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Deacon to Priests: Stop Tickling Their Ears and Preach the Gospel!

This column is a response to a piece written by a priest in a diocesan newspaper, essentially arguing that we must always seek common values and common views with all people who disagree – a false irenicism. While it is true that “A gentle answer turns away wrath” (Prv 15:1), there are also times when appropriate TOUGH verbal LOVE can be required. Appeals from Rodney King – “Can’t we all just get along” – and talk from Norman Vincent Peale – based upon the “power of positive thought” – have their place, but so does properly pejorative language. Our Lord, for example, referred to Judas as the “Son of Perdition” (John 17:12; cf. 2 Thess 2:3), and Jude strongly warned us against “ungodly persons who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness” (1:4). Peace must never be purchased at the price of truth, which requires straight-from-the-shoulder speaking and preaching. As Deitrich von Hilderband already observed decades ago, “the valuing of unity over truth plays a central role in the crisis of the Church.”[1]

“Peace, peace,” this priest might have said, echoing Jeremiah; but “there is no peace” (8:11,15).  He lamented that our hearts are often angry and divisive. If we understand what others mean and find their key value, “we can then gently go from that value to other values that need to be taken into account. We [must] seek to understand rather than jump to judgment.”

The priest means well. Weakly.

Sacred Scripture does tell us to stop judging others (Mt 7:1), so why do some in the Church often use terms like “fake Catholic,” “indifferentist,” “relativist,” or “heretic”? Everything is negative!  Isn’t it time to be more positive, more inclusive, more progressive, more open to the 21st century? After all, as Pope Francis asked, “Who am I to judge?”

What must we think of someone, after all, who calls others a “brood of vipers”? or calls them “snakes”? or calls them “stupid”? or calls them “senseless”? or calls them “foolish”? These are examples, one supposes, of not getting along, or of not being positive, or of not seeking common values. But the language cited is from Our Lord, as given to us in Mt 12:34 and Lk 3:7; from the prophet Jeremiah (10:8); from Moses (Dt 32:6); and from St. Paul (Gal 3:1).

Of course, there is always the “angry and divisive” example of St. John the Baptist (see Luke 3:7-9), who dared to judge Herod and Herodias (Mk 6:18).

It was St. John Paul II (in Evangelium Vitae, 58) who summoned us “to call things by their proper names.” Abortion is not “women’s health.” Sexual perversion is not “romantic freedom.” Genital mutilation is not “sex selection.” Murder is not excusable because it is committed for reasons of “mercy.”

And those who hold, or excuse, such morally noxious views ought to consider the stern admonition of Isaiah: “You are doomed! You call evil good and call good evil. You turn darkness into light and light into darkness. You make what is bitter sweet and what is sweet you make bitter. You are doomed” (5:20-21; cf. Mal 2:17). The refusal to call things by correct nouns, or people by correct, if evidently critical, adjectives, is not parrhesia, the bold proclamation of the Gospel message; it is, rather, a frail and fainthearted effort to please a secular and syncretistic audience which wants priests, pastors, and preachers who will euphemistically tickle their ears (2 Tm 4:3).

The Bible does, indeed, say that we should not judge others (see also Lk 6:37). Because we are sinners ourselves, with imperfect discernment, we cannot judge the human heart (Lk 16:15 and Prv 21:2), and we do not know the eternal fate (cf. CCC 678) of anyone, including ourselves. (To be sure that we are saved is presumption; to be sure that we are damned is despair.) But Jesus does command us to make use of our spiritual reason (as in Mt 7:6 and 7:15-19 and 1 Thess 5:21-22). As Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch have pointed out, “Examination is necessary to avoid profaning what is holy and embracing what is false.”

Moreover, to admonish the sinner – even in firm, frank language – is one of the spiritual works of mercy. Fraternal correction is a work of charity, provided that such correction is done righteously and not self-righteously (cf. Rom 14:10-12 and 2 Cor 5:21). To condemn others, thinking that their destiny is Hell, is plainly wrong; but to ignore sin and to treat or to tolerate evil as acceptable is also wrong. The Bible tells us that if we fail to warn others about their sins, we too will be judged (Ez 33:7-9; cf. Mal 2:7-8). As a seminary professor, I used to suggest to seminarians preparing homilies that they study the Book of Lamentations, where we read that “Their preaching deceived you by never exposing your sin. They made you think you did not need to repent” (2:14).

