Monday, February 13, 2012

Bad Publicity

In the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, we hear of a leper who approaches Jesus and is healed. Jesus tells the leper to present himself to the priests in accordance with the Mosaic Law. Jesus also warns the man (sternly!) to tell no one anything. The ex-leper disregarded the warning and “began to publicize the whole matter.” The passage, Mark 1:40-45, was the gospel pronounced at masses this past weekend.

Many commentators have offered their thoughts regarding why Jesus wanted the incident kept secret. I find the most plausible explanation to be that He knew what would happen when the word got out. People would come from far and wide seeking healing of their every infirmity. Their focus would be primarily selfish, and would interfere with his mission of proclaiming the Good News. Indeed, Mark shares some of these consequences in his Gospel. “He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.” (Mark 1:45) The crowds get to be so bad that the disciples and family of Jesus begin to worry (Mark 3:21).

The Church has been entrusted with continuing the mission of Christ in the modern world. Just as Jesus faced threats to his ability to communicate his message, the Church today finds itself faced with unexpected obstacles. Foremost in my mind currently, given the events of the last few weeks, are the legions of contracepting Catholics who disregard Church teaching and then blab about it to every pollster who calls. Their very public disobedience causes people to discount the Church’s teaching authority: either it’s not important, it’s not binding, or it’s simply incorrect.

The Church has been, to some extent, acquiescent in allowing a very large proportion of its members to dissent from her teaching. The pontiffs, of course, from Pius XII to Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, have consistently taught the moral truth about abortion, contraception, and sterilization. Most Catholics, however, don’t read papal encyclicals, apostolic letters, or catechetical lectures. They depend upon their local pastor to steer them to spiritual safety. Aside from a few brave souls, the branch managers of the universal Church have been hesitant to broach the subject, lest the contrast with secular orthodoxy lead the luke-warm to bolt for the doors.

The same collection of readings that saw the proclamation of Mark 1:40-45 for the Gospel used Psalm 32 for the Responsorial Psalm. Verses 8 and 9 of the Psalm evoke a powerful image that I believe fits the majority of contracepting Catholics. “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you. Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you.” Those who reduce Church teaching to “Thou Shalt Not . . .” without attempting to understand the basis for that teaching are naturally going to resent what they see as interference in their personal lives.

In my mind, I can picture a personification of the Church, desperately trying to be heard amid a sea of equine beasts wanting to spit out their bits and straining at their bridles. We are one body in Christ, and there is no such thing as a purely private sin. Every sin harms the entire body, and some serve to rob the body of its voice. For those who have sinned, forgiveness is freely offered. But for the love of God, don’t make things worse by going around happily publicizing your sinfulness.

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