Who Speaks for Jesus?

The Vatican has scolded American nuns for deviating from Church doctrine. Conservative bishops decry President Obama’s health-care reform for violating their religious freedom. But some Catholics find this heated rhetoric at odds with the gentler message of Jesus, as Catholic theologian Paul Surlis said in this excerpted sermon.

By Paul Surlis

Mark’s Gospel was written about 30 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus perhaps around the year 70 and it was written in a community that was undergoing persecution. By the year 70, it was 30 years since Jesus proclaimed the coming of the reign or rule of God, but instead of change had come persecution and fear.

What did Jesus mean by announcing the coming of the rule or reign of God and making it the center of his message and ministry in the first place? Jesus was speaking of what the social order would be like if God ruled. His message was one with political implications even though it was primarily religious. He was speaking to people, most of whom were impoverished and oppressed in many ways.

Pope Benedict XVI

We recall that Palestine was a colony of the Roman Empire and taxes of various types were high. There were also temple taxes. Small landowners had lost their properties because of debt and they had become day laborers for wealthy landowners or vineyard owners who often cheated them of their wages and almost always underpaid them. Along with impoverished workers there were bands of robbers and beggars. Many people were sick and undernourished.

In such a situation to announce a new social order was welcome news, good news, to the poor and they flocked to Jesus who healed them and often fed them with bread and fish, the food of the poor.  Naturally, this activity was disturbing to the wealthy and powerful and they considered Jesus a rabble- rouser and a subversive who had to be got rid of.

Now, it’s 30 years later and the new social order promised by Jesus is not yet a reality, and the Jesus portrayed by Mark tells parables counseling patience and reminding the people that seed has to die in the soil before producing fruit.

The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel promotes trust in effect saying that God is in charge and the reign of God promised by Jesus is already a reality even if not yet fulfilled or evident. Like Paul the people are invited to walk by faith not by sight. There is an already and a not yet, what has already been accomplished in an undefeatable way but is not yet fully manifest, if it can be found at all in evidence.

The same remains true in our own place and time. Christian teaching on the dignity and equality of all persons helped to spark the anti-slavery movement and also helped to lead to the civil rights movement of the 1960’s which achieved and is still achieving far-reaching social change.

Like Mark’s hearers, we also live in that in-between time and we also experience conflict and could be tempted to question where is the reign of God to be found. It is meant to extend to the whole social order. The Church is the sacrament of the kingdom but is not identified with it.

But let us look at the church, at ourselves: We will soon be invited by the bishops to have a two-week period of public protest in defense of religious liberty. I suggest that we listen very respectfully but also carefully and critically to what the bishops have to say.

There are areas where Catholic institutions’ rights are threatened especially by some states. For example, Catholic charities have a right to minister to all immigrants in need, whether documented or not. They have a right to minister to the poor whether Catholic or not.

For my part, I do not see a war on religious liberty. At the least that is overheated rhetoric. A major extension of health care benefits to millions of the uninsured is being proposed and in areas that affect women there are very serious issues about which conflicts exist but these are all areas where dialogue, compromise and negotiations are called for.

Evoking the names of Stalin and Hitler in this situation is inflammatory and quite frankly outrageous and is not conducive to the civil discourse that is called for.

While some regard contraception as wrong, today most Catholics and other persons of good will see it as a matter to be decided by married persons according to their consciences and good medical advice, and this has been the case since 1965 when dissent from the papal position in Humanae Vitae became widespread and was tolerated by several national conferences of bishops in a stance that has never been repudiated.

Likewise there are persons for whom abortion is a feasible choice according to their consciences. Does one group, e.g., the Catholic bishops, have a right to impose their position on all other persons even in violation of their consciences? Surely, consciences are inviolable when convictions are sincerely held.

In a democracy there are always people who object to how tax money is used but that does not mean people can be exempted from being taxed. One example is nuclear weapons, many people are absolutely opposed to them but they still tolerate their existence; some wars are also in that category.

Conscientious objection is legitimate if called for and if one is prepared to accept legitimate alternatives. Persons who accept tax money (the money of the people) should expect that other persons’ convictions be provided for in the distribution of tax money. But we need to await the proposals from the bishops. All I’m saying now is let us be respectful, alert and critical.

And there is also the question of the sisters and the Vatican proposal to rein in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. I would argue that the most faithful adherents of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council are women religious and they are faithful to the teachings of Jesus in an exemplary way.

