A Step in the Right Direction

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

When your brother does something wrong, go and correct him. If it’s your sister who’s sinning, go and correct her!

Before we rush off on a moral crusade to change the world, though, we need to listen carefully to this Gospel.An octagonal red sign with STOP written in white capitals

Jesus is teaching about “your brother”, which means a fellow-member of the Church community. If we are all committed Catholics, then we will want to live our lives according to Jesus’ teachings. Jesus is calling us to correct other people who have signed up to the same standards as we have. When he preached his challenge to correct the sinner, he was preaching to a Jewish audience who had a shared moral code. In our First Reading, Ezekiel was called to rebuke Israel – the nation which had made a special promise to follow God’s laws – and those individuals God pointed out to him.

Note also that Jesus talks about your brother ‘doing something wrong’. Often we get upset about the things that other people haven’t done… we feel hurt, let down, disappointed. But we should be slow to rush to judgment on these matters, because there could be a thousand good reasons why your sister or brother couldn’t do that thing, even if they’d made a solemn promise. In these cases, we need to keep our anger in check and gently ask the reason why.

Many moral acts depend on our personal circumstances. Nevertheless, our bishops at the Second Vatican Council, and St John Paul II, taught that there are certain human actions which are always so bad that there can never be a reason to justify them. The technical name for these things is “intrinsic evils”.

It makes sense to me that God would give us a clear way to know right and wrong in each generation, when new moral questions arise. Jesus gave St Peter the authority to teach and strengthen his brothers, and I recognise that through this, God is asking us to trust each Pope to teach us morals. This needs a big act of humility to admit that I don’t know best by my own powers of reasoning – true Christian humility!

This week, the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was asked whether he believed abortion was wrong even when a woman had been made pregnant against her will. Rarely for a politician, he gave a straight answer – yes, even in those circumstances, he said, abortion was not permissible. Because it is an intrinsic evil, it’s not possible for any of the hard cases we can come up with to make it OK. Right now, the law still recognises this in Ireland, but there’s pressure for change there too.

There are other actions the Catholic Church says are always wrong: examples include use of a weapon of mass destruction, genocide, torture, human trafficking, any sexual act outside of a true marriage between a man and a woman, and any intervention which makes a fertile sexual act deliberately infertile. These, and more, are listed by St John Paul II in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor (no. 80), who reminds us the idea comes from St Paul, who wrote (Rom 3:8) that we “cannot do evil so that good may come of it”.

We believe in a God who longs to forgive us, but before we can be forgiven, we must repent. And before we can repent, we must recognise that there is something wrong in our behaviour. Perhaps we’re not comfortable with some of these church teachings. At a human level, we can come up with all sorts of counter-arguments. But as Catholic followers of Jesus, the question that really matters is: “What is God’s teaching here?”

Some of us instinctively think of right and wrong in terms of rules and duties. If God says something is wrong, even though we foresee tough consequences in hard cases, we might be willing to swallow this bitter pill because it seems logical that there’s no other way around things.

Many of us will think of right and wrong in terms of consequences… we ask what decision would cause least pain to others? It’s right to want to minimise pain and maximise happiness, and when we are choosing between two possible good courses of action which may have side-effects, that’s the way we naturally make decisions. But intrinsic evils are different – we cannot choose to do evil directly so that good may come.

St Paul reminds us (Rom 8:28) that God turns all things to the good for those who love Christ Jesus. When we look at the possible consequences of a moral choice, do those consequences include God stepping in to help those who make a heroic decision to do the hard thing and follow God’s law? If we don’t believe that, what does this say about our lack of trust in God?

Meanwhile, we live in a world that doesn’t share these moral values. Sometimes members of our own family, even those who were brought up Catholic, won’t share them. And if you’ve ever tried to impose your moral values on someone else, you’ll know that’s a hiding to nothing.

Jesus doesn’t ask us to correct those who are not our brothers and sisters in the Church. He asks us to share Good News with them. The Good News is Jesus is real, and willing to forgive anything they already sense they’ve done wrong. THAT must be our starting point. Later, they will ask about Jesus’ teaching, and then we can share hard truths, when they are ready and willing to hear it. But that’s not where we should begin.

