The Church’s Moral Standards Are Too High

“They say there’s a heaven for those who will wait
Some say it’s better, but I say it ain’t
I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints
The sinners are much more fun
You know that only the good die young.”

Read any line of Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” and you’ll find the song’s simple message ringing through: The Church’s rules are stuffy and useless, so give in to carnal desires and have fun. By his own admission, “The point of the song wasn’t so much anti-Catholic as pro-lust,” but it’s also hard to see the difference in this case. Joel painted Catholicism (or maybe the Church in general) as an institution disconnected from the world, out of touch with people’s reality, and burdensome to normal living.

But this sentiment is not limited culturally Jewish New Yorkers with a lot of experience living around Catholics. No, this is an argument that even some Christians have made: The Church’s moral standards are too high. Setting up rules and regulations completely disconnected from the lived reality of people today, the Church, some say, expect what is impossible when what it should do is “lower the bar” a bit and set more attainable goals. Why set the ideal as the bar when everyone is going to fall short?

As you can imagine, I am not one of these people. For me, the Church’s moral standards are exactly where they need to be because they point us to exactly where we need to be going: the kingdom of heaven.

In many seminary classes and Bible studies, there is a standard way of reading the Gospels: pick a passage, compare it with similar stories in the other Gospels, and come to a conclusion about what it means. Like the lectionary of the liturgy, passages are isolated so to focus on one particular part of the Gospel.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with that approach. Seeing how a story in Matthew is different from the Mark and Luke versions is interesting and offers insight into Gospels, sort of “triangulating” our understanding of Jesus in the world; when we throw all of the stories into one mixing pot we’re able to come up with what we believe to be the most accurate depiction we can. Where there are holes in one Gospel, the others fill them in.

And yet, there is something tragically lost in the process. You see, each Gospel is a narrative. It’s a complete work of art and theology with a beginning, middle, and end. It may have similar components as the other Gospels, but the way it weaves them together tells something more. Just like any good story, there are details meant to set up the main point, foreshadowing at the beginning that reveal hidden details at the end, development of characters, and overriding themes that help influence the meaning of individual stories.

In a way, the medium and overall work are not insignificant; they are the message itself.

For this reason, many scholars have been pushing what is called the narrative approach to reading the Gospel. Rather than comparing and contrasting the four next to each other, each one should be read in isolation from the others and in its entirety. If you’re reading Mark, focus on Mark. What is he trying to say as a complete work? Who is the Jesus he is presenting? Don’t worry how Matthew tells the story. In fact, forget that there is even a Matthean gospel. Mixing in outside details will only serve to distract from the distinctly Marcan story being told.

When we do this, what we find is that each Gospel is not just a “different perspective” on the same historical events, they actually provide a beautiful work of art with distinct theologies and distinct depictions of who Jesus is.

That is the background for this week’s Catholicism in Focus. But sometimes seeing it for yourself and having concrete examples is much easier to understand than this sort of abstract explanation. If you would like to see exactly how this plays out and what the main themes in each Gospel are, I have provided two documents for your study, which you can click below to access.

Synoptic Gospels

Johannine Literature

Down through history, the Bible has been as much of a weapon as any manmade contraption. Used not to inflict a deadly blow but rather to entrap, oppress, or belittle, one could argue that it is the most powerful forces of violence the world has ever seen.

In fact, many do argue that.

And yet, we as Christians hold it as the most sacred of books. We hold that this controversial book is not just important, it is the Word of God, so divinely inspired and life-giving that it offers us a pathway to salvation.

How do we reconcile the two? How do we, as faithful Christians, respond to those who see genocide, slavery, and incest within its pages and dismiss its importance? Forget responding to others—how do we reconcile this within our own consciences?

Naturally, these are questions that would take hours to answer, and even still we mind find ourselves struggling with the paradoxes we find. But I would like to offer a start. It may not be a solution and it may not offer concrete answers, but I would like to offer a means by which we begin to answer the difficult questions of faith.

In this week’s vlog, I look to the Bible as a complicated and confusing book, but one that can offer us powerful truths if we know how to read it. My hope is that it begins a conversation, evokes a deeply hidden question, and inspires us to take seriously our call to know and live the Word of God in our lives.

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Sometimes, life is hard.

Yeah. That’s the sort of amazing insights that keep people coming back to Breaking in the Habit.

Throughout our life, we face challenges, difficulties, frustrations, setbacks, and feelings of immense stress. At the midpoint of my first semester back in school, those words have a particular familiarity to me right now.

But what’s interesting about the situations that these words describe is that nothing ever starts out that way. No, normally, we begin a new project or stage in our life with excitement and joy. A fresh start. A new opportunity. We begin with idealism for what might come, for all that we can accomplish.

And maybe that’s what makes our frustrations that much more frustrating: we expected something very different than we got. Our idealism has been replaced with a disappointing reality.

That was the topic of my reflection this week, something that I found in the readings at Wednesday’s daily mass. For email subscribers, click here to watch the video.

For those subscribing by email, click here to see the video.

Often referred to as the “Word of God,” Sacred Scripture is foundation of our faith, offering insight to who we are before God and guidance for the future. The centerpiece of our liturgical worship and the backbone of all of our theology, it is difficult to escape its ever-present nature among us.

And you know what they say: familiarity breeds contempt.

As critical as it is for our faith and as surrounded with it as we are, sometimes we don’t take the time to step back and ask ourselves a simple question: where did the Bible actually come from? It may sound like a juvenile question—obviously it came from God—but I think it is among the most important questions we can ask ourselves, one that can determine a tremendous amount about how we actually read it.

Did the writings come to us all bound and edited, “signed, sealed, delivered” from God in its present form without any input from us?

Or maybe God literally spoke to a prophet who wrote down each text, word-for-word, making sure that everything was as God intended.

Or maybe… just maybe… God chose to work in and through the human experience, inspiring his people with the grace of heaven but entrusting the whole process to them. Maybe the people of God wrote about their experiences in their own words, prayerfully decided amongst themselves what was considered authoritative, and found the authority to interpret such texts within their own worshipping community because that was the only way that it could truly be authentic to our human experience.

As I’m sure you can guess, my thoughts are with the latter answer. The process of producing the Bible that we have today was a complicated and messy ordeal, one that took many centuries, and even today, remains somewhat unresolved. There were many authors, many revisions,  many opinions, many disputes, many uses, and many interpretations over the years. Some of what we read is the result of hundreds of years of prayer, shared writing, and ongoing redaction, not as simple as it may seem.

And while some might find this troubling to their faith, beginning to believe that the Bible is nothing more than a really old human creation, I find the long and complicated process of organizing the Bible to be its greatest quality: God did not just give us a list of rules to follow from on high, he inspired us to be a part of every aspect of the process of creation, allowing us to express in our own words, decide for ourselves, and teach from authority about the things that God had revealed through us. The Bible does not find its authority in the fact that “God said so,” but in the worshipping community that experienced God first and so knows what to write down and how to understand it.

This video is a part of the Catholicism in Focus series, a series devoted to taking a deeper look at our faith to uncover the richness beneath. Each Monday I will post a new video on a topic of faith.