Sometimes, as an English major, there are certain books I feel guilty for not having read. Moby Dick. Anything by Joyce, even a couple pages’ worth. As a Catholic English major, adding Flannery O’Connor to the list seemed almost a stoning offense.
Oh, I tried. I tried to read her and like her, and, failing that, I tried to read her and understand her. I couldn’t. If there was a point beyond “bad things happen in dreadful ways”, I missed it.
“But, more dangerously for the Christian, we’re safe from a violent encounter with Christ. What I mean by that is that we’ve all heard the bloody, scandalous, disturbing elements of Christianity for so long they’ve lost the ability to shock or surprise. It’s easy to forget how radical the call of Christ truly is. ”
The quote made such an impression on me because it not only made me want to give O’Connor another try, but also because I had just read Pope Francis’ interview and was wading through the wreckage of people’s responses to it.
I know that places like NARAL and HuffPo and, shoot, the mainstream media as a whole completely missed the point, and instead decided to “helpfully” translate the three-day interview for their readers to “Shorter Pope: Let your freaky sex flag fly, he won’t judge!”, and I am in no position, from my small and messy corner of the Internet, to dissuade them of their misconception.
But for all the faithful who are wringing their hands and wailing and gnashing teeth about the Pope’s comments, I say this: go back and read that quote right up there. Christianity is not a safe, comfortable religion. It’s not a set of manners. It’s not a political path. It is a shockingly radical concept- that God Himself loves us so much- us! stupid bags of bones and snot and bad attitudes!- that He became one of us so that we may know Him, love Him, and serve Him in this world, so that we may be happy with Him in the next.
I’ve heard people complain that the Pope’s words have made things even more difficult for conservative politicians here in America. I’ve heard people complain that the interview signed the death warrant on marriage here in the Western world.
To everyone upset by the Pope’s interview because you think it undermines the Church’s teachings on abortion, homosexuality, and the permanence of marriage, you’ve been given a great chance to be re-scandalized by Christianity. You’ve been shocked and surprised by the Gospel once again, and that’s an amazing gift! This is your opportunity to remember that the Universal Church is bigger than America, or the West, or politics.
Look at the progression of our catechism- we must know God first, then choose to love Him, and from that love will flow a desire to serve Him. There are so many people in this broken and toxic culture that don’t even know God. There are so many people enslaved to sin that yearn to love God. If we, as disciples of Christ, can help with those first two things, then the last one- serving God, will follow organically. Engaging the culture about sex and abortion without first giving them some reason to know and love God is like yelling at someone for cutting their arm off and bleeding out when we should be doing everything we can to get them to a doctor.
This is not to say that the moral teachings of the Church aren’t important. They are. But they are important only because they help us get closer to God. They have no value apart from their relationship to Him.
In a world as damaged and fallen as ours is, it is tempting to impose order first, simply to stop the noise from all this sin, then introduce God into the quiet, but that’s not the way our hearts and souls were designed. We need to remember always that Christianity is about following Christ first, and everything else is a result of that relationship. There is a whole world longing to be seen and loved and healed by Christ, so we need to be sure we’re bringing them Jesus, and not simply a political cause. We need to remember the radical call of Christ, and resist the urge to swap it out for something temporal and fleeting, something safe and tame, something that will never heal us the way God can.
image: Station of the Cross in Czestochowa, Poland via Shutterstock