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The Church in Today's Society Print E-mail

July 28, 2010 | The Long Island Catholic Vol. 49, No. 17 | BISHOP WILLIAM MURPHY

Some years ago, the then President of the Holy See’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications asked for and was given a meeting with the editorial board of The New York Times. When they gathered in the editorial board room, one of the editors welcomed the Archbishop but expressed some puzzlement why the Archbishop, coming from Rome and the Vatican, wanted to meet with the NYT editorial board. The Archbishop responded by saying, “Isn’t it obvious? We represent the only two institutions in the world that claim infallibility.”

The infallibility of the Church rests on the promise of Jesus that he would send His Spirit to guide the Church so that “the gates of hell will not prevail against her.” That infallibility, the Church recognizes, rests in a particular way in the person of the Vicar of Christ, the Successor of Peter as Bishop of Rome, currently Pope Benedict XVI. The gift of the Spirit, as the First and Second Vatican Councils remind us, (Dei Filius n. 3 and Lumen gentium n. 25) is a charism of the Office of Peter and his successors, as well as of the college of bishops as a whole when it authoritatively teaches what the Church believes and lives in the areas of faith and morals. Such teaching and governance has a source, Jesus Christ who is the giver of the Spirit, and a content, God’s revelation made known in and through Jesus and the continuous magisterium of the Church to which every pope is called to be faithful.

The infallibility of the NYT comes from itself. As the self anointed guardian of the secular culture, the editors of the NYT regularly pass down to us their judgments on all things in society, urging one and all to conform to the wisdom of a secular culture of which they are the ultimate interpreters and the most reliable guides. While they are very good at what they do, problems do arise when individuals and institutions don’t agree with them and find their pronouncements unacceptable or even harmful to the life and survival of persons and groups, such as millions of unborn children. The Catholic Church is doubtless one of the most obvious examples of an institution which the NYT editors would find totally out of touch with the world and the culture they wish to promote.

So on July 15, the editors returned to their scorn for the Holy Father and the leadership of the Catholic Church with yet another editorial, entitled “Tone-Deaf in Rome.” They had already told the Pope what he should do about sexual abuse of minors by priests. When the Holy See announced the new Universal Norms that clarified and codified procedures that formerly were applicable only in our country, they fell short of what the NYT editors wanted. As a result they refused to look calmly at, and to interpret honestly, what the Church was truly trying to do. In their anger that the Church did not do it the way they wanted, they treated the honest efforts of a Church that has been tremendously scarred by the past with condescension, arrogance and even ridicule that dismissed the committed efforts of one of the only institutions in the world that has been addressing the horrific crime of abuse, which has harmed and destroyed too many lives.

The behavior of the NYT, however, really underscores a challenge we all face. In a secular culture, respect for differing points of view is a basic necessity for honest dialogue. All of us are products of our culture and contribute in varying ways to advancing it or modifying it or opposing it in one or another area. The Church lives in this culture which is increasingly secular — but we do not and cannot abandon the culture or “flee from the world” to become a separate sect. All we ask is that we be allowed to live in that culture with the same rights and responsibilities as others and to contribute to the culture in positive ways that reflect and are faithful to the very inner core or the very “being” of our identity.

There is then always the possibility and, often the reality, of tension between a secular society and a faith based on belief in God with a content of belief that is binding on the adherents and the institution. We seek to mediate our beliefs into the culture to offer what we believe to be what is good and right for human life and flourishing. We know that the child in the womb is a human being and so we oppose elective abortion. We know that God intended and the theology of the body calls for marriage to be a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman and so we cannot accept today’s secular re-definition of marriage as proper for two persons of the same sex. We maintain our position on marriage at the same time we defend, and will always defend, the human rights of all persons, including homosexuals. These are not arbitrary positions. They are well founded. They are intelligent and intelligible. In a secular society not all will agree, but all should be able to be respectful of the rights and duties of persons and groups to regulate their lives and to live them fully with fidelity to their beliefs and with real commitment to the moral truths of right reason.

That the NYT editors extend such disrespect to those persons and institutions, like the Church, that would get in the way of the advance of the secular culture of which they are the guardians is abominable. As your bishop, I must say they have gone too far. Not only do they claim a role they have no right to claim, they are exercising it with a condescension and an absolutist conviction that belie their oft-stated claim to be “open,” “objective” and “liberal.”

To be fair, the NYT editors are not the only ones who behave in this fashion. Unfortunately, there are many Catholics who do the same. When there is tension between the tenets of secular culture and the constant teaching of the Church, between what the majority think and what the Church espouses, many Catholics believe that the Church must take its agenda and its plan of action from the secular society. If there is a conflict, they think it is the Church that must change so that the Church can “fit in” and so that they as Catholics can be comfortable as full members of the culture and society in which we live. As Catholics we are full members. As Catholics we embrace our culture but we do not do so uncritically. As Catholics we want to help shape our culture and make it better, much better. We want it to be pro-life, pro-family, pro-poor.

That means we must be ready to say no when the culture espouses values and advances programs and policies that are at odds with what Jesus Christ has given us and what the Church has always taught as necessary for the good of human life here in this world which is a prelude to the world of heaven.

Rome is not tone deaf. The Holy Father and all of us Catholics are listening to what the Lord says and what the Church must aspire always to be. We listen as well to the voices of our society, especially the poor, the vulnerable and the abused. In these times when our failures and errors are so nakedly evident to the world, the answer does not come from obeying the voices of secularism but from following the call of Jesus Christ to greater fidelity to and more committed living out of the Gospel that He has entrusted to us.

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