Have We Forgotten the Hard Sayings of Christ?

“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire.” (Mk. 9:43)

It requires no great insight in order to discern what the modern world would make of such a statement had it been uttered by a contemporary man. Secular society would simply dismiss the words as the ravings of an angry extremist. The reaction in the Church would likely be little different. Certainly, such a statement is hardly pastoral, as it seems to condemn, not “accompany.” All sin and death, fire and brimstone—merciless.

Yet how merciful it is, if the very purpose of mercy is to save us from sin, death and condemnation. Christ explains his essential mission succinctly: He came not to condemn the world, but to save it (Jn. 3:17). And so his every action and every word are directed towards this end.

His greatest saving act is, of course, his immolation on the Cross, where he—the only fully human man who ever lived—wholly empties himself in an act of total abasement, offering himself as priest and victim for the sins of the world. But Christ’s teaching ministry on the road to Calvary is also the means by which he saves, for it is through his teaching that he shows us the means to achieve holiness and, thereby, salvation. God the Father commands: “Listen to him” (Lk. 9:35). Mary, his mother echoes, “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn. 2:5).

One unfortunate tendency of the post-conciliar Church is the abstraction of “the Gospel” to justify all manner of humanist and universalist political sentiments. Thus we hear about undefined “Gospel values” that are said to require certain political viewpoints. In his latest exhortation, Pope Francis takes this approach to new heights, proclaiming that “[n]o one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel.” (Amoris Laetitia 297)

While the Church does offer innumerable opportunities for repentance and reform, the decision to reconcile with God or accept condemnation still remains with the sinner. The very words of Christ speak plainly of the risk and reality of eternal punishment or separation from God. To take just one example, at the close of the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps the greatest summary of Christianity, Christ warns:

Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few. (Mt. 7:13-14)

And again:

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?” Then I will declare to them solemnly, “I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.” (Mt. 7:21-23)

The denial of the reality and the danger of sin is literally as old as man. One way to understand Original Sin is by observing its desire to deny its own existence. The trick of the serpent is to inculcate the notion that God’s laws are arbitrary, pointless or do not really mean what they seem to mean. The idea is to make man the judge in his own case so that he can acquit himself of guilt and move on. In this way, man becomes God, the very result the serpent promised Eve upon the bite of the apple.

This ideology is a hallmark of the modern age, and it has long since insinuated itself into the Church. Clearly, for some of the prelates leading the last two synods and those interpreting the recent papal exhortation, the principal goal is to discern a work-around of the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage, as if the Church is the keeper of a rule book that can be adjusted from time to time to make the game easier or more palatable.

But the doctrine of the Church is supposed to proclaim the Truth. It does not create the Truth; it teaches about it. Its authority to make its proclamations comes from Scripture and Tradition—that is, the way the Church down through the ages has understood the Scriptures and the theology and philosophy that have underpinned the interpretations. As a matter of logic, the doctrine can only change if the Truth changes.

“This saying is hard; who can accept it?” (Jn. 6:60) Even those who heard and saw Christ on earth, and were attracted to his teachings, questioned his demands. Some fell away. In countless ways, in ordinary daily living, the world counters the Christian with the notion that the spiritual way is simply impossible. The realm of sexual relations is hardly the only area in which the world urges us to disregard Christian morality. Even more subtle and insidious is the relentless focus on the petty, the material, the obsession with wealth and status, preoccupation with self-interest and self-promotion and self-absorption, ego-driven competition, and, of course, the marginalization or elimination of religion from the rhythms of life.

Pope Francis wants the Church to “accompany” people through their struggles and tribulations. And well it should. Principally, this should mean the proclamation of all the demands of the Gospel in full and the incessant offering of the sacraments, especially in the Holy Mass and Confession, as the means to receive the grace necessary to truly follow the Lord. Those churchmen so enamored of Protestantism and obsessed with ecumenism should be pleased to teach that we can hardly hope to imitate the life of Christ by our own poor efforts, but must reply upon God’s grace. So by all means, let the Church accompany the faithful.

However, it is neither merciful nor salutary to obscure the Church’s teachings. Nor is it correct to imply that, because the Church judges acts, it also judges the actors. Like its ultimate source, doctrine exists not to condemn but to save. The fact that doctrinal instruction can make people angry, embarrassed or engender feelings of guilt does not negate its truth.

Of course, there is no need to present the teaching in a harsh manner, and the fact is the Church has hardly done so in the recent past. With respect to the current controversy over the marriage teaching, for example, Familiaris Consortio clearly presents the age-old understanding of indissolubility with language full of compassion for those who struggle in this area. The depiction of a Church full of clerical stone-throwers is simply a fiction proffered as an excuse for indulging in the Kasperite enterprise in the first place.

The Gospel is a call to a great striving towards complete holiness; in essence, towards perfection. To suggest that there is another, easier way, or that the mandate of perfection is not meant for all, is to destroy subtly and without fanfare the very essence of Christianity. For even after we have done all that Christ has commanded, we have only to say: “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do” (Lk. 17:10).

Editor’s note: The image above, titled “The Sermon on the Mount,” was painted by Carl Heinrich Bloch in 1877.

Christian Browne

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Christian Browne is a practicing attorney in New York state. A board member of the Nassau County Catholic Lawyers Guild, he earned his J.D. from Fordham University in 2004.

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