Monday, October 18, 2004

How do we know what the Bible teaches?

(Twenty-ninth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on October 18, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-ninth Sunday 2004]

I had two interesting experiences recently involving the Bible. One was my exchange in the Westerly Sun with Mr. David Madden, who was trying to convince me (and the rest of our community) that the Bible does not condemn homosexual activity. Well, leaving aside Romans 1, Mark 7, and the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, there’s Leviticus 18:22 which says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; such a thing is an abomination.”

I wonder what part of the word “abomination” Mr. Madden doesn’t understand.

The second experience took the form of a conversation I had in the rectory living room about a week ago with an angry parishioner, who lambasted me for talking about abortion and other social issues in my homilies.

She said, “When I come to church, I want to hear about the Bible, not those other things.”

All of this raises a very interesting question: What exactly is the Bible?

Is it a book that we can interpret as we see fit? Is it a book that can be interpreted in contradictory ways?—which is what Mr. Madden seems to believe.

Is it a book of fairy tales that we read in church once a week so that we can feel good about ourselves and escape from the harsh realities of daily life?

Well thankfully today, in our second reading from 2 Timothy 3, these important issues about the Bible are addressed. Timothy, of course, was a frequent companion of the apostle Paul and a presbyter (a priest) in the early Church.

Paul begins this passage by saying to his young friend, “Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it.” The implication here is that Timothy was bound by something objective—something objective which he had been taught. Thus he was not free to decide for himself what was true and false, right and wrong, good and evil (which is precisely what Mr. Madden and many other people today believe). According to Paul, Timothy had to be faithful to a body of revealed, objective truth—a body of truth which had been taught to him by his good teachers. Those teachers, incidentally, would certainly have included his mother, Eunice, and his grandmother, Lois, who are both mentioned by name in the first chapter of this letter.

Then Paul commends Timothy for knowing the Scriptures (in this context “Scriptures” refers to the Old Testament, because there wasn’t any New Testament yet!).

In our day and age, of course, many claim to “know” the Bible. But the interesting thing is they often disagree! As Mr. Madden pointed out in one of his letters in the Sun, there are divergent and even contradictory opinions today concerning what the Bible teaches on homosexuality and just about every other subject.

So how do we know if a particular Biblical interpretation is legitimate or erroneous? How do we know if it’s in accord with the “objective truth” that Paul told Timothy he must be faithful to?

Mr. Madden asked me a similar question in the Sun when he said, “What determines when we will be bound by the authority of Scripture and when we will not?”

For those who missed my response, I’ll give it again here, because it merits repeating in this context:

“True Christians would—and should—answer that we are always bound by the authority of Scripture. But, to be fair, Madden’s question does point to the deeper and more troublesome issue of proper biblical interpretation. How do we know what a given passage of Scripture really means? He mentions the divergent opinions among Christians concerning various verses of Mark 7 and 10. As we all know, such opposing views are common regarding these and many other key biblical texts.
Catholics respond to this problem by saying that this is precisely why Jesus Christ established an authoritative Church on the Rock of St. Peter (see Matthew 16!). Knowing the proclivity of human beings to twist and pervert God’s timeless truth, Christ set up an authoritative Church to faithfully interpret his authoritative Scriptures.
Without the Church to guide us in understanding God’s holy word, biblical interpretation becomes nothing more than ‘your opinion versus my opinion.’”

So the teaching of the Church is the key: it’s the key that unlocks the door to the REAL truth of Christ!

In this passage from 2 Timothy Paul then says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for . . . “(here he lists several things, all of which relate to my conversation in the rectory living room the other day with that angry parishioner).

Paul first says that all Scripture is useful for “teaching.”

For teaching what?

For teaching the truth (the objective truth he referred to a few lines earlier): the truth about who God is; the truth about the meaning of life; the truth about Jesus Christ and salvation; the truth about the dignity of the human person and the truth about God’s commandments. And, lest we forget, one of those commandments is, “Thou shalt not kill”—which has a direct connection to abortion and to several other sins.

He goes on to say that all Scripture is useful for “refutation.”

For the refutation of what?

For the refutation of lies and errors about God, and salvation, and the human person, and the commandments, and a host of other things, including abortion! (The reason I keep mentioning abortion here is because our parishioner didn’t seem to see any connection between this sin and the Bible. But—as I trust I’m making clear—there IS a connection!)

Paul then says that all Scripture is useful for “correction.”

For the correction of whom?

