What the non-culture warrior prelates have to say: Cardinal Wuerl and Bishop Flores at Notre Dame

by Michael Sean Winters

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Monday, I called attention to a speech given by Archbishop Charles Chaput at a Notre Dame conference last week. The conference was entitled "Reclaiming the Church for the Catholic Imagination," which is either a perfect title or a loaded one, depending on where you place the emphasis. As the symposium was organized by Professor John Cavadini, I vote for perfect. In any event, unbeknownst to me until after I posted on Monday, that same event witnessed two talks from two other prelates, Washington's Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Bishop Danny Flores of Brownsville, Texas. Neither of these two talks evidenced the culture warrior tendency of the talk given by Archbishop Chaput.

Cardinal Wuerl began by speaking about the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization, a subject he knows well because he was the General Relator of that synod. In his Notre Dame talk last week, Wuerl recalled:

This embrace of Christ was not the acceptance of an abstraction or a moral code but rather a living reality. As Pope Benedict XVI underlined, 'Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction' (Deus caritas est, 1).

Too often our Catholic faith has been perceived as an abstract moral system primarily expressed in 'negatives.' Before we can call people to a whole set of moral obligations and ethical standards regarding contraceptives, sterilization, sexual activity outside of marriage, the care of the poor, the immigrant and the disenfranchised, we have to help people encounter and experience the embrace of Jesus, his love, his mercy, his way. Only then can we evoke from them a level of allegiance that would encourage them to accept our teaching and follow it. What is missing is allegiance.

You can spot the difference from the culture warrior approach. The cardinal does not start by castigating politicians. He does not mention politicians at all. He starts with the kerygma, the proclamation that Jesus is Lord, from which flows all we Catholics believe and hold. Wuerl does not reduce the faith to moralism, then to legalisms, finally to politics, as the culture warriors do. And let me emphasize this for those who complain about Pope Francis watering down Catholic identity, the 2012 synod happened under Benedict XVI and +​Wuerl quotes the pope emeritus in this section, not the current pontiff.

Cardinal Wuerl goes on to discuss Pope Francis and to place Amoris Laetitia in this context of evangelizing a hurting and broken world. But then he quotes from the great Paul VI, whose writings seem to be making a comeback among theologians and the commentariat in the pontificate of Francis. Cardinal Wuerl states:

As Pope Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi reminded us, 'Modern man listens more to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses' (41).

This is not to say that we are not called to announce moral values and sexual ethics. But they cannot be the starting point or primary concern of a Church that is today struggling to help people even minimally experience the person of the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ.

I would submit that anyone who has spent time accompanying young people today would recognize how true this is. Jesus can be presented as a great ethical teacher, but if he is only that, we can pick and choose among his teachings as we can among those of other gifted teachers. It is because God raised him from the dead that his teachings are revealed as profoundly and definitively true.

Cardinal Wuerl does a magnificent job of explicating Amoris Laetitia and how that document exemplified the pastoral ministry proper to the church in our time. He does not shy away from the hard realities, stating "it is fair to note that in many parts of the world from whence came our ancestors, maybe even as late as a generation ago, there was some sense of permeation of the culture with Catholic faith or at least Catholic faith symbols and points of identification. That is no longer the widespread situation and it is certainly not the case for people growing up in the pluralistic and heavily secular society of our country, and increasingly throughout the world." But unlike the culture warrior model, the cardinal does not shrink into a self-absorbed ecclesial reality. "We are historically in a new and engaging place." Engaging, with its own challenges and possibilities, out there to be discovered by pastors willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Bishop Flores' talk is very different. He states at the beginning that his talk is less a formally structured lecture than a series of meditations. Each and every meditation shows the wide range of the bishop's reading and cultural engagement, but also his pastoral sensibilities. He speaks about his confirmation sermons and how he employs the image of "The Hunger Games" or "The Game of Thrones" to evoke the spirit of the world, this latter phrase something too vague for most teenagers. His reflection on beauty is itself very beautiful.

Like Cardinal Wuerl, Bishop Flores does not set Pope Francis at odds with his predecessors but links them in the on-going witness of the church. Consider this powerful passage:

The beauty of the truth implies offense, Cardinal Ratzinger said. This is not far from what Pope Francis means when he talks about the imperative of the Church's identification with the poor and relegated. The realism of the Cross, the element that causes offense, is the same vision that sees the embrace of the poor as not just part of the program of the Church, but the heart of her basic identity. It is her reality that is itself the beautiful image, beautiful in the manner of the altered countenance of Christ Crucified. This beauty gives offense. Christ Crucified and the poor are at the periphery of the soul's perception precisely because they are at the periphery of the world's stage.

Pope Francis says in Evangelii Gaudium 198:

'This option for the poor, as Pope Benedict XVI taught, "is implicit in the Christological faith in that God that has made himself poor for us, so as to make us rich by his poverty." That is why I want a poor Church for the poor.'

To embrace the world's rejected is to embrace the way of beauty and to reject the way of power. As such, the Church refuses to separate the Crucified from the world's poor. By the poor, I mean what I take Pope Francis to mean, namely all the 'not-beautiful,' 'not-useful,' 'not-acceptable' persons the world summarily ignores, manipulates, ostracizes, uses and then throws away. Most dramatically, these are the ones whom the world seeks in order to sell their unborn or immigrant body-parts. The world eats its own, in a grotesque and hellish effort to live beyond its limits. The condition of the Crucified is the condition of the poor, the ones sold and used.

I do not think the words "the world eats its own" would show up in one of the bishop's sermons at a parish, but at a conference of theologians and bishops, it works. More importantly, he places Christian charity where it belongs, at the heart of our Catholic identity, not as a kind of add-on once we have made our money in the marketplace and assuage our guilt by writing a check to the homeless shelter.

What these two texts show is that it is possible to engage the world critically without scolding, to discern without condemnation, and to talk about the state of the church without making the realm of politics the center of the discussion. These two texts show two successors of the apostles wrestling with the insights and the direction to which Pope Francis, the successor of Peter, is calling the church. Compare the two texts: They are very different from each other, yet both seek to engage, not to judge, to reach out, not to exclude. The key point is not that they follow Pope Francis in this regard, although they do, but that they follow the example of the Lord Jesus.

The fact that these texts were not the subject of any media attention, demonstrates an additional problem with the culture warrior approach: It sucks up all the oxygen in the room. If someone is prepared to say outrageous things, those who speak with the voice of sanity get drowned out. And more than sanity. Our world is thirsty for life-giving water, as Jesus recognized the need of the woman at the well. Some prelates seek to slake the thirst of our thirsty world, while the culture warriors claim to be able to corner the market on water and serve notice they will give it out sparingly. Our God is a God of abundance who gives freely and without cost, as Isaiah promises. Cardinal Wuerl and Bishop Flores articulate that promise in our day. God bless them for it.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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