The Narrow Gate

21st Sunday in O.T. (C); August 21, 2016

Is 66:18-21   Ps 117   Heb 12:5-7,11-13   Lk 13:22-30

Deacon Jim McFadden; Folsom Prison & SJB


A few years ago an inmate at Folsom Prison approached me and said, “Deacon, I came across a number in Scripture that says only 150,000 people are going to be saved. If that’s so, I don’t stand a chance, do I?” His concern is mirrored in today’s Gospel, in which a man asks Jesus, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” (Lk 13:23).

Behind the inmate’s question may have been the fear that since human beings tend to exclude others, that God does the same. Since only “150,000 people are going to be saved,” he was afraid that being an inmate immediately disqualified him—sort of like a heavenly 3 Strikes.

To begin with, God’s invitation to eternal life is open to everyone; Jesus is the savior of the whole world, not just a select group. Jesus is the sole mediator between heaven and earth and, as Pope Francis reminds us, “Bridges are better than walls,” and Jesus is the ultimate bridge builder.

            Yet, we the People of God, disciples of Jesus, don’t seem to be immuned from marginalizing others. After the massacre of gays in Orlando, Fl, I was reading the Prayers of the Faithful on the following Sunday. As I perused the petitions, I noticed that there was no mention of that tragedy; we were not asked to prayer for our gay brothers and sisters who were slaughtered. I hesitated. Should I add that intention? I did not and kept silent.

A few days later, I read one of Pope Francis’ off-the-cuff, infamous airplane interviews in which he was asked whether, “the Catholic Church should apologize to the gay community for having marginalized these persons?” (L’Osservatore Romano; 1 July, 2016).

            His response was one of bridge-building.   He said, “I repeat what the CCC says, namely that they (gays) should not be discriminated against, that they should be shown respect and given pastoral assistance.

“But none of this has to do with the problem: if the problem is that a person is so inclined, and with good will seeks God, who are we to judge him or her? We should be helpful to them, in accordance with the teachings of the Catechism.”

            Is the Holy Father changing doctrine? Of course, not. He is a son of the Church and he accepts the Catechism, which teaches that a homosexual orientation is not sinful, while homosexual actions are and that gays should strive to be chaste, just as singles and married couples should be as well.

            Pope Francis then concludes with “…I think the Church should apologize—not only to this person who is gay and has been offended, but also to the poor, to women, and to children exploited in the workplace, and for having blessed so many weapons.”

Well, there’s not time like the present: I am truly sorry for the times I have marginalized and excluded others, including those who are gay.

But back now to the 150,000 figure. What do we do with that? What does Jesus mean that the gate to eternal life is narrow? If the narrow gate is not about exclusion, what is it then?

It is about difficulty. Jesus realistically conveys how difficult it is for most of us to follow the way into God’s heart. Jesus himself is our model by his words and actions. He struggled with following His Father’s will when God demanded that he sacrifice himself on the cross as the price of redemption for all of humanity. It was unbearably difficult, but Jesus knew it was worth it to bring God’s love to all forever.

For us, the narrow gate is a daily struggle to conform our whole life in every detail to love, to self-gift, to surrender to God’s love so that His love and grace can flow through us to a wider world. As Jesus revealed, that kind of loving is boundless and liberating and worth whatever the cost.

What is our hope and promise that we will be in the embrace of God forever? It is Jesus. Yes, it is a narrow gate but one that is precisely the size of Jesus himself. Let us put on Jesus and let Him work in and through us by prayerfully listening to the unique way we are to manifest Him to the world. It is our turn to love as Jesus did. It is our turn to be Christ to the world. It is our turn to build bridges, not walls. Amen.




So-called “5 non-negotiable actions”

            I just finished reading your Summer edition of ‘Catholic Trends’.  I am diametrically opposed to much of it.  According to the Voters Guide for Serious Catholics, which is published by Catholic Answers Action (copy attached), there are five non-negotiable actions which are intrinsically evil and therefore against moral law.  They are abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning and homosexual marriage.  The guide states further, “It is a serious sin to deliberately endorse or promote any of these actions…”


Dewey Lee

Thank you for your response. I am familiar with the group you mentioned as I did read their pamphlet they distributed for the 2004 election.