For the correction of those who are in sin and error—and especially of those who stubbornly persist in their sin and error (which certainly includes those who publicly support crimes against innocent human life, either at its beginning or at its end!).

And finally Paul says that all Scripture is useful for “training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”

And that’s the bottom line. If we allow God’s objective truth in the Bible—as taught by the Church—to form us and correct us and keep us from error and sin, we will be holy! We will be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ here on earth—and we will be on our way to heaven, whenever the Lord calls us home.

This is why I will continue to do what St. Paul tells Timothy, the priest, to do at the end of this text. He says, “Proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.”

That’s the vocation of a priest. It’s been that way since the time of Timothy. By the way, he is now in heaven; he is enjoying eternal life with Jesus Christ—and (no doubt) with many of the people to whom he preached during his life.

And that’s where I want to be someday, along with everyone who hears me proclaim God’s word from a pulpit! Which is precisely why I will continue to preach the way I’ve always preached!

Sunday, October 10, 2004

The ‘Tolerance’ Of Those Who Oppose Christ And His Gospel

St. Paul

(Twenty-eighth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on October 10, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read 1Timothy 2: 8-13.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-eighth Sunday 2004]

You could entitle this homily, “The ‘Tolerance’ of those who oppose Christ and his Gospel” (please note: tolerance there is in quotes).

At the time of St. Paul, the enemies of Christ and his Truth made no secret about their intolerance. That explains Paul’s remark at the beginning of today’s second reading from 1 Timothy 2. He says, “Beloved: Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David: such is my gospel, for which I am suffering, even to the point of chains, like a criminal.”

In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul goes into a little more detail about the nature of these sufferings. He writes, “Five times at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes less one; three times I was beaten with rods; I was stoned once, shipwrecked three times; I passed a day and a night on the sea. I traveled continually, endangered by floods, robbers, my own people, the Gentiles; imperiled in the city, in the desert, at sea, by false brothers; enduring labor, hardship, many sleepless nights; in hunger and thirst and frequent fastings, in cold and nakedness.”

And then, in the next line of 2 Corinthians 11, Paul makes it clear that this is not an exhaustive list!

Now some of those sufferings he mentioned were from natural causes, but most of them were not! Most were caused by human beings who openly opposed Jesus Christ and his message. These men and women were intolerant of the Gospel, and they were honest and clear about it!

Not so in today’s world!

Today those who oppose the Gospel regularly call themselves “tolerant.” And they normally get away with it! Furthermore, they label those of us who believe in Christ and in New Testament morality “intolerant,” “narrow-minded,” “hateful,” “discriminatory” and a host of other negative things.

I’ll give you one example of the phenomenon. Recently I exchanged letters in the Westerly Sun with a Mr. “W” (I won’t use his full name, because I don’t want that to distract from the issue).

He began the exchange by writing a letter in support of gay marriage. I responded by taking the foundational assertion of his argument and illustrating its weakness. He said (and here I quote), “I believe encouraging and supporting loving, committed relationships strengthens society as a whole.”

The essence of his argument was that many gay people enjoy loving and committed relationships, therefore they should be able to marry.

I responded by saying that I also believe in encouraging and supporting loving, committed relationships. But not every loving, committed relationship qualifies as a marriage! For example, a good, responsible mother has a loving, committed relationship with her son, but that does not mean she should be able to marry her son!

Then I wrote, “If marriage is defined simply as a ‘loving, committed relationship,’ then what will prevent legalized incest or legalized polygamy or even legalized bestiality in the future? After all, I know many people who dearly love their pets! They are as deeply devoted to their dogs and cats as many human beings are to one another.”

Mr. W thought I was making a sarcastic statement, but I was not. In fact, there are constitutional lawyers in this country who have been saying the very same thing ever since the Supreme Court struck down the Texas anti-sodomy law last year.

Anyway, Mr. W responded by implying that I was all those things I said earlier: intolerant, narrow-minded, hateful and discriminatory.

He said that he preferred to focus his spiritual efforts on “acceptance in place of discrimination, on optimism in place of fear and on love in place of hate.”

The implication he was making is that he’s tolerant and I’m not.

To which I wrote the following final response:

"Let me offer one final observation concerning Mr. W’s support of gay marriage.
If Mr. W and those like him are as "tolerant" as they claim to be, why are they so intolerant of me and others who espouse traditional moral values?
If their tolerance is sincere and real, then they should affirm my viewpoint as readily as they affirm their own.
But they don't. Which means they are as intolerant of Christian moral norms as I am of the violation of those norms.
That's something we all need to be clear about."

