As the telephone repairman connected new wires to the black box in our basement, he asked about my work. I told him I was a minister.
He pondered this briefly, then asked the location of my parish. I had most recently been a church overseer of many churches for a Protestant denomination, I told him. I hadn’t had responsibility for a particular congregation during that time.
He offered that he was Catholic. I asked gently if he was active in his church. Immediately I detected inner conflict in his responses.
The Catholic Church is just out of date these days, he complained. It’s back in the dark ages. The contraception matter was one issue. Women should have a right to choose. He thought that abortion should be avoided, but what about a list of extenuating circumstances? All of this tumbled out of him in obvious frustration.
He was also angry because the priest of his parish had refused to confirm his 12-year-old son. The reason the priest gave was that he didn’t ever see the boy’s parents in church.
But, I inquired, you still want to be a Catholic?
Yes, he answered without hesitation.
That was the reason for his conflict. He wanted to be a Catholic — but felt he should be able to participate on his terms.
He was reflecting what some call the modern mind. For people with that mindset, God may exist but his fundamental nature and requirements should be of each individual’s design. And he could be kept mostly out of sight except for emergencies. Thus it was acceptable for standards of morality to become fluid and vague.
When such persons encounter firm moral demands of an institution such as the Catholic Church, they tend to be both angry and conflicted. For this repairman, it seemed to me, there were no external standards of morality. It seemed he wanted to determine personally and with finality what was right. He could therefore remain marginally connected to his church while being angry at it because it wasn’t more modern.
My anecdote is but one example of this phenomenon. Consider another: the case of a daughter of prominent members of an Evangelical church who cohabited openly with a man for nine years and then decided she should have a big church wedding.
She approached her parents’ pastor. She wanted a full-scale event in the church sanctuary with all the usual embellishments, and a guest list of 200. The pastor put forward an alternative way to help this couple out. She refused his offer of a private wedding.
She could not understand why her request would create moral tension for pastor and church board. She thought she had a right to this celebration. It was to be a “rite of passage.”
But as the church saw it, she and her mate had made that passage on their own in a very public way nine years earlier. There was no “new beginning” to be celebrated. Moreover, the words of the wedding ritual would ring false to the listening congregation. For them it would be an issue of truth and honesty in the presence of God.
I rush to add that in this kind of circumstance, today’s Evangelical church is mandated by Scripture to love as Jesus did, sometimes with compassion, sometimes with firmness. But the church is called to love truthfully.
The Apostle John writes to his “true friend Gaius” thus: “It gave me great joy when some believers came and testified about your faithfulness to the truth and how you continue to walk in it” (3 John 3).
The truth John had in mind was the truth of the gospel of Christ as elaborated in the Christian scriptures. Should not established doctrines and truthful procedures grow out of revealed truth in timeless and trustworthy Scripture, making today’s churches clear-minded in this age of moral softness?