Are doctrine and morals too controversial?

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.

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ About Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ, is editor emeritus of HPR, having served as editor for over 30 years. He is the author of the best selling Fundamentals of Catholicism (three volumes) and of the popular introduction to the Scripture, Inside the Bible.


  1. “Any more”? I’ll bet it’s forty years since I heard a sermon in a Catholic Church on doctrine or morals. On the other hand I’ve heard lots and lots of sermons on the God is love theme. I mean who can take umbrage at that banality.

    • Avatar Clementius says:

      Amen to that, except of course in the homilies by the Fathers of Mercy and sermons given at the Latin Mass.

    • Somewhere I read, “we lost two generations of our children in the Catholic Church. ” Why? I would say because of a need for a good grounding in faith and morals. We need to take the Ten Commandments and give a good explanation of them. For the priest preaching from the pulpit, they preach on the readings for that day at mass. We were taught that you must obey all that the Catholic Church teaches. All the Commandments were given to us by Almighty God and given to Moses on Mount Sinail. They must be obeyed. If they are not obeyed and are serious diobedience they can be mortal. Hey, when was the last time you heard the word Mortal Sin. It is called mortal because mortal means dead. God in his goodness through his Divine Son gave us the sacrement of confession. In the sacrement of confession even mortal sin is forgiven. I remember when on many Sundays the Bishop would tell his priest what he was to preach on. Take the motion pictures, every year on the feast of Christ the King we would take the pledge that we would avoid going to any motion pictures that were not fit to be seen. I was in High School when our pastor called my friend from class and told him to tell all of us we were not to see the movie, The Outlaw. That was back in 1945, the movie was condemmed.

  2. Thank you Fr. Baker. I hope many, many preachers hear you. I heard a perceptive nun comment one day, “Silence is golden! But sometimes it’s just plain yellow.” Cowardice can hide behind nice labels such as “prudence” or “gentleness” or even “compassion,” but God sees the heart. We need truth, spoken with charity but also with clarity!

  3. Thank you for the article. As a Presbyterian convert several years ago, I did not find it hard to adapt to the Mass as the order of worship was not very different; the major differences were communion every week, instead of maybe monthly, and a bad homily vs a good sermon. Unfortunately, there are far to many “pastors” that worry too much about the offering and not enough about our souls. The strongest parishes I have been in tend to be those with pastors whose first concern is saving souls first and in the end the coffers are full and my spiritual needs are fulfilled.

  4. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Thank you Father Baker. It seems that the New Jersey priest needs to seek help on how to give a homily with exact presentation of the readings at a Sunday mass and not worrying whether there exists a controversy.. In Theology of the Church there must be th priest who is academically trained to teach the people in a clear manner All priests must be able to communicate this knowledge. In the diocese of Dallas w are fortunate to have informed priests.

  5. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    This article deals with characterization of the New Jersey pastor. It does not tell us if he is an effective homilist or not. It is true that many homilies are not inspiring; they do not invite conversion and deeper sharing in ecclesial communion. A good homily proclaims the good news of salvation. Like Jesus, it does not condemn, it tells sinners the “kingdom of God is yours; repent and believe.” All homilies need to reflect the dogma and morals of the Church, but the invitation, the welcome to sinners is most important. Does the homily give witness in a way that touches the heart to desire deeper intimacy with Christ? This is the key question. When one encounters Christ on an intimate level, one is ready be guided by dogma and morals, not before.

  6. Avatar K C Thomas says:

    There are many pastors like the New Jeresy pastor. They are afraid, they are confused, they dont want to displease anyone. but they never realise that they are displeasing their creator,their God, their Church.They are not ready to say the word”Jesus’ in public. What we do not understand is why they chose to be priests of eternal God. We have to face such pastors with questions. we have to pray for conversion of such priests

  7. Avatar Joe Zammit says:

    It is a great temptation for priests to preach what the audience is pleased to hear.

    Of course, the priest, as a human being, feels some discouragement when he notices that his listeners do not want to hear what he is preaching, though this will not apply to all the audience. But here is the priest’s test: does he want to imitate Christ or the devil? Remember Christ’s temptations?
    The devil offered what people in general want. But Christ did not fall to that temptation but stuck to what God, his father, wanted.

    It is a good, practical and effective suggestion to encourage priests to preach the Gospel, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the documents of Vatican II.

    We must always remember that Christ, through his grace, will effect conversions. But Christ wants us all to do his will — so e.g. good preaching by priests — so that we cooperate with him in drawing people to him.

  8. I was blessed and very happy to hear today a beautiful, powerful homily that did focus on the pressing moral issue of abortion. This homily was an excellent example not only of delivering a much-needed exhortation on this crucially important moral issue, but it also unfolded the Scripture Readings and built as well a bridge to the Liturgy of the Eucharist about to be celebrated. Would that many more homilies would offer as much, when so very much is so greatly needed in this darkening culture.

    The homily, ““Every Day is Newtown in America” was delivered by one of our deacons, Dcn Ed Peitler (Diocese of Charleston). It is published on my Blog with his permission. You can read this entry, his homily, by clicking on my name. This will link you to my Blog.

  9. Avatar Joe Martin says:

    It is hard to imagine a priest who both understands and believes Catholic doctrine shying away from it because it is too controversial. This could make him a plain coward. I wonder if the priest in question is not more of a doubter, which would be a fairly prevalent problem, from my observations. You can’t take a stand on something of which you are yourself are unsure: conviction precedes proclamation.

  10. Avatar Gary Lockhart says:

    “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.”

    It would be helpful to know which church in New Jersey this is, so we can avoid it like the plague, Father.

    “And we charge you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw yourselves from every brother walking disorderly, and not according to the tradition which they have received of us.” 2 Thessalonians 3:6

  11. In a Catholic church to preach against abortion is neither brave nor controversial. While I am glad that priest continue to preach against abortion, to do so is not to court controversy. The Church is very clear on its stand against abortion and even those who disagree with it expect a homilist at Mass to speak out against it.
    I am impressed when a priest speaks out against contraception, divorce and all those Catholics who are in unconsecrated family arrangements. These are the controversial topics which most parish priests seem to avoid like the plague.
    Its very nice that the priest speaks up for confession, and very sad when it is only available for half and hour on Saturday afternoon, probably the most inconvenient time possible for most families.
    Its great when the pastor speaks against abortion and gay marriage, but somehow cannot bring themselves to mention the political party who supports these sinful practices with their whole effort.
    Talking dogma and teaching is great. Telling people how they should be applying it to their lives is better. When they don’t want to hear it its essential they do.

  12. I can’t remember ever hearing preaching on abortion, birth control and all the other sins against the Ten Commandants. There was a time when the Diocesan Bishop would send a letter to his priest on what to talk about. Why their even was preaching on movies. The Motion Picture Code and Father Daniel A. Lord S.J. did a good job of keeping the motion picture industry in check. Every year on the feast of Christ the King, everyone raised their right hand and took the pledge to stay away from forbidden movies.
    Where are the pamphlets that once were in the pamphlet rack in the back of churches. They were only ten cents. The Catechism and the Catholic Faith was made avaliable through many means.

    From the pulpit today the sermons, or homilies are focused on the readings. Take the story of the prodigal son, the homily could be on forgiveness. Sometimes you may have to listen real close to the homily because if the homilist wants to preach say on the woman at the well, a good theme would be on the evils of divorce. You just have to listen close and discover that the message is contained in what is said.