The title of this homily is, “The ‘Tolerance’ of those who oppose Christ and his Gospel.” Tolerance is in quotes there because it really isn’t tolerance at all. And those of us who are standing with Christ in today’s decadent culture need to understand this, so that we won’t be intimidated by those who try to silence us by calling us “intolerant.” They are as intolerant as we are!

But they’re intolerant of the Gospel, while we are intolerant of sin and moral evil! That’s the difference—and it’s a big difference.

Does that mean we’re perfect and they aren’t?

No, it doesn’t. We’re all sinners. We’re just sinners who know we’re sinners—which is a first and necessary step in the process of being forgiven.

Let me conclude today by paraphrasing the words of St. Paul at the end of this text, in order to illustrate their true meaning. Paul writes, “If we have died with Christ [by being baptized and by living a life of faith in which we are intolerant of sin], then we shall also live with Christ; if we persevere in holiness and in our intolerance of sin, we shall also reign with him. But if we deny Christ by tolerating sin within ourselves, then he will deny us. If we are unfaithful in this way, however, Christ will still remain faithful to us. He will not condone our sin, but until the last moment of our life he will offer us his mercy and forgiveness. And if we repent, we will receive those gifts from him, for he cannot deny himself.”

When it comes to sin, my brothers and sisters, Jesus Christ is exceedingly intolerant! That’s a fact! And for that, we should be grateful. But when he encounters a truly repentant heart, that very same Jesus Christ is exceedingly merciful.

And for that, we should be even more grateful!

Sunday, October 03, 2004

How People Lose Their Faith

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

(Twenty-seventh Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on October 3, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Habakkuk 1: 2-3; 2: 2-4; 1 Timothy 1: 6-8, 13-14; Luke 17: 5-10.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-seventh Sunday 2004]

Our readings this morning all remind us of the importance of faith.

In today’s first reading the Lord speaks to the prophet Habakkuk and the suffering people of Judah, and he promises them that if they persevere in their faith, they will someday be rewarded: “For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late. The rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.”

In today’s second reading from 2 Timothy 1 St. Paul makes it clear that those who possess the gift of faith have an inner power—an inner strength—which comes from the Holy Spirit. He says, “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control.”

And in our Gospel passage from Luke 17, Jesus tells us that faith enables us to do what we could never do otherwise. He says, "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to the mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

Obviously, the importance of faith cannot be overestimated!

Sadly, however, we’ve all known people who have lost this precious gift—people who have lost their faith. On that note, a few weeks ago I was listening to a talk by Johnette Benkovic, who hosts a weekly television program on EWTN. I’m sure many of you have seen her show. In this particular talk, she made a very interesting observation concerning how people lose their faith. She said, “Most of the time, faith is not lost in a single instant. That’s not the way it happens. When you lose your faith, you normally lose it one decision at a time, one choice at a time.”

That is so true!

Bad decisions, slowly but surely, destroy faith.

Take, for example, the choice to skip Mass on a Sunday or Holyday. Whenever you make that choice, you first of all deprive yourself of hearing the truth, of hearing God’s word (and remember, the Bible says in Romans 10 that faith comes through hearing!). Furthermore, you deprive yourself of receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ—Jesus, who is the source of the power you need to live your faith.

Or how about the choice to avoid Confession when your conscience keeps telling you that you need it?

Or the choice to skip your daily prayer time; or the choice to participate in occult or New Age activities; or the choice to surround yourself with friends who are into drinking and drugs and promiscuous behavior; or the choice to let your questions about God and the Church go unanswered, so that the doubts in your mind grow and become more and more troubling?

These are all choices—bad choices—that will whittle away at your faith over time, and perhaps destroy it entirely.

But they’re the more obvious ones, aren’t they? In fact, if I hadn’t listed them, many of you could probably have done so quite easily.

Well, here’s one of the less obvious ones—one of the much less obvious ones, although I believe it’s one of the most deadly!—especially in our technological age, where information can be disseminated all over the globe in a matter of a few seconds.

It’s the choice to accept the information the world gives you uncritically. If you choose not to question what you hear about the Catholic Church and her teachings on the evening news; if you choose not to question what you read about the Church and her teachings in the local newspaper or in your history textbook at school—that is to say, if you accept all the information you receive from secular sources as if it were the gospel truth (pardon the pun), then your faith will very quickly be beaten into the ground. I can promise you that.

