October 14, 2013 by Alex Johannigman
“But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them,“Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more.” (John 8:1-11)
I was reminded of this story when I read an article recently about the reasons why the author has left the Catholic Church and has no intention of ever returning. When I first saw the title of the post, I was very tempted to ignore it. I thought “Oh no, another atheist going on about how the Catholic Church is behind the times on marriage, birth control, and/or women’s rights. Thanks, but no thanks.” But when I stopped to notice that it was shared by a Catholic friend who is very serious about his faith, I decided it could be worth a quick skim.
I was surprised to find that it was almost the exact opposite of what I expected. Rather than criticizing how strict the church is on all of the issues that the media loves to focus on when discussing Catholicism, he pointed out how the church isn’t tough enough when it comes to sin. Since Vatican II, he claims, we’ve focused almost exclusively on the fact that Christ loves us and forgives us, without ever mentioning the fact that he wants us to live holy lives and sin no more.
The article hit a bit too close to home for me. Growing up in the post Vatican II American Catholic Church, I can’t remember the last time a homily at mass ever challenged me to turn away from a particular sin that I was struggling with. Reconciliation is great for that, but going to mass rarely has been for me.
I read the following paragraph and found myself nodding my head more and more vigorously as it went on. “If you know about the Catholic Church only from reading the papers, you are in for a shock once you come inside. The image of American Catholicism shown by the media is of a church preoccupied with sex and abortion. It’s not remotely true. I was a faithful Mass-going Catholic for 13 years, attending a number of parishes in five cities in different parts of the country. I could count on one hand the number of homilies I heard that addressed abortion or sexuality in any way. Rather, the homilies were wholly therapeutic, almost always some saccharine variation of God is love.”
I can see some pros and cons to the approach that Catholic priests have taken over at least the past several decades. After all, they are typically based on the gospels, the words of Christ, which tend to focus on God’s forgiveness and love for us more than anything else. So far, Pope Francis has clearly focused mostly on the love and forgiveness that Christ offers, and contrary to the author of the article, I think this approach has made him a great leader. Before anyone is going to let Christ change their lives, they need to have a relationship with him first. This relationship is formed not by overcoming one sin or the other, but by accepting the gift of love and mercy that is offered to each of us. That must be our starting point.
But there is a problem with leaving our understanding of Christianity to just that. The problem is that without discussing God’s judgment, we miss out on a huge part of Christ’s message, as well as a chance to make serious changes to our actions and attitudes. We run the risk of having a happy, shallow faith that does little more than make us feel good about ourselves.
One thing that has surprised me in my conversations with the homeless while serving as a missionary is how many people already know they are doing something wrong in their lives and want to fix it. I talked with one middle-aged man a couple weeks ago who told me that he has struggled with alcoholism and drug abuse for a really long time, but has had a hard time kicking those habits. He said if there was an afterlife, and he died today, he was sure he was going to hell. And no amount of “God still loves you” from me was able to change his mind. He wanted to know how to live a holier life. He wanted to change the life he was living. He knew Jesus loved him, but he wasn’t sure how to fight his addictions so he could go and “sin no more” like he wanted to. He knew that his sinful life was not one that would lead him to joy, because it had only left him with emptiness and disappointment so far. And he could see the true joy and fulfillment that I and the other missionaries had. He just needed to know how to get there.
So while I don’t agree that Pope Francis is the sign that the Catholic Church is going to continue to be too soft on sin, I do think that it is important that we begin to teach justice along with love, and acknowledge that we can’t have Christ without the cross. Too many Christians in our day believe that we can do whatever we want because God loves us, and a loving God will never send anyone to hell. Unfortunately for them and for all of us, Jesus says in a very plain and simple way: “small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matt 7:14)
Now that more and more people around the world are recognizing Christ’s forgiveness and love for them because of Pope Francis’ papacy, I hope that Pope Francis and priests at parishes everywhere are able to use that momentum to join Christ’s “neither do I condemn you” message with his challenge to “go and sin no more.” The church needs it, but even more importantly, the souls of its members need it.