Here is an excerpt from an insert by Fr. Koesel and found in a parish bulletin in Cleveland and I quote:

“One of the results of the council was that the nuns became more educated, more integrated in the life of the people and more justice-oriented than the bishops and pope. They are doctors, lawyers, university professors, lobbyists, social workers, authors, theologians, etc. Their appeal was that they always went back to what Jesus said and did. Their value lay in the fact that their theology and their practice were integrated into the real world.

“The Vatican sounds like the Pharisees of the New Testament – legalistic, paternalistic and orthodox – while “the good sisters” were the ones who were feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, educating the immigrant, and so on. Nuns also learned that Catholics are intuitively smart about their faith. They prefer dialogue over diatribe, freedom of thought over mind control, biblical study over fundamentalism, development of doctrine over isolated mandates.”

I think that sums it up quite well.

Paul Surlis taught moral theology and Catholic Social teaching at St. John’s University, New York from 1975-2000. He is now retired and living in Crofton, Maryland.

8 comments for “Who Speaks for Jesus?

  1. Robert Charron
    June 20, 2012 at 16:59

    It seems like everyone or most everyone feels that if they had the powers attributed to God, they could have created a better world. And I guess my dog feels if he had my powers he could create a better world for dogs. So it is little wonder many feel they can improve on traditional catholic teaching. And the hierarchy of the Catholic church are sinful, erring people, just as we all are. They are far from perfect, so it is easy to find areas in which one can criticise the Church and those who run it.

    Warren Carroll wrote a 4 volume history of Christendom, i.e. the Catholic Church. In reading it there were several times that the conditions in the church were so awful, I said to myself, “The Church is done for.” But somehow it always seemed to ressurect itself.

    Now modern man worships the people, democracy, egalitarianism, fraternity, the rights of man, etc. and they have become his or her lodestone. They have religion boiled down to just being “nice.” The world would be a better place if we just would all be “nice.” Yet look at the mess this country is in right now, and the world too for that matter.

    I was amused to read that “one of the results of the council was that nuns became more educated, more integrated with the lives of the people and more justice oriented than the bishops and the pope.” Because not mentioned was that one of the fruits of the council was that the religious orders were decimated and thrown into disarray. Elderly nuns found themselves abandoned.

    Many “Catholic theologians” think the Church should accept contraception. That his would gain the church more support. Well before 1930 most all christian denominations said contraception was wrong. then the Episcopal Church broke the ice and said they agreed contraception could be used during the Lambeth conference in the early 1930’s. And now look at the Episcopal Church today. This is the path you would have the Catholic church follow?

    As Sigrid Undset said when she converted to catholicism back in Norway, to become a catholic is not just a matter of changing churches, it is a matter of changing one’s way of life. Many Catholic’s today do not understand this concept because they have embraced the world’s values. They really believe as the author evidently does that Vatican II is the birth of the church and that all the teaching s before that are to be discarded. As a result the catholic church has wobbled badly. The abusive priest scandals are a result of the Vatican II mindset that homosexuals should not be barred from the priesthood. I know many straight uyoung Catholic men who were driven out of the seminaries because they objected to the homosexual culture there. Nota Bene most of the abuses by these priests were to young boys, not children. Another one of the fruits of Vatican II. They believe the current Pope is a “conservative.” Wow. I guess some thing everyone should be allowed to do what they want to do, as long as we are nice. It aint working. Our society is in a race to the bottom. Forty percent of marriages now end in divorce. We now get our morals from TV, and I tell you this, they don’t speak for Jesus. but TV sets our moral standards as do the omnipresent boom, boom boom of Rock and Rap.
    Yes the church is composed of imperfect men and women, so if you want to find fault you can. But then Christ had Judas, and some of the other apostles were weak and how they were able to start the movement that they did is evidence of divine assistance. You and I would never have depended on 12 uneducated Jewish fisherman to found a church that was meant to save the world, would we?

    • Eliza
      June 21, 2012 at 10:51

      Well developed hierarchies that retain a “secrecy” component (operate their various and well defined levels on a “need to know” basis) seem to be able to survive through the ages. Isn’t that interesting? Just thinking….

      • Robert Charron
        June 21, 2012 at 16:32

        (1) May I ask for the names of the “well developed hierarchies that retain a ‘secrecy’ component” that have survived through the