Monday, June 28, 2004

For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free

Homily for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cycle C

St. Paul tells us "For Freedom Christ has set us free". We are meant to be free, but Sin gets in the way of that - it is an obstacle between us and God, like a wall or barrier in our way.

Christ came to conquer sin, so that we would have no more obstacles between us and God. That is the freedom that St. Paul talks about: the freedom to love God and be loved by Him, without our own pride and selfishness getting in the way. Only in Christ are we truly free.

We are given freedom so that we can share in the work of Christ, truly be part of His work in the Church and the world. But freedom can be abused. St. Paul warns us against this, saying "do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love.

St. Paul tells us that the Spirit and the flesh are opposed, and St. Paul tells us elsewhere what he means by "serving the flesh": some of the things he mentions are obvious, like impurity, licentiousness or drunkenness. But others he lists are not so obvious, like idolatry, enmity, anger, or envy.

The fact is, that every time we turn away from God back to ourself, every time we say "me first", we are turning back to the flesh, and away from the Spirit. St. Augustine summed it up when he said "the one who lives according to the flesh is the one who lives for himself".

The fact is, we all live in this tension between living for the Spirit and living for ourselves. We all would like to adjust or "tweak" the gospel, just a little bit, to suit our own comfort or priorities. And that's what Jesus is talking about in our Gospel. Jesus meets these people who say "I will follow you", but then say, in effect, "oh,wait a minute, there's one other thing." They want to follow Jesus on their terms, not His.

We want to submit the Gospel to our judgment, rather than submit our judgment to the gospel. So are we really willing to follow Jesus "wherever he goes"?

This problem is with us today in every aspect of our lives, even our public life. There are a number of politicians who call themselves Catholic, but yet put themselves at odds with the Church in fundamental issues of morality, by supporting things like abortion or same-sex marriage. The Church teaches, and has always taught, that such things are intrinsically and always wrong, and yet they maintain that it is possible to support and work for laws permitting such things, and still be a "good" Catholic. But what they are doing is trying to adjust or "tweak" the Gospel of Christ to suit themselves, or what they think the world expects of them.

In order to justify their position, they frequently appeal to their "freedom of conscience". When they do this, they demonstrate that either they are confused, or that they are dishonest, and hope you are confused.

The way these politicians refer to their conscience, they make it sound as though the conscience is simply "whatever I happen to feel strongly about." And I imagine that many people think of it that way. But that isn't what the conscience is at all. The conscience is a judgment, a judgment about what is right and wrong, made according to reason. The conscience is not just my own strongly felt opinion.

Our consciences have to be formed, that is, shaped and guided. And if we call ourselves Christians, they must be shaped and guided according to the mind of Christ. St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans that we must "put on Christ". That means Christ must guide our judgments, Christ must guide our priorities, Christ must guide our values, and Christ must guide our decisions, whether they be decisions about how we raise our children, spend our money, or order our political lives. And if we want to know the mind of Christ, we must look to the Gospel, and to the Church that Christ Himself founded, through which we have that Gospel.

We say that the Church is the Body of Christ. That means that when the Church teaches, she does so with the voice and with the mind of Christ. So politicians, and all of us, have a duty to form our consciences, to form our judgments about what is right and wrong, and to make decisions, according to the teaching of the Church.

Now, this is sometimes difficult. I know, firsthand. While I was in the seminary, and even before that, I came across teachings of the church that challenged me, that I found difficult to accept. I struggled with a number of issues of Church teaching over the years, and, every time, after study and prayer, I've discovered that it's the Church that is right, and I'm the one who needed to deepen or change my understanding. I've learned that we must approach the Church's teaching with a spirit of humility, as one needing to be taught, rather than as one who is going to teach or "correct" the Church.

So it is not only incorrect, it is in fact absurd, to say "I know the Church says that X is wrong, but I will support it anyway, because my conscience tells me it is right". Such a person hasn't truly formed his or her conscience according to the mind of Christ, within the church, as we are called to. The most charitable thing you can say about such a person is that he is confused.

A Catholic politician, or anyone else, who holds that he can be a "good Catholic" and yet go against Church teaching on such fundamental moral issues as abortion is like the man in the gospel who says "I will follow you wherever you go... but first there's one other thing..." That's giving in to the temptation, a temptation we all face, to try to conform the gospel to ourselves, rather than ourselves to the gospel.

And if someone were to persist in such a course even after being corrected, as some of these politicians unfortunately have, then I can only remind them, and you, of the words of the gospel: "No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God."