Father James Chelich – April 9, 2005
Truth and Freedom Jesus said:
You will know the truth and the truth will set you free. John 8:32
Truth is the foundation of Freedom. The search to know the truth has always been liberating to the human spirit. Finding and living the truth has always brought freedom to individuals and societies. Pontius Pilot posed a question of universal concern when he asked Jesus:
What is truth? John 18:38
Jesus’ answer was straightforward:
I AM the way the truth and the life. John 14:6
In this answer the religious faith of Christians was born. In Jesus is not a truth but the Truth: the truth about God, the truth about human life – its dignity, its purpose and its destiny, the truth about our physical world and our connection to the things in it. As Christians we embrace and strive to live the Truth in Jesus.
This draws us to the Church, which is a community of shared faith in the Truth. For Catholics, the Church is an intentional creation. It is Jesus’ gift to his disciples and to all people who seek the Truth throughout all time and in all places. Jesus said to his disciples:
I will ask the Father and he will give you another Paraclete – to be with you always: the Spirit of truth… The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will instruct you in everything, and remind you of all that I told you… Being the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. John 14:16-17, 26; 16:13
The Church’s first task is to preserve and foster the Truth in Jesus. It was Saint Paul who first called the Church…
The Pillar and Bulwark of Truth. (1 Timothy 3:14)
Truth, Freedom and Democracy
The “Truth” is the truth in Jesus Christ – the truth of who he is for us and all that he taught. This truth – the Truth – sets a man or woman free to live the full potential of his humanity while at the same time preserving the ability of everyone around him to do the same. The Truth brings a woman or man into right- and living relationship with her fellow human beings and her world. This is how we recognize it as the “Truth.”
Truth is the foundation of Freedom. Truth and the Freedom which it brings are the foundation of a just society and a society that wishes to be a healthy democracy. But democracy is not always the friend of the Truth. When the will of the majority attempts to establish “truths” to serve its will and purpose, democracy becomes the enemy of the Truth. Democracy is also not always the friend of freedom. When the majority ethnic group, economic interest, or power coalition acts to disenfranchise and marginalize a minority, democracy becomes the enemy of freedom. It is of its very essence that the Church must always be about the Truth. Because of this, the Church is often at odds with the society around it – even democratic ones.
Before all things else, it is a Faith Professed
Being a Catholic is fundamentally not about holding membership rights in an organization. Being Catholic is fundamentally about embracing a faith. It is about believing. When a person who had previously been a member of another Christian denomination becomes a Catholic, they make this declaration:
I believe and profess all that the Holy Catholic Church
teaches and proclaims to be revealed by God.
This “believing” makes a person a Catholic. This profession of faith doesn’t necessarily mean that you have it all figured out and grasp it completely. It does mean, however, that you trust what the Church teaches you is true – not an arbitrary or temporary truth, but the unchanging Truth. It also means that while you may sometimes have misgivings or go through a season of questioning (especially if at some point the Truth hits a contrary desire in your heart), you will none-the-less keep your allegiance to the truth the Church teaches as the Truth (albeit, a truth you are not fond of at the moment).
Being Catholic: It is a Way of Holiness
Being Catholic is also fundamentally a Way of Holiness. Jesus said:
Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not put into practice what I tell you? Anyone who desires to come to me will hear my words and put them into practice.
You must be made perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:48
Along with believing the Truth that the Church professes, a personal commitment to strive to live the moral Truth the Church teaches makes a person a Catholic. Striving to do so is often a messy business for most if not all Catholics. The human heart, from one season to another, is often filled with contrary passions and ambitions. While a Catholic may fall into sin and even sometimes go through a season of moral lapse, he none-the-less remains a Catholic as long as he acknowledges in his heart and on his lips that the moral truth the Church teaches is the Truth of Jesus Christ – the Truth that sets him free.
The Church and Democracy
At any given time in the Church world-wide, there are Catholics who are going through a season of strong devotion in faith and fervor for moral purity. At the same time, others have become preoccupied with people and things that seem more exciting and meaningful, and are going through a season of indifference to the Truth. Still others, having experienced trauma, loss or scandal, are moving through a season of strong inner resistance to the Truth. There is place for all this in the Church. This is, however, the reason why the Church is not a democracy.
It bears repeating that democracy is not always a friend of the Truth. There is good reason to believe that even in the Church this might well prove to be the case. Given the opportunity to do so, individuals in the Church who are going through the personal seasons of temptation, doubt or frustration described above might find it very hard not to vote for a more convenient “truth” for their personal situation at the moment, or for a spiritual leader that might make a “compassionate accommodation” of the Truth for them – which, of course, would render “the Truth “ into “a truth” that can set no one free. Either the Truth stretches us, or we shrink it. The truth stretching us is Theology. We shrinking the Truth is anything but Theology.
Blest are you Simon, son of John…
…I for my part declare to you, you are Rock,
and on this rock I will build my Church,
and the jaws of death shall not prevail against it.
I will entrust to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.
Whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven;
whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
To Peter and his successors Jesus gave the authority to “bind and loose” the household of God according to the Truth, to shepherd the Church, and to “strengthen his brothers” in the Truth (see Luke 22:24-32). The power Jesus gave to Peter and his successors is to set and keep the Church “in order” according to the Truth. This is the meaning of the power to “bind and loose.” Jesus did not give Peter and his successors the power to decide the Truth or accommodate the Truth to the times. Jesus Christ, and the truth in Him…
…is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Hebrews 13:8
This constancy of faith and moral orientation make Christ and his Church a source of stability for individuals, families and peoples of every time and place. The Church is the soul of humanity and its voice of conscience. Humanity looks to the Church for this more than anything else, even more than it might want the Church’s approval of the current theological speculation or ethical deviation.
