06 August 2018

Homily - 5 August 2018 - The Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

The Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Dear brothers and sisters,

By appealing to the authority of the Risen Lord, Saint Paul insists that we who have been baptized into Christ “must no longer live as the Gentiles do” (Ephesians 4:17). Given the particularities and standards of the society in which we live, these are timeless words and a command we cannot ignore. It is because “truth is in Christ” – indeed, because Christ is the truth (cf. John 14:6) – that we should “put away the old self of your former life,” that is, the way of those who are not in Christ, the way of those who do not think and act in the light of the Paschal Mystery (Ephesians 4:22).

It cannot be convincingly argued that we live in a true, Christian society today because too many Christians think of Christianity principally as a moral code or an ethical standard, a code and standard which they continually water down and do not follow. Christianity, of course, includes and requires a moral code and an ethical standard modeled on the life of Christ, but we often fail to remember that the heart of Christianity, “the center of existence — which is what gives meaning and certain hope in the all too often difficult journey of life — is faith in Jesus, it is the encounter with Christ.”[1] Indeed,

It is not a matter here of following an idea or a project, but of encountering Jesus as a living Person, of letting ourselves be totally involved by him and by his Gospel. Jesus invites us not to stop at the purely human horizon and to open ourselves to the horizon of God, to the horizon of faith. He demands a single act: to accept God’s plan, namely, to “believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29).[2]

To use Saint Paul’s phrase, Christianity is about learning Jesus Christ, a learning which culminates in his friendship and in the reception of his own Body and Blood that “gives life to the world” (cf. Ephesians 4:20; John 6:33).

I mention this because, just a few days ago, His Holiness Pope Francis altered the text of the Catechism of the Catholic Church referring to the death penalty. He did so to clarify the Church’s moral teaching in the modern world. Some have called the alteration of this text a change in the Church’s moral teaching; strictly speaking, this claim is untrue.

The Church has always recognized the need of governments to protect their citizens. It sometimes happens that the only way to protect civilians requires the government to take the life of a dangerous criminal. While the Church tolerated capital punishment in past centuries, in more recent times there has been a clear and gradual development of the Church’s teaching regarding the death penalty. Pope Saint John Paul II reminded us that “not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this,” as we see with the mark of Cain, who killed his brother Abel (cf. Genesis 4:15).[3] He also noted that “modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform” and for this reason he continually appealed for the end of the death penalty, which he called “both cruel and unnecessary.”[4] Likewise, Pope Benedict XVI also called for the end of the death penalty.

Following in their footsteps, rather than changing the teaching of the Church, Pope Francis has furthered the development of this doctrine and, we might say, tightened it. The paragraph of the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding the death penalty now reads as follows:

Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”,[5] and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide (2267).

Judging the signs of the times, the Holy Father has judged the the death penalty is no longer necessary due to the advances in detention systems. He is calling us to no longer live as the Gentiles do, but to learn Jesus Christ, to learn his mercy and the futility of vengeance.

Many in these United States of America have sadly already rejected Pope Francis’ clarification of this teaching because they have forgotten that he speaks with the authority of the Risen Lord and has been entrusted with the power of the keys. Whenever I find myself discussing the death penalty with others, I cannot help but recall a passage from J.R.R. Tolkien’s, Lord of the Rings. Speaking of the creature Gollum, Frodo Baggins says to Gandalf, “He deserves death.” To this, the wizard responds, “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”[6]

When Saint Augustine reflected on how unlike the Lord Jesus he was, he wrote in his Confessions that he “heard as it were [Jesus’] voice from on high: ‘I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.’”[7] To be changed into Jesus Christ, to think and act according to his mind and heart, is the goal of every Christian. Let us pray, then, that we will learn Jesus Christ ever more closely and, receiving his own Body and Blood, will be changed into him. Amen.

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 5 August 2018.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Pope Saint John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 9.
[4] Ibid., Homily in the Trans World Dome of St. Louis, 27 January 1999.
[5] Pope Francis, Address to Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, 11 October 2017.
[6] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 58.
[7] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, VII.10. Henry Chadwick, trans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 124.

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