Treading the Thin Line

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I don't often think about how difficult the life of a priest can be, but they are constantly called to a certain balance and aplomb. This passage from The Collar makes a case-in-point.

from The Collar
Jonathan Englert

As far as the magisterium went, Don's resistance had been in the area of sexual teaching. The Church clearly opposed birth control, but Don couldn't really accept the Church's position. Somewhere along the way, Don had read Pope John Paul II's Gospel of Life, and it had convinced him that birth control, abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty are part of a continuum. The organizing principle is the sacredness of each human life. To be against one of these principles meant that a person was against all four. He had reflected on his own marriage in light of this and had become convinced that part of the reason for its failure had been that his wife had never been open to the prospect of children. They had used birth control from the start, and Don now believed that taking the procreative possibility out of the act of making love deprived it of a profound and holy dimension and risked reducing it to a selfish pleasure. Done knew how complicated this area was and how carefully one had to tread--especially as a pastor in a nation where a reported 75 percent of Catholics did not hold the Church's view. (p. 108)

The priest is in a teaching position, responsible for educating his flock in the truth of the Catholic faith. To do so he must, first of all, not alienate the majority of them. In addition, no matter how well formed, it is entirely possible that a priest may question the truth of some of these teachings himself.

Don's journey describes in part of its arc, my own journey into the truth of the Church, and I cannot but suspect that even for someone raised within the Church, the encounter with these truths often takes some time. I can conceive of a man called to the priesthood in all good conscience who might have some difficulty wrestling with this issue in view of all the problems in the world. Nevertheless, as a man of integrity and as a personal representative of the Church and as the local "official" spokesperson, it is necessary for the priest to try to teach the Catholic truth, even where his own convictions may differ. I know that there are a good many priests (probably all of them) who fail in this in one field or another. Where they are orthodox on sexual teachings, they may have problems on social teachings, or ecumenism, or any number of other areas. Nevertheless, the priest must teach.

Assume for a moment that the priest does hold to the truth of the sexual teachings of the Church. He could walk up to the ambo one day for the homily and harangue his congregation about the evils of birth control. In so doing, he might convince one and alienate a hundred. He must convey the truth, but he must do so in a way that can get through the defenses and bring the people he serves to their own knowledge of the truth. The messy fact about the truth is that it can only rarely be taught, often the best one can do is summon up the arguments and wait for the person one is speaking to to experience the truth. Because, after all, the truth is a person.

The priest finds himself in this delicate situation with regard to nearly every revealed truth the Church has to offer. As one obliged to lead his flock to the truth, it is a difficult responsibility. There is a passage in the book of the prophet Ezekiel (EZ 33:2--see extended entry) in which God says something like, "Woe to the watchman who does not keep his watch and whose people are destroyed because of it, for their sins shall be upon his head. But woe unto the people who do not attend the watchman. . ." You get the point. As appointed watchmen, it is incumbent upon the local priest to reveal the truth as taught by the Catholic Church. And as pastor of souls, it is his duty to try to capture the greatest number possible in the net--so a harangue from the ambo may not serve as the best means of convicting the majority.

I honestly don't often think about this. But in a microcosm, we are all in the same position. If you have a friend or friends who you know are practicing birth control, you can stop your conversation to inform them of the grave sinfulness of their practice. That will be received differently depending upon the degree of friendship, but it is likely to have a souring effect. One must be as "cunning as serpents and as innocent as a dove." Thus, we find ourselves addressing these wrongs in ways that can be heard by the people we love and hope to help. It may take months or years to convey what there is to know. That is the duty and responsibility of each person to the extent they are capable. Each person needs to stand for the fullness of the truth that resides in the Catholic Faith. My approach, more often than not, is not to attempt to correct the error directly, but to express my doubts about a given proposition and suggest where one might find some elucidation on the matter. If someone asks me questions indicating a certain affinity with a position of moral relativism, I might nudge them in the direction of Veratatis Splendor explaining that while I have not the intellectual wherewithal to engage in such a high-level discussion, here is one who has addressed it far better than I could. And so on. I suppose it is a way of copping out, but it is also a way of turning someone on to the truth as the Church teaches it.

Next time you're tempted to ask your priest why he doesn't produce thunderous sermons on the nature of sin and its punishments, pause and think about the make-up of your local Catholic community and imagine how it might be received. There was a time that such sermons were a mainstay of Church life, but today, there are any number of places a person can go, including merely to another parish, to escape the unpleasant reality of Church teaching. It is the job of the priest to convey those truths in such a way as to guide the greatest number of his entrusted soul on to glory--the rest he must trust to providence. At one time, no one would gainsay anything a priest might teach--sometimes this had disastrous consequences. Nowadays, it is not unusual to see a parishioner berating a priest in the Narthex after Mass. There are "champions of orthodoxy and purity in ritual" who don't think twice about upbraiding a priest in public for any abuse, liturgical or homiletical, real or imagined. Given these truths, it is not hard to conceive of why a priest might be somewhat more toned-down than we might consider right and proper. In truth, the position of a priest can be a most unenviable situation somewhere between a rock and a hard place.

Ezekiel 33:2-9

2 Son of man, speak to the children of thy people, and say unto them, When I bring the sword upon a land, if the people of the land take a man of their coasts, and set him for their watchman:

3 If when he seeth the sword come upon the land, he blow the trumpet, and warn the people;

4 Then whosoever heareth the sound of the trumpet, and taketh not warning; if the sword come, and take him away, his blood shall be upon his own head.

5 He heard the sound of the trumpet, and took not warning; his blood shall be upon him. But he that taketh warning shall deliver his soul.

6 But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman's hand.

7 So thou, O son of man, I have set thee a watchman unto the house of Israel; therefore thou shalt hear the word at my mouth, and warn them from me.

8 When I say unto the wicked, O wicked man, thou shalt surely die; if thou dost not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand.

9 Nevertheless, if thou warn the wicked of his way to turn from it; if he do not turn from his way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul.

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My first pastor (I'm a convert and DRE) told me "Remember, 'a smoldering wick he will not quench.'"



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on April 19, 2006 9:30 AM.

The Momentous Event: TSO was the previous entry in this blog.

On Mary: from the Carmelite Constitutions is the next entry in this blog.

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