My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Bishop Robert Barron, the Bishop of Winona-Rochester and the founder of Word on Fire, wrote an article recently (Jan. 27, 2023), entitled, “Inclusivity and Love,” in which he said, “The other night, I had the privilege of participating in one of the listening sessions for the continental phase of the Synodal process. The basis for our discussion was a lengthy document produced by the Vatican after it had compiled data and testimony from all over the Catholic world. As I have been studying and speaking about synodality, I very much enjoyed the exchange of views. But I found myself increasingly uneasy with two words that feature prominently in the document and that dominated much of our discussion — namely, ‘inclusivity’ and ‘welcoming.’ Again and again, we hear that the Church must become a more inclusive and welcoming place for a variety of groups: women, LGBT+ people, the divorced and civilly remarried, etc. But I have yet to come across a precise definition of either term. What exactly would a welcoming and inclusive Church look like?”
Like Bishop Barron, I also participated online in one of the listening sessions of the “North American Continental Virtual Assembly” held by videoconference, and I too was uneasy about the ambiguous use of the words “inclusivity” and “welcoming,” so I was pleased to see Bishop Barron address this issue in his article.
Bishop Barron answers the question of what a welcoming and inclusive Church would look like by pointing to “the attitude of radical welcome” that Jesus showed to everyone, including sinners, but he adds that “this inclusivity of the Lord was unambiguously and consistently accompanied by his summons to conversion. Indeed, the first word out of Jesus’ mouth in his inaugural address in the Gospel of Mark is not ‘Welcome!’ but rather ‘Repent!’ To the woman caught in adultery, he said, ‘Go and sin no more’; after meeting the Lord, Zacchaeus promised to change his sinful ways and compensate lavishly for his misdeeds; in the presence of Jesus, the good thief acknowledged his own guilt; and the risen Christ compelled the chief of the Apostles, who had three times denied him, three times to affirm his love.”
Thus, Bishop Barron says that he would characterize Our Lord’s approach “not simply as ‘inclusive’ or ‘welcoming,’ but rather as loving. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that to love is ‘to will the good of the other.’ Accordingly, one who truly loves another reaches out in kindness, to be sure, but at the same time he does not hesitate, when necessary, to correct, to warn, even to judge.”
I must add that I am also somewhat uneasy about all the emphasis being put on listening and the ambiguity about the supposed outcome of such listening. Yes, we must listen to what others have to say and we do quite a bit of listening in our diocese through our parish pastoral councils, parish finance councils, school boards, diocesan pastoral council, diocesan finance council, presbyteral council, and the college of consultors, as well as the diocesan synod that we held in 2017 with representatives from each of our diocese’s 129 parishes. But then the question becomes: What do we do with what we have heard? Some would suggest that we must then change doctrines and canon law if we hear that some people do not accept or are not happy with what the Catholic Church has been teaching for almost two thousand years. But that is not the purpose of our listening.
St. John Henry Cardinal Newman gave correct and helpful guidance regarding what to do with what we have heard in his essay, On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, which Newman wrote in 1859, just five years after Pope Pius IX promulgated the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. It was reported that the pope had widely consulted the faithful on this issue before promulgating the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. But Newman distinguishes different understandings of what it means “to consult.”
On the one hand, a person may consult a physician about a sickness, the purpose of which is to obtain the doctor’s advice and follow it. On the other hand, Newman points out that “consult” can also refer to ascertaining facts: “Thus we talk of ‘consulting our barometer’ about the weather: the barometer only attests the fact of the state of the atmosphere. In like manner, we may consult a watch or a sundial about the time of day. A physician consults the pulse of his patient; … It is but an index of the state of his health.” It is in this sense that Newman speaks of consulting the faithful: “Doubtless their advice, their opinion, their judgment on the question of definition is not asked; but the matter of fact, that is, their belief, is sought for, as a testimony to that apostolical tradition, on which alone any doctrine whatsoever can be defined.” Thus, when we consult people and find out that they do not like a church teaching, it is like taking their pulse or their temperature and finding that the patient is not healthy and needs healing.
The Great Commission that our Risen Lord gave to His Disciples was not, “Go and listen to all the nations,” but, “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 28:19-20).
May God give us this grace. Amen.