During this holy season of Lent, there’s been a lot of talk sin and repentance. Some sins are more obvious than others, because their effect is readily seen. For example, family members see the sins they commit when they hurt each other. But this isn’t always the case, so we need to be able to identify, in an objective way, the kinds of actions that are usually or always sinful.
It occurred to me recently that one category of sins that often gets overlooked is sins against the Church. These sins often go unnoticed, either because we don’t see their direct bad effects or because we simply don’t think of them as sins.
Nowadays, it’s not at all uncommon to hear a Catholic say something like, “I don’t always agree with everything the Church teaches,” and then claim to be a “good Catholic.” Of course, some Church teaching is open to development or change, but until the Church, through the authority of the Pope, recognizes those developments, it is a sin for an individual Catholic to ignore them. And while some positions commonly called “teaching” are actually the Church’s official guidance on difficult questions, even so, too many people who have no expertise in theology ignore these “teachings” because they don’t fit the way they live. Even this is usually sinful: it is against right reason to ignore the advice of experts, especially those appointed by God.
Even so, many of the teachings that Catholics tend to disagree with today are not changeable. For some reason, too many Catholics forget that Jesus handed on the authority to teach in His name to the apostles and their successors, the bishops, and especially to St. Peter and his successors, the popes. He said to the apostles:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations… teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…” (Matt 28: 19).
“He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me” (Matt 10: 40).
“Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18).
And to Peter specifically:
“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven…” (Matt. 16:18-19).
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?…Feed my lambs…Tend my sheep…Feed my sheep….” (John 21:15-17).
This authority was firmly recognized in the 1st and 2nd centuries as having passed on to bishops, the successors to the apostles, especially the bishops of Rome (popes) as successors to St. Peter: “where there is the bishop, there is the Church” (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to Smyrniots, c. 105AD).
“[regarding]…the … Church founded …at Rome by ….Peter and Paul;….it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority….” (St. Irenaeus of Lyon, Adversus Haereses, III, 3, c. 175AD).
In the words of Christ, we are “bound” by the teaching of the Pope and bishops in union with him, especially when they indicate, either by constant and universal teaching over the centuries or by their specific words, that a particular teaching is to be definitely held.
Yet many of these definite teachings are the very ones many Catholics refer to when they say “sometimes I disagree with the Church.” A prime example of this is rejection of the teaching on the permanence of marriage and the grave sinfulness of divorce and remarriage (without annulment). While we should have genuine sympathy for those who find themselves in painful situations after ignoring this teaching, even so this Church teaching goes back to the apostolic teaching of Jesus’ own words (See: Mark 10:2-12; Matt 19:3-9; Matt 5:32).
Similar examples are found in the Church’s teaching on contraception, abortion, homosexuality, pre-marital sex and extra-marital sex, as well as the “Real Presence,” the sacrificial nature of the Mass, and the necessity of the sacramental of penance for the forgiveness of mortal sins. Even “controversial” teachings, such as the male-only priesthood, are definitive and unchangeable.
Dissent from these and other definitive teachings, publicly or privately, is usually grave matter, the stuff of mortal sins. Yet, so many otherwise good and even devout Catholics readily express this dissent. And while many will say “but that doesn’t make me a bad Catholic,” it most assuredly does, since a “bad Catholic” is one who sins gravely and without remorse.
As bad as sins of dissent are, there is still another kind of sin against the Church which can be equally deadly. One is called not only to accept Church teaching, but also to obey Church law, especially when the law is unambiguous and exceptionless, or rooted in Divine Law. This obedience is based on the 4th commandment to “honor your mother and father”: just as it is almost always sinful, and sometimes gravely sinful, for children to disobey their parents, willful disobedience of Church law is also often sinful, even gravely so.
Finally, there is another kind of sin against the Church: a sin against the love and unity of the Church. It is true, as Pope Benedict once said: “How much filth there is in the Church, …even among those…in the Priesthood…” But the Church is not just the priests, bishops, or even the Pope. It’s not just you and me, this parish, diocese, or the universal church on earth, in purgatory and in heaven. The Church is also the Mystical Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ. Ultimately, listening to her counsel, accepting her doctrine and obeying her laws must all be rooted in love – for Christ and His Bride. To the extent this love is half-hearted or perfunctory, or nonexistent, there is sin.
May the Lord Jesus grant us an honest and thorough examination of conscience this Lent, and the grace to repent all our sins.
Oremus pro invicem.
Fr. De Celles
p.s. Hopefully, by the time you read this, the angel statues will be going up on the façade of the church. This was part of the original design, and commissioned by my beloved predecessor, Fr. Gould. Let us rejoice and pray that these statues will remind all who enter or pass our church that the angels dwell in this holy temple, God’s house!