Editor’s note: Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted was among the bishops and Church leaders from the Americas who gathered Nov. 16-19 at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City to discuss the new evangelization in the Americas. Following is the text from his presentation to one of the working group sessions:
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” These words of Charles Dickens could easily be applied to the present situation that the Church faces in the American continent when she proclaims the Good News of Jesus Christ about marriage, family and the culture of life.
On the one hand, it is the worst of times. Militant secularism, greed, relativism, individualism and other deadly “-isms” have led to the breakdown of the family, confusion about masculinity and femininity, so called “gay marriage,” abortion, contraception, euthanasia and a host of other evils that sow misery in human hearts and foretell a bleak future.
This sad situation seems to extend to most parts of the “New World.” In this regard, the Concluding Document of the 5th Conference of CELAM held in Aparecida, Brazil, says the following about the reality of Latin America today (#40), “Among the premises that weaken and undermine family life, we find the ideology of gender according to which everyone can choose his or her sexual orientation, without taking into account the differences set to them by human nature. This has led to legislative changes that gravely injure the dignity of marriage, respect for the right to life, and the identity of the family.” These threats to marriage, family life and the dignity of human life cast a dark shadow across our various countries.
On the other hand, these do not come close to telling the whole story. For the times in which we are living are redeemed by the Cross of Christ. Our history is sacred history. Cultures throughout the American continent are profoundly shaped by the Gospel of Christ as the virtues of faith and hope and charity have been received, embraced and put into practice over the past five centuries. As the Latin American Bishops said at Aparecida (#14), “We are encouraged by signs of the victory of the risen Christ, while we plead for the grace of conversion and keep alive the hope that does not deceive. What defines us is not the harsh dramatic living conditions, not the challenges of society, nor the tasks that we must undertake, but above all the love received from the Father through Jesus Christ by the anointing of the Holy Spirit.”
What, then, is the Church in North, Central and South America called by Christ to do at this time in history? I propose the following tasks:
1. Avoid two common temptations. On the one hand, avoid the temptation to blame modern culture for all the problems among the members of the Church, when in fact our own sins are, at times, the primary reason for them. On the other hand, avoid the temptation to accommodate to the popular culture without taking into account what is incompatible with our faith, but instead requires firm opposition. The Catholic standard for discerning when to assimilate to a culture and when to resist assimilation must be the Gospel of Jesus as handed down to us within the Church, and as celebrated in the Sacred Liturgy. In this regard, it is helpful to recall what Pope Francis said in his first homily as the Successor of Peter: “When we journey without the Cross, when we build without the cross, when we profess without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord; we are worldly…We may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of the Lord. When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil.”
2. Trust the truth. Trust lies at the heart of every vocation in the Church and is required for any mission in Christ to succeed. Truth is also required for a mission in Christ to succeed for it is the truth that sets us free; and only when we are free are we able to love. To trust the truth is to trust Christ and to trust that His Gospel of Life is truly Good News for the world. Pope Francis points out that faith fulfills a pivotal role in discovering the truth. He writes (Lumen Fidei, #23), “Unless you believe, you will not understand.” Truth and faith are bound together. Faith opens the door to truths that reason alone could never come to know. Our modern world, however, suffers from a “culture of skepticism” in which, as Pope Francis writes (ibid), “Truth itself, the truth which would comprehensively explain our life as individuals and in society, is regarded with suspicion.” Because vociferous sectors of our skeptical culture harshly criticize truths of faith—especially those about marriage, human life and religious liberty—a number of Catholics, even some of our clergy, have lost confidence in some of the tough truths that come to us from Christ through the Church. Such loss of confidence impedes our ability to stand up for the rights of the most vulnerable in society and to bear convincing witness to the Gospel. In a skeptical age, our American continent needs from us a humble yet confident witness to the truth that finds it fullness in our Savior.
