Thursday, November 15, 2012

The post below was written in October 2010 for America Magazine  in response to a concern I had that many Catholics were beginning to "judge" others to be unworthy Catholics. It seems as if this has become even more pronounced two years later. This story from a diocese in Minnesota indicates that a teenager has been denied confirmation for a Facebook post supporting the "No" amendment in Minnesota. Two years ago my worries were that as none of us are "100%" Christians, the only way to judge ourselves without sin is to judge others' faults more egregious than our own. While the Church does and must engage in discipline, its most significant tasks are forgiveness and mercy. When should you deny someone the sacraments? Does this teenager's behavior warrant such a decision? Which behaviors warrant the denial of sacraments? Why? Did the pastor talk to him or the family before denying him confirmation? Why or why not? What is the hoped for result in this case? There are many questions unanswered in this case, so we should not jump to conclusions without the full facts, but this is a case that bears watching and does raise many concerns.

Below I wrote, "I have become concerned with fellow Catholics whose desire, often spoken to me and others I know, seems to be to cast out one group or another from the church, which indicates that they are quite certain they know who belongs and who does not. Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13, however, demonstrates that certainty in defining the righteous and the wicked is hard to come by." I also wrote, " If there is error in offering charity without making clear that there are also guidelines, there is an equal error in not offering the Church’s teaching with charity and compassion."
________________________________________________________

In an interview reported in USA Today, Archbishop John Nienstedt “said Jesus Christ directed his followers to ‘either be hot or cold, but if you're lukewarm, I don't want that. So we want people who live their faith.’” This interview was given in response both to a controversial DVD the Archbishop sent out regarding same-sex marriage and the reorganization of many parishes, including the closure of over twenty in the Archdiocese. In the article Nienstedt spoke of this as “‘a reconfiguring of resources to meet our needs and mission.’ But he said Catholics need not fear a smaller church, and the threat of one is not a reason to abandon core tenets.” He went on to say that “I believe that it's important that if you're going to be Catholic, that you have to be 100% Catholic. That you stand by the church, you believe what the church believes and you pass that on to your sons and daughters and your grandsons and granddaughters.”

It is entirely relevant for Archbishop John Nienstedt, my archbishop in the Diocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, to call the whole church to heed Jesus’ warning on being “lukewarm,” especially since it is a warning that leads to life. The Archbishop’s mission must be to lead his flock to everlasting life not worldly success. It is also the case that it is precisely a Bishop’s task to call his flock to adherence to professed teaching and to exercise canonical oversight and discipline. My concern is how others, both within the church and outside the church, might interpret this warning. I want to look at the scriptural passage from which the Archbishop cites, Revelation 3:14-22, and attempt to understand the phrase “100% Catholics” in light of the passage from Revelation and other relevant passages from Scripture, including this past Sunday’s Gospel.


The message from Jesus in the Revelation of John 3:14-22 to the Church of Laodicea is as follows:
“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God's creation: “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”


I have been to the ruins of Laodicea on three occasions now and tour guides will not fail to tell you about the wealth of ancient Laodicea, or the fact that the water in Laodicea was actually lukewarm, or the optical balm that was made in Laodicea. All of these realities may be true, about the wealth we have some ancient evidence apart from Revelation, but the reality is deeper than the ancient context: what is said to the church in Laodicea is said to all Christians, to the Church at large.


But what is being said? Jesus is warning certainly of a faith that relies on material goods – those who say “I need nothing”  and find such faith sufficient. It is reminiscent of Jesus’ parable of the Rich Fool in Luke 12:13-21, in which Jesus warns those who rely on material goods alone to beware for their souls. In Revelation Jesus challenges the church in Laodicea to “be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” To those who conquer, a phrase which appears after all the letters to the churches in Revelation, and which has an eschatological sense in every case, they will have a place “with me on my throne.” To those who do not conquer, however, “because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”


Each of the seven letters in Revelation calls the local church to a greater and more profound faith and away from degrees of self-satisfaction or complacency. The churches are being called by Jesus himself to measure up, not as individuals, but as the church. Naturally the church is made up of individuals, but it is the corporate body which Jesus calls to repentance. It is also important to define what each letter is not: these are not letters of excommunication, but of warning. The eschaton will come and we will all be judged. The churches which are found wanting at the time of the end will be “spit…out of my mouth” because they are “lukewarm.” As a result, the Archbishop’s warning to those who are “lukewarm” is well–taken, for we are called by Christ to “repent,” but who are the “lukewarm” in our churches today?

Jesus warns the church in Laodicea not to rely on their material wealth, but to rely on the transforming grace of Christ. Jesus says, “You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love.” Are the “lukewarm” today only those Christians today who rely on their material wealth or is it a broader swath of Christians? In the Archbishop’s formulation, “lukewarm” Christians are to be equated with those who are not “100% Catholic,” those who do not “stand by the church,” who do not “believe what the church believes” and who do not “pass that on {what the church believes} to your sons and daughters and your grandsons and granddaughters.”  Given Jesus' focus on "repentance," the reformulation of the "lukewarm" as those who want to accept only some of the teachings of the church seems reasonable.


