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Cushioning the Gospel message

John Infranca | Friday, October 10, 2003

Call it the softening of the Gospels. Or, if you would, it’s clever marketing. The desire to make the yoke easier and the burden lighter than Jesus had in mind. There is no point in fooling ourselves; those parts of the Gospel that challenge our conspicuous consumption and excessive militarism, among other things we find difficult to question, are dangerous. Not just to the social order they criticize, but also to those who might speak these truths. So Catholic churches and Catholic universities stick to what is safe those things that might not challenge their constituencies too much. Commencement speakers can be as far out of step with Church teachings on the death penalty, economic justice and wealth distribution, immigration and other social issues so long as they pass the litmus test of their stance on abortion. Outside observers might be led to believe that this issue and sex comprise the whole of Catholic moral teaching. Sex is an interesting and worthwhile topic, but there is more to the Gospel message. At least I hope. I vaguely remember remarks like “woe to you who are rich, it is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle,” “turn the other cheek” and “put away your sword.”Church teaching on war, economics, migration, the environment and countless other social issues – the Catholic social teaching tradition – is widely regarded as the Church’s best kept secret. Why is it kept secret? Perhaps because the message it offers is, at times, less than socially acceptable. It might ruffle some feathers. It might upset the powers that be. That’s funny, this sounds a bit like the experience of a first century man named Jesus. This Saturday, another man not afraid of ruffling feathers will visit Notre Dame’s campus. Bishop John Michael Botean, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canton, Ohio, will speak at Moreau Seminary. Botean chose, shortly before the start of the war in Iraq, to speak a dangerous truth. He chose to remind his diocese that their religion makes demands on their lives that go beyond the personal realm and into the social and the political.Botean, aware of the sheer absurdity of the drive toward war in Iraq and cognizant that the situation in no way fit the minimal standards of the just war theory, felt it his duty to speak out. In a clearly and persuasively argued letter read at every parish in his diocese, Botean declared that “any direct participation and support of this war against the people of Iraq is objectively grave evil, a matter of mortal sin.”His reasoning was simple and direct. Because the war clearly did not meet the standards of the just war theory, killing within the war would be unjust. “Unjust killing is by definition murder. Murder is intrinsically evil and therefore absolutely forbidden, no matter what good may seem to come of it,” Botean argued. By this logic, he concluded that “direct participation in this war is the moral equivalent of direct participation in an abortion.” Botean’s reasons for arguing so passionately against participation in the war are important to consider. As he himself said in the letter, he did not speak as a theologian or a private Christian expressing his opinion. Nor, it might be argued, did he speak as a political lobbyist, a partisan or even, for that matter, a committed member of the peace movement. Rather, he spoke as a bishop, as a person with loving concern for the people he was called to serve. This calling rendered it a “moral imperative” for Botean that he not allow the people of his diocese to “fall into grave evil and its incalculable temporal and eternal consequences.”Botean could have chosen to remain silent. He even says he would have preferred to do so, for that would have been easier for both himself and his family. This silence, however, “would be cowardly.” For though such silence might have saved him from criticism; it would also have prevented him from speaking the truth that he believed to be the teachings of Jesus.Botean had the strength to affirm that, as Dorothy Day often said, “Christ came not only to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable.” We might consider whether those who proclaim the message of Jesus truly challenge us to make the economic and social sacrifices the Gospels demand. At Notre Dame, caught up as it seems to be in the conspicuous consumerism and unquestioned militarism of our secular society, these questions grow even more important. If more graduates were taught and shown by example how to live the radical calling of Jesus, our endowment and multi-million dollar buildings might be in danger. Are we willing to take such risks for the Gospel?

John Infranca is a graduate student in theology. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected] The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.