When “Accompaniment” Never Names Sin

Here’s a little thought experiment to start your day: Imagine you woke up one morning last week and read this headline in your local Catholic newspaper: “Bishop John Smith Leads Prayer at Contra Catholic Gathering.”

In this imagined universe, you’ve heard of these “Contra Catholics”—these are fellow Catholics who have publicly “come out” as using artificial contraception in their marriages. No longer willing to silently endure the stigma associated with their attraction to birth control, tired of the ridicule they face from those who accept what is taught in Humanae Vitae, they boldly, proudly claim that this is who they are. The Contra Catholic community that grew from this shared experience even has its own advocacy group—New Day Ministry—which this year held a symposium promoting their practice of contraception and their identity as Contra Catholics, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: Contra Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis.”

This is the event at which Bishop John Smith was invited to lead prayer. He gladly accepted, according to the Catholic newspaper’s account:

CHICAGO—Bishop John Smith seemed at home at New Day Ministry’s eighth annual symposium. This was the first time that the bishop had spoken in front of the advocacy group, which supports contracepting Catholics of all backgrounds.

“New Day Ministry made me want to come here,” the bishop said. He has been observing and admiring the group’s outreach to Contra Catholics over several years, he added. Smith said he was honored to be asked “to break open God’s Word” with the 300 weekend participants.

He said he is humbled by those Contra Catholics who have pursued “a life of faith in a church that has not always welcomed or valued” them or their worth. As a shepherd, he needs to hear their voices and take seriously their experience, he said, adding that both the presence and persistence of Contra Catholics inspired him.

Contra Catholics show “a valuable expression of mercy” in calling the church “to be more inclusive and more Christ-like despite being given so many reasons to walk away,” he said.

But his acceptance of the invitation to address the New Day Ministry gathering did not sit well with many other Catholics. “The flack has been enormous and continues on the blogosphere” and from “self-righteous strangers online and those who subscribe to these feeds,” Bishop Smith said, calling some of the posts and e-mails “vicious.”

Bishop Smith said that among objectors there are many sincere Catholics who are “really struggling” with all the issues around contraception. He said he hopes and prays “for a culture of encounter” in which the Church can become fully engaged with Contra Catholics “who want to live the Catholic life and who love the Catholic Church. … Why would we want to turn our backs on them?”

“Our usual way of thinking is that justice and mercy are incompatible,” Bishop Smith said, suggesting that Catholics need to find new ways to work together, to open up new possibilities and to try to be nonjudgmental of one another. “It’s about the need for a conversion of attitudes for both the institutional church and for all its members,” he said.

With regard to Contra Catholics, Bishop Smith suggests that the Church has alienated “a whole generation.” He said that on his many visits to confirmation classes, teens in his diocese ask: “Why can’t Contra Catholics be themselves? Bishop Smith, why can’t they love the way they want?”

“We have to listen to our young people and pay attention to things like this,” the bishop insisted.

He also told the Contra Catholic assembly that in his reading of Christian morality, he finds the infinite value of the human person to be “the touchstone and foundation for determining the morality of a given act or issue. Christian morality is more concerned with the well-being and dignity of the person than with rules, norms or commandments. Jesus seems to teach this on many occasions,” he said.

Perhaps in this thought experiment, you put down the Catholic newspaper on your kitchen table, nodding your head approvingly at the compassionate, truly pastoral expression of “accompaniment” that Bishop Smith has embraced in reaching out to the Contra Catholics. You might even be reflecting positively on just how pervasive this culture of “encounter” has become in dioceses and parishes across the nation. Dioceses everywhere now have Contra-Catholic-affirming ministries—even Contra-Catholic Masses celebrated for faith-filled Contra Catholics are held just down the street at your parish. New Day Ministry even publishes a list of “Contra-Catholic-friendly” parishes across the nation. Pastors and bishops everywhere are now welcoming Contra Catholics—and their spouses—with smiles and warm wishes. Some even apologize to Contra Catholic couples for the lack of welcome they had received in the past.

You, too, may even smile, knowing Contra Catholics and their allies are thriving under this model of “accompaniment.” New Day Ministry has even joined forces with other Contra Catholic advocacy groups to form a network called “Artificially Blessed.” Contra Catholics are now so media-savvy that they have produced books and videos expressing who they are and what they believe—even going so far as hand-delivering a Contra-Catholic-affirming video to the Holy Father himself!

Yet it might be the case that one or two of you have this warm and fuzzy reverie of praise for “accompaniment” interrupted by a tiny but persistent voice: “Hey, wait! Isn’t there something missing?”

This, dear thought-experimenter, is the too-often-overlooked voice of reason.

Through the noise and distraction of just how good we all feel after reading about Bishop Smith and New Day Ministry, if we try really hard to listen, we will hear that voice of reason say to us: “Well, um, isn’t artificial contraception an intrinsic evil? Isn’t willfully saying ‘yes’ to it an objectively grave sin?”

If we hear reason’s voice, it’s quite possible that, on further reflection, we would realize that the “accompaniment” that received our nodding approval mere moments before, found in dioceses and parishes across the nation, never once, in all its welcoming and affirming, mentions the truth about the evil of contraception.

Why? Simple. Contra Catholics have absolutely no interest in hearing that what they choose to believe and choose to practice is somehow not good for them, not healthy for them, and downright evil.

Because Contra Catholics feel “alienated” by such expressions, our “accompaniment” must expressly avoid any and all mention of them. Otherwise there will be no warm feeling of welcome and acceptance. If we Catholics openly reject the false “truths” claimed by the Contra Catholics—truths they say make them “who we are”—it is viewed as a personal rejection of “who we are.”

Put plainly, this form of “accompaniment” is a one-way street. Traffic is one-way only—the Catholic Church does not get to be “who we are.” The Church doesn’t get to speak from her true “identity” as Bride of Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit, called to love in truth. In this thought experiment, only the “Contra Catholics” are able to maintain their belief in “who we are.”

Such a compromising of the truth cannot occur without grave personal and communal consequences. If naming the reality of sin is incompatible with our pursuit of “accompanying” fellow Catholics, then our claim that we are accompanying is itself an unreality, a sham. Such false forms of “accompaniment” as described above cannot—must not—win the day.

But wait, you may say—it’s just a “thought experiment,” right? Whew! It’s not like there is really a so-called “Contra Catholic community” out there.

True, of course. But—full disclosure—the basis for my thought-experiment and imagined news report is indeed quite real, and can be found right here.

(Photo credit: Robert Shine)

Deacon Jim Russell

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Deacon Jim Russell serves the Archdiocese of St. Louis and writes on topics of marriage, family, and sexuality from a Catholic perspective.

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