I received an email the other day from a young man in the United States who has just entered a well-known Catholic university. Among other things he told me of a survey that had been taken among the students, which revealed that almost half the students at the University feel that cheating on a class assignment or on a test is acceptable, especially if the professor is too demanding. Only 6% would turn to official Church teaching for guidance when making an ethical decision. Only 9% realise that participating in the Mass on Sundays and Holydays is expected of all practising Catholics. 93% think that premarital relations are fine if the couple really love one another. 92% of the students surveyed had attended both Catholic elementary and high schools.
Twenty years ago (1993) Pope John Paul II discussed the effects of Relativism in his great encyclical letter Veritatis Splendor (The Splendour of the Truth). Former Pope Benedict XVI has also written at some length on this modern heresy. Relativism is the false belief that each person can decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong. Basically, if it feels alright and I can get away with it, and if my conscience isn’t pricked too much, then I should be able to do it. This is the principle by which many people, including Catholics, make their moral decisions today.
The readings for today’s Mass clearly presuppose that human behaviour is subject to moral evaluation and that some human acts can be judged as objectively sinful. For example, murder, no matter what the circumstances, is always sinful.
The prophet Ezekiel sets the stage by reminding us that we are our brother’s keeper. Now this doesn’t mean that we are to be busybodies or that we are to sit in judgement on other people’s behaviour. What it does mean is that when we see moral danger, we are to speak up. Now this responsibility to speak up varies, of course, according to our profession or our role in society.
Catholic bishops have the highest degree of responsibility because of their public role in the Church and in society as successors of the Apostles and Guardians of the Deposit of Faith.
Priests, teachers and catechists also have a serious obligation to preach and teach about what is right and what is wrong, again because of their public roles of influence.
But perhaps most importantly and certainly from a practical point of view, parents have a serious and sacred obligation to teach and to model the moral values and teachings of our faith. Every parent should be aware that example and behaviour speak much more clearly to children than do words. Even though it’s essential to explain moral teaching verbally, we have to back up our words with actions and, as the ancient saying goes: practice what we preach.
Every Catholic has the duty to take responsibility for our society in many different ways: through voting, defending moral behaviour, challenging immoral behaviour and positively influencing the people with whom we live. What’s the point in preaching lovey, huggy platitudes from the pulpit and then use and abuse those to whom we seek to have a positive influence?
St. Paul gives us the motive for both living a moral life and the reason for our being accountable to one another. Love is so much part of our Christian life that St. Paul refers to it as a debt we owe one another. Now St. Paul isn’t talking about emotion or sentiment, rather he’s talking about love as a choice to want the best for one another and to do what is right for one another. As such, love expresses what the Commandments require. St. Paul sums up his thoughts by saying: “Love never does any wrong to a neighbour; that is why it is the answer to every one of the Commandments.”
In the gospel St. Matthew brings the question of living and teaching moral behaviour down to a practical level. What should we do when someone engages in immoral behaviour? He answers these questions within his discussion of what Our Lord taught about our being a community, a church. The answers come not from social norms, but from the fact that we are a community who owe one another love.
So, what do we do when we see a fellow Catholic living his or her life in a way that is incompatible with our religion? Well, we don’t just ignore it; the first step is to point out his or her fault in private. A friend or someone they know should speak to them. And because of the love we owe that person, the context must always be one of charitable correction for the good of the other: we have to try and persuade them to see the error of their ways.
Now, if that fails, then the second step is to appeal to the Church. This would include both the teachings of the Church as well as seeking advice from priests and bishops who are there to guide us.
And if that fails and the person refuses to change, then and only then the community may treat him as a Gentile or a Tax Collector: in other words, an outcast. And in the face of a stubborn refusal to change we must accept the fact that the person involved has chosen not to live as a fully participating member of the Church. In such a case when we have done what we can then we must cast them out but always be ready to forgive when they ask for forgiveness and reconciliation. We don’t hear much about Excommunication nowadays, but it happens all the time.
Many people will be upset to learn that personal opinion does not determine the objective morality of human activity. Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t make it right. As Catholics we have a serious obligation to love and teach those values and behaviours handed on to us. Why? Because we know them to be true and we know them to be God’s Will for us; and not just for us Catholics but for all people.
Just because we know of a Catholic who doesn’t come to Mass every Sunday or Holyday of Obligation doesn’t mean that we should follow their example. To deliberately miss Mass and choose to do something trivial, like wash the car or mow the lawn is still a Mortal Sin.
Just because we know of a Catholic who hasn’t been to Confession for years and yet regularly receives Holy Communion doesn’t mean that we should do it.
Just because we know of a Catholic who cheats on his taxes or is dishonest with his employees or who invests in unethical or disreputable companies doesn’t mean that we can do it.
Just because people get away with criminal and immoral activity doesn’t make it right and it doesn’t mean that we can follow their example with impunity. We may well escape the justice of man but we can never escape the justice of God who will judge us on the choices we make. And if we think we can get away with it simply by squaring it away with our conscience then we are in for a dreadful shock, because there are some things that are always wrong and therefore always sinful and if we don’t repent of them and change our ways while we are still alive then we can expect a just judgement from God who sees us as we really are.
If we Catholics who know the truth and know what God’s Will is for mankind, if we are unable or unwilling to live good, upright, law-abiding and holy lives, how can we expect our neighbour to, if we will not? God is calling you and me to be a light to the world; we are to be a leaven in our community. We shouldn’t hide that light because many people who are in the darkness need a beacon that will enable them to find their true home. We are called to be that beacon of light to our families, our friends and those with whom we share our lives. By our example and by the holiness of our lives we must guide others to Life; we must guide them towards life with God who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. May we always back up our words with actions and practice what we preach.