On the Failure of Homiletics

“They have all zeal and no truth, and we have all truth and no zeal.” ∼ Bishop Sheen on the Church’s enemies

In The Light of Christ, the fine new book by Father Thomas Joseph White, OP, we read that “[b]elonging to the Church does not give people a blank check so that they can live in irresponsibility to the vows they make or in hypocritical disregard for the Church’s teaching that they have promised to uphold.” When a person enters the Church, for example, he publicly declares: “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.”

If that profession is the duty of all Catholic lay people, is it not even more incumbent upon the hierarchy of the Church, whose mission it is to teach the truth and thus to bring the light of Christ to a society in increasingly abject moral darkness? Scripture, as always, helps us. When, for example, the prophet Isaiah reveals God’s promise that “I will turn their darkness into light” (42:16), does that not imply that all of us who claim to be Catholic—but especially the ordained and consecrated—enjoy (I use that verb deliberately) the duty of being witnesses to the truth (cf. Matt. 28:19 and Acts 1:8)?

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Sacred Scripture is plain in this regard: “The Lord Almighty says to the priests, ‘This command is for you: You must honor me by what you do. If you will not listen to what I say, then I will bring a curse on you.’” If any doubt about the critical nature of that charge were left, what soon follows dispels it. Those who do not take God’s commands seriously hear that: “[I will] rub your faces in the dung of the animals you sacrifice—and you will be taken out to the dung heap.” The conclusion: “It is the duty of priests to teach the true knowledge of God. People should go to them to learn my will, because they are the messengers of the Lord Almighty” (Mal. 2:1-3, 7).

A cartoon by Rik Dalvit captures something of the current crisis. A couple with a stroller and their children are walking away from church. The wife says, “Great homily! Non-threatening, positive, and short.” The husband replies, “I think he could have said a little more than ‘Have a nice day!’” As one priest once told me, though, the collection is a referendum on the homily. The implication is that the homilist must not displease the people in the pews. Pablum, not bold proclamation, is the order of the day.

The next verse (2:8) in Malachi: “But now you priests have turned away from the right path. Your teaching has led many to do wrong. You have broken the covenant I made with you.”

Cardinal Raymond Burke put it this way: “Fundamental to understanding the radical secularization of our culture is to understand also how much this secularization has entered into the life of the Church herself.” It is, then, shocking, but hardly surprising, that Catholics, by and large, are poorly educated in the faith, for their teachers are themselves often insecure and intimidated, offering only vacuous and jejune—if not essentially heretical—“teaching.”

Saint Paul deplored the “specious arguments” (Col. 2:4) he was hearing from false teachers, and Jude, of course, rightly railed against “persons who distort the message about the grace of our God in order to excuse their immoral ways” (v. 4).

Evidently, yesterday’s “soldiers of Christ,” commissioned by Baptism and Confirmation “to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the Cross” (CCC #1303), have, instead, today become “pacifists.” The Church militant has become the church milquetoast, unable or unwilling to take up spiritual arms. The admonition of the Catechism that our lives are a lifelong “battle” against evil (#407-409; cf. #1783) is ignored; instead our lives are thought to be good to the extent that they merge with the licentiousness of the day.

The catalogue of defections from orthodox teaching and the roster of those urging those defections are too well known and too extensive to be recited again here. It is perhaps sufficient to reflect, lugubriously, on the reality that the word orthodox is, of late, used to pillory faithful Catholics.

To whom do faithful Catholics turn for counsel and comfort when they are branded as flakes and failures for professing “all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God”? We turn, of course, to our priests for bold re-assurance. Instead, too often, we are told to conform ourselves to the way of the world, rather than conform our wills to Christ who is Truth (cf. Rom. 12:2, Col 3:2). A priest yearning for popularity and novelty will have no concern for unpopular teaching, even if it is the truth which sets us free (John 12:43, Gal. 1:10., 1 Thess. 2:4).

Too often, in fact, we do know the truth, and it makes us flee: if we know what is right, then we have to act as though the truth actually matters in our lives (cf. James 4:17). “If you don’t behave as you believe,” Bishop Fulton J. Sheen taught, “you will end by believing as you behave.” Such warnings are altogether too rare today. If faith comes from hearing (Rom. 10:17), some must believe we are deaf, for we hear so little about our duty “to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the community in which [we live]” (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 13). We run from the teaching that “the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth” (Dignitatis Humanae, 14), lest we actually have to do something, politically or socially, in line with that commission.

And when our pride consumes us, and when we sin, where, then, do we turn? We turn to our priests for admonition, direction, and forgiveness. So often, though, as Scripture, again, warns us: “Their preaching deceived you by never exposing your sin. They made you think you did not need to repent” (Lam. 2:14).

Scripture starkly tells us about the priests Nadab and Abihu, whose liturgical improvisations—departures, we might say, from “reading the black and doing the red”—caused the Lord to send fire, resulting in their deaths (Lev. 10:1-3). Traditionally attributed to St. John Chrysostom is this warning: “The road to hell is paved with the skulls of erring priests, with bishops as their signposts.” By the same token, Ezekiel carefully cautions all of us that, if we do not warn sinners to change their ways, we too will be held liable (33:7-9).

In the Army, I learned that “The commander is responsible for all that his command does or fails to do.” That concept applies as well to the parish priest, whose life is (or should be) dedicated to the salvation of the souls in his parish. There will be times, then, for priestly “tough love.” The Baltimore Catechism, for instance, listed “admonish the sinner” as the first of the Spiritual Works of Mercy (question #192). The current Catechism, though, has bowdlerized the word admonish, preferring the euphemism advising (#2447).

We return, then, to Father White’s point that people must not be given “a blank check so they can live in … disregard for the Church’s teaching.” This is equivalent to being given a serpent when we ask our father (or our priest) for a fish (Luke 11:11). Father White weakens a bit in suggesting that the disciplinary facet of the Church is “undoubtedly illiberal,” but immediately recovers in wisely and plainly telling us that “it is a sign of the seriousness with which the Church takes the truth of Christ, as well as the concern she has for the salvation of souls.”

Thus does St. Paul, after an exhortation to preach the word “in season and out of season,” ring the tocsin against the “itching ears” of those who will “accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings and will wander away from the truth” (2 Tim. 4:2-4). The truth must not be made to conform to the fads and fashions of the day but, rather, be exalted in order to call home those prodigal sons and daughters yet to come to their senses (cf. John 16:33).

It is time—past time, in fact—for parrhesia, meaning “boldness in speaking,” willingness to proclaim settled, established, irreformable Catholic truth (as in Acts 2:29, 4:13, 29, 31; and 28:31) as our Lord taught a hostile world (cf. John 7:7 and 18:20). Boldness in proclaiming the word from the housetops (Matt. 10:27, Luke 12:3) may result in smaller collections; it may not be well received by everyone (John 6:41, 66), but it is the path toward the salvation of souls. Isn’t that, finally, all that matters?

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “St. Peter Preaching in Jerusalem,” painted by Charles Poërson in 1642.


  • Deacon James H. Toner

    Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He serves in the Diocese of Charlotte.

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