“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.”
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!”
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.