Suppose you had a close friend who was obviously injuring his health by doing something destructive. Would you not warn him? Suppose you knew of a major traffic hazard and someone whom you might warn about it was heading that way; would you not warn him? Then why would we keep silent when we know others are jeopardizing their immortal souls? Have we no Christian duty to warn them? And a wishy-washy, politically correct, rebuke may be as ineffectual as it is morally mousy. If calling a self-identifying Catholic pro-abortionist a “fake Catholic” might be an effective warning, perhaps helping to save his or her soul, then, for his sake and yours, call him that!

This is not at all intended to promote or to excuse vile language (Eph 4:29, 5:4) but, rather, to agree with St. Paul, who told us that our graceful speech should, if necessary, be “seasoned with salt” so that we will give a proper response to everyone (Col 4:6)—purified but purposeful!  Note that all admonitory language must be intended as “medicinal”—as a kind of spiritual pulmonary “chest thump” to awaken the person—and not as egotistical virtue signaling, suggesting the depravity of the one warned and the distinction of the person warning. As there is a time for silence, however, there is also a time for talk (Eccl 3:7)—even, if necessary, acerbic talk.

In homiletics, this is called parenesis, which is preaching intended to exhort us to moral action, including warnings to us about the spiritual dangers of taking certain unethical courses of action. Such warnings may be received as stern or as scolding, but all of us require occasional admonition. The priest delivering such warnings may not be as popular as the light-hearted and genial homilist, but he is fulfilling his commission of shepherding his people. (I have previously made this argument about “The Failure of Homiletics.”)

Priests, pastors, preachers might well consider their “charge” to speak dauntlessly to their parishes (and dioceses) to be clearly, concisely, and cogently expressed in Psalm 32:  “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you” (v. 8, RSV). And the 1917 encyclical Humani Generis Redemptionem (Pope Benedict XV) remains as instructive today as it was more than 100 years ago, if, sadly, now practically unknown:

If . . . We examine the state of public and private morals, the constitutions and laws of nations, We shall find that there is a general disregard and forgetfulness of the supernatural, a gradual falling away from the strict standard of Christian virtue, and that men are slipping back more and more into the shameful practices of paganism” (2).

Consider, for instance, the wise confessor. Such a priest does not harshly reprimand us for our sins (see Jas 4:11-12), but he does not hesitate to call sinful what is sinful (even if it “hurts our feelings”), to urge us to express prayerful sorrow for our sins, to make satisfaction for those sins, and to amend our ways.

What we do when we counsel and correct, advise and admonish, is to call others home to the Way and Will of God, which we know through the teachings of Christ’s Church. Such is our primordial duty as Christ’s witnesses (CCC 2037, 2044, 2105).

An old proverb wisely tells us that “Thou art master of the unspoken word; the spoken word is master of thee.” So I do not mean to suggest that we spend all our time and energy criticizing others; but neither do I mean to suggest that we turn tail and run every time we meet a difficult person or situation. A weak-kneed and craven effort to be popular in the secular world (Heb 12:12, Jn 12:43) means being the world’s friend—and such behavior rejects the Gospel (Jas 4:4). St. Paul, as always, had it right: he told Timothy that some people in Ephesus “are teaching false doctrines, and you must order them to stop” (1 Tm 1:3; my emphasis). Don’t plead with them; command them! It’s all right—no: it’s mandatory—that the words you speak to the Ephesians be “your master”! In fact, shout it from the housetops (Mt 10:27, Lk 12:3). No false irenicism there!

Self-styled and morally egocentric Catholics who cling to values and views utterly irreconcilable with the Church must be called back home (Jas 5:20), and that “call” must be fair, firm, and frequent, hating (note that gerund) what is evil and holding fast to what is good (cf. Rom 12:9). Such a call may not tickle the ears of the modern audience (1 Tim 4:1, 2 Pt 2:1-3), but it may save their souls. Nothing, as G. K. Chesterton told us, is more important than that—even if we must sometimes employ strong rhetoric, as did Our Lord, to make the righteous case.

Painting: St. John Chrysostom preaching against Empress Eudoxia by Jean-Paul Laurens, 19th c. Public Domain.

[1] Dietrich von Hildebrand, Charitable Anathema (Roman Catholic Books, 1993), 1. I thank the editor for this insight from Von Hildebrand.

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