January 2013 Editorial
What happens to a parish, and to its parishioners, when the pastor refuses to preach Catholic doctrine and morals on the grounds that they are now “too controversial”?
Cardinal Francis George and Cardinal Timothy Dolan
are well known for their preaching on doctrine and morals.
“I don’t preach on doctrine and morals anymore because they are too controversial.” Those are the exact words of the pastor of a New Jersey Catholic church, which were quoted to me recently by a priest-friend who heard them with his own ears. If the good pastor no longer “dares” to preach about doctrine and morals, we may wonder what he does preach about. Apparently, he prefers to preach about subjects that are not so controversial. “Such as…?” you might respond. Well, I suppose he could urge his parishioners to pray, to read the Bible, to practice Christian charity by helping the needy. But even these subjects today are not without their controversial aspects.
In the secular realm, the so-called “politics of controversy” has helped to introduce a flood of social legislation which, in one way or another, runs counter to God’s law as expressed in the natural law, the Ten Commandments, and the moral teaching of the Church. Thus, long-standing laws against artificial contraception (originally introduced by Protestant-dominated state legislatures) were challenged; then, they became controversial; and, eventually, they were reversed. The same procedure was followed in the matter of abortion. It is now proceeding rapidly with regard to homosexuality, and same-sex marriage. In a few years, the same (so far successful) tactic will be followed in the attempt to legalize infanticide, and euthanasia for the elderly, the deformed, the severely handicapped, and any other “unwanted” types of human beings. We are repeating what happened in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.
Christians of many persuasions, who are concerned about the rapid disappearance of Christian culture in the West, are rightly worried about the social revolution that has engulfed us. As a result, many fine organizations have been formed to campaign in a democratic way for the basic rights of God and man, such as pro-life, pro-family and anti-pornography groups.
But what happens to a parish, and to its parishioners, when the pastor refuses to preach Catholic doctrine and morals on the grounds that they are now “too controversial”? Should the people organize a pressure group to force him to preach the whole faith? That would be unseemly.
If we priests allowed our preaching to be governed by the politics of controversy, there would be almost nothing left to talk about. The inimitable Frank Sheed said, some years ago, that every article of the Creed has been denied by some Catholic theologian. “So what?” you ask. Theologians are often in error; 99 percent of what they grind out is tossed on the trash heap of history. In any event, they are not the norm of Catholic faith. The rule of faith comes from Tradition, Scripture, and the authentic Magisterium of the Church. These three offer more than enough material in the area of “doctrine and morals” for thousands of homilies.
If the diffident New Jersey pastor should happen across these words of mine, I suggest that he begin preaching on the following: the sixteen documents of Vatican II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Dear Father, if you present these clearly and forcefully, you will be proclaiming what the Church proclaims, and, you won’t have to worry about which famous theologian is denying, or doubting, or questioning which doctrine. You will also be fulfilling your solemn duty, and providing your people with the spiritual nourishment that they desperately need and want in our “age of confusion.”
P.S.: Ignatius Press has just published a collection of the answers from the column “Questions Answered” in Homiletic and Pastoral Review by Msgr. William B. Smith, from 1992 to 2005. The title of the book is: MODERN MORAL PROBLEMS: Trustworthy Answers to Your Tough Questions (PB $18.95). His witty answers are as valid and helpful today as they were when they were written.