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“Tough Teachings” — the Catholic faith is full of them. Practically everybody is struggling with something, but it isn’t necessarily the same thing. And too, they aren’t always the hot-button contemporary or politically charged issues you might expect.
In order to give the people of our parish an opportunity to explore and engage what the Church teaches, we put together a series of three Sunday evening presentations under the title: “Tough Teachings: What Do I think When the Church Speaks?” We figured that while explosive issues like abortion and homosexuality are often cited as reasons people have for staying away from the Church, they can just as easily be issues that draw those very same people back to the flock. Why? Because despite the certainty with which we like to express our thoughts and feelings, most of us are looking for more than a validation of personal opinions. Beneath the surface, we all crave deeper meaning in our lives, a tangible reason to get up in the morning and live.
At the first Tough Teachings evening, I handed out a survey listing various Church teachings that are either commonly misunderstood or often found difficult by Catholics in general. (Of course, there is a striking overlap between those two categories!) My rationale was to allow people a place to express which teachings were tough for them, and then prepare resources which may help them more fully engage what the Church actually teaches and more importantly, why. After giving a blank space in which to write whatever teachings a person found troublesome, I asked the respondents to check any topics they would like to learn more about. I divided the list into matters of faith (what we believe), and matters of morals (how we live.)
I fully expected that what I’d find marked on the completed surveys would amount to a list of the usual suspects: contraception and abortion, women’s ordination, and homosexuality. That is why I was amazed to see that doctrine regarding heaven, hell and purgatory made it into the top four of 19 topics! Divorce and remarriage was predictably a prominent concern, but so was the issue of war and the role of conscience in the Christian life. Astonishingly (at least to me), the questions people had were almost evenly divided between the categories of faith and morals. I can’t wait to see what unfolds in our November and December sessions!
What makes a teaching tough? Well, I’d like to think that it’s more often than not due to simple ignorance; that people don’t know what the Church really teaches, or only have part of the story. That is often the case, especially when our people get their Catholic doctrine from the secular press. The bottom line is that the truths of Catholic faith just aren’t “sound-biteable.” They don’t fit into a one or two line summary, generally because most of our teachings are far deeper and farther reaching than that.
But if we return to the original tough teaching in the Gospels—the real presence of Christ as Eucharist recorded in John 6—we see that the more clearly Jesus spoke, the more challenging His words became. The response Jesus received was not positive by any stretch. “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” they said. And they walked away. Yet Jesus did not change His message. He did not give them less than the Truth He came to reveal, the Truth He claimed to be.
When we find ourselves disagreeing with something the Church teaches the first thing we need to do is to reaffirm our commitment to following Christ. When we are challenged, it is Jesus calling us into deeper waters of faith. We may not fully understand or assent to all we are given, at least not from the start. But those who walk away rarely find contentment in what they take with them. That is because the Church is the place to engage the struggle, to take up the challenge, and to grow in wisdom, fidelity, and union.