Because the Church is essentially about believing, professing, teaching and proclaiming the Truth in Jesus, when it comes to articulating the truth and selecting those who are charged to do so it sometimes does not appear to be as democratic as some might like. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Individuals are selected for office in the Church because they hold and have held to “the Truth in Jesus Christ.” Even in seasons of doubt, temptation and failure, they have not sought to alter the Truth that sets them free in favor of a “truth” more convenient to their personal agenda or the “spirit of the times.”
None of this it to say that authentic Catholic faith must always be a silent, unquestioning obedience. The Church is where committed Catholics come to grips with the Truth and its implications for their lives and their world. Authentic Catholic faith at times wrestles with and questions aspects of the Truth. In the wrestling and questioning we and those around us are able to identify what is really at work in us, among us and in the society around us: is it our own self-interest, an addiction to sin, a false placement of hope for salvation in someone or something other than Christ, or is there truly a justice that the Truth wants done? Though not always silent or unquestioning, authentic Catholic faith is obedient to “all that the Holy, Catholic Church teaches and proclaims to be revealed by God.” It does not “dissent” from the Truth the Church teaches, rather it is stretched by it and becomes…
…that new man created in God’s image, whose justice
and holiness are born of the truth. Ephesians 4:24
The Catholic Church in America
One sometimes hears it said among American Catholics: “the people are the church.” This has a pleasing, egalitarian ring to it. As American as this might sound, however, it simply is not what the Catholic Church understands itself to be.
First, and foremost, the Church is Jesus:
the Word who is God John 1:1,
the Word through whom all things came into being John 1:3,
the Word become flesh, making his dwelling among us John 1:14a,
an only Son coming from the Father, filled with grace and truth John 1:14c.
Before all else, before anyone else, even if no one accepts him or receives it, the Church is Jesus and the grace and truth in him (John 1:17). The Church is Jesus, the divine Word of God saying, Follow me! (Matthew 4:19 and 9) – even if no one follows.
Only then is the Church those who…
…deny their very self, take up their cross,
and follow in His steps Mark 8:34;
and those who are…
…begotten of water and the Spirit John 3:3-7;
…who feed on his flesh and drink his blood
and remain in him and he in them. John 6:53-58
Saint Paul writes to the Christians of Corinth:
You then, are the body of Christ. Every one of you is a member of it.
1 Corinthians 12:27.
Every disciple of Jesus is a member of his body, but the Scriptures make it clear that there is only one head of the body: Jesus!
It is he who is the head of the body, the church;
he who is the beginning,
the first-born of the dead,
so that primacy may be his in everything.
It pleased God to make absolute fullness reside in him.
The Scriptures also make it clear that the members of the body are to be transformed by the renewal of their mind (Romans 12:2a) . Only then can we be His witnesses (Acts 3:15). And herein lies the essence of being a Catholic: we are witnesses to the Truth of Who He is and all he taught, and the power of this Truth to set a person free.
The Catholic Church is fundamentally about being the pillar and bulwark of the truth (1 Timothy 3:14) – even if less than a majority at the moment are in favor of the Truth, inside or outside the Church. American democracy and civil society is not necessarily nor always about the same thing. That is why the Church is usually in lively (and sometimes contentious) conversation with American civil society. This is no more or less the case in the United States than in any other country of the world. The Truth stretches everyone, collectively as well as individually, to become more than they have become comfortable with or concluded that they can be.
The American Catholic Church
The American Catholic Church is not “another Catholic Church.” It is the Catholic Church. It is composed of those who…
…believe and profess all that the Holy Catholic Church believes,
teaches and proclaims to be revealed by God,…
(The Rite of Reception into the Catholic Church)
…and who embrace and strive to live the Catholic Way of Holiness.
This is what makes it Catholic. This may not be the Faith of everyone in American society, nor is it everyone’s Way of Holiness. What it is, and what makes it powerful, is that it is a Faith and a Way of Holiness that sets a woman or man free to achieve the fullness of her human potential and places him in right- and life-giving relationship with his fellow human beings and his world. This is why Catholicism will endure and will always be of compelling interest in human society and powerfully attractive to individuals. At the same time it is a Faith and a Way of Holiness that strikes the conscience of individuals and society, and this is why it will be rejected by some individuals and opposed in some societies. Jesus told this to his disciples quite plainly:
The light came into the world, but men loved darkness rather
than light because their deeds were wicked.
Everyone who practices evil hate the light;
he does not come near it for fear his deeds will be exposed.
But he who acts in the truth comes into the light,
to make clear that his deeds are done in God.
If you find that the world hates you know that it has hated me before you.
If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own;
the reason it hates you is that you do not belong to the world.
But I chose you out of the world.
I tell you this that in me you may find peace.
You will suffer in the world.
But take courage! I have overcome the world!
Consciousness of this is a living reality for an American Catholic. Living the Truth has consequences, but the good attained, for oneself and for all, overwhelmingly surpasses the price paid.
American Catholicism retains a healthy “democratic instinct” for participatory process in its organization and collaboration in its ministries. It seeks to apply it where it is appropriate. This is a grace that brings vitality and a multitude of gifts to the life of the Church (see 1 Corinthians 12:7-11).
Catholics are “different.” But that should not be the last word about us. The last word should be that we “made a difference” – through the Truth we believe and practice for the Good of all!