The Gospel, Doctrine and Pastoral Care

“There is no contradiction between the Gospel, doctrine and the pastoral care of God’s people.”

Over the last few weeks I have addressed some very sensitive topics in my weekly column, which many found challenging. I have received numerous emails questioning what some call a “harsh” and insensitive position concerning “sinners.” In particular, last week’s article about some concerning content in the program for the World Meeting of Families drew a lot of responses. People are confused and have questions about the need for and nature of pastoral outreach. In this column I attempt to address some of these questions, placing the need for effective pastoral outreach in the context of Christ’s call to true freedom via repentance.

The Call of St. Matthew

There’s an extraordinary painting by Caravaggio at the Church of San Luigi in Rome. Several men are depicted sitting at a table, on which there are heaps of coins and pen and ink. At the opposite end of the room stands a man, obviously Christ, mostly cast in shadow, with one arm dramatically outstretched and his index finger pointing. A piercing shaft of light illuminates the dark room, falling directly on the face of a bearded, middle-aged man. This man, looking startled, is in turn pointing uncertainly at a young man sitting at the end of the table, slouched over a bunch of coins, as if to say: “Him?”

No. Not him. The painting is called The Call of St. Matthew. The bearded man is Matthew, not yet a saint, but a tax collector: a collaborator with the Romans and therefore a public sinner and traitor to the Jewish people.

The perspective of the painting is ambiguous; it is not entirely clear precisely at whom Christ is pointing. Matthew, for one, is incredulous that Christ is calling him; hence his startled expression and uncertain gesture. I suspect that this ambiguity was deliberate on Caravaggio’s part. It suggests that Christ was, in fact, calling every single man in that room, just as he calls each one of us. But we all know the end of the story. “Follow me,” Jesus said, “and Matthew got up and followed him.”

The Gospel, Doctrine and Pastoral Care

We hear a lot about “tax collectors and sinners” these days: Christ ate with tax collectors and sinners, and the hypocritical, hard-hearted Pharisees were scandalized. Christ rebuked them, saying: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” Sometimes it seems as if this is the only story that many people know from the Gospels…or think they know. Few recall, for instance, that immediately preceding the story is the account of the call of St. Matthew. His dramatic conversion sets the stage, quite literally: for the house in which Christ subsequently ate with those tax collectors and sinners was Matthew’s house.

It is easy to imagine the scene: St. Matthew, to his profound astonishment, has been called by Christ, and, to his even greater astonishment, has responded to that call. In a moment’s divine folly, he has cast aside wealth, prestige, power, and security, and has by that very fact tasted the joy of repentance and freedom in Christ. Filled with a convert’s zeal he has told all of his old friends – the “tax collectors and sinners” – about Christ. Matthew wants them to experience what he now experiences. He invites Christ to dine with them, and Our Lord readily agrees. At supper, surrounded by Matthew and his friends, Christ tells them the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven. We are not told, but we can guess that some of Matthew’s friends also got up, as he did, and followed Christ.

Christ’s call to repentance

Why am I telling you this?

Because I am dismayed. I am dismayed that so many, even within the Church, seem so utterly to disbelieve in the power of the Gospel, like the Pharisees, they daily seek to prevent Christ’s call to repentance from reaching those who need it most. I am dismayed that so many, even within the Church, preach what they call ‘mercy,’ all the while are busily seeking ways to change the dark, rich, and invigorating wine of Christ’s mercy into an insipid, watery, and even poisonous counterfeit.

John the Baptist appeared in the desert preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near.” And then, after John was arrested, Christ went forth into the desert and spent 40 days fasting and praying. When he returned he took up the call, verbatim: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

Repent.

And repent they did. The Gospel, and the whole New Testament, is a catalogue of repentance. Matthew. The woman at the well. The woman caught in adultery. The thief on the cross. The centurion with the lance. St. Peter after his denials. St. Paul knocked off his horse. The thousands who followed Christ into the desert.

Some, on the other hand, did not repent. And for these, Christ had blistering words: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you.” Even more challenging for us, perhaps, is the story of the rich young man, a man who has followed all the commandments from his youth: and yet, the Gospel recounts Christ’s profound sadness at his refusal of our Lord’s challenge to give all for all. The young man was not a bad man, but still, he rejected the pearl of great price.

