The father’s desire for Christian unity

Father John A. Kiley

The resignation of Pope Emeritus Benedict and the election of our new pontiff understandably elicited surveys from the world media on the attitudes of American Catholics toward pertinent issues of the day.

CBS Evening News offered such a survey early in March.

A number of Catholics, practicing and non-practicing, overwhelmingly differed with the church on key teachings and church doctrines. Two-thirds of Catholics (66 percent) would allow priests to marry, and two-thirds (66 percent) would also allow women to become ordained as priests. It is no surprise that almost eight in 10 Catholics (79 percent) favor the use of artificial birth control. And sadly that statistic only drops a bit - to 69 percent - among the most frequent church goers. Most surveyed Catholics break with church teachings on same-sex marriage (62 percent would legalize it), abortion (74 percent would allow it, at least with some limitations), and the death penalty (61 percent favor it).

On the positive side, lay Catholics agree with many bishops in taking a liberal attitude toward immigration issues. Lay Catholics who attend mass more frequently fortunately tend to follow church guidance more faithfully on these issues.

These statistics reveal a lamentable but probably realistic assessment of the unfamiliarity of the Catholic laity with authentic church teaching. But they also expose the disappointing preaching, teaching and instruction in church doctrine offered by the American Catholic clergy. Pope Paul VI definitively examined the church’s teaching on priestly celibacy in his encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus in 1967. Pope Paul admirably expressed the church’s doctrines on family planning with Humanae Vitae in 1968. Both of these pronouncements affirmed precepts from his predecessors Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII as well as Vatican Council II. Pope John Paul II extensively developed his Theology of the Body in his weekly addresses during the 1980s profoundly analyzing the Church’s spousal teachings from a contemporary viewpoint.

Pope Emeritus Benedict has proposed similar considerations on a number of occasions. Yet somehow these insightful papal instructions do not reach the pulpits, the parish offices, the classrooms, and the discussion tables of America’s parishes. Attempts by our bishops notwithstanding, it has fallen to the secular American media to form Catholic consciences.

The media’s alarming statistics make the opening words of this Sunday’s Gospel quite poignant: “Jesus said: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” Jesus rejoices that his sheep hear his voice, comprehend his words, and appreciate their significance. Jesus understands his sheep perfectly. He “knows them.” He values them. He empathizes with them. Jesus celebrates the fruit of his pastoral care: “They follow me.” Jesus is supremely confident that his sheep will meet him in eternity: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.” Courageous docility to the truth as preached by Jesus Christ and as still taught by his church distinguishes the committed sheep from the hesitant believers of today The basic truth is often at a premium nowadays and genuine believers may seem frightfully outnumbered. But Christians should not fear being out of step with the world if they are readily in step with Christ and his church. Because 60 or 70 percent of the baptized are hesitant in their beliefs does not invalidate those truths. And because only 30 or 40 percent of church membership appreciate traditional teachings does not make them any less correct. In this regard, the words of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen are well worth pondering: “The truth is the truth even if nobody believes it, and a lie is still a lie, even if everybody believes it."

Jesus closes this Sunday’s brief Gospel passage with the words, “The Father and I are one.” Worshippers can be forgiven for seeing these words as a reference to the Trinity. Instead Jesus is rejoicing that the Father and he are “one” in a mutual pastoral effort and a common saving purpose. Jesus speaks of a relationship of cooperation and obedience between the Father and the Son. Jesus and the Father are of “one” mind, “one” will, “one” heart, when it comes to Jesus’ mission.

Later Christ will use the same word “one” when he speaks of his desired unity with his beloved Church: “...that they may be one as we are one…”

Today’s sad statistics indicate that the oneness of Christ with his Church’s membership, with his American sheep, falls greatly short of the Master’s expectations.