How to defend the faith without raising your voice

I have to confess that I have a tendency to get angry when I hear somebody saying things about the Church or the Faith that are simply not true. You probably face this more often than I do, because people often don’t know you’re a Catholic, and so say things to you they wouldn’t say to me. I do however get some of it on the Internet, on Facebook and Twitter etc, where people often do not realise I’m a priest. It’s one of the reasons why it’s important that we priests are there. I had one the other day. – “Catholics believe creation took 7 days” – “Catholics think God punishes people and make them feel guilty all the time” – “Priests won’t baptise babies of unmarried mothers” – “Catholic priests abuse children” and so on.  

 What should we do when such things are said? Well the first thing to say is that we shouldn’t get angry or defensive. Yes, we are called “to instruct the ignorant” – the work of mercy that I want us to look at today – but getting angry never won any argument. I was very pleased to see that this is the approach of an organisation called CATHOLIC VOICES that trains ordinary Catholics to appear on radio and TV when topics like this come up. Their book “How to defend the faith without raising your voice” calls it reframing. In other words, do not attack people for what they say, but look outside the frame they have created, for a different way to explain things.

 Now I expect you’re thinking at this point that you would rather not say anything at all, because you think you will only make a mess of it. Don’t worry if you feel like this, because you are in good company. The great Moses himself, as we heard in our 1st Reading (Exodus 3:1-15) didn’t want to do it either. Sometimes you just have to pluck up your courage just like he did, and go for it. You might simply say, as politely as you can, that the person who is attacking the faith, hasn’t got the story quite right; or if you know them you might contact them later, when you’ve had a chance to look up in the Catechism what the Church actually believes, and give them a suitable quote.

 Let me explain a bit more how this reframing works. If people start going on about how Catholics are against science and evolution, do not attack head on and say “You’re talking nonsense”. Come at it sideways “Well you may be right that some Catholics think that, but none of the Catholics I know do. Did you know that the first person to propose the Big Bang Theory was a Catholic physicist who was a priest?” Or “Did you know that the great Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman had no problem with Darwin’s Theory of Evolution?”

 Sometimes reframing means actually agreeing with the critic. You might say “Yes, it’s terrible that some priests have refused to baptise the babies of unmarried mothers, but few would nowadays. Did you know that Pope Francis phoned an Italian woman who was treated like that and offered to come and baptise her baby himself?”   And certainly you might agree about the horrors of child abuse, but speak of all the Church is now doing to safeguard children. Do you know who the Safeguarding Officer is in your Church?

 Our Gospel today (Luke 13:1-9) sees Jesus dealing with another of these ignorant views – that if bad things happen to people they must have done something bad. It’s certainly a view put forward in many Old Testament passages. Jesus makes clear that this view is wrong. In our Gospel he makes it crystal clear in a rather clever way, by reminding people that we are all sinners and that doesn’t means towers will fall down and kill all of us!, Elsewhere, as you all know, he contradicts other Old Testament views by saying “Love your enemies”. The Catholic Church therefore, following Jesus, does not say that we must believe literally every word in the Bible.

 “So”, my man on the Internet said, “If Catholics do not take the Bible literally, they can interpret it any way they like!”   Well, by now we were into a sensible discussion, and I was able to explain that the Church has worked out down the centuries how the Bible should be understood, and that is how Catholics use it. I hope it helped him.

 One more point. When we are trying to explain the faith, we do not have to try to win the argument. Instructing the ignorant must not be an ego trip where we think we must not fail. Simply sharing politely as best we can, is enough. We may think we have failed, but God does not fail, and sometimes what seems a weak explanation can be more powerful than something very clever. God uses us in ways we can never imagine. Think on that!