Some, who recount the story of Christ eating with the tax collectors and sinners, pretend that Christ’s motives were somehow ambiguous. They suggest that we must imaginatively reconstruct the scene to discern what those motives might be; as if Christ were, perhaps, demonstrating some new pastoral doctrine of incremental accompaniment. As if Christ Himself did not say precisely what he was about: “I came to call sinners,” he told the scandalized Pharisees. To call sinners.

The new Pharisaism, and true ‘accompaniment’

It is common to accuse Catholics who defend the Church’s traditional teaching on issues like life and family of being the modern-day “Pharisees.” They are condemned as hard-hearted legalists, eschewing the morally “unclean” by appealing to the letter of the law. And no doubt at times this accusation contains a seed of truth. At times the doctrinally sound can be guilty of closing their hearts by acting as if the Gospel message is only for those who have “earned” it (as if any of us have earned it!). Faithful Catholics must ever be alert to the temptation to take on the role of the elder brother in the story of the prodigal son.

And yet, surely this is not the dominant Pharisaical temptation of our age. In our age, we more often see those empowered to impart the bread of life to the sick instead handing out stones and snakes. How rarely is the life-giving Gospel message of repentance and salvation preached in its fullness! Instead, we water down the teachings of Christ, presenting them as an optional and unattainable “ideal.” This is especially true regarding the Church’s unpopular teachings on life and family.

Yet, point me to a single case in the Gospel where Christ presented his doctrine as an unattainable “ideal” and accommodated his teaching to the weakness of any one person by sacrificing any of its precepts. More often, Christ increased the moral demands, exposing the deeper spiritual truths at the heart of the Mosaic law: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

That we must “accompany” sinners; that there is often a need for patience in our efforts to bring about conversion; that at times there is a need to gradually bring people to the fullness of truth; that there are “pastoral” practices that are more likely to soften hearts and open them to the Gospel – all of this I take for granted. And yet, our examplar is Christ; and it is clear that Christ never merely accompanied sinners. He never merely dined with tax collectors and sinners. He always had an “agenda” – to call them to conversion.

Christ “accompanied” the disciples on the road to Emmaus. And then he gave them His very Self in the Eucharist. This is an image of the only proper end of all authentic accompaniment – total union with Christ. Too often these days “mercy” and “accompaniment” are used instead as excuses to abandon the sick – sinners. Often, this is motivated by an insidious form of moral relativism that treats the truths of the Gospel as negotiable. Often, too, it stems from a lack of faith in the power of God’s grace to effect authentic conversion.

Like Christ, we must never abandon the sinner, and should always seek ways to integrate the imperfect, of whom we are the foremost, into the body of Christ; but never at the expense of truth and the core Gospel message of repentance.

11 thoughts on “The Gospel, Doctrine and Pastoral Care

  1. The sexual revolution came and is now accepted in schools, TV shows, medical education, advise in magazines and papers. The clergy were silent for the most part–not having adult ed in the parishes to prepare parents who were not prepared for dealing with the changing world, and not prepared to enter into marriage with any real understanding of it.
    Our Vatican authorities controlled seminary training for Brothers, Priests and nuns, trying to create a monastic spirituality for them to follow. It failed grandly. The dropout rate was astounding. Parents let the kids watch and absorb the values depicted on family shows actually named MARRIED WITH CHILDREN, and the like. Talk shows extolled the active sex activity of guests and hosts.
    Then they and the clergy wondered why their kids ‘lived together’.
    this carry on about fighting abortion is a dodge of responsibility for not leading the flock. It is a black and white position–not very involved to say I am against it. The real work of fighting abortion before it was legalized was not done.
    The same has happened with nuclear war and weapon stockpiles, mass incarceration, solitary confinement for years, destruction of the environment, genocide of the Palestinians, Guantanamo, aggressive wars on Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Latin American countries, and stealing resources from other countries, civil rights. The Catholic people have been trained to be mindless sheep.
    Writing an encyclical when things are out of hand and still not organizing the flock to take action will not do.
    If our trained leaders had spoken up and lead the people they would be outstanding heroes for women the world over who are sex objects and toys to so many.

