Jesus is Lord” is the earliest and simplest Christian confession of faith recorded in the Scriptures. St. Paul, in one of his prized expressions for the Christian life, describes the believer as one who lives, or exists, “in Christ.” Reciprocally, he speaks about the graced indwelling of the divine persons in the believer: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27).
The entire dogmatic and moral tradition of the Church is but the expression—the articulation in word and by precept—of what this kerygmatic experience of being “in Christ” means; it serves and “unpacks” this experience and identity. By no means does it replace or subordinate that identity. This is what Dei Verbum means when it says that the Church's magisterium is not “above the Word of God” but at the service of the revealed Word. The Church's dogmatic and moral tradition serves to give voice to—and at the same time preserve—that experience and identity.
Recent calls—from among some bishops' conferences and prominently placed clerics (even cardinals)—for a re-evaluation of the Church's teachings, particularly in matters of sexual morality, strike me as terribly perilous. Not only is the dismissive attitude toward the established teaching of the Church (whether out of a desire for “inclusivity” or “outreach”) dangerous; such a radical change or wholesale abandonment of the living moral tradition would have the devastating effect of dislocating us from our identity in Christ.
Catholics must understand themselves not principally as subscribing to a set of fixed beliefs and as living according to the Church's established “rules,” but rather as living in Christ as a new creation. Christianity is an experience of this new life of grace. All of the Church's teaching, in faith and in morals, is merely giving expression to this experience and supernatural identity as a new creation, an identity that is established by baptism and confirmation in a way that can never be effaced or undone (though sadly, it may be ignored or rejected). This fact does not weaken or lessen in importance doctrinal statements or moral precepts, but rather elevates their dignity and their demands by witnessing to their real purpose and establishing their living context. Dislocated from this new life in Christ, they can be cast as a merely externally imposed and arbitrary set of “rules” for behavior, established by an authority whose moral voice has been both undermined by internal personal failures or incompetence and wounded by external assaults.
A pastoral parallel. When meeting with a couple preparing for marriage, I am in the habit, when speaking of the Church's teaching on marriage, in particular its moral dimension (for example, on issues of cohabitation or artificial contraception), to use language such as “the gospel invites us,” or “Jesus is calling us,” or “this is what new life in Christ looks like.” I do not lead with “the teaching of the Church,” or “the magisterium asserts,” not because these statements are untrue (they certainly are true), but because of how the invitation to conversion will be heard. What the Church teaches is, of course, nothing other than the gospel, the teaching of Jesus. But contemporary ears are much more likely to find in the authority of the Church a merely human institution or voice whose flaws they know all too well. Leading with Jesus recapitulates the gospel, insofar as it is the invitation from a living person to a new and ever deepening life with him. In John's Gospel, the inquiry made of Jesus, “Where do you stay?”, is met with, “Come, and you will see.” In Mark, those invited to deeper discipleship with Jesus are asked to “be with him.” The Church, of course, is his Body and so it is equally true to speak of the Church inviting them, though too often the ecclesiological imagination of many Catholics is anemic, understanding the Church as merely one more fragile human institution (among so many) competing for their allegiance. Thus, inviting individuals to a deeper discipleship with Jesus is indeed inviting them to a deeper participation in the Church's life, including its rich and, yes, demanding call to conversion: Life in Christ and life in the Church are one.
Calls to change or abandon the moral demands of the gospel betray a bifurcation or divorce of doctrina from vita, of dogma from experience, of theology from spirituality. One of the great gifts of the theological ressourcement of the twentieth century was a reaffirmation of the unity and co-inherence of theology and spirituality, a reassertion of the ancient Christian intuition that one can only fully understand the gospel by first embracing it and its demands; and indeed, as one begins to grasp more deeply the truth and beauty of the teaching, its graced living out becomes, if not immediately easier, at least borne with greater love, fidelity, and fruitfulness. As Henri de Lubac put it quite succinctly: “If dogma is the perfect norm of all spiritual life, it is only because the authentic spiritual life is nothing other than dogma in actu.”
To be a disciple, to live in Christ and as a member of his Body, is, as the late Pope Benedict was fond of saying, an adventure. It is life, and joy, and a robust experience of being loved and saved. To assume that this experience and identity can be severed from the very articulation of its conditions, doctrinally or morally, is perilous. It has the real and ultimate effect of dislocating us from being in Christ, damaging souls, and producing a counterfeit of the gospel of Jesus.
Msgr. Michael Heintz is academic dean and associate professor at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
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