CNN’s Lou Dobb’s and Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly gleefully take pot shots at the Church and her leaders seemingly with impunity. The New York Times and other secular media approvingly quote self described “Catholic dissidents” who because they dissent quite liberally diss Church teachings on matters of faith and morals. Politicians flippantly disregard the Church’s commitment to life from conception to natural death and yet still proclaim themselves “good Catholics”. Even within the Church, there are embittered factions who undermine their pastors by a “politics of suspicion” critically and negatively “deconstructing” every word or deed in light of their own ideologically biases.
As the Apostolic Nuncio to the U.S., Archbishop Pietro Sambi told us bishops assembled in Baltimore in early November for our semi-annual meeting, we bishops face many serious and challenging difficulties from both within the Church and beyond in responding faithfully to the mission entrusted to us by Jesus Christ as successors of the apostles.
Certainly, in recent years, many have lost credibility in the Church and her pastors. The crisis surrounding the sexual abuse of minors is certainly one factor. But it is one of several factors. As the nuncio said in his address to us, this loss of credibility “comes from a lack of orthopraxy and orthodoxy in a small, but very damaging number of its ministers and its faithful”. Orthodoxy, a word of Greek origin, means simply “teaching the truth”; orthopraxy, another Greek derivative, means “living the truth”. And, if the Church – including her clergy and all the baptized – is to credibly witness to the truth, we all must, in the words of the Nuncio, “have the great humility to put Jesus Christ at the center of our prayer, at the center of our lives and at the center of our pastoral actions.” For the “truth” that is at the core of our doxis (teaching) and our praxis (living) is not our own. For the Catholic, truth is not something we create on our own but something that we receive. Indeed, for us Catholics, truth is not a something but a Someone, namely Jesus Christ, God’s Word become flesh to be our Way, our Life and our Truth.
A more coherent witness to the truth that is God’s Word revealed in Jesus Christ will certainly not eliminate the difficulties that a Catholic may experience in a world in which God no longer seems to matter. To practice what we preach will always be a “sign of contradiction” to an incredulous world and cannot be conditioned by difficulties. As St. Paul himself experienced, the proclamation of Christ crucified was a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:23ff). Our teachings on the dignity of the human person which inform our opposition to abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research and our advocacy for an end to the death penalty and the defense of the poor and the undocumented alien are for many today “stumbling blocks”. Our insistence that ministry to people with homosexual inclinations must conform with Church teachings on the immorality of homosexual acts, that a “contraceptive mentality” is harmful to the commitment of spouses to the marriage bond, or that Catholics approaching the Sacrament of Holy Communion must be properly disposed, might appear to be “foolishness”. But, St. Paul assures us, that despite the ridicule or the contempt of the world, “to those who are called…Christ (is) the power of God and the wisdom of God.”