Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Living in Sin?

The Monday, April 28, 2003 edition of the South Bend Tribune published a letter to the editor in response to Pope John Paul II's encyclical, Ecclesia d Eucarista, which he issued on Holy Thursday. The encyclical reinforces strict Catholic guidelines for reception of the Holy Eucharist. The letter to the editor was titled "Living in sin?" It read as follows:

On April 17, the pope issues his encyclical telling me that as a divorced former Catholic, who has been married 25 years now, compared to the eight months I was married before, who attends a Lutheran church and takes communion, I am living in sin. And if you are Catholic you can't attend another church because it is "unthinkable."

"Grave sin," the pope calls my living of my life, though I believe in Jesus Christ and attend a church that stimulates my thinking more that any Catholic church ever had before. Grave sin, because I do not attend a "Catholic church"?

Nowhere in the Bible does it say Catholics are the "true" religion. One must only believe and have faith; Romans 3:22. Not to mention John 1:12, which says once we believe we all become children of God. How can the Catholic Church say otherwise?

I don't publicly go around condemning the Catholic Church even though I don't agree with all its teachings. I do take offense at one religion condemning another; we are all children of God, with one God for all ages.

Signed Steve (withheld), South Bend

How should a good Catholic respond to nearly 500 years of schism plus another lifetime of bitterness packed into about 5 inches of newspaper column? How does one charitably explain that the Catholic Church IS the "true" religion if one indeed seeks truth? And that the Pope is given the authority by Jesus Christ to speak for that church? How does one charitably explain to Steve that the Bible he is quoting to deny the authority of the Catholic Church was assembled by the authority of that same Catholic Church? How does one politely ask whether the he read the entire encyclical or just the biased newspaper account of what the encyclical stated? What if you had you squeeze your response into an equal space in a newspaper?

Steve could be someone who knows he isn't where he ought to be, but feels frustrated thinking there is no way he can get there. He may think all of his bridges have been burned by his past actions in the eyes of the church. He may blame the church for casting him off as a lost sinner. He may view himself as a pariah, branded unworthy to feast at the banquet of the Lord.

In reality, none of us are worthy. We are all sinners. But we must remember that the church has a responsibility to protect the truth. We won't always like what we hear, but we still need to hear it. A true friend, one who has our sincere best interests at heart, will not sugarcoat the truth or bend it just to make us feel good. We would all like to be told everything we are doing is okay, but that would be a lie.

We must also remember that this truth is absolute and not arbitrary. The Church doesn't make up the rules and change them at will. Although Christ gave Peter the authority to "bind and loose" (Matt 16:19), it does not mean that he and his successors can contradict Christ's teaching. Steve is upset that the Church does not recognize his divorce and second marriage. Yet, Scripture is very clear about this. "Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and the one who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery" (Luke 16:18. See also Mark 10:1-12 and Romans 7:2-3).

The Council of Elvira (300 AD) affirmed that those who divorce and remarry cannot receive Communion. The Bible as we know it did not even exist at that time. One should not be surprised when Pope John Paul today reaffirms a teaching that has existed throughout the history of the Church. Rather, one should question why other Christian communities now permit something which contradicts the teaching of Christ and his Church. What has changed?

Adultery is a serious sin, and one cannot receive Communion while in a state of serious (mortal) sin. Again, this is not a new rule Pope John Paul decided to enact in 2003. The Didache, written in the first century, states, "Whosoever is holy, let him approach. Whosoever is not, let him repent". Paul writes to the Corinthians, "Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself" (1 Cor. 11:27-29).

If the pope's encyclical sounds like a stern warning, that's because it is. His intent is not to harshly castigate non-catholics. If the pope is the true Vicar of Christ, one should expect his words to reflect the teachings of Christ. It is not his job to make us feel warm and fuzzy. A good father must occasionally tell his children things they don't want to hear. Rather than heed a warning, they often react with rebellion and disdain. Someday, they realize their father was right. When the pope speaks on matters of faith or morals, one must resist the temptation to lash out if the message is disconcerting. The wise man will ponder the message as it may pertain to his situation.

Steve feels that he should not be prohibited from receiving Communion because he made a mistake more than twenty five years ago. Perhaps this is true. He said he was married for eight months in his first marriage. Eight months for a marriage is a very short time. What happened? Was this really a marriage? Is it possible that Steve�s first marriage may have not been a marriage in the eyes of God?

While the church cannot dissolve a valid marriage, perhaps no valid marriage existed. A valid marriage in the eyes of God is much different from a legal marriage under the letter of state law. A church tribunal may discover that no valid marriage took place in Steve's circumstance. In an eight month marriage, the chances may be good that an impediment to valid marriage existed. A Decree of Nullity could be issued and Steve would be free to marry his current partner.

Supposing that a valid marriage did take place, what recourse does someone like Steve have now after 25 years of a second marriage? What happens when a person grows in faith later in life, realizing that a serious offense was committed many years ago and cannot be undone? That person does not need to be completely cut off from the church.

It is never too late to acknowledge mistakes and ask for God's mercy. Go to a priest and explain the situation. Ask for spiritual guidance. If one priest is not willing to help, find another. But if you encounter a priest who seems willing to tell you anything you want to hear, run in the opposite direction! Our salvation is not that simple. The truth sometimes hurts.

Steve says he attends a church that "stimulates" his thinking more that "any Catholic church" ever had before. First of all, there is only one Catholic Church. Second, is his thinking being stimulated, or is it being massaged? Is he being challenged or is he being pacified? Once a person denies the teaching authority of the church, his belief becomes subject to personal interpretation. If one looks hard enough, he can find an interpreter that can justify most anything. He spins himself into a cocoon of false security.

So how do we say all of this to Steve in five inches of newspaper column? How do we say all of this without creating further alienation and bitterness? Perhaps we can't, but we can try. We respond with prayer, compassion, love and a gentle apology. Too often we write people off as unwilling to listen when, in fact, they may be open to a kind word delivered with sincere concern. Rather than tell them why they are wrong, we can explain why the pope said what he said. They may still disagree, even to the point of indignation, but maybe a thought will be planted that will take root later. People often blow off steam with an angry letter. Afterwards, they may regret having done so. Don't give up on them. They may be looking for an answer.