Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Church's Dress Code


This article was last posted in February of 2012. It is a message I will continue to repeat because when the Church requires repentance, as she used to, as a condition of being received into the Church and as a condition of receiving the Sacraments, then the Gospel will become a viable alternative to secularism.

This age-old pastoral practice (but one that has been omitted in recent years) was the principal force in unifying the Church. After all, Christ warned his disciples not to give holy things to dogs and pearls to swine "lest they tear you to pieces." Giving the Sacraments to obstinate, unrepentant or apathetic sinners and allowing them into the communion with the Church has led to division among Catholics.

In fact, to be a “Catholic” can mean any number of things today. And even the values and priorities among regular church-goers can vary a great deal. This has been demonstrated by the mere fact that the hierarchy of the Church in the United States is suing the Obama administration over the H.H.S. mandate while, at the same time, a significant percentage of Catholics- clergy and laity –voted to keep the president in office. Hence, the erosion of religious liberty is not just a political problem, it is a pastoral problem as well!

The Wedding Banquet:

The parable of the Wedding Banquet happens to hold the key as to the reason why the Catholic Church has suffered great declines in Mass attendance, decline in priestly and religious vocations, and an increase of secularization in the world. An excerpt of that parable is taken from the Gospel of Matthew 22:

The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to meet the guests he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. He said to him, "My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?"

The Church, in many parts of the world, but especially in the West, does not require repentance in order to join the Church or to receive the sacraments. Parents who show little resolve to live the life of Christ by, let's say, observing the Lord's Day every week are permitted to have their infants baptized; teenagers are not required to confirm their baptismal vows by demonstrating that they intend to live out the Gospel before they receive the sacrament of Confirmation; engaged couples are not required to repent and abstain from living together before entering into the sacred bonds of Matrimony and worse yet politicians who have a proven record of supporting abortion rights are not told to publicly renounce their sin against the dignity of life before approaching the altar. Of course, there are exceptions with each of these examples. But the point is that in the last fifty years repentance has become an option instead of an absolute necessity. And therein lies the problem to the Church's woes.

Repent and be Baptized:

In the Acts of the Apostles the people asked St. Peter: What must we do to be saved? He replied, "Repent and be baptized." That is, repent first and then be baptized! And St. Peter could have gone on to say: Repent first and then receive the Body and Blood of Christ! Repent first and then receive the sacrament of Confirmation! Repent first and then receive the sacrament of Matrimony! Our Lord said, “Do not give pearls to swine and holy things to dogs lest they tear you to pieces.” He cautioned the Apostles and future Shepherds of His flock not to give the sacraments, the mysteries of the Faith, and even the name “Catholic” to those who would not respect holy things or be worthy recipients of them. Jesus warned that to ignore this injunction would result in being “torn to pieces.” Perhaps the current day division within the Church, the conflicting messages coming from the Church hierarchy and the contradictions among Catholics on important moral issues is what our Lord meant when he said “lest they tear you to pieces.”

The White Garment:

Repentance, which leads to holiness, is that white garment the Lord was referring to in the parable of the banquet. Repentance is a sincere effort to renounce sin and turn towards the Lord and the new way of life he has for us. Pope St. Gregory the Great said that the tears of repentance must come before the waters of baptism. Traditionally, repentance was the condition and the prerequisite of being a member of the Mystical Body of Christ. If this repentance was wanting, then the candidate wishing to join the Church would simply be denied. By and large, this was the pastoral practice of the Catholic Church up until the 1960's.

Early Catechumenate:

For instance, in early Christianity (here I refer to the first millennium) a candidate wishing to enter the Catholic Church had to demonstrate to the Bishop over three years that he or she willing to observe "all that Christ commanded." And as late as the 1940's it was common practice in the Church's RCIA to ascertain that candidates believed all of the Church's teachings before being initiated into the Body of Christ, the Church. Unlike the servants in the parable who allowed the guest to sit down at the banquet without the proper attire, the Catholic Church was a jealous mother who made sure her children were properly dressed. I would argue that her dress code in centuries past bore a striking resemblance to the dress code the King enforces in heaven.

Church's Most Important Mission:

The most important mission given to the Church by Christ comes down to this: She is to prepare souls for eternity. That is, the Catholic Church's main duty is to prepare souls to meet God face to face. Throughout the centuries, she made sure that each soul given to her care was wearing the white garment. If the person refused to wear this garment by not repenting from mortal sin and false beliefs, with sorrow but with a firm resolve, she did not hesitate to exclude the unrepentant sinner from her communion. Pope St. Leo the Great told the bishops in the fifth century that "those who refuse to share in our discipline cannot share in our communion." And it is this discipline that strengthens the unity of the Church; the unity that is so necessary if the truth is to be accepted by the world.

False Compassion:

The Church considered it false compassion- a kind of cruel mercy -to allow the sinner to delude himself into believing that he was in God's good graces when in fact that he was not. How many nominal Catholics have gone to their deathbeds without feeling the compunction of heart or the contrition for their sins because those within the Church- both clergy and lay -were afraid to tell them what their sins were? Indeed, they were permitted to attend the banquet at the altar here below without having to wear the white garment. But at the altar in heaven what did the King say to them? Was their communion with the Church on earth consistent with their communion with the Church in heaven? Or did the King, immediately following their death, have to ask them to leave the banquet because they were not wearing the garment of repentance?

If repentance is an option then Jesus himself is an option. When repentance from sins such as promiscuity, cohabitation, contraception, and homosexuality (to name a few) is not insisted upon when proclaiming the Gospel, preparing souls for the sacraments or admitting candidates into the Church, then Jesus as Savior and Redeemer is out of a job. Frankly, there is no need for him if repentance from sin is up to the sinner. No sin, no Savior. And if there are no sins to repent from then why bother with Christianity at all?

Fruits of False Compassion:

Should we be surprised that people have responded accordingly by not coming to Mass? Should we be surprised that younger generations are having little to do with organized religion; even less so than older generations? The priesthood, the altar and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is utterly unintelligible without the need to repent from sin; that is, from "specific" sins, not just sin in general. Shepherds and teachers of the Faith need to "name that sin" or else Christians will simply make up their own short list of sins; and a short list it will be.

In recent years, the relaxed dress code of not having to wear the white garment has led to moral confusion in and outside the Church. The reason behind the small splash the Church seems to be making in Western Civilization is due to the churches being over-crowded with people who do not wear the shiny bright garment the King requires his followers to wear. As such, the Church does not shine as brightly; she is not as attractive; and her influence is not as transformative as it once was...and as it could be.

Catholic: Only One Meaning

We need to reinstate the Lord's dress code so that the name "Catholic" can only mean one thing: An active follower of Christ who believes in the fullness of who He is and in the fullness of what He has taught us!

"Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." (Matthew 28)