A menu concept for sermons is inadequate


Not long ago a letter appeared in a daily paper. She was “aghast” to hear a sermon about the president’s health care plan. She claimed that the homily was slanted in favor of his party.

First, the church’s tax-exempt status would indeed be compromised if a preacher were to endorse a candidate or a party. In other countries, it is commonplace to hear a Catholic preacher recommend this or that party, often because the Communist party is legally recognized there. This in itself is hard for an American to swallow. In my student days during the ’60s in Catholic Italy, it was the second largest of a dozen major parties. At first, I too was aghast. But I learned they do things differently there.

Second, to slant a homily about the moral subject of universal health coverage (called a right by Pope John XXIII in 1961) in a partisan way, can also be objectionable if that in fact was what was happening. Yet speaking about anything political in a religious forum is neither a legal nor an ecclesiastical problem if done in a non-partisan and morally “well-educated” way. If all the preacher did was read from Pope John’s encyclical “Pacem in terris,” he would clearly be discussing politics in church. But neither the church nor the state would object to that.

The reason is that preachers have no choice but to treat in church political and secular and economic topics that have a moral facet. Just as he must treat subjects like chastity or personal honesty or the evils of abortion on demand — a political subject, if ever there was one — he would be doing his duty here, one he may not shirk. The 1971 Rome Synod of Bishops, with Pope Paul VI’s blessing, taught that “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel. . . .” So social justice topics belong in church.

The pope and bishops officially taught that the secular subjects that disturb the hopes of those wanting an assuaging message to soothe them must get occasional treatment because they constitute the Gospel, which covers the very upsetting news that Jesus was crucified by angry Romans for preaching the Kingdom of God. It leaves church-goers aghast to learn that, of all the subjects about which the Gospels quote Jesus, the world as God’s kingdom is the single most common. He speaks about nothing else more often.

His sermons often did not bring “harmony in the world” or “peace of mind” to people.

Preachers who always soothe and narcotize congregations with safe topics having little or no secular application preach only part of the Good News. They are delinquent. When popes issue encyclicals and bishops issue pastorals on political and economic subjects — and the U.S. bishops did this about health coverage before congressional committees — preachers may not take censorious scissors to their magisterial work.

So it looks like people who object to secular topics ought to ask why they go to church and demand the non-controversial and unchallenging topics which explain the Marxist sarcasm that such “religion” is the opiate of the masses, telling them that the criminal unfairness of unscrupulous industrialists crushing workers will be rewarded in the afterlife. So there’s no point in doing anything to reform such systemic unfairness.

How inconsistent is this menu concept of Sunday sermons. It cleverly overlooks that sometimes the same people will cheer when preachers galvanize them against political oppressors, such as those formerly in Poland or Ireland, or when they unite them against secular threats as abortion or euthanasia. Cafeteria Catholics do pick and choose.