We live in a time unparalleled in technological change. Moral issues arise with such speed and urgency that we can feel helpless to address them. Overwhelmed, it can be easier to ignore them in our Sunday celebrations and replace concern for the rapidly unfolding events of our world with a devotionalism lacking grounding in our day-to-day lives. We make of the liturgy a bubble into which the world’s problems do not penetrate and from which God’s Word does not emanate.
The homily is the privileged place wherein a bridge is drawn from the Eucharistic celebration to the daily lives of the people. While the scriptures are always the substance of the homily, the Sunday Eucharist may be the only opportunity the congregation has to hear the Church’s teaching on modern moral problems. When the scriptures lend themselves to it, there are three points to consider when addressing moral issues in the homily: 1) the Church’s moral teaching is good news; 2) that moral teaching must be communicated in words and images familiar to the congregation; and 3) that moral teaching must confront and transform contemporary secular values.
1. The Church’s Teaching as Good News
Often, the Church’s moral teaching is perceived to be “bad news”. It is seen as an affront to human liberty and an impediment to the expression of the individual’s conscience.
In contrast, the moral teaching of the Church is not an arbitrary exercise of authority by God or by the Church. It is a response to the generosity of God both in His creating work as in His redemptive work. Therefore, the moral teaching is the good news of how wonderfully we are made and how generously we are redeemed in Christ.
In our preaching, then, we must be careful to frame moral teaching within the context of God’s saving work. Saint Paul was masterful at this. His moral exhortations commonly follow a statement about God’s saving work: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God’ (Col.3:1). Also, in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Law is revealed in the context of the liberation from slavery in Egypt and the covenant offered by God to His chosen people. It is not a burden but an expression of what it means to be God’s People and how to live in peace on the land He bestowed. Just so, our first task is to awaken our congregations to the marvel of God’s saving work and call them to respond with the gift of their lives.
2. Communicating the Church’s Teaching in Contemporary Terms
The moral life of the Christian is not just an act of faith, but an act of the intellect. The Church directs her moral teaching not only to believers but to all people of good will because she is convinced that those moral truths are understandable by any good person. Stealing another’s property, for example, is morally reprehensible even to those who do not embrace Jesus’ divinity. Therefore, we must make an effort in our preaching to engage the intellect of our congregations using contemporary language and images.
I once was approached by a bishop who was working through how to address a local initiative to provide hypodermic needles to intravenous drug users. He correctly identified the moral issue to be material cooperation with evil. However, “material cooperation” would mean nothing to most of his hearers. I suggested that the term “enabling” might better resonate with the public while remaining faithful to the moral principle of material cooperation.
An unlikely ally in this endeavor to find contemporary language for ancient theology is the editorial pages of the newspaper. The editorial pages are the homilies of today’s secular culture and its values. By familiarizing ourselves with their arguments and understanding the words they use, we may be able to tailor them to our purpose.
3. Confronting and Transforming Contemporary Values
To say that we need more contemporary words and images to communicate the Church’s moral teaching is not to say that we must water down that teaching for popular consumption.
In his ground breaking book, Liturgy and Spirituality, Gabriel M.Braso identified three modern values which hamper a proper understanding of liturgy. His observations are equally applicable to our discussion of morality. Those three values are 1) utilitarianism; 2) individualism; and 3) superficiality.
An essay could be written on each of these obstacles. And we have probably spent much time and energy lamenting them. Let’s, however, consider their counterparts: 1) idealism; 2) community; and 3) mystery. These counter-values are the strengths of our theological and liturgical tradition. We have to endeavor, therefore, in our preaching and worship to celebrate these counter-values and ignite a desire for them in our listeners’ hearts so they will come to reject the poor substitutes to them offered by the secular culture. Hearts fashioned by God desire and deserve no less.
The moral issues which our Church and society face are numerous and urgent. Challenging our people to confront and transform those moral issues is an integral part of the preaching of the gospel. By presenting the Church’s teaching as a response to God’s creative and redemptive work in words and images that people can understand and embrace will ensure that the idealism, community and mystery we celebrate in the Sunday assembly will be lived out on Monday in the home, in the workplace and on campus.