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“Repent and Believe”: Moral Preaching in the New Evangelization

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The Archdiocese of Detroit, to which I belong, has recently taken as a motto for its New Evangelization initiative in the lead-up to a diocesan synod held in November 2016, “Unleash the Gospel.” Borrowing this motto, the idea of which is rooted in 2 Timothy 2:9—“the word of God is not chained”—my proposal is a simple one: that the whole Church is called to “unleash the Gospel” in its entirety. Put another way: what could it possibly mean to “unleash the Gospel” if we leave Our Lord’s moral teaching very much on the leash?

To some readers, perhaps the idea of “leashing” the moral component of our Catholic faith sounds far-fetched. It has been my experience, however, that an increasing number of voices these days seem to downplay the role of moral preaching at this moment in the life of the Church. Some experts on the New Evangelization, which has generated its own particular rhetoric, emphasize that the Church is not “about rules” and that we must “lead with love”—i.e., offer an essentially positive message—before doing any moral preaching.

Such voices express much that is true and they can claim substantial papal support for their general idea, if not for every particular way this idea is being expressed in today’s conversation about evangelization. And this trend in papal thought is not merely about Pope Francis’ emphasis on mercy. Pope Benedict XVI has famously written, “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, §1). Among his many statements about showing mercy, reaching out with kindness to those on the margins of the Church and society, and similar themes, a passage from Pope Francis’ Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on evangelization encapsulates much of the Holy Father’s thought on the topic:

The salvation which God offers us is the work of his mercy. No human efforts, however good they may be, can enable us to merit so great a gift. . . . This principle of the primacy of grace must be a beacon which constantly illuminates our reflections on evangelization. (Evangelii Gaudium §135)

This article is in no way intended as a criticism of the important and edifying points made by recent popes or by those who serve the Church as teachers of evangelization theory and strategy. My purpose, rather, is to argue that these insights can be preserved and even advanced while remaining faithful to the example of Our Lord’s preaching and the mission he has entrusted to his Church of sharing the entire “splendor of truth,”[1] including the truth of the moral life. A further purpose is to warn against the exclusive use of a form of evangelization rhetoric that, while including some truths, may easily give the wrong impression when insufficient attention is paid to other important points that would balance the message. For example, to speak only of such ideas as “leading with love” or about the Church not being “about rules” at a time when preaching about the Commandments is quite rare may be imprudent and harmful to the faithful.[2]

In the Gospels, we see Jesus engage in moral preaching from the beginning to the end of his public ministry. Our Lord begins his preaching with a moral exhortation: “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15).[3] His final instructions to his Apostles also have a moral component, as he enjoins on them the duty of “teaching them to observe all that I have command you” (Mt 28:20). Not only does Jesus preach moral truth throughout his public ministry, but he also commands his Apostles to carry on this work as they evangelize the world.

The Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5—7), which St. Augustine describes as “a perfect standard of the Christian life,”[4] is full of preaching on the moral life. From the Beatitudes to the teaching on the law, from Jesus’ words about anger, purity, truth-telling, to those concerning integrity vs. hypocrisy, worrying, and judgment of others, Our Lord’s listeners hardly get a break from moral exhortation in this hallmark example of his preaching!

Those who propose that the New Evangelization requires a delay before the Church engages in explicit moral preaching might argue that the moral elements of the Sermon on the Mount—and of the whole corpus of the preaching of Jesus—are never separated from other significant themes related to Christology, ecclesiology, soteriology and the theology of grace, Christian discipleship, etc. And they might further argue that moral teaching is subordinate to a number of these other themes.

I wholeheartedly agree with this view, and believe it supports rather than detracts from the thesis of this essay. I trust no orthodox Catholic would argue—and I certainly do not argue—for a moral preaching performed in radical isolation from those larger truths about God, salvation in Christ, and communion with the Church to which moral truths are indeed subordinate. I do argue, however, that these larger and higher truths also ought not to be preached in isolation from those moral truths which give them shape in the lives of the faithful, which express for our lives the consequences of God’s identity, of salvation in Christ, and of what it means to live in the communion of the Church.