I would argue that while we need to priortize our Faith because not every teaching has equal status, this approach strikes me as being arbitrary and I found myself asking, “Why these five?” Some would say that they condemn intrinsic moral evils, whereas capital punishment is not an intrinsic evil. This is compelling, but there is an argument that says that because something is an intrinsically moral evil does not make it more wrong than something that involves consequences. ‘Intrinsic evil’ is used by Catholic Answers Action selectively. The Catholic Church teaches that torture is an intrinsically moral evil as is the use of nuclear weapons, but these did not make the list.

So, a list like these begins to look suspiciously arbitrarily orientated towards an ideological lens that’s already decided what teachings we’re going to pay attention to and which ones were not. I discussed this syndrome in an earlier Catholic Trends, when I talked about ideological Catholics, who “speak the Catholic lingo with passion and some degree of knowledge and awareness.   But, their prior (political) ideological convictions determine how they appeal to their Catholic faith. They come to their Catholic faith with an ideological agenda, then they pick and choose elements of their Catholic Tradition that support their political agenda while conveniently putting on blinders to those Catholic elements that don’t support their agenda.”

So, these artificial structures don’t work. It’s too easy to say (1) abortion is wrong, (2) candidate Jones is pro-choice, (3) therefore, I can’t and won’t vote for candidate Jones. This argument is too facile and doesn’t demand much critical thinking. So, what’s the alternative?  We need to go our touchstone core beliefs that we always have to adhere. In a previous issue of Catholic Trends, I identified them as (1) the right to life at all stages of human existence, (2) concern for the Common Good, (3) prohibition against euthanasia, and (4) concern for the environment in which Creation has rights (cf. Pope Francis encyclical Laudato Si).

            The five non-negotiables are too neatly packaged. I would argue that there’s a difficult and protracted discernment that’s going to take place to these four fundamental principles and bring them to bear on very complex situations.

Some would prioritize on the degree of Catholic Church teaching. Some would say that abortion is a dogmatic teaching while capital punishment is an authoritative teaching. While abortion has never been proclaimed dogmatically, it has from the Early Church consistently been taught universally by the Church. So, let’s accept that it is for all practical purposes a dogmatic teaching. When we’re bringing our faith to bear in the public arena, such as the voting booth, a dogmatic prioritization in the public arena is frankly insufficient. Why? A teaching may have greater dogmatic status, but our ability to implement it in the public arena in a particular context may be limited.

So, as a Catholic, I not only want to hold dear a certain teaching but ask myself is this political candidate or incumbent going to be able to implement this teaching in this particular context. I could say that it grieves me that this politician holds such a view, especially if he or she is a Catholic, but I don’t think he has much to do with this issue. So, I’m going to focus on those elements of Church teaching that they’ll have a real impact on. So, we want to avoid the simplistic, artificial prioritization that doesn’t pay attention to the principles of Church teaching to this particular circumstances.

Which leads us to prudential judgments.

            The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in the 1980s distinguished matters of moral principle from matters of practical implementation. In their reflection on War and Peace and a pastoral reflection on the economy, they made a distinction in their role as teacher:

We teach with authority when we pronounce on basic principles of morality. We also make informed judgments on particular policy initiatives.” But, they recognize that there is a difference between binding moral doctrine and prudential judgments about policy. For example, the bishops would argue that based on gospel-based principles that we have an obligation to minister to the needs of the poor (cf. ‘preferential option for the poor’). They make a prudential judgment on how to best do that, while recognizing that Catholics in good faith could disagree.

We’re very inconsistent in recognizing this principle. Folks like Catholic Action Answers tend to conflate the two. But, it is a hallmark of Catholic teaching that we do make such a distinction. But, we sometimes fail to make it when it comes to the abortion issue. We must make a distinction between every Catholic’s obligation to oppose abortion and the prudential judgment that we make and the pastoral reflection that our bishops offer us about which policy path is most likely to get us to that objective.

