The Challenge of Faith and the Hostility of the World

Anyone who believes the Gospels will accept it as fact that the world hates Jesus Christ and His Church — and always will. What we’re seeing in the current media brouhaha over contraceptive devices is only the most recent major manifestation of this bimillennial phenomenon. We have no right to be surprised (cf. John 15:18, 1 John 3:13). But rather than dwell on the farcical condom controversy, I would like to make three succinct points about it, then show how the fiasco is an important “teachable moment.”

1.) The Holy Father did not, and did not intend to, change the Church’s moral teaching, as Cardinal Burke, among many others, has pointed out.

2.) In presenting his personal speculations concerning the subjective dispositions of someone who habitually commits unnatural mortal sin (a homosexual prostitute), the Holy Father was acting as a private theologian and not binding the faithful to those speculations. With filial reverence for the Holy Father, Catholics are free to question the prudence and even the content of his comments. Father John Boyle and Stuart Chessman have both done so, and they make some points worth pondering. Dr. John Haas, who read a pre-publication edition of the book, foresaw the disaster: “I told the publisher, ‘Don’t publish this; it’s going to create such a mess.'” Dr. Haas is not just a commentator with an opinion. He is a competent moral theologian, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a member of the board of the Pontifical Academy for Life. He speaks as a seasoned combat veteran of the culture wars surrounding Catholic medical and sexual ethics. Still, as a matter of justice, we must emphasize that the Pope did neither contradict the perennial moral magisterium of the Church, nor attempt to change Church teaching, which he cannot do anyway.

3.) The media frenzy was precipitated by a very poorly-timed sneak preview of the book published by L’Osservatore Romano. For this, Dr. Edward Peters and Miss Hilary White have accused the editor, Giovanni Maria Vian, of a crass violation of journalistic professionalism. (The plummeting standards of L’OR, including its childish fascination with the worst of pop culture, had already brought Vian much negative attention.) Others say that the blame, if blame there be, should go to the Vatican Publishing House, which permitted L’OR to print the excerpts while there was still a media embargo. Whoever is to blame for the ill-timed preview, the crisis management after the fact — by the Holy Father’s spokesman, Father Frederico Lombardi — has only increased the confusion.

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Now for the lesson we can derive from all this: The world is not interested in understanding what the Pope said. The world seeks no understanding of, or even compromise with, the Church; rather, it hates her and wants her to go away. And the world will take any kindhearted effort at sounding reasonable according to its own terms — which is what the Holy Father was doing, in my opinion — as a sign of weakness. The world will lie, twist, distort, attack, and not relent.

Without seeking to appease the world, we Catholics must see her as an implacable foe that must be fought by spiritual weapons of prayer, mortification, and preaching the unvarnished truth. (By “the world,” I mean that unregenerate thing that Jesus called his disciples out of, and refused even to pray for, as Dom Guéranger eloquently explains it. I consider it axiomatic that the major media are peculiarly representative of “the world” in this sense.)

Brother Francis entitled a volume of this published meditations The Challenge of Faith. This name identifies an important leitmotiv in Brother’s thinking. For him, the Faith must remain a challenge or it will loose its savor and become marginalized.

This idea is implicit in the activity of the Apostles, who were not given to compromise or soft-peddling. The apostolic preaching, like that of the Master Himself, was a challenge. The book of Acts chronicles how the Apostles kindled that fire that Jesus Himself came on earth to cast, “teaching them as one having power, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22).  St. Paul, who sets a wonderful apostolic example, was not alone in carrying out the directives he gave to Timothy (2 Tim. 4:2): “Preach the word: be instant in season, out of season: reprove, entreat, rebuke in all patience and doctrine.”

The efforts of the Twelve, and of all authentic missionaries after them, were not merely their efforts. Our Lord promised the Apostles that the Holy Ghost would convict the world of sin, of justice and of judgment. I’ve commented on these words elsewhere. Briefly, they tell us that the Sanctifier will confirm the preaching of Christ’s heralds, giving them necessary “air support” in their mission to all the nations. Elsewhere, Christ told them: “But when the Paraclete cometh, whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceedeth from the Father, he shall give testimony of me. And you shall give testimony, because you are with me from the beginning” (John 15:26-27). The Church still gives testimony of Jesus, and the Holy Ghost continues to give testimony, confirming nothing but Catholic truth. This we must never forget.

Brother Francis had a truly apostolic spirit, and sought to imitate the holy urgency of the Apostles in spreading the Gospel of Our Lord, which, of course, is synonymous with the Catholic Faith. In his Sentimental Theology, Brother gives the following thrilling summons to a more zealous, energetic presentation of the Faith:

The Catholic truth is not a sad story for which we need to apologize; it is a proclamation of the greatest good news that could ever be told. No matter how sternly its message is phrased, it is still the one and only hope in the world. Only love and security can afford to be severe. When we say that outside the Church there is no salvation, we are also and at the same time announcing that inside the Church there is salvation. The world already knows the sad part of our story, because the world finds no salvation in the world. The Church does not have to tell the unbelievers that they are in sin and in despair; they know that in the depth of their hearts. What is new to the world in the Christian story is that, through Mary, the gates of heaven are opened, and that we are invited to become brothers of Jesus in the Eternal Kingdom of God. This is not a story which can be told with the subdued and hesitant voice of sentimental theology.

Anyone who knew Brother Francis can attest that these were no mere words. His edifying life as a religious brother was a constant invitation to others to share in the priceless treasures of the Faith. Few men “do the truth in charity” as he did.

Brother Francis was a great teacher, but first he was a disciple, for he imitated the apostolic zeal of our founder. Father Feeney begins his delightful essay, Catholicism is Also a Manner, with these words:

Catholicism is not only a matter: a truth to be told; it is also a manner: a way of telling it. Manner makes meaning quite as much as matter does. To say what Christ said, but not in the way He said it, (that is to say: without enthusiasm, determination, excitement, wonder, challenge, indignation, summons and alarm) is an evasion and an apostasy. The Christian Gospel is good news, but with an emphasis on the news. It is exciting enough to have had the Heavens open at Our Lord’s birth for its sake, and to have had angels in the sky shouting and singing it to shepherds.

Again, this is no mere wordsmithery; Father converted souls because of his authentic priestly zeal. If every priest presented the Faith like he did, the Church would not be in the mess she’s in, often appearing supine before a triumphant secularism. Of course, if every priest preached like this, the world would still hate the Church. But that’s a given; it’s guaranteed. Our Lord promised us this privilege of being hated for His sake, which is none other than a sharing in His own life-giving Cross.

Jesus sent out the Twelve (Matt. 10:16) and then the Seventy-Two (Luke 10:3) “as sheep in the midst of wolves.” In twenty centuries, the wolves haven’t changed much — though some of their species have migrated to newspaper editorial offices.

We must remember that this same Holy Father, who the wolves are attacking now, made a request at his coronation Mass: “Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves.” We pray not only that Pope Benedict will not flee, but that the Holy Ghost will give him the words he needs to repel the wolves, to challenge the world, and enlighten the Church with the apostolic doctrine.