Don’t lower the bar to achieve holiness

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

As the Extraordinary Synod on the Family draws to a close this weekend in Rome, I ask that you continue praying for its members. The meeting may be ending, but the work continues. Pope Francis and the leaders of the synod must now digest all the presentations and debates, the ideas and experiences offered from around the world. In the light of the gospel and the tradition, they must try to understand the promptings of the Holy Spirit in this event, and summarize how the church can move forward with fidelity and charity, to evangelize more successfully about God’s will for marriage and the family. They continue to rely on the prayers of all the faithful to assist them.

There has been much talk in the media during this Synod about something called “gradualism.” This is the idea that there are “grades” of participation or fidelity in the covenant which Jesus Christ made with us in his own precious blood, and that even those in the “lowest” grades, or further from the teachings of the church, should be considered “good Christians” if they are doing the best they can to follow Christ.

There is a sense, of course, in which this is true, and very traditional. The church has always clearly taught a moral and social and spiritual ideal, which we must all strive for in following Jesus Christ. The Beatitudes and the Ten Commandments are two obvious expressions of this, taught by Christ himself, for all his disciples, and indeed the whole world, to follow.

At the same time, the church has always recognized the reality of sin, which means that all of us fall short of the ideal by some measure. We are all sinners, dependent on Christ’s mercy for everything, and none of us can grow in holiness in any vocation or state of life without a constant process of repentance, forgiveness and recommitment.

Even when we don’t actually kill people, for example, we suffer from anger and speak hurtful words; even when we don’t actually commit adultery, we suffer from lust, and fail to keep chaste custody of our eyes or thoughts. Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount that such actions, even sometimes in our thoughts only, can violate God’s commandments and be serious sins. These sorts of sins are true of all of us, in some way, as long as we live in this fallen world.

Therefore, the church has always promoted such an understanding of “gradualism.” There is no point of “good enough” in the spectrum of falling short of the ideal. But the church has been given the treasury of grace to support us in our sinfulness, to offer God’s infinite forgiveness and a constant new beginning in confession, and to encourage life-long growth in holiness as we strive to follow Christ more and more.

But notice, in this understanding, that the clarity of the ideal is essential. If we do not teach clearly that something is a sin, then those who suffer from this sin will find it that much harder, both to know that it is a sin, and to arrive at the desire to be free of their sin. Likewise, without the greatest possible clarity in all the moral teachings of the church, we risk having disciples of Christ with poorly formed consciences, unable to witness to the mercy of Christ, unable to evangelize, and at worst, abandoning people to remain in their sins. The church, then, upholds both the ideal of perfection, and the reality of sin and its consequences, and therefore always offers a means by which we weak sinners can grow towards the full imitation of Christ throughout our earthly life.

But there is another sense in which this idea of “gradualism” cannot be squared with the gospel and tradition. In this false and worldly sense, which the media is implying, “gradualism” means watering down the teachings of the church and being less clear about the meaning of the Gospel and the fullness of tradition. This kind of thinking tries to be more “inclusive” of sinners (which we all are), not by making God’s mercy more easily available, but by making people think they need God’s mercy less.

But the end result of this line of thinking is already known. It teaches people to believe that Christ did not die on the cross and rise again from the dead for them, personally. One ends up believing that sins are not sins. Either, with the Pharisee of the parable, one imagines that one is a “good person” in no need of redemption (see Lk 18:10-12); or, trapped in a life of sin, one feels rejected by such Pharisees, and so cannot recognize or accept God’s lavish mercy. In the end, the more we lower the bar of our moral ideals, the more people end up unrepentant and rejecting God’s mercy.

Therefore, we must continue to be as clear as possible about the truth of the Gospel, the reality of sin, the redemption of Jesus Christ, and the moral and social ideals that derive from them. We cannot lower the bar of how holy we aspire to be. At the same time, we must, as the church has always done, find ways to evangelize effectively, to invite people to receive again and again, with increasing fullness, the infinite mercy of God. We cannot abandon people just because they – or worse, we – think the church is not for them. We must invite, with joy and compassion, with “the same consolation we have received from Christ” (II Cor 1:4), with great charity and humility.  The Holy Spirit can move any sinner to conversion, if we do not make ourselves the obstacle.

I hope and pray that many good things come from this special meeting of our Holy Father on marriage and family life. This meeting will be a good preparation for the synod that will be held next year, also on marriage and the family. My prayers and special thoughts remain with all the families in our diocese.

May God continue to fill you with peace and joy. (By the way, I hope you are enjoying all those Denver Bronco football wins!)

 Your brother in Christ,

Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless

Bishop of Sioux City

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