Pray for the Church. Pray for the bishops.
We are given commandments by God and are expected to keep them. We hear Jesus Himself say things like:
“Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19)
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)
And the Apostle John writing:
Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. (1 John 2:3)
Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus. (Revelation 14:2)
We can feel the weightiness of the word “commandments.” For many it seems like an unusually heavy word, a word out of place in today’s world, altogether too severe, to draconian — certainly not American. I sometimes sense that many Christians have a “you can’t be serious” attitude towards the objective seriousness and absoluteness of commandments. Did not Jesus, after all, save us from all that? He took up His cross so we don’t have to, right? Of course He didn’t. Reference the quotes above.
Often these days we hear of a so-called “pastoral approach,” being pushed hard by a number of bishops, that seems to offer comfort and compassion to sinners without also calling for repentance. The argument for this seems to hinge on the idea that the call to holiness (including the call to a marriage that does not end in divorce, or the call that one should not get remarried without a proper annulment, or the call to chastity or even celibacy) is an ideal rather than an expectation with actual consequences.
This seems to be the idea some bishops see the biblical definition of marriage, and even the Gospel itself — as an ideal that inspires. Writing on Amoris Laetitia, the German bishops published a statement on pastoral care of marriage and the family. The bishops wrote:
People see themselves faced by the shattered remains of their life plans that were based on a partnership. They suffer from having failed and having been unable to do justice to their ideal of life-long love and partnership.
Notice that “life-long love and partnership” is presented as an ideal. I suppose holiness is an ideal too. Right? The use of the word ideal in this instance, I would argue, comes from the desire to view holiness as an inspirational concept that can help us in our individuals pursuits of “the best version of ourselves.” But we are called to pursue holiness without compromise. Holiness is both an ideal and an objective. Is the Gospel itself an ideal too? If by ideal we mean something not truly attainable, or not something we should expect people to attain, then that would seem to contradict both Holy Scripture and Catholic Tradition. But, of course, the German bishops are not writing without precedent. Here is a key sentence from Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, as quoted by the German bishops in their letter:
“The Church’s pastors, in proposing to the faithful the full ideal of the Gospel and the Church’s teaching, must also help them to treat the weak with compassion, avoiding aggravation or unduly harsh or hasty judgements.” (AL No. 308)
Given the continuing issues with the German bishops desiring to water down both the Gospel and Tradition, it would seem they see “ideal” as being a mostly unattainable goal primarily reserved for those who have the faith and goodwill of saints, but not anything more than an an example and a slim hope for most Christians.
Naturally, we often hold up ideals as inspirations for motivation, but not as something we can have any hope of attaining. However, many see ideals as only that and no more. Is this how God sees ideals? Or, perhaps a better question, does God see His commandments as ideals at all, or as requirements? Are we called to try to be holy while believing it’s actually impossible to do so, and also that God doesn’t really care all that much anyway, nor will He truly hold us accountable? Or are we to be holy?
Consider this passage from Deuteronomy 30: 11-20
11 Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 14 No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
Did the Israelites keep these commandments? No. Again and again no. Did God know they would break them? Yes. Of course He did. Did they break the commandments because of sin, weakness, outside pressures, temptations, foolishness, and folly upon folly? Yes. Did they always have some “reasonable” justification in their own eyes for doing so? Probably. They must have.
And yet, God says: “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you.” In light of this cannot the German bishops, and all bishops for that matter, hold Catholics to the actual standards God has given us, offering council, forgiveness, and mercy as is appropriate, but never ceasing to call us all to Christ without compromise? But the way of the German bishops, and too many others as well, seems to imply preaching the Gospel itself is, in fact, too difficult any more.
The evidence before us, declared from headlines and testimonies, says many bishops refuse to hold themselves accountable to God’s demands for holiness. Naturally, therefore, they might want to change the “rules” a bit, tweak the definitions of words, and shift the focus to the environment and refugees rather than ask anyone to truly keep God’s commandments. Perhaps their only integrity is refusing to ask others to do what they themselves refuse.
What was God’s “pastoral” care for His people? God says: “But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.”
Was God too harsh, too draconian on the Israelites? Was the Babylonian captivity God showing a lack of charity? Was the Father sending His Son to die on a cross to much? Some bishops of the Church, it would seem, must think so.
Thank God that we also have many good bishops. Pray for them. And pray for the rest too.
[Final thought: Sometimes it seems that criticisms aimed at traditionalists come from a place that prefers an easier, less judgmental faith than Catholic orthodoxy. Thus, criticisms of the Traditional Latin Mass, or Catholic traditions in general, though often couched in terms of the need for the Church to be less stuffy and get with the times, may actually be expressions of the desire to avoid the call to holiness–at least the kind of holiness demanded by God and sought after by the saints. Traditional Catholicism does not see holiness as merely a nice or inspirational ideal, but as a requirement, and as possible with God’s grace, and requiring God’s mercy when we fail. And traditionalists, as I have observed, tend to seek out the Church’s traditions as a means to help in the striving for holiness, not because of a “holier than thou” attitude. Is it not true that the person of faith longs for holiness and its demands, and the person without faith seeks to avoid the demands of holiness? Is this not fundamental? If so, what might this say about a significant number of Catholics, including all too many bishops?]