  2. I would like to read Fr. Bouquet’ s response to the comment above. Sounds like commenter missed the point of this essay and went off the rails with some unreal world view:
    “Palestinian genocide”? How about self -defense by Israel.

    “Destruction of the environment”? The movement that had to become “climate change” so environazies wouldn’t have to explain weather that didn’t cooperate with their agenda? An agenda that would rather people starve or freeze than use the natural resources God gave us? The very movement that espouses population control to “save” the environment.

    Where is any mention about the battle against godless communism and Marxism which underlie much of our breakdown of societal mores?

  3. Read the book GOODBYE GOOD MEN and you will see why we are reaping the misery that Edward alludes to and it may take the return of the “Good Shepherd” to clean house or perhaps a St. Francis to rebuild a house in ruins. Thank you Fr Bouquet for your efforts, and many of us feel your frustration and wish we could do more.

  4. A sad note is that those who questioned you as “harsh,” will fail to read what you have here written. And if they do and still remain the the cesspool of their ignorance and stubborn state of mind, they will incur an even more serious sin. Your article is excellent from start to finish! Charles Griego

  5. Thank you Father for your persistance in speaking the truth. This statement of yours really hit home, and it shed light on why I feel heartsick at the harmful direction some at the highest levels of clerical authority seem insistent on taking the church of Jesus Christ: “I am dismayed that so many, even within the Church, preach what they call ‘mercy,’ all the while are busily seeking ways to change the dark, rich, and invigorating wine of Christ’s mercy into an insipid, watery, and even poisonous counterfeit.” My wife and I have devoted much of our adult life involved in prolife activities and initiatives, and we found it hurtful a few years ago to be labeled “obsessed with abortion”.

  6. The U.S. bishop committee nominated Abp Joseph Naumann to charity pro-life activities over seamless garment thinker Cardinal Cupich and also who endorsed Fr. James Martin’s book ‘Building a Bridge’ which tries to normalize homosexually. I for one am very happy that Naumann won, but sad that 46% of the bishops voted for Cupich.

  7. Excellent, excellent article. Thank you for speaking the truth in charity. Fear of being labeled a “Pharisee” is paralyzing too many people who have to answer to God for their silence.

  8. Excellent article, Father Boquet, as always! Thank you for your courageous, respectful stand for Christ, our faithful and compassionate High Priest, whom all bishops, including the bishop of Rome, and indeed all clergy must emulate in fidelity and compassion Those are the twin virtues of the pastoral art. A clergyman or any Christian cannot show more compassion by being less faithful. You can’t have one without the other! Keep up your great witness worldwide, Father. You are a very worthy successor to Fr. Paul Marx, a saintly champion for Life!

  9. In Today’s first reading in the Latin Calendar, we have St. Paul giving an ample warning that pertains to today. It comes from 2Tim 4:1-8, where he states boldly: “Beloved, I charge you, inn the sight of God and Christ Jesus, Who will judge the living and the dead by His coming and by His kingdom, PREACH THE WORD, BE URGENT in season, out of season; REPROVE, entreat, REBUKE with ALL PATIENCE and TEACHING.” Now here is the real kicker that pertains to us specifically, and hopefully, will give you some peace cause we knew these days would come: “For THERE WILL COME A TIME when they will NOT ENDURE THE SOUND DOCTRINE; but have itching ears, will heap up for themselves teachers ACCORDING TO THEIR LUSTS, and they WILL TURN AWAY their hearing from the TRUTH and TURN TO FABLES.” Then Paul gives all of us the best advice in these trying times: “But be WATCHFUL in all things, BEAR WITH TRIBULATION patiently, WORK as a PREACHER of the GOSPEL, fulfill your ministry.” Hang in there, Fr B.! All these things must come to pass but then they WILL PASS. As Pope Emeritus, Benedict the XVI recently said, “Remember, God wins in the end.”

  10. Thank you Father! I enjoy reading your articles. They are a breath of fresh air! I so appreciate your steadfast conviction to the real Truth and Way for Life! Thank you!

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