We need to take seriously our Catholic moral principles and the prudential judgments that our bishops make because they do a very thoughtful analysis. But Catholic teaching is clear: the application of moral teaching is the realm of prudence. While we believe the Magisterium is assisted by the Holy Spirit in the articulation of doctrine, one would say that there is no special assistance by the Holy Spirit in the realm of prudence. Anyone who knows Church history recognizes that while no pope has ever taught heresy (while some bishops have !), many were imprudent (cf. many of the Renaissance popes).

In the Vatican II documents Gaudium et Spes the conciliar fathers said that “the Church has this precious revelation, which has come to us through Jesus Christ witnessed in Scripture and Tradition. ….We believe that divine Revelation brings a Wisdom that we bring to the world.” But, the Fathers added that the Church does not have a ready answer for every concrete problem that’s out there. So, that’s the recognition that we have the Wisdom, but the application is complicated.

So, the Catholic Church is not a ready-make political answer machine. “Let the layman not imagine that his pastors are always…experts, that to every problem that arises, however, complicated, they can readily give him a concrete solution, or even that such is her mission. Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom and giving close attention to the teaching authority of the Church, let the layman take on his own distinctive role” (G&S, #43). The Magisterium and the clergy are to guide the laity, to articulate the doctrine, the Catholic moral vision that should inform us, invite us into the life of the Church, that school of discipleship. But, the laity are called to take the INITIATIVE of applying it. Vatican II was calling Catholics to an adult faith but when you do that, things get messy.

(If this sort of reflection interests you, I encourage you to read Richard Gaillardetz, Teaching with Authority: A Theology of the Magisterium in the Church).

Does Pope Francis every get discouraged? Has he ever had a crisis of faith? These were some of the Qs posed to our Holy Father at his visit to Villa Nazareth (cf. L’Osservatore Romano; 15 July 2016).

            “You have asked such a personal questions. (Re. the first), “we must have courage to move forward and not being ashamed of being a Christian, of being seen as a Christian, and the patience to bear on one’s shoulders the burden of each day, even the pain, even one’s sins, one’s inconsistencies.

(Now) “Have I ever found myself in a crisis of faith?” Many times I have found myself in a crisis of faith and sometimes I have even had the nerve to reproach Jesus: “But why do You allow this?, and even to doubt: “But is this the truth or is it a dream?” …A Christian who has not felt this, at times, whose faith has not faced a crisis, is missing something: he is a Christian who is content with a little mundanity and in this way moves on in life. …I’ve been told that in Chinese the term for ‘crisis’ is made with two ideograms: one is the ideogram for risk and the other is the ideogram for opportunity.

…A Christian …should not be afraid to face a crisis: it is a sign that he is moving forward, that he is not anchored to the shore of a river or the sea, that he has set sail and is moving forward. And there are problems, crises, inconsistencies, and the crisis of one’s own sin, which make us so ashamed. How do one avoid growing weary? It is a grace. Ask it of the Lord: “Lord, let me not grow weary. Give me the grace of patience, to move forward, to wait for peace to come.” I don’t know: this is my response (to your questions).

The Name of God is Mercy by Pope Francis (Random House, 176 pages, $26). While this is a wonderfully rich book by our Holy Father, but am I the only one to think that the title is a bit odd? While mercy is an attribute of God, it’s not God’s name! At the Burning Bush, Moses asked explicitly, “What is your name?” God did not answer ‘Mercy.’ Instead, God answered, “I AM WHO AM,” and further, “Tell the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you” (Ex 3:14). Given that God chose to reveal his name to a mere mortal, it seems that no other mere mortal, even if he is a very saintly Pope, is free to contradict God or imply that God’s self-identification was inadequate.

In one of the shortest of the book’s nine chapters, the Pope draws a useful distinction between sin and corruption. He defines corruption as smug self-satisfaction, losing awareness of one’s true inner nature: “The corrupt man is the one who sins but does not repent, who sins and pretends to be a Christian, and it is this double life that is scandalous.”

Deacon Jim McFadden