Does Being Faithful Mean You Are Rigid?
During his homily the priest – a good and holy man who ministers wonderfully to the sick, bereaved, homebound, and hospitalized – proceeded to speak of Joseph acting for the "greater good" and making the "kinder and gentler" decision as opposed to going by the letter of the Law. "After all," said the priest, "the scriptures speak of Joseph as, 'a good and righteous man who obeyed the Law of Moses and was very holy indeed.'" He went on to admonish in his own way those who were at Mass who "follow the letter of the laws of the Church, or those who are too rigid in their faith." He said in essence that the Gospel account was a great lesson for those individuals to take the "kinder, gentler" approach when it comes to the teachings of the faith.
There are too many priests these days (one is too many) who feel some of the teachings of the Church fall into the category of "gray area" and "ambiguity," thus the teachings of faith and morals is relative to individuals and married couples. They have problems with doctrinal teachings on contraception, purgatory, and indulgences (just to name a few), all of which are covered in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
A priest I know has elaborated his misgivings with some of the aforementioned doctrines. I have tried unsuccessfully to uphold these teachings to him, quoting Scripture, the Catechism, the Fathers of the Church, and encyclicals, all to no avail. He has cast me as "rigid," as "seeing everything as black and white," and has told me that "people change through the years," alluding to the fact that the Church must change with them. During the liturgy he changes the Gospel to use "inclusive" language, at times omits the Gloria, comes down out of the sanctuary to exchange the sign of peace with parishioners, changes the offertory, et cetera.
Ah, there's the rub with the view that there is a "gray area" and "ambiguity" in Church doctrines. Some priests have no problem bending the rules and teachings of the Church. Why would they expect faithful Catholics to be obedient to them when they themselves are disobedient to the Church? Some pastors have no problem stepping on the toes of the faithful who want to follow the guidelines of the Church when it comes to the issues of faith, morals, and liturgy. Exactly who is being rigid here? Is it the faithful who yearn to be obedient to Holy Mother Church, or is it those who say that the buck stops with them?
To be sure, there are "greater goods" that faithful Catholics must look for. Do I go to Mass with my child who has a 101-degree temperature, or take him to the doctor? Do I stop for my neighbor by the road when he has the hood up on his car, or do I speed on to my son's ball game that I am late for? Do I complain about my pastor or do I pray for him? (Okay, guilty – but I have been praying more for him.)
Another term commonly lobbed at faithful Catholics is legalism. That is to say that obedient Catholics are told they need to be wary of being "legalistic" in following the laws of the Church. Jesus admonished the Pharisees time and again in the Gospels (by the way, keep in mind there were good and holy Pharisees during Jesus' time, like Gamaliel, who taught St. Paul). Jesus admonished those Pharisees who made the laws but would not follow them. And he expected his followers to obey those laws because they "sat on the seat of Moses" but not be like the Pharisees who would not (Matt. 23:1-10).
Going back to the Gospel reading, we had better believe that Joseph was a good and obedient Jew who followed the letter of the Law of Moses. In the role of salvation history God chose this giant of a man to be the head of the Holy Family. In his wisdom God had a plan for Joseph to raise Jesus, teach him a trade, and teach him to be holy and obedient. God stepped into Joseph's life for the "greater good" of all mankind. God guided Joseph's step-Son to found a Church that was given authority to "bind and loose" by the guidance of the Holy Spirit so there would be no "gray area" (Matt. 16:18, 18:18, John 16:13, 1 Tim. 3:15, Eph. 3:10).
When the time comes that God wants me to do the greater good and sends an angel to tell me that in order to do so I must subvert the teachings of the Church, I will comply. Look at it like this: In the Old Testament, 1 Samuel 15:22 says, "Obedience is better than sacrifice." This still holds true today (John 3:36, 5:2, 1 John 2:3-6, 1 Peter 1:1, 22). If Catholics really believe that Jesus Christ came and died upon a cross for the forgiveness of our sins, founded a Church whose bishops still lead in union with the Holy Father (who was given the keys to the kingdom by Christ), and that the Holy Spirit speaks for Jesus through those bishops, why wouldn't we want to be obedient to her? Not only should we be obedient to her, we had better be!
Obedience, sacrifice, and suffering are words we rarely hear from our Catholic pulpits these days (unless it is in the proper context of the Scripture). But asking the faithful to follow these examples is seemingly too much a burden for them. Even those Catholics who are still in the phase of "faith seeking understanding" and "properly forming their consciences" are asked by the Church to be obedient to it. Lumen Gentium (25), The Catechism of the Catholic Church (892), and the Code of Canon Law (750) all say that we, as Catholics in full communion with the Church, must believe and give full assent to everything she teaches on the issues of faith and morals. Otherwise, we are not in full communion with her.
The Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium says, "Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the bishop." "Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority" (22-1, 3).
Is this to say that the Church is rigid? If you say that, you are saying in effect that God is rigid (and thank God that he is! Hebrews 13:8, "Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever"). Ephesians chapters 1, 4, and 5 speak of the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church, of which Jesus is the head. He is the bridegroom of the Church, and thus the two are one. If you follow the teachings of the Church, you are being obedient to Christ. These are not man-made rules and regulations. They are the laws of God, and he asks us to be obedient to them, not in a rigid way but in a way of obedience which leads us to holiness and sanctification.
Sadly, in the Western world it seems sometimes that those who are faithful to the teachings of the Church are in the minority. However, given the revelations in the past few months about some of our shepherds, we will see more faithful Catholics emerge from the ashes. Alas, so too will many, as a result of "gray areas" and "ambiguity" from some of those shepherds, leave the Church.
Be not afraid. We have anecdotal evidence that there are increasing numbers of young priests and seminarians who are loyal to Holy Mother Church and its teachings via the magisterium. They have devotion to the Blessed Mother and the Eucharist and are anxious to serve Christ and his Church. It will be these young men who will guide those who left the Church back, along with those faithful Catholics who refused to compromise the faith. The "New Springtime of Evangelization" our Holy Father speaks of is here!