Many Catholic evangelizers emphasize the importance of having a “living relationship” or a “personal relationship” with the Lord. Some use these personalistic terms in contrast to what they call “following the rules.”

First, I wonder what those who disparage “the rules” without qualification think when they pray Psalm 119, which is a veritable love song in praise of God’s law and its life-giving effect on those who know and keep it. Or what do they think Our Lord means when he says, “Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me” (Jn 14:21)?[5]

Secondly, I think by analogy of my other living and personal relationships, and the degree to which they are informed by the observance of law, custom, and etiquette. I dare say that I have a living and personal relationship with my mother, for example. But that relationship also has a very specific shape, and there are concrete words and actions that enhance that relationship, while other words and actions damage it. If I started skipping Mother’s Day visits for no good reason, for example, my living relationship with my mom would very quickly become a dying relationship.

Then there is the question of the homilist’s responsibility. Perhaps some will see it as begging the question to invoke canon law in an argument for the value of the moral law’s inclusion in preaching, but I believe it is worth noting that the 1983 Code of Canon Law, among other sources, makes clear the homilist’s responsibility to preach comprehensively, including moral doctrine. I hasten to add that by “comprehensively” I do not mean “exhaustively.” I also want to emphasize that homiletic preaching must always be not only “part of the liturgy itself,”[6] but also part of a parochial program of evangelization and catechesis. Homilies cannot carry all of the weight when it comes to teaching the Faith.

Yet there are a number of canons that explicitly include moral doctrine among the thematic categories that make up the substance of homiletics. For example, Canon 767 §1 states:

Among the forms of preaching, the homily, which is part of the liturgy itself and is reserved to a priest or deacon, is preeminent; in the homily the mysteries of faith and the norms of Christian life are to be explained from the sacred text during the course of the liturgical year.[7]

Canon 768 is about preaching in general, and not specifically homiletic preaching, but nevertheless gives us insight into what the content of all preaching is supposed to be:

§1. Those who proclaim the divine word are to propose first of all to the Christian faithful those things which one must believe and do for the glory of God and the salvation of humanity.

§2. They are also to impart to the faithful the doctrine which the magisterium of the Church sets forth concerning the dignity and freedom of the human person, the unity and stability of the family and its duties, the obligations which people have from being joined together in society, and the ordering of temporal affairs according to the plan established by God.

Canon 747, which introduces Book III of the Code, entitled “The Teaching Office of the Church,” includes in its description of the duties of this office, “to announce moral principles . . . and to render judgment concerning any human affairs insofar as the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls requires it” (§2). Homiletic preaching, and the whole teaching office of the Church, includes those moral truths which are meant to shape our lives and our relationships with the Lord and with each other, all for the ultimate purpose of the salvation of souls.

The three canons cited above are only examples of the ecclesiastical texts that could be invoked in support of a moral component to homiletic preaching. A final example comes from the sacred liturgy itself. After proclaiming the Gospel, the priest or deacon prays, “Through the words of the Gospel, may our sins be wiped away.” It surely means something that this is the first grace for which the Church prays after the Gospel and before the homily. Cleansing from sin, the repentance that makes the reception of such cleansing possible, faithful discipleship as members of the Church, and above all the salvation of souls, our own and those of others—these are the effects the Gospel and the preaching of the Gospel ought to have on us.

My point is not that the effects I have just mentioned are the only effects one could possibly mention. Rather, my point is that those entrusted with the ministry of homiletic preaching have a blessed duty to proclaim the Gospel in its fullness, including its moral dimension. To fail in preaching moral truth is not an act of mercy, but an act of malpractice, to borrow a medical term. The question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” requires an answer in every age, and yet all-too-often it goes unanswered in our churches.

