Posted by: frroberts | October 1, 2017

Is the Catholic Church judgmental?

One of the great stories of the Bible is the call of Matthew, which highlights Jesus’ practice of open table fellowship, wherein He transgressed the Jewish purity laws by eating with sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors.  The Gospel reading concludes with what might sound like a blistering condemnation of the Catholic Church, ” Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.  Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  I did not come to call the righteous but sinners. ”

These words even make me, a Catholic priest, a bit jumpy.  The Church is known to many as the Christian denomination that has the strictest practice of closed communion as well as the one with the clearest doctrine of the Eucharist as a sacrificial offering.  To so many of the developments of modern society that are aimed at making human life easier and more pleasurable, the Catholic Church responds with a resounding, “no.”  We have to wonder if Catholicism has become the very thing that Jesus came to undo.

On some level, this is true.  Insofar as the Church is filled with sinful members who tend, in their fallenness, to receive Christ’s holiest gifts like the Bible, the sacraments and the Apostolic Tradition in a disordered way, Catholicism is the very thing that Jesus came to undo.   Some of the greatest Catholic theologians through the centuries are quick to point out that “the Church is always in need of reform.”   A handful, writing in ancient languages like Greek and Latin, have gone so far as to call the Church “a chaste whore”–following the Old Testament typology of the prostitute Rahab as a prefigurement of the New Testament People of God.  None of this changes the essential holiness of the Church, which refers principally to the objective means of grace that Christ entrusted to her rather than the per capita subjective holiness of her members at any given point in history.

There have even been times in the history of the Church that the absolutely true Catholic dogma that the Mass is a “true and proper sacrifice” has been abused in such a way that some of the faithful developed a superstitious understanding of the fruits of the Mass, reducing the beauty of God’s love made present in the Eucharist to a merely commercial transaction.  Some unscrupulous clergy played a significant role in this practical deformation of the faith.  Thankfully, the implementation of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and the Catholic Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries did much to correct these abuses.  Vatican II (1962-1965) continued along these lines with liturgical reforms aimed at making the deepest realities of the Eucharistic sacrifice more apparent to all the faithful.

Contemporary objections to the Catholicism as judgmental and exclusive have little to do with superstition surrounding the sacrificial nature of the Mass, however.  These objections assert that by excluding from Holy Communion those who reject the teaching of the Church either by refusing to become Catholic or by living in a way that is contrary to its teachings, the Catholic Church betrays the inclusive nature of our Lord’s practice of open table fellowship.

Several observations are in order in face of what is a most serious assertion.  Jesus’ open table fellowship is a sign of the Kingdom that is a part of Jesus’ three years of public ministry.  Other signs of the Kingdom included miraculous cures, the washing of the feet at the Last Supper, cleansing the Temple, a baptism of repentance, as well as other miracles and exorcisms.  With the completion of the Paschal Mystery at Pentecost, the things proper to the three years of Christ’s public ministry take different forms in the life of the Church.  Miraculous cures continue, but the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick becomes an ordinary means of experiencing Christ’s healing power.  The message of repentance continues to be proclaimed daily, but Baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which includes an exorcism, becomes a central part of responding to this proclamation.  The fulfillment of the ceremonial law of the Old Testament in the sacraments exposes the finality of our Lord’s cleansing the Temple.  The washing of the feet demonstrates the deepest meaning of the Sacrament of the Eucharist as service but is not itself a sacrament.  The signs of the Kingdom in our Lord’s three years of public ministry pass away and are integrated into the sacraments of the New Covenant.

Another way of expressing this integration would be to say that Jesus chooses to fulfill definitively the signs of the Kingdom during His public ministry in the seven sacraments.  Thus, open table fellowship and our Lord’s personal extension of forgiveness for sins are provisional signs that find their definitive expression in the Sacrament of Reconciliation:  Jesus said to the Apostles on the evening of Easter, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23).  Lest there be any confusion about how early Christians put these words into practice, the Epistle of James makes it clear: “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.   The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” (James 5:16).

For Catholics mercy comes before sacrifice.  After Baptism, sacramental confession is the way, par excellence, to prepare oneself to participate in the Eucharistic sacrifice.  I would be the first to admit that contemporary Catholic practice regarding Confession leaves much to be desired.  But it will only be through a rediscovery of the riches of the Sacrament of Reconciliation that the mercy of which Christ speaks in today’s Gospel and the open table fellowship that He practiced during His public ministry will become present to our contemporary world.  Each one of us needs to confess the particular symptoms of our spiritual sickness and put ourselves under the care of the divine physician Who has bound His mercy and healing to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  Only then, will we understand what Jesus really means when He says, “Mercy I desire, not sacrifice.   I did not come to call the righteous but sinners. “

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