I am sure you have heard about the concept, ‘Culture Wars.’ Culture Wars refer to the conflict between traditionalist or conservative values and progressive or social liberal values in the Western world. Here in the United States, the term culture wars entered our contemporary vocabulary in the 1990’s with a book by James David Hunter, entitled, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. On the Feast of Christ the King, I begin this reflection with a reference to Culture Wars because this movement is affecting the Catholic Church greatly. There is a very small but a vociferous movement in the Church that believes that Pope Francis is committing heresy. There are many reasons for this accusation, but the most prominent of them is that the Pope making it possible for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion on a case-by-case basis. They accuse him or undermining centuries of Church doctrine. Pope Francis, on the other hand, is clear the he is not overruling doctrine, but that he is providing pastoral care for those in need. The culture war in the church runs the risk of creating a schism.
My purpose of this reflection is simple. I want to understand Christ the Universal King and draw out the implications of this understanding for the Church.
First, let us understand the King. Jesus began his ministry by preaching, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” Three years of ministry that followed that initial preaching, was Jesus’ laying the foundation for God’s kingdom. How did he go about doing this? First, Jesus was very well-versed in Hebrew Scripture and doctrine. At no point did Jesus undermine the power of Hebrew religion or doctrine. In fact, he said the opposite. He said, “Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law. However, he also said, “The Sabbath was made for man not man for Sabbath” (Mk 2:27). In other words, there are doctrines or the Law, and there are human persons. In Jesus ministry it was the human person who occupied the centerstage. This led him, for example, to heal a man on the Sabbath. Through examples such as this or in the case of the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11), he taught his disciples to enter in the spirit of the Law [doctrine]. Jesus’ ability to enter into the spirit of the Law is what explains his compassion, his mercy, his insistence on a God of endless love. It led him to seek the lost and to save those society considered unredeemable. There was room in his kingdom for the prostitutes, the sinners, the tax-collectors, the Roman Centurion, the adulterous woman, for Peter who denied him, and even for Judas who betrayed him. The righteous who rejected him could also find room, if only they would enter into the spirit of the Law. This does not mean that Jesus did not demand conversion. To the adulterous woman, he said, “Go and sin no more” (Jn 8:11). In all of this, however Jesus primary focus was the human person, especially, the weak, the rejected, the ones on the periphery. No one was beyond the saving grace of God. Even when people failed miserably, like Peter, God’s mercy and grace saw them through. This is the one I know as Christ the Universal King.
Second, let us understand the problem os the Culture Wars in the Church. In my first point, I juxtaposed doctrines and the human person and I suggested that the human person is at the center of Jesus’ ministry. The Culture Wars in the Catholic Church today revolves around this one single issue: who is at the centerstage, doctrines or the human person? Pope Francis clearly thinks that it is the human person. When he says that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to take Communion, he is not overthrowing doctrine, but he saying that if we allow doctrine to become a stumbling block for a person seeking God, faith, and Church, then we fail the human person. Doctrines are meant to guide us into eternity, not take us away from it. Doctrines are the ideals toward which human persons aspire. But many, many people, including me, are only on the way to perfection. We are not there yet. This is not because we are bad people, but because life is is a complex web of relationships. No one seeks to marry only to divorce. No one becomes pregnant only to abort. Doctrines have to have the ability to take into account the complexity of human life and human relationships. Pope Francis’ attitude toward the divorced and civilly remarried, the gay and lesbian Catholics, immigrants and refugees, those in prison and in the slums comes from his understanding of the Christ of the gospels. Some people would say that this is moral relativism. In reality, it is called “pastoral care.” It is the kind of care that the prophet Ezekiel talks about, where God says: “I myself will give them rest. The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy, shepherding them rightly” (Ez 34:15-17). In Pope Francis’ role as the Shepherd, like Jesus, the human person takes centerstage.
Third, let us understand the implications of the above points for us. There was a time in Church history that the Church was equated with the kingdom of God. In the 1925 encyclical which promulgated the Solemnity of Christ the King, Pope Pius XI says, “… in view of the common teaching of the sacred books, that the Catholic Church, which is the kingdom of Christ on earth, destined to be spread among all men and all nations….” The church became a little more humble later, because she realized that she only strives to symbolize the kingdom rather than actually be the kingdom of God. CCC 782 says, “Its [the Church’s] destiny, finally, "is the Kingdom of God…” Just like every human person, the Church too is on its way. The church, like the people who make it, is a pilgrim church. This means that even as the Church is moving towards its destiny, she is being called to be the best representation of the kingdom of God. That is why Jesus taught us to pray, ‘Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” Today, the most meaningful way to honor Christ the King is the emulate the ministry of Jesus. Yes, we must think like Jesus, talk like Jesus and act like Jesus. We must be a people where the perfect and the imperfect, the righteous and those on the way, the sinner and the saint, can hold each other up and journey together towards our destiny - the kingdom of God. We must be a people that cherishes our scriptures, that allow our doctrines to enlighten us, that approach the sacraments to strengthen us, but most of all, that is not afraid to enter into the spirit of the doctrine and give hope to the weakest in our midst. The gospel reading for the liturgy on the Feast of Christ the King describes the last judgment scene where Christ says that he is to be found in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, those in prison, the homeless immigrants and refugees, those on the peripheries of society and the church. It is really not all about doctrines, then, but rather, about the human person, especially those in need.
I, for one, am walking with Pope Francis. The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal. And I ask you to join me. Together, let us be a pilgrim people on the way to our destiny - the kingdom of God.
- Fr. Satish Joseph