Today’s Gospel is one of the most challenging instructions that Jesus has given us. In today’s Second Reading, we heard that all commandments are summed up by “love your neighbour as yourself”. True love is tough love – if you love a fellow Christian, help them to avoid sin and become a saint. After all, isn’t that what you would want for yourself?

Temptation and Compromise

When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, he faced some very clear-cut choices. Should he worship Satan? No, of course not. Should he show off his divinity by leaping into space and expecting angels to appear and catch him? Not part of his mission. As for turning stones into bread, he knew he had come to the wilderness to keep a fast. “Just one little loaf” would be the thin end of the wedge.

The choices we are faced with in daily life are more complex. Jesus told his followers that they were to live in the world without being of the world, and this is the dilemma which we all face, as we apply our Catholic values to our daily life. It becomes a special headache when we consider the problem of giving support to charity.

Every charity, of course, believes itself to be doing good work. But from our Catholic point of view, not all charity projects are good. We would respectfully disagree with those charities whose core purpose is to champion the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender community. Out of love for neighbour, we would never want a member of that community to be disadvantaged or attacked simply because of who they are; but out of love for God, and God’s commandments, we cannot endorse the behaviours which they would promote as acceptable and even “good”.

Medical research charities seek to help people whose lives are greatly afflicted. For the most part, we can give two-and-a-half cheers for any charity simply because it seeks to heal the sick. But before we can offer a ringing endorsement of its work, there are two questions we should ask. Does this charity fund destructive research on human embryos? And does it advocate access to euthanasia for those who are seriously ill? As Catholics, we are called to build up a culture which values human life for its own sake, and resist the mindset which sees death as a solution, or a human embryo as material to be used as the means to an end.

Other charities specialise in supporting the peoples of poorer countries in finding ways out of poverty –which is why we call them “development” agencies. Again, we can give two-and-a-half cheers as soon as we know that a charity is trying to help some of our poorest neighbours on this planet. But with many aid agencies, a small portion of their work involves making contraceptive advice and medicine available alongside other medical projects. The Catholic Church is not against the principle of limiting one’s family to a responsible size, but has consistently held that medical and technical means of doing so are not pleasing to God.

If there are charities which are not 100% compatible with our Catholic values, why would we ever consider giving to them?

Giving to charity isn’t something we only do when we sit down to plan our budget for the coming year and set up a Direct Debit. We are confronted by requests because of the relationships we are involved in. Perhaps a colleague at work is doing a sponsored run. Or someone is shaking a bucket in our direction as we exit the supermarket. What should influence our decision about whether or not to support a particular charity?

If a charity’s work is entirely, or significantly, devoted to directions which go against our Catholic values, then the issue is clear cut – we cannot make a gift towards its work in good conscience. So we cannot, for example, support Stonewall, whose core purpose is promoting gay rights, nor the UK Stem Cell Foundation, many of whose projects use material from human embryos. (There are two kinds of stem cells – the Church has no special objection to the use of adult stem cells harvested from living and consenting donors.)

But what about a charity which does a great deal of work which we would applaud, mixed with a small proportion of work which we consider “off limits”? There is a moral principle called “double effect” which says that it is permissible to do good deeds even though we can foresee some undesirable consequences, as long as the good we are doing directly is important and far outweighs the negative. There is also a moral principle which says that we must never co-operate with evil. Catholic theology applies the concept of “evil” to individual moral acts, not to individual human beings or organisations. We believe that all human beings are good by their very nature – it says so in Genesis – but not all the things a human being does is good. An abortionist is not an “evil person”. He or she is a human being – an intrinsically good person who has chosen to commit evil acts.

Similarly with organisations – if they fund one or two things with which we disagree, that does not make the charity an “evil organisation”. It makes it a well-meaning group which does great good and a small amount of evil.

When we, as Catholics, are confronted with demands to support charities which are mixed blessings, there are two questions we need to ask ourselves: Does this charity do so much good that I can contribute despite the “evil” elements? And am I giving a good witness to what I stand for, if I choose to support it? These will help guide you in answering the question. And in this kind of grey area, both answers might be acceptable. One person might choose to take a stand and emphasise Catholic principles – another, for friendship’s sake, to offer support to the flawed organisation. Both are acceptable moral choices.

