A hundred years ago, when my daughter was in high school, I had a run-in with one of her English teachers. For some reason, this teacher had unilaterally declared that if a sentence did not contain a minimum of five words, it was not a good sentence. It ruffled my feathers, so I brought the issue up in a parent-teacher conference.
She repeated her premise, which she learned in graduate school: five was the magic number of words that sentence needs to adequately convey an author’s intent.
I could not help myself. So, bracing for the eye roll that was going to come from my wife, I proceeded to ask the teacher what she thought of the sentence, “Jesus wept.”
Just as we suffer through “First World problems,” like the internet being down, or the store running out of bottled water filtered through artisanal springs in the Alps, the Catholic Church in the young adult years of the 21st century is not immune to having a mini-meltdown over what should be a simple couple of sentences.
That is what happened when the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), responding to a question over whether the Church can bless same-sex unions, clarified things in a short sentence encapsulating thousands of years of biblical truth: “God does not and cannot bless sin.”
The discussion that such a simple reaffirmation of basic Church teaching has provoked is impressive. Among the reactions to the March 15 statement has been the suggestion that Pope Francis is not as compassionate as some had previously thought.
It’s hard for anyone who has heard, seen, or read Pope Francis to suggest this pontiff has a lack of compassion for those most marginalized in society. Like his predecessors, he has spoken often about the importance of separating the person from a particular sinful act when approaching complicated pastoral situations. Read in that context, the CDF statement is Pope Francis’ compassion writ large.
For it profits no one to be told their sin is not a sin. It profits no one to be made to feel comfortable in a lifestyle that does not benefit the health of their immortal soul. This premise is not exclusive to only those with same-sex attraction — it goes for all men and women who find themselves outside the plan mapped out for us in the Gospel.
The most vocal questioning of the CDF statement seems to be coming from bishops in Germany, led by Bishop Georg Batzing of Limburg. But whereas the entire document that was produced by the CDF could be distilled into a few words, Bishop Batzing has countered with an arsenal of verbiage.
“There have been discussions for some time about the way in which this teaching and doctrinal development in general can be advanced with viable arguments — on the basis of fundamental truths of faith and morals, progressive theological reflection, and also in openness to more recent results of the human sciences and the life situations of people today,” he said in response to the statement (that sentence definitely fulfills the five word requirement).
“There are no easy answers to questions of this kind,” he continued.
Imagine Jesus using this tactic when confronted with an angry mob with rocks in their hands and an adulteress to stone. Rather than ruminating on the cultural advancements since the Babylonian captivity or engaging the mob in an exegesis on the Sixth Commandment, he instead called the mob out on their own hypocritical sinfulness in very few words. And after they skulked away, Jesus did not discuss the nuance and ramifications of the adulteress’ lifestyle. He did not condemn her either, but told her to “go and sin no more.”
It was actually the ultimate act of compassion, one not so far removed from the simplicity of that statement from the CDF that Pope Francis put his stamp of approval on.
Just look at what the CDF said after stating the obvious, that God cannot bless sin: “God blesses sinful man, so that he may recognize that he is part of his plan of love and allow himself to be changed by him.” That is the ultimate form of compassion, and the same compassion Jesus offered every sinner.
So, with all due respect to bishops in Germany and their fellow doubters, I would suggest this: If there is a need to remind us all just what the ramifications of sin actually are, all we have to do is look at a crucifix. When we do that, no words are necessary.