Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
History records the sad fact that disputes over religious tenets have led to war, even within Christendom. At the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, differences in religion ignited fires on the battlefield. To end the first large-scale conflict, in 1555, The Peace of Augsburg declared that every ruler had the power to determine the religion of his realm. This principle was framed in the famous Latin aphorism cuius regio, eius religio (whose realm, his religion). But this peace was only a temporary truce. Disagreements continued and wars erupted. Between 1618 and 1648, Protestants and Catholics engaged in one of the most destructive conflicts that bloodied the soil of Europe.
In the past, religious differences, fueled also by political motivation, fragmented the body of Christendom. Today, opposing voices, vetted in the media, are attacking the very soul of Christianity. Many Christians across denominational divides accept neither the Church’s magisterium nor the very authority of Sacred Scripture itself. Thus, basic truths about doctrine and morality, once held by both Protestants and Catholics, no longer find ready acceptance. The very heart of Christ’s teaching is at stake.
Unlike the past, in our post-modern world, unbelieving heirs of the Enlightenment have not gone to the battlefield to enlarge their realm. They have gone to the press. And, wisely so. On March 7, 1839, Bulwer-Lytton’s play Richelieu premiered in London. No one speaks of this play anymore. But, almost everyone quotes Cardinal Richelieu’s line from Act II, Scene II: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
The written word is mightier than physical force. Ideas get into the mind, seep into the soul and take hold of the heart. Change the way a society thinks and feels, and the prize is not dead bodies strewn across the battlefield, but confreres who join the cause.
Within the public forum, the media has pursued a relentless crusade that has undermined basic Christian teaching. They have successfully reframed basic moral questions in the language of equality, tolerance and individual freedom. Not the Church nor Sacred Scripture, but this new trinity has now become the authority that defines values and settles moral issues. Equality, tolerance and individual freedom are basic Christian values. They are not, however, the foundation of morality.
Tragically, some Catholics have been won over by the propaganda that equality, tolerance and freedom matter most. But, when these become standards apart from the wise plan of God revealed in Christ through his Church, the result is devastating. God has ordered his creation for our good. When we reject that order, there is suffering and hardship.
As people become less and less open to life and more and more accepting of abortion and family planning apart from God’s will, the number of children decreases and society suffers even economically. As people become more and more tolerant of sexual activity outside of marriage, infidelity and promiscuity wreak havoc on family life, children are deprived of a healthy upbringing and society suffers. As more and more individuals condone euthanasia, the elderly, the terminally ill and the disabled lose their freedom and their right to live.
Some argue that, in the name of equality, tolerance and personal freedom, we should accept whatever choices others make in terms of euthanasia, sexual activity outside of marriage and family planning apart from God’s will. They even insist these choices should be accepted as morally good for those who make them. No one dare call these immoral choices “sin.” How far we have come from the Jesus of the New Testament!
Jesus began his public ministry by calling would-be disciples to repentance (cf. Mk 1:15). He called them to turn away from sin. He did not hesitate to label choices outside of God’s plan as “sin.” In the Sermon on the Mount, he said, “whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32).
Jesus understood the weakness of the flesh. Nonetheless, he called his followers, strengthened by the gift of the Holy Spirit, to struggle against the flesh. Jesus did not mislead us by espousing the positive values of friendship and affection in immoral relationships. He welcomed the sinner, but not the sin! There was no accommodation to the ways of the world.
Today, Christians face the danger of accommodating to the world. The secularists and relativists of our day have convinced many individuals that society is the sole arbiter of right and wrong. Thus, whatever society determines at a particular time to be politically correct becomes de facto morally justified. But, this is an inversion of the truth.
God has made us in his own image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:27). He determines what is good and evil on the basis of what helps us become more like him, that is, more loving, more selfless, more giving of ourselves totally to others. Our secular world would have us simply accept the way that we are and even revel in our imperfections. But, the Gospel does not!
The Gospel challenges us to be, by God’s grace, better than we are in our fallen state. It calls us to make the hard choices that make us embrace God’s will for our own welfare. Thus, the sure remedy for the ills of our society is not to conform to the way of the world, but to convert, to turn from sin and to center our life on Christ who reveals to us the true meaning of life. Ultimately, the Gospel offers us the way to authentic freedom, genuine tolerance and true equality on our road together to eternal life.