Fr. John S. Grimm
Holy Spirit Parish
New Castle, Delaware
READINGS FOR SEPT. 4 23RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(Ezekiel 33:7-9; Romans 13:8-10;
In his homily to begin the conclave of cardinals that would elect him pope, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said that the world was laboring under a “dictatorship of relativism.” By that he meant moral relativism specifically, the notion that moral truth is subjective, that is, totally dependent on one’s intention and external circumstances.
Moral relativism denies that any action is always wrong; moral choices are mere expressions of one’s feelings about certain behavior. Thus, actions that in previous generations were condemned as sinful are in our time considered a matter of personal preference, above all in the area of sexual morality.
Modernity’s embrace of moral relativism is not only a rejection of Catholic morality, but of the morality of all previous eras. For instance, the hearers of the Apostles knew and accepted an objective moral law called the natural law. And they knew that they failed to keep it, at least perfectly. As a result, the ancients knew they needed a savior and the Apostles’ message was experienced as “Good News.” But under the influence of moral relativism, modern people are told that there is no objective standard with which to make moral choices. In this setting, our Lord’s message that we must repent sounds strange to some people. They ask: repent from what? Recent popes have said that the modern world has lost its sense of what sin is. Without a sense that we are sinners, why do we need a redeemer?
Therefore, the church finds itself needing to preach the “bad news” that we are sinners in need of forgiveness before she can preach the Good News that Christ offers us forgiveness.
Today’s readings presuppose an objective moral order and man’s need for reconciliation with God and neighbor for failing to act in accordance with that order.
In the first reading, Ezekiel is appointed watchman for God’s holy people and instructed to warn the people when they stray from the path of holiness. Should he fail to warn them of their misdeeds, the guilt of their sins will fall upon him. St. Augustine taught that this duty to warn the faithful is now placed upon all the bishops and priests of the church. The preacher who fulfills this duty is likely to meet a cool reception in some quarters because of the relativism in our culture. Nonetheless, as the Holy Father taught in his 2009 encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate” (“Charity in Truth”), the proclamation of the truth is an essential way of charity.
Our Lord’s words in today’s Gospel are similarly in conflict with the spirit of our times. One must believe in objective right and wrong in order to have the grounds to confront another with the injustice of his behavior; otherwise, it degenerates into a contest of wills. Moral relativism puts an end to moral dialogue since moral judgments are only expressions of one’s feelings.
Our Lord instructs us to do more than dialogue with others, we are to confront a brother or sister with his misbehavior if he falls into sin. This can only be done in a way pleasing to God if it is motivated by charity. Notice that if our brother offends us, we are to tell him about it, not everyone but him. Even if someone truly wrongs us, we must be mindful of not sinning through detraction, which is the revealing of our neighbor’s defects to others without a just cause.
As St. Paul in the second reading says: love does no evil to the neighbor. Paul means even when the neighbor has first done evil to us. All that we do is to be done for the sake of charity; when the church is forced by the sinner’s recalcitrance to “treat him as you would a gentile or tax collector,” this is done for a charitable purpose. The hope is that once made aware of his injustice he will repent and be healed.
*Fr. Grimm's article is found on page 20