The “lukewarm” would seem to be those who dissent (do not “stand by the church”) from the professed teaching of the church and who do not pass on these beliefs to their children and grandchildren. Those who do all of these things, it would seem to me, are “100% Catholic.” Like the Archbishop, I do not mind a smaller church materially, fewer parishes and schools, if it means using our resources more wisely and prudently. I think what is taking place in our Archdiocese is actually wise stewardship and essential to renewal, though often painful for those making the transitions. I do mind a smaller church numerically because the goal is to create as many disciples as possible and to bring all to salvation. John’s vision in Revelation, apart from those of the twelve tribes of Israel, includes, “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (7:9-10). If, on the other hand, remaining faithful to the teachings of the Gospel creates a smaller church, then it is important for the church to remain faithful and not to change or alter its teachings in the hopes of attracting more members, as if we are in the business of a country club on a membership drive or a business trying to attract more customers with cut-rate prices and new, special offers.


My concern actually arises with how a “100% Catholic” is defined by those of us in the pews not by Archbishop Nienstedt, who has simply asked for adherence to the Church’s teachings. This is what I mean with respect to definition: I do try to remain faithful to all of the teachings of the Church, but the reality is that I never do this perfectly as Jesus has asked me to do (cf. Matthew 5:48). I get angry at others, I am lazy at times, I am rude, I am often a poor son and brother and regularly an average father and husband. I do not wish to discuss other of my faults; I would prefer to confess them privately. Some of them embarrass me (I mean, embarrass me more than the ones I mentioned). All of us sin and so all of us are moving in the direction of 100% Catholics, though without question some of us reside in the 95th percentile and some of us are striving for a passing grade. Which ones do we want to toss out of class?

The danger is that we start to measure ourselves against other Christians and fall into the trap that Jesus warned us against so often and in so many passages. In Matthew 6, Jesus warned us against our piety being used a means to trumpet our superiority; our deeds were to be done in quiet, in relationship with God the Father. In Luke 18:11-14 Jesus tells of the “The Pharisee, standing by himself, {who} was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  To whom did Jesus tell this parable? "To some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt" (Luke 18:9). It is humbling to realize that the closest approximation to a Pharisee today by vocation is a biblical scholar. There is no question for Jesus that the Pharisees were more righteous than a tax collector or a sinner, but the Pharisee was still constantly in need of forgiveness.

It is that unwillingness to recognize sinfulness in his own life that creates a problem for Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7:36-50. In that encounter a woman who is a sinner – that’s the definition given to her – bathes Jesus with her tears and her love, but all Simon and the other Pharisees see is that she is a sinner and that a prophet would know that and reject her. Jesus, however, tells a parable about two people in debt, one with greater debt, the other with lesser debt. In the narrative, Simon has fewer debts, fewer sins, to pay off, but if he does not recognize his own sins, how will he pay off his debt? On the other hand, the sinner acknowledges her debt and so is forgiven. We must keep in mind our own fallenness, our own weakness, when we judge others: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye” (Matthew 7:3-5).


I have become concerned with fellow Catholics whose desire, often spoken to me and others I know, seems to be to cast out one group or another from the church, which indicates that they are quite certain they know who belongs and who does not. Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13, however, demonstrates that certainty in defining the righteous and the wicked is hard to come by. Our task in weeding the fields, that is spitting people out of the church, is limited: when the servants ask, “’Then do you want us to go and gather them?,” “he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn’” (13: 28-30). The weeds will be burned up, indeed, a Judgment will come, but a major part of this parable is precisely that until the eschaton we do not know which is wheat or which is a weed. Fulton Sheen wrote many years ago in Through the Year With Fulton Sheen that there would be surprises in heaven, "first of all, there will be many people there whom we never expected to see there. There will also be a number of people absent who we thought would be there" (p.224). 


It is an error to expect that the Church cannot and should not discipline its members, for it can and must, as Matthew 18 makes clear, but Matthew 18 also makes clear that forgiveness must be at the heart of the Church’s discipline. If there is error in offering charity without making clear that there are also guidelines, there is an equal error in not offering the Church’s teaching with charity and compassion. If there is more joy in heaven when one sinner repents, how much more must there be when thousands upon thousands do?  The Church must be a place where all are obviously welcome while at the same time making it clear that there are teachings and beliefs which accompany that welcome. Yet, if we are all to be judged and welcomed by what we do not do in upholding the faith, by our ability to live every aspect of our faith, from love and mercy to tithing mint and cumin, from forgiving those who have harmed us to welcoming the stranger, from our sexual thoughts or behaviors to our honoring of our parents, by all of our actions or words, how many of us could cross the threshold of our Church as a “100% Catholic”? If we are truly concerned about the salvation of souls then we need to begin to show compassion for all Catholics, at whatever percentage they might rate on the scale, and even possibly our enemies. The church might become smaller, but it can never become less forgiving or less merciful.

John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @Biblejunkies