23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 8, 2019
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
“Who can know God’s counsel, or who can conceive what the LORD intends?”
Thus begins today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom.
Intriguing words: Who can know what God is thinking, or what He intends?
Nowadays we hear something like this almost every day.
We especially hear it from people who reject moral teachings
that Christianity or Judaism has traditionally taught for 3,000.
“how do you know what’s right or wrong—are you God?”
That seems to be what the Book of Wisdom is saying:
‘Who can know God’s counsel,
or who can conceive what the LORD intends?”
But is it really?
Because the reading goes on to say:
“who ever knew your counsel,
except you had given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high?
Think of this: this reading is from the “book of Wisdom.”
And it is only a short example of how God did in fact
reveal His counsel and tell us what He intends
in the Old Testament: the Word of God Himself.
And in then there’s the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament
which reveal how Jesus is the Word of God made flesh,
the Wisdom of God made flesh,
and who is completely one with the Holy Spirit.
Jesus reveals perfectly the counsel of God and intention.
And after sharing all that with His Church,
He promised to send the Holy Spirit,
who would fill the disciples with the gift of God’s wisdom.
And He fulfilled that promise at Pentecost.
Jesus also promised that wisdom and Holy Spirit
in a special way to His 12 apostles, promising them:
“the Holy Spirit…will teach you all things,
and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you…”
So that He could promise St. Peter, and his successors, the popes:
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,
and the powers of hell shall not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,
and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
So we have the Scriptures and the Sacred Tradition
—the doctrines of Christ handed down to us
by His apostles and their successors, the popes and bishops.
And through the Holy Spirit He has guided His Church,
to deepen its understanding of those doctrines
and apply them to the developments of history.
So that now we have a vast wealth, a treasury of Catholic doctrine
that tells us today, the counsel of God and His intentions.
And as the first reading today concludes:
“And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight.”
“Who can know God’s counsel, or who can conceive what the LORD intends?”
The Catholic Church can–and does.
But not totally.
And by that I mean, while the doctrine of the Church teaches
all the fundamental truths that we need to live as God calls us to,
knowing how to apply that doctrine to everyday life,
in large issues and small,
is not so easy.
From the small choices, like “what clothes should I wear today?”
to the large life-changing, or even world-changing, choices.
In those times, we probably all ask ourselves:
“who can conceive what the LORD intends?”
But then we remember that we do know what He fundamentally intends.
And, the Holy Spirit who has guided His Church to understand those doctrines,
isn’t exclusive to the popes and bishops
—that same Holy Spirit is active in guiding the life of every Christian,
especially those of us who have received
the fullness of the gifts of the Spirit in the sacrament of Confirmation.
And on top of that, every human being, being created in the image of God,
has the gift of reason, the ability to think rationally, to figure things out.
Isn’t that what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel:
“Which of you wishing to construct a tower
does not first sit down and calculate the cost…?”
And so when we face the choices of life—big and small—
as Catholics we take all that treasury of doctrine
and compare those to the facts at hand,
and then use reason and the grace of the Holy Spirit God,
to make the very best judgment we can, and follow that.
This process of obediently applying the doctrine of the Church,
through the use of grace and reason
to the particular facts at hand
is called “following our consciences.”
And this choice we make is called a “prudential judgment.”
Even so, there are a lot of variables here.
First, do we know and understand
what the Church doctrine is that applies to a particular issue?
Then, do we know all the facts, and do we see them clearly?
And sometimes facts can be seen from different angles.
And then sometimes our reason fails us;
some of us are more rational, or wiser or emotional than others
—all this can affect our reason.
And then there’s the Holy Spirit—sometimes we listen, and sometimes we don’t.
“Who can conceive what the LORD intends?”
We know a lot, but sometimes it’s confusing.
Because of that, in many cases human reason can lead different people
—even truly good Catholics—
to reach different conclusions and choices in particular situations.
Let me give you an example of this, something very controversial in our time.
As you may know, our Holy Father, Pope Francis,
has voiced his strong support for those who say
man is largely to blame for climate change,
and that man can correct it by changing his way of life.
Two of the Church’s doctrines he sees applying to this are
first, that we should not abuse the gifts that God has given us,
and second, that we should love our neighbor,
and so not harm our neighbor
by our neglect or abuse of the environment.
Okay, so far so good.
That is where we begin.
But then comes the hard part: applying doctrines to facts, with reason and grace,
and making a prudential judgment.
All of us, including the pope, bring different factors to this choice,
and our minds process it differently.
We approach it from different perspectives and biases,
we have different information, know different facts,
or see certain facts as more important than others,
or interpret them differently than each other.
I mean, even different scientists say different things.
So that even when we do our best, we can be right or wrong
when we make our prudential judgment—even the Pope can be wrong.
And so, when it comes to matters of prudential judgment,
as Pope Benedict XVI once wrote:
“…There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion”
even if it means “a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father.”
Thus, while there are important doctrines involved here,
our response to claims of climate change, and mankind’s blame for it,
is, clearly, a matter of prudential judgment left to each individual.
Now, let me make sure we’re clear.
Some people try to argue that all choices and decisions
are a matter of prudential justice.
They are terribly wrong.
Catholic doctrine unambiguously holds that some things
are always wrong in themselves, “intrinsically evil,”
including things like murder, abortion contraception and homosexual acts.
So, for example, just like it is always evil to kill someone
simply because they are in the U.S. illegally,
it is also always evil to kill someone
simply because they are in their mommy’s wombs and unwanted.
No arguments to make, no prudential judgment involved,
just well settled doctrine.
Sometimes it’s hard to accept this:
that doctrine is not up to our particular judgment.
But if you want to cling to your own opinions
as if they are your most valuable possessions,
rather than embrace the clear doctrine of Christ and his Church,
Jesus says: “anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions
cannot be my disciple.”
Now, some of you may think that I disagree with the Pope on climate change.
Maybe I do, and maybe I don’t.
Actually, I hope I’ve been careful not to interject
my own prudential judgment here.
Even so, sometimes a priest—whether he’s a Pope, Bishop or Pastor—
finds it necessary to share his judgment with his flock,
just as Pope Francis has done with climate change.
The problem is, sometimes people mistake
sharing prudential judgment with teaching doctrine.
And that’s a very dangerous mistake.
Because if Catholics don’t see the difference between doctrines and judgments, some Catholics might hear some really stupid judgment of a foolish priest
and rightly reject it as foolish,
but then think they can reject everything the foolish priest says,
even if it’s divinely inspired Church doctrine.
It happens all the time.
So when the Pope thinks he needs to intervene to stop climate change,
he’s going to use passionate language to communicate his zeal.
But, the thing is, he’s making a passionate plea
based on his own best prudential judgment
—not giving a catechesis on doctrine.
As we move more deeply into the mystery of this Holy Mass,
let us pray that,
following the truth revealed by Christ in the doctrines of His Holy Church,
and using right reason and the grace of the Holy Spirit,
[that] each of us, and our nation as a whole,
may be a true instrument of His will that God intends us to be.