For example, as we all know, the liberal media in this country has demonized Pope Pius XII in recent years by portraying him as silent in the face of the Nazi holocaust of the Jews during World War II. Some have even gone so far as to accuse him of being a Nazi collaborator—Hitler’s good buddy! I ask you: How many Catholics have believed these lies and had their faith weakened—or even destroyed—in the process?

The answer is: MANY!

But the truth is that Pope Pius XII was responsible for saving more Jewish lives during the Second World War than any other single individual alive at the time (800,000 according to Pinchas Lapide, a Jewish historian).

Unfortunately, the only way you can discover that truth these days is to question what you hear from secular sources, and then do some hard research for yourself. If you make the mistake of accepting the information they give you about Pius XII uncritically, your faith will definitely be undermined.

Here’s another example—one that’s a bit more timely. It concerns a story that was all over the news just a few weeks ago. I think the best way to speak about this issue is to read you an excerpt from a recent article by Phil Lawler, the founder of Catholic World News:

If you live anywhere in the United States, you probably saw news stories [recently], reporting that Cardinal Ratzinger [in Rome] had issued a new statement, saying that Catholics CAN vote for a candidate who promotes legal abortion—as long as they’re casting that vote for other reasons.

Cardinal Ratzinger said no such thing.

In fact, Cardinal Ratzinger didn’t issue ANY new statement on the subject recently!

The story that has spread through the American press . . . is a complete fraud.

Frankly, the rapid spread of this thoroughly phony story reminds me, once again, of why I founded Catholic World News. If you want informed, reliable coverage of Catholic affairs, you just can’t count on the secular media—especially during an election year, when politicians and pundits are both willing to bend the facts to suit their own partisan purposes.

So what is the REAL story about Cardinal Ratzinger’s statement?

[Well] back in June, [the Cardinal] sent a letter to the US bishops, offering some guidance on how Church leaders should respond to Catholic politicians who promote abortion.

Washington’s Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, to whom the letter was addressed, chose NOT to share it with the other American bishops, and so Cardinal Ratzinger’s statement did not come to light for several weeks, until it was leaked to an Italian journalist.

The Ratzinger letter is still readily available, and if you read the full text, you’ll be left with absolutely no doubt about what the cardinal is saying: that Catholics should NOT vote for a candidate who supports abortion.

Quoting Pope John Paul II, the cardinal observes that “in the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to ‘take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law or vote for it.’”

Is abortion just one among many moral topics that voters should consider? Cardinal Ratzinger answers that question clearly: “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

At the bottom of his letter, Cardinal Ratzinger inserted one explanatory footnote. And now suddenly this footnote—rather than the full text of the cardinal’s statement—has become the focus of media attention. So let’s take a careful look at it:

“When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the case of proportionate reasons.”

Take careful note of those last two words: “proportionate reasons.” Cardinal Ratzinger, a careful moral theologian, is telling us that a faithful Catholic might vote for a candidate who supported abortion IF THERE WERE ANOTHER MORAL ISSUE AS GRAVE AND AS CLEAR AS THE ABORTION ISSUE. But keep in mind that in the text above this footnote, the cardinal made it quite clear that there IS NO SUCH COMMENSURATE ISSUE. . . .

In a statement released on August 11, Bishop Rene Gracida clarified matters:

“Since abortion and euthanasia have been defined by the Church as the most serious sins prevalent in our society, what kind of reasons could possibly be considered proportionate enough to justify a Catholic voting for a candidate who is known to be pro-abortion? None of the reasons commonly suggested could even begin to be proportionate enough to justify a Catholic voting for such a candidate. Reasons such as the candidate’s position on war, or taxes, or the death penalty, or immigration, or a national health plan, or social security, or aids, or homosexuality, or marriage, or any similar burning societal issues of our time are simply lacking in proportionality.”

Now I’m quite certain that many good Catholics heard the way the media reported this story a few weeks ago and found themselves deeply confused. They said to themselves, “What’s going on in the Church? Has the pope suddenly reversed his position? Is it okay now to support those who publicly advocate the killing of innocent, unborn babies? What has happened to the Church? Has she changed her teaching on this issue? If so, what’s next?”

Because they believed the story to be true without checking it out for themselves, their faith took a hit. It was weakened—perhaps a little bit, perhaps a lot.

Faith is not lost in a single instant. It’s lost one bad decision at a time, one bad choice at a time.

May God give us the grace to test everything we hear, everything we see, and everything we read—especially when it comes from a secular source. May he help us to make that good choice every day—so that our faith will never weaken.