exercise a new form of the ugly clericalism that Vatican II was supposed to call out, identify and suppress. Priests, bishops and popes are not masters of life and God’s commandments; they are but His ministers and should be faithful witnesses. It’s the stuff of true humility.
The culture presumptuously holds that husbands and wives (or "domestic partners") are really the masters of life, rather than the ministers of life God created them to be. There are those who seem to believe that the time has come for the church to recognize that it’s not her role to “intrude” on the private lives of her members with “sex-obsessed” rules. Of course, this has been the anti-Catholic mantra since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, but turn on the television or surf the Internet. Is it the church that’s “obsessed with sex,” or is it the culture at large? So it’s said the time has come for the church to “get out of the bedroom” and, presumably, move on to socially relevant stands, such as preaching against global warming and unrestrained volcanic activity. The scepter of moral teaching authority has passed to the prevailing culture, that is, to the “world,” as St. John understood that term.
What many observers (even within the church) may not realize is that adultery, contraception and homosexual behavior aren’t wrong because the Bible and the church teaches they’re wrong. They’re wrong because these actions truly violate God's law — the actions are immoral even before the church wraps words around the teaching for clarification. The Church teaches the difference between good and bad morality as a witness — or in terms of shedding light and amplification — not as some kind of religious government agency presuming to be a “master of morality.” Only God is the master of morality as He is the master of life. And the church is His witness.
Priests working in the trenches of the confessional know that many flawed but good people are fighting the good fight of sanctity. St. Paul, in his own prophetic way, echoes the words of Christ when he acknowledges the same, “… do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:9-12).
The church’s traditional moral teaching regarding sexuality is said to be irrelevant today and needs to be brought into the 21st century. But if the church is irrelevant, how would changing its teaching to coincide with mainstream cultural practices make it more “relevant”? Could it actually be that her countercultural teaching is truly relevant precisely because it is prophetic and it stings consciences? Could it be the secular media and the culture and many of us in the church are like spoiled children who do not want to hear the authoritative voice of Christ in rebuke? Could it be that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before us because they are responding with repentance, not merely paying religious lip service the Lord condemns?
The hard teachings of the church have never been “popular” for the same reason that Christ’s hard teachings led to his rejection and to the cross for execution. There is never a need to reinvent or explain away the Ten Commandments. It’s always relevant to rediscover and live them with God’s grace.
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index