One of the main ideas of the Synod on Synodality is that we should listen more to each other and to the Holy Spirit. By listening to the Holy Spirit, these voices contend, we might discern how to move forward together as a “synodal Church.” It isn’t clear at this point what that means, but the gaze of the synod is forward, toward a particular goal, a specific vision of how the Church should be. As to what the Church is and how it resembles the spirit of the age, no one seems to be talking about. However, first we have to know where we are in order to answer the question, “Where do we want to go?” To answer this most basic question, we look back to “The Religion of the Day,” a sermon by St. John Henry Newman, which shows us the path of discernment.
To understand our current moment, it’s important to see the progression of the past. Newman says that “IN every age of Christianity, since it was first preached, there has been what may be called a religion of the world, which so far imitates the one true religion, as to deceive the unstable and unwary.” In the early days of the Church, the religion of the day was heresy about the nature of Christ, sowing confusion among the people of God. In the Middle Ages, the religion was harshness, fear, superstition and cruelty. The authority of God was emphasized, the love of God left aside. In Nemwan’s day, the situation was reversed. The positive was emphasized, the “brighter side of the Gospel,—its tidings of comfort, its precepts of love; all darker, deeper views of man’s condition and prospects being comparatively forgotten. This is the religion natural to a civilized age, and well has Satan dressed and completed it into an idol of the Truth.“ Newman goes on to describe what this softness of character looked like: “Our manners are courteous; we avoid giving pain or offence; our words become correct; our relative duties are carefully performed. Our sense of propriety shows itself even in our domestic arrangements, in the embellishments of our houses, in our amusements, and so also in our religions profession. Vice now becomes unseemly and hideous to the imagination, or, as it is sometimes familiarly said, ‘out of taste.’ Thus elegance is gradually made the test and standard of virtue, which is no longer thought to possess an intrinsic claim on our hearts, or to exist, further than it leads to the quiet and comfort of others.”
What about today? Here are a sample of contemporary slogans: “You only live once”; “Born this way”; “Love is love”; “My body, my choice.” Many believe “one should be free and enjoy full support for one’s desires and beliefs without judgment.” As a result, the religion of the world is one of discomfort, disillusionment, anger and even outright vitriol for the Church, which is seen as an obstacle to the individual’s desires and what is perceived as the common good. To this mistaken notion that Christ or the Church would prevent men from living with freedom and happiness, Pope Benedict XVI once wrote, “Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom [by surrendering our lives to Christ]? . . .No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide.”
But this false idea of Christ and His Church persists and even spreads. As in ages past, societal beliefs like this have even crept into the Church. There is a tendency on the part of Christians to step back from society, to jettison beliefs that are no longer “viable” in the marketplace of ideas, to abandon certain roles in public life because the tide has turned against men of goodwill. Because there is not yet direct persecution in Western countries, there are still many efforts on the part of Christians to explain away uncomfortable theological positions or to make concessions on long-held moral claims in order to make them more appealing. We see this most blatantly in the desire of some to offer blessings to same-sex unions.
If we truly listen to the spirit of God, we will hear him “bring to your remembrance all that [Jesus has] said.” When we hear our Lord’s words again, they will bring to light the ways we are failing to love, failing to speak the truth and live by it, failing to witness to the life of Christ, who is not of this world. The path forward for us personally and for the Church at large, requires returning to the core truths that Christ Himself has revealed to us.
The people of Nineveh were hidden from their sins until Jonah appeared. At his preaching, they were cut to the heart and repented. Newman reminds us, “Till you know the weight of your sins, and that not in mere imagination, but in practice, not so as merely to confess it in a formal phrase of lamentation, but daily and in your heart in secret, you cannot embrace the offer of mercy held out to you in the Gospel, through the death of Christ.” We must not hide from the Gospel – especially those hard words that convict our hearts. And we must not hold back from speaking the Word to those around us, for “how are they to hear without a preacher?”