The First Reading begins, “Certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15:1). Jewish people had been taught for over a thousand years that circumcision was necessary, and now that some of them became Christian, there was a heated debate over whether they still needed it.
To understand just how big of a deal this was for Jewish people who had chosen to follow Jesus, we have to ask ourselves if there used to be an idea or practice that we thought was necessary to life and Jesus changed our mind.
For many Catholics today who follow Jesus, this happens with regard to sexuality: All our life, we were taught one thing about divorce, contraception, in-vitro fertilization, etc., but now Jesus teaches something different. The reason I bring up the topic of sexuality is because next week we’re going to begin a series on theology of the body. But, today, we’re concluding our last homily on relationships, and today we’re talking about our relationship to the Catholic Church. The point is: A relationship with Jesus means a relationship with His Church.
The First Reading continues, “After Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the Apostles and the elders” (15:2). This matter was so important that elsewhere St. Paul writes that if Christians get circumcised for religious reasons, then Christ won’t be able to help them spiritually (Gal 5:2). So, if we were having a debate with other Christians about the morality of divorce, contraception, in-vitro fertilization, this could get very heated because these things touch our lives. How then do we resolve the debate?
The text says that St. Paul and St. Barnabas visited the Christian leaders in Jerusalem, where there was an address by St. Peter, two more speeches, and then a common decision. And these leaders sent two representatives back to the people with a letter outlining their decision: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood and from what is strangled, and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” (Acts 15:28-29).
Do you see that point, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’? They’re speaking for the Holy Spirit, for God. None of us would ever dare to say this, because we can’t make that kind of moral determination. But the apostles, under very strict conditions, can speak for God in terms of recognizing what’s moral and what’s not.
In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said to St. Peter, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church… Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:18-19). This is Jesus making Peter His prime minister, with His authority.
This is why Catholics believe that the Pope and bishops, when they teach authoritatively and officially about moral and spiritual principles (and not, for example, just give an interview in which they share their opinion), teach in the name of Jesus.
Think about it this way: When the early Christians had new questions to figure out, they didn’t consult the New Testament, because it didn’t even exist. And, once it did, it didn’t even answer every question. It can’t answer questions about cloning, because it didn’t know about cloning. And, if we go the route of Protestants, where there’s no ultimate authority and everyone interprets the Bible their own way, then we’re all divided. Furthermore, if each of us had to do our own homework, about the morality of cloning, stem cell research, just war theory, etc., none of us could know Jesus’ teaching fully, because it would be too difficult, and there would be no certainty.
That’s why Jesus says today, “The advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (Jn 14:26). What does that mean, ‘Will teach you everything’? Obviously, He won’t teach us calculus when we need it for a test. But when there’s a question regarding how Christians are to love, then the Holy Spirit teaches through the Pope and bishops.
When I was 24, sitting at lunch with other seminarians, they mentioned to me that it could be a mortal sin to have impure thoughts. I was shocked. You’re telling me that I could go to hell for intentionally having impure thoughts? They said, “Yeah, didn’t you know that?” No. I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t know that it was that wrong.
So I went to Msgr. O’Brien and asked him if this was true, and he said, “Yeah, didn’t you know that?” Why? “Well, when we look at Jesus’ words, ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Mt 5:27-28), then we realize the severity of what He’s talking about. Jesus is saying that sexuality is so sacred to the human person and such a gift that to lust after someone intentionally in your heart is to cut yourself off from God.” That made sense, and, after that, I started guarding my thoughts very carefully. But Jesus gave me the answer first, before explaining it. The Church pointed me in the right direction so that I would be safe, because, if I had to figure out the road by myself, I would be lost.
Has anyone heard of the A&E series Secrets of Playboy, a 12-part documentary about Hugh Hefner, who founded Playboy magazine and promoted pornography in our culture? “He justified his actions as ways to defeat the religious ‘repression’ of his Methodist parents and of American culture in general, aiming to replace it with complete freedom. But each episode of the documentary shows just how twisted Hefner’s kingdom of self-gratification became, as insiders discuss the many lives devastated by drug overdoses, suicides, sexual exploitation, and excess”. We’re talking about a man who had decades of abusing women, trapping them in his mansion, inviting prostitutes, and devastating the world with pornography. So many women whom he sexually abused describe him as evil and the devil. Yet he was celebrated and enabled by Hollywood and the media. If the media really cared about society, women, and children, they would have exposed him decades ago.
Here’s my point: The Church has been fighting against pornography ever since it started, and while there have been some Christian cultures who went so extreme as to become prudish and repressive, the Church was still right in fighting against pornography. But society has to learn the hard way. Now that Hefner is dead, the media produces this series as if they learned something.
It’s true that the Church has sinful bishops, but this doesn’t change the fact that, when they teach authoritatively on faith and morals, the Holy Spirit guides them from getting it wrong. Actually, the fact that some bishops are sinful proves the Holy Spirit is behind their official teaching. Because, what’s truly a miracle is that all these sinful bishops have never changed Jesus’ teaching even when they were breaking it.
And we need to remember that, just as the Church passes on the teachings of Christ, she also passes on His mercy. No one here is a bad person for having looked at pornography. Many of us never knew it was wrong, or how wrong it was; many started when we were too young to defend ourselves. Many of us don’t like it, even when we do it. And, if you feel sorrow in your heart, that’s a sign of God’s love for you and your love for God. God’s mercy is greater than lust. And purity of heart is not about the past, but about the present and future. So many people have become free through Jesus’ grace. Next week, I’ll give you a list of many saints who lived bad sexual lives and still became saints!
What I’d like to suggest to you today is that we renew our commitment to the Church. Specifically, I’m suggesting that you make a promise to Jesus that you never leave the Catholic Church. The media every year will expose the faults of the hierarchy, and if it’s fair, good. But most of the time they’ll exaggerate them. So, when they ask, “Why are you still Catholic?” I answer, “In spite of her flaws, she’s still Jesus’ body and still bears the good news, and still points me in the right direction.”
One of our sisters here once got so hurt when she heard about Jesus’ teaching on divorce that she wondered if she was excommunicated, and she was so overwhelmed that she wrote me saying she may leave the Church. I tried to explain Jesus’ teaching, but no reply. The beautiful news was that, in a few weeks, she was back. Her love for Jesus meant that she obeyed Him, even when it was hard. And so she stayed close to the Church, and we were able to help her. She knew that a relationship with Jesus means a relationship with His Church.