In some ways, the topic of this week’s Catholicism in Focus is a trivial one. It is the sort of topic that the Pharisees might have argued about, seemingly esoteric, having no effect on the lives of the poor and no relevance to a true faith.

In other ways, this topic finds itself at the very center of the most important aspect of our lives. How we answer this question is not simply a matter of preference or idiosyncrasy, but is rooted in the very theology that we bring to our Eucharistic celebrations.

Oh, and based on the comments on the video so far, it’s also a controversial question that is dictated more by emotion and nostalgia than a carefully tested Eucharistic theology…

The question that I tackle this week is of the placement of the tabernacle.

As you watch this video, I simply ask that you try to understand what the Church is saying and why it is saying it. Rather than trying to justify your own opinion or challenge what is being said, really try to get to the heart of the issue. In the interest of tradition and familiarity, many have already rejected the prescriptions of the Church, writing them off as irrelevant, out of touch, or just another mistake of the Second Vatican Council. They have looked to things they don’t like in the Church as a way to prove that this “new” practice is the cause. Even some bishops are trying to find their way around the rubrics and return to what the Church used to do. Try to fight this urge. Try to get beneath the surface, outside of your comfort zone, and see what is really at stake.

Reverence for the Eucharist is surely not what it should be. Our worship can definitely be lackluster at times. For some, this is reason enough to abandon our present practices and return to the old ones, a “magic bullet” to fix our issues. My opinion? While there are some obvious pastoral issues at play here and some clear problems that need to be addressed, the placement of the tabernacle is less of an issue than catechesis is. Putting it at one place or another might hide the issues we have, but it won’t actually address them if people don’t know what’s going on. Let’s address what’s going on under the surface, let’s correct what could be lacking in our Eucharistic theology, and none of this will be an issue.

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It is often jokingly said that in the “divorce” of the Reformation, the Catholics got the liturgy and the Protestants got the Bible. A reflection of the fact that Catholics emphasized the sacramental nature of God’s revelation while Protestants whitewashed their churches and made the Bible the only thing that mattered, historically, there was definitely a difference in emphasis, and one can understand why the stereotype was born.

This annoys the heck out me.

Like all stereotypes, the kernel of truth that existed 500 years ago has been so overgeneralized that it is, at this point, more of an untruth than anything else, and serves to create a false dichotomy. Just because some Protestants made the Bible their only authority and rid themselves of all other forms of divine revelation doesn’t mean that Catholics have any less reverence for it or that Sacred Scripture is any less important to forming our doctrine. The Reformers may have given up a sacramental worldview, deferring that identity to the Catholics, but the Catholics never gave up their emphasis on Scripture (and, maybe more accurately, weren’t subject to overemphasizing its importance as the Reformers did.)

What I am getting at with this? Often, out of this misunderstood part of history, Catholics face a criticism from fundamentalist Christians that many do not know how to answer. Thinking that Catholics do not care about the Bible and seeing that some of our beliefs are not explicitly stated in Scripture, some will say to us, “Your doctrines are made up” or “read the Bible and you’ll see how wrong Catholicism is.” I would say that I get a comment on a YouTube video to this effect on a weekly basis.

This week on Catholicism in Focus, I hope to address this issue by explaining the Catholic perspective on Scripture. We have the utmost respect for its words and maintain that it is the inerrant Word of God to guide our lives (not to mention that we proclaim as much or more of it at our liturgies than Protestants do). For Catholics, it is an essential form of divine revelation, but certainly not the only form. Looking at how the Bible was compiled, how God interacts with the world, and what Jesus did to form the Church on earth, we recognize that there is more to God’s authority than what is written in Scripture.

Eight hundred years ago, a little man from Assisi, a man without tremendous wealth, power, stature, or societal influence, set a movement in motion that would leave the Church and world forever changed. That man was St. Francis of Assisi.

Within just a short decade, there were already more than 5,000 friars in countries all across Europe, the Poor Clares had spread to multiple monasteries and established itself as a new way of monastic living, and the penitent movements had received their rule and amassed a larger number even than the rest.

It’s difficult to underestimate the effect that the Franciscan movement had on history. With its great size and diversity came the ability to spread its culture and values, including a number of innovations, in a way that had never been seen before. Constantly on the move, they could respond to the signs of the times, enflaming a people with passion before moving on to the next place. The way they served the poorest of the poor, living humbly themselves, preaching in new and popular ways, and not asking for much in return challenged the secular priests of their day to serve in a different way. The nativity scene and stations of the cross, while not invented by the Franciscans, are popular devotions today because of their insistence on an incarnational way of prayer. And the breviary, the shortened and compacted way of praying the psalms found in every religious house in the world today, was first employed by these traveling preachers.

At every level of the Church, in every country in the world, the Franciscans have not only been present, but have left their mark in irreconcilable ways.

But why? Why didn’t the Dominicans, who were formed around the same time, not grow as quickly? Why did it take the Jesuits, who were founded to do similar forms of ministry, so long to get its first pope (who took the name Francis!) Why haven’t the Benedictines, who have existed for much longer, had such a lasting effect on the imagination of the Church? And why haven’t the countless other religious orders that were founded throughout the history of the Church been able to match what the Franciscans have done in 800 years?

I ask these questions not to put down other Orders or even to shamelessly promote the Franciscans (okay, a little bit of the latter), but simply to marvel at what seems inconceivable: a religious movement started by a simple man like Francis should have never worked at all, let alone have changed the Church and world as it did.

Why is that? And maybe more importantly, what might we learn from the success of this movement 800 years ago in what our Church and world are facing today? That is what I was employed to talk about last weekend at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Arizona. While I can’t repeat all 5 hours of talks, I wanted to share the central points here in this week’s vlog.

I hope it inspires you to join in the movement, in however you can in your situation, and happy Feast of St. Francis to you all!

For centuries, the Catholic Church has held to a rather strict doctrine: extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. For non-Latin speakers, “Outside of the Church, there is no salvation.” For Catholics of a certain age, it was a statement that was uttered often and defined the way Catholics related to non-Catholics, treating people of other faiths with respect, but sorrowfully looking upon their souls as lost.

And then all of the sudden, the phrase disappeared from our common language. Now, you would almost never hear such a statement spoken in a mainstream Catholic Church. It just seems so… politically incorrect, right? In a world where everyone is free to choose what to believe and can’t be judged by it, we would never say something so arrogant.

Right?

Well… it might surprise people that the Church has not abandoned this long-held stance. In fact, it has reaffirmed it even after the Second Vatican Council and up through Pope John Paul II’s papacy. If you read the Catechism, you will find this stance, quite literally “on the books.”

And yet, as some in the Church—responding to what they perceive to be a softening of the Church due precisely because of a desire to be politically correct—are bringing back this language in their everyday speech, it is important to know the history of such a phrase and how it doesn’t mean the same thing today as when it was first uttered. As Catholics, we may still hold to the teaching, but the teaching is much more nuanced than what is understood at face value.

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.