3. Live God’s plan for marriage. “As the family goes, so goes the nation.” These words of Blessed John Paul II (spoken in St. Louis, Missouri in January 1999) remind us of how vital marriage is for the future of society. The family is the often hidden lifeblood of a nation. Christian marriages today are called not to be hidden but to be domestic “cities on a hill” (Cf. Mt 5:14). The witness of happily married couples and their children is how the truth about God’s plan for marriage is most eloquently handed on to others. Pope Benedict XVI said “Matrimony is a Gospel in itself, a Good News for the world of today, especially the dechristianized world (October 7, 2012); The union of a man and a woman…is a sign that speaks of God with a force and an eloquence.” For this reason married couples and their families hold a place of great importance in the Church’s mission of evangelization. To ready couples for their vital role, the Church needs excellent marriage preparation programs, thorough instruction in Natural Family Planning, programs to assist in parenting, and similar adult faith formation. Marriages are icons of God’s love; the beauty and truth of these icons is meant to be, and needs to be visible today.
4. Be pure of heart. Popular culture has been badly distorted by a steady diet of false images of femininity and masculinity, reaching its most grotesque form in pornography, but seen also in the promotion of so-called “homosexual marriage.” Who else but the Church is in a position to build a culture of chastity, a culture of sexual integrity? Until we succeed in doing this, we shall never succeed in building a culture of life and a society solidly built on the institution of marriage. St. Paul’s summons to vigilance is badly needed today (Rom 13:11-13), “It is now the hour for you to wake from sleep. The night is far spent; the day draws near. Let us cast off the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us live honorably as in daylight.” What is needed even more than vigilance is Christian confidence that it is possible to live a chaste life, that fidelity to married vows is within reach, that it is possible to escape from a life of promiscuity and addictive pornography with the help of God’s grace. The Church must bear witness to the wisdom of Jesus’ words (Mt 5:8), “Blessed as the clean of heart, for they shall see God.”
5. Respect and defend the dignity of all persons. The life and dignity of the unborn and other vulnerable persons are gravely threatened today. Moreover, we risk becoming a people too spiritually weak and self-absorbed to assist others in desperate need. Action for justice is vitally needed today; but the pursuit of justice is a sham when it does not include justice for the most vulnerable. As Benedict XVI said (Caritas in Veritate, #15), “…a society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized.” Today more than ever, Christians needed to be a counter-force to the flattened concepts of the human person–purely consumerist, secularist and utilitarian views of human life. By faith, we know that each human person is personally loved by God Himself. While much work remains to be done, we should also be encouraged by the efforts of so many individuals and organizations to protect innocent human life. In particular, we are blessed to have an increasing number of initiatives that promote closer collaboration between Pro Life and Pro Family leaders and organizations in various countries of the American continent. Should we not count it a privilege and blessed opportunity from God to bear witness to the Gospel of Life today, to stand up for the life and dignity of the most vulnerable among us, and to work with others of good will to secure the right to life of all?
6. Call laity to engage in the public square. The Church’s mission in support of marriage, the family and the dignity of human persons cannot succeed without the leadership and faithful witness of the lay faithful. Just as Our Lady of Guadalupe asked St. Juan Diego to be her messenger in the First Evangelization of the New World, so today the Church needs her laity to take the lead in those fields most proper to their vocation: in the mass media, in political activity, in secular professions that impact the formation of culture such as law, medicine, the arts, and so forth. As the laity engage in temporal affairs, they do so in a way distinct from that of the clergy and religious, yet in their own way participating in the priestly, prophetic and kingly mission of the Church by virtue of their Baptism and Confirmation. The call of the laity to holiness is not merely a matter of personal piety but also directed toward evangelization in all aspects of life. In the public square, they are called to shape society and culture in accordance with justice, human dignity and the common good. Catholic laity must not allow themselves to be intimidated or afraid to embrace their identity as citizens or to put their faith into practice in public life. The Church does not impose her doctrine on others; nonetheless, she is legitimately concerned about matters of great importance to society; and she rightly brings her views to bear by proposing meaningful solutions for achieving the common good. Blessed John Paul II taught (Christifideles Laici, 40), “It is above all the lay faithful’s duty in the apostolate to make the family aware of its identity as the primary social nucleus, and its basic role in society, so that it might itself become always a more active and responsible place for proper growth and proper participation in social life.”
It has been my intention to present a few helpful remarks about the tasks of the Church in supporting the good of marriage and the family and the promotion of life as fundamental dimensions of her mission. At this time in history, I urge us all to be wiser than despair because of our faith in God. I now look forward to the conversation that these remarks have only begun. Thank you.