Certainly, moral preaching by individual bishops, priests, and deacons is extremely difficult today. Were it not for the surpassing power of God’s grace it would be fair to say it is overwhelmingly difficult. The combination of cultural opposition to, and often even hatred for, the Christian moral message and the silence of so many in the Church when it comes to moral preaching means that it is typical only for homilists of heroic virtue to broach the more complex and controversial topics on today’s moral landscape. Yet these challenges make it all the more critical that a “coalition of the willing” make a beginning. Or rather, it is critical that more of us who are entrusted with this ministry join those homilists who have already been persevering in preaching moral truth, even when it was most difficult.

Balancing the many challenges of preaching moral truths in today’s difficult circumstances is the great opportunity homilists have before them. In a world awash with relativism and a general “live and let live” attitude, there are many people who feel adrift and yearn for the solidity of an authentic, well-defined code of life that is rooted in truth. What we offer is the harmonious beauty of God’s law, which is the very architecture of love, the path to union with him, and is rooted not only in truth but in the Truth, the Person of the Son of God in whose flesh the law has found its definitive fulfillment. He invites us, and all those we evangelize, to share in his life and to inherit the glory to which God’s law directs us.

There are several caveats I could offer at this point about how to go about including moral doctrine and exhortation in homiletic preaching, but the purpose of this article is to deal with the question of whether and not how we engage in preaching moral truth in our homilies. An article on sound strategy and tactics for moral preaching in today’s homilies would be a most welcome supplement to my small effort here. I simply conclude by saying that we can look to Scripture, to an entire constellation of saints among the preaching clergy, and to myriad magisterial documents for motivation, sound instruction, and excellent models of effective moral preaching. May today’s homilists, imitating Our Lord and the saints of every age, help those to whom they preach turn away from sin and to build their lives on the rock foundation which is Jesus Christ, so that they might “have life and have it more abundantly” (Jn 10:10).

Featured Photo: Our Lady of Fatima International Pilgrim Statue; CC-BY-SA-2.0.

[1] See John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor (6 August 1993). John Paul II writes of the duty of the Church’s pastors “of speaking with love and mercy not only to believers but to all people of good will” and adds, “The Church knows that the issue of morality is one which deeply touches every person; it involves all people, even those who do not know Christ and his Gospel or God himself. She knows that it is precisely on the path of the moral life that the way of salvation is open to all” (§3).

[2] It seems to me that general preaching about the two “Great Commandments”—love of God and love of neighbor—is much more common today than concrete and challenging preaching on the Ten Commandments. Yet the Ten Commandments help specify what it means to love God and neighbor, and that violations of the Commandments represent rejections of this call to love. In the end, however, I speak from my own experience and the experiences of many people with whom I am acquainted. There may well be, of course, some regions where direct, specific, and concrete moral preaching is much more common.

[3] NAB translation used for all quotations from Sacred Scripture. It will be noted by some that Our Lord’s first words are “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.” Leaving aside the moral implications of biblical concepts such as the “time of fulfillment” and the advent of the “kingdom of God”, my concern here is only to point out the inclusion of moral exhortation in the first preaching of Jesus, not to assert its priority over the announcement of the coming Kingdom.

[4] On the Sermon on the Mount, Book I, Chapter I.

[5] 1 John 2:3–4 could also be added here: “The way we may be sure that we know him is to keep his commandments. Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” Surely, a “personal relationship” involves knowledge of the person with whom one is in relationship, and here it is divinely revealed that personal knowledge of the Lord requires morally upright living.

[6] See CIC, 767 §1 and Sacrosanctum Concilium [SC], §52.

[7] Emphasis added here and in Canon 768. The most important antecedent text to canon 767 §1 comes from SC §52: “By means of the homily the mysteries of the faith and the guiding principles of the Christian life are expounded from the sacred text during the course of the liturgical year” (emphasis added).

Fr. Charles Fox

Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit, currently assigned to doctoral studies in theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, Rome, where he studies dogmatic theology.