For example… A person was asked to sponsor a workmate doing a sponsored run for a cancer charity, which funded, among many projects, one which used embryonic tissue. My advice was that the charity did enough good work so that the person could legitimately offer sponsorship as an act of friendship, but that the charity could not be promoted through the parish, where the “good” of personal friendship did not apply and there was a real danger of the church seeming to endorse all the research this charity was doing.

Christian Aid

Christian Aid works to alleviate poverty around the world. It acknowledges that it works with, and gives funds to, partner organisations who may provide contraception, or information about abortion. But such projects are not the focus of its work.

Each year, the Pontypridd Christians Together Lenten Lunches (one of which we host at St Dyfrig’s) collect money for Christian Aid. Each year, the parish newsletter at St Dyfrig’s promotes Christian Aid Week by inviting you to take part in shop-front or door-to-door collections.

One of the values we stand for as Catholics is that of co-operating with other followers of Jesus Christ to do good works together, and Christian Aid is the primary charity of the other main denominations in the UK. My judgement, as the responsible priest, is that the importance of working with other churches is so great, and the amount of problematic work done by Christian Aid is so small, that we should support it in this way.

But I would totally respect any Catholic who declined to give to Christian Aid on the grounds that a small proportion of any funds given might go to work we disapprove of. We do not take a parish retiring collection in Christian Aid week because we already have two annual collections for CAFOD, which support the developing world with an explicitly Catholic ethos.

Tenovus

I have recently been approached by the cancer charity Tenovus, who wish to hold a concert on our church property. Before agreeing, I asked for – and received – written assurance that Tenovus have not funded research on the human embryo, have no plans to do so, and have no formal stance for or against euathanasia.

Tenovus then explained that the choir – which includes cancer survivors who have banded together to sing as a means of mutual support – would be so large they would like to sing in the Church rather than the Hall. I was initially reluctant to allow this, as it is important that the Church remains a House of Worship and nothing inappropriate takes place there. But given the size of the choir, and the particular reason this choir exists, I eventually agreed to its use as long as we could have a conversation about the kind of music that was suitable to be sung in God’s House. Perhaps this will result in a playlist which I am not 100% comfortable with, but it will allow me to have a conversation with non-Christians about our moral values and why we hold them. A compromise, yes, but one balancing love of neighbour and of God.

Self-Defence

Twice I have recently been asked if the Hall might be hired for boxing or for a self-defence class. Some forms of martial arts are steeped in the spirituality of Eastern religions, but this was not the case with the current application. Boxing or self-defence skills train participants to control their violent tendencies, and this is a good thing – Jesus also wishes us to learn to restrain our anger.

Jesus also teaches us to “turn the other cheek”. Some Christians interpret this as a call to total pacifism. Others see it as a call to respond without anger when we are attacked for our religious faith, or in the context of a personal relationship, not a prohibition against tackling someone who attempts to steal your handbag or wallet. Catholic morality allows the fighting of a just war, so self defence is not wrong in and of itself.

The Buck Stops Here

I’ve given the examples above in order to share with you the difficult moral balancing act I have to perform – not only as an individual person with a conscience, but as the guardian of what takes place on church property, with the implicit blessing of the Catholic Church, and in some cases, for promotion in the parish newsletter.

Yes, I could have made different decisions in each of these cases. But as Catholics, we must be alert to the difference between things we should do (because they are clearly required by our Catholic morals) and things we could do (because we judge in a particular case that taking a stand is more appropriate than entering a dialogue). We must recognise that there are grey areas where both choices are legitimate for us as Catholics. And one of the duties that falls on my shoulders as priest-in-charge is that the buck stops here. I might consult the parish steering group, or my spiritual director – but I am the one who must give an account to God of the choices I make on behalf of this parish. Please pray for me, that I stay faithful to God, and am attentive to the whisper of the Holy Spirit who may prompt me in one direction or another in each particular case.