On Marriage and Divorce

The albatross is a fascinating bird. These birds travel thousands of miles across the seas of the world, but when they return to their breeding grounds they seek out their original mate and after elaborate greetings and wagglings of beaks, the pair mate and bring up their baby before setting out on their next long journey. You might think that such lifelong faithfulness in marriage ought to be an example to us. But we humans have one thing that these birds lack – free-will – the ability to imagine and choose alternative actions – even alternative lifestyles! The albatross mates for life by instinct. We humans are blessed and cursed with the power to choose, so that marriage can both be the glory of love freely given, and the immense sorrow of hurt or betrayal.

 

Notice today in our Gospel (Mark 10:2-16) that Jesus does not go on about the sadness of divorce. Instead he points, as ever, to the ideal we should aim for – to the original and perfect ideal of marriage, as a faithful lifelong partnership. He supports this, by quoting from near the beginning of the first book in the Bible, Genesis, which we heard as our 1st Reading today.  (2:18-24)

 

Of course, we all fail to live up to our ideals in many ways – not just in the area of sex and marriage. So it is important to think most NOT about the mistakes we make, but on what we should be aiming for – the thing that is best for us in the long-run. For that is always God’s will. So while the world glories in gloating over the scandals and betrayals – presenting them to us in a way that easily titillates our imagination in wrong directions – we Christians need always to think and proclaim the beauty of good marriages, where people stay together through all the ups and downs of life, and then to treat with the utmost compassion those who find themselves in the tragedy of marriage breakdowns and divided families.

 

Many of you will have heard in the last few months of the way Pope Francis has been asking the Church to look at this problem of marriage and divorce. I think it is fairly clear that the Church will not suddenly say that divorces and second marriages can be declared OK, but there are two things worth noting that will change. The first has happened already. The Pope has simplified the process of annulment so that those whose first marriage has failed will find it easier to present their case for consideration, and it will not take so long. He has also made clear that people should not have to pay for their annulment, something which has been happening in some countries, so that it might seem that the more you pay the more likely you are to get an annulment. This has not been the case here in England where there has been a very small administrative fee. Perhaps there are some listening (or reading) this who might now consider the possibility of getting an annulment and thus regularising their second marriage with the Church? The process has never been as complicated as some thought, but now it will be even simpler, although it is still going to be the case that not every request for annulment will be granted.

 

The second thing that Pope Francis wants the Church to do is to be more compassionate and welcoming to those whose marriage has failed. This is something I have always tried to do myself, but sadly some priests and people, in some parts of the world, have turned the teaching of Jesus, that marriage for life is the most perfect way, into a persecution of those who fail to live up to this. Pope Francis wants this to stop. He does not think that the way to make people more perfect is to condemn them when they fail. He wants us to be like Jesus (John 4:4-26) who when faced with the woman at the well, whom he knew to be living with a man who was not her husband, still spoke to her in a way that encouraged her to seek God through him.

 

Remember too his compassion for the woman taken in adultery, and for many others who fail to be perfect in one way or another.  Jesus and his followers were not naïve about these things. They lived in a Roman world which was as pornographic as our world is today, and they knew it was wrong. But unlike the Pharisees, Jesus does not spend his time condemning people, but always offers them the love and mercy of God. That is surely why Pope Francis has declared a Year beginning on December 8th when the whole Church is called to stress the mercy of God, because that is the way of Jesus, which sadly some Catholics, even some Bishops and Priests, seem to have forgotten.

Homily on Religion and Politics

One of rules of the modern Catholic Church is that their priests and bishops should not be actively involved in government. So even if they asked me, I cannot stand for election to Parliament! I think the reason for this is that there have been too many cases in the past where the Church has been so closely linked with one government or another, that corruption has crept in.

The first Christians were clear that we should try to be good citizens (1 Peter 2:13-17) and that was fairly easy whilst we were a tiny minority in the pagan Roman world. But then in the 4thC, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, problems increased. Sometimes the work of the Church could do great good, as one hopes it does today, encouraging those in power to serve their people rather than their own interests; some Bishops even found themselves having to run their region, as the Roman Empire crumbled, and they were able to do much good in maintaining stability and order. But power corrupts, and sadly the rest of the Church’s record has been mixed, to say the least!

Now the simple solution to this has sometimes been to say that not only Bishops and Priests but all Christians should simply keep out of politics ; that politics and religion don’t mix. But Christianity is based on the belief that God is not just spiritual, but that God chose to enter into our physical world, as Jesus Christ, and that he made it clear that following him did not mean just being good in the religious sense but also meant going out of our way to help others, especially the poor and the sick, as we heard in our Gospel today. (Matt 25:31-46) So Jesus tells us that if we fail to feed the poor, to welcome strangers, (even immigrants!) to care for the sick and for those in prison, then we actually fail to serve God. So we have a duty to try to make our country a place where this kind of care for others, whoever they are, can take place, and doing that does mean entering the murky world of politics, whether we like it or not.

There are two areas of life where the Catholic Church has some firm views to offer our society. The first is our belief in what we call the Common Good, working for a society in which no-one is excluded or marginalised. The second is our belief in the sanctity of every human life, from protecting the life of the child in the womb to caring for the very old and the dying. There will always be argument about how to do this best, and we may opt to support one political party or another at our General Election next May, but doing nothing is not an option for us. We have to face the fact that no political party in the UK, that is likely to win an election and do any good, has the perfect set of policies that we can support; and that voting is therefore a compromise. Indeed in the UK it is often best as a Christian to vote tactically, in other words to vote for the party that is likely in your area to keep out the party you least want to see in power.

 Our problem in West Oxfordshire is that our MP (who just happens to be the Prime Minister) has such a wopping majority that it hardly seems worth voting at all. But we need to remember that, unless we vote, we really have no right later to put pressure on him with our letters and petitions to make him move more on the things we think are important. It is also the case that if the number of people failing to vote gets larger and larger because we are sick of it all, then eventually some other group may gain power and do things we really would hate to see happen. That, after all, is how the Nazis in Germany came to power in the 1930’s!

Yes, we may be sick of the antics of some of our politicians, and we may be disillusioned with the particular political party we have supported in the past; but as Christians we cannot give up trying to make our country and our world a better place, because if we do, we are actually giving up on God!

We just need to realise that what we Christians think is good and right for the world is an ideal that is beyond the reach of any political party, and that we must make the best of what there is to get as many good things as possible done. We also need to be aware of our responsibility as citizens to be involved in the life of our community in one way or another. We should therefore be proud of the fact that Catholics in the UK have a great record on this: from some excellent hard-working MP’s to those who are active in local government and in charities and other groups working in one way or another for the good of others. Long may this tradition continue, for in all these things we must realise, as we are reminded today, that we are thereby serving Christ the King.

Whatever we do, whatever the Church does, we risk being criticised in one way or another. A famous Brazilian Bishop once said “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.” Yes Catholics have sometimes appeared to veer too far to the right or to the left in trying to make the world a better place. This is always a danger. Pope Francis has already been accused of this by some on the right when he speaks about poverty or opposes war, and has been accused equally by some on the left when he speaks about the importance of the family and of personal morality. He sets us all an example by speaking bravely on all these subjects, whatever other people say about him, and surely we should be true to the teachings of Jesus Christ in the same way. We may think that there is little we can do to change things, but if everyone thought like that, nothing would change. The Hospice movement caring for the dying started by a few people taking action, and it has now changed the face of Britain. Individual actions can make a difference, & so we must never give up!

Why the Church matters

When we get fed up with the Church, when the priest says or does something that annoys or upsets us, or when the Media reports something about the Church that we really cannot agree with, our temptation is to join with those many people who say “I can be a Christian without going to Church.” In this Homily I want to try and suggest what we should say to people who have done this -often members of our family- when they ask us why we still carry on going.

Now you might think that I would suggest that the first thing you do is to ask them what it was about the Church that stopped them going. The problem with that approach is that it misses the point. Very few of us can ever be entirely happy about the Church, precisely because it is an institution made up of millions of sinners, people like us who fail to live up to what Jesus calls us to be and to do. And this includes, as Pope Francis has told us since he became Pope, himself and the Bishops. Those who leave the Church because they have discovered it is not perfect, that its leaders sometimes say things that we do not like, or worse, do things that are wrong, need to be asked where they will find any human organisation that is perfect. The higher our ideals are, and the ideals of the Catholic Church are very high, the less likely it is that we will live up to them.

When Jesus attacked the market and money traders in the Temple, (John 2:13-22) and thus attacked the Temple authorities who’d allowed them to be there so they could tax them, he did not stop praying and teaching in the Temple. He did precisely the opposite. Indeed he actually says when he is arrested (Mark 14:49) that he taught in the Temple “every day.” The more often we, as members of the Church, strive to do more for others, both through action and prayer, the more the Church becomes what God wants it to be – “a chosen people.. a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9) To cut ourselves off, to say “I can be a good Christian at home” is actually to be incredibly selfish. It’s a failure to realise, that we are Christians, not to make ourselves feel holy or good, but in order to be part of what God wants.

But why does God want us to be the Church? To answer that we need to remember not where the Church has failed, but what the Church has already done for the world. The world would not know that God is a God of love and mercy, that God comes to save us as Jesus, and works in us as the Holy Spirit, unless the Church had told people. It was the Church that early in its history gradually defined which of its ancient writings was the Bible, and it is the Church that has handed down to every generation the teachings that are at the heart of Christianity. People tend to take for granted that every human being has the right to be treated fairly and humanely. They would not know this, had the Church not taught it. People take for granted that we should try to be kind and good to everyone, even people we do not like. They would not know this had the Church not taught it. And so on. Of course the Church has often failed to live up to its teaching. Right from the beginning, St Paul had to cope with its failings. He almost shouts at them in his frustration, “Didn’t you realise that you were God’s temple and that the Spirit of God was living among you?” (1 Cor 3:16-17) What we need to remember is that the teaching, the teaching that comes from God, still has a power of its own that comes through, despite the Church’s failings.

We were celebrating St Charles Borromeo this week, and he’s an interesting example of this from the seemingly corrupt Catholic Church of the 16thC.  He was appointed Cardinal and Archbishop as a very young man, simply because his uncle was a corrupt Pope! One might have expected him to sit back and enjoy the income and the privileges, as many did; but instead he becomes one of the leading Bishops in reforming and purifying the Church of that time, and ends up as a great saint. Some of you can remember how a fairly sleepy set of Cardinals in 1958 appointed an old Cardinal as a caretaker Pope – now St John XXIII – and found out that God was at work in him to begin renewing the Church in amazing ways!

The point is that we do not GO to Church as Christians, we ARE the Church, and there is no other way of passing on the faith except through the Church despite all our imperfections. It is also however our duty to defend the Church when it is accused falsely of having weird out dated views. The media, especially the media here in the UK, love to attack the Catholic Church, and they often do so in a very ignorant way. I heard recently that there was a piece saying that Pope Francis was changing the teaching of the Church when he said that evolution was an acceptable theory. You all know, because I keep banging on about it, that the Church has held this view for many years.

So when people say to you that they have stopped going to Church because of this or that, you might warn them that although members of the Church fail in many ways, much of what is reported about the Church, or about what the Church, especially the Catholic Church, teaches, is just not true. And then you might remind them that there is no other way of passing on the message of Jesus, unless there is a Church, the Church he founded through his Apostles, to do it. Thinking that their children will simply pick up the good things of the faith from odd comments made by them, or a visit to Church at Christmas, or by looking at things about Christianity as taught at school or on the Internet is to live in cloud cuckoo land.  I will say more about this next week!

Meanwhile let us pray for the Church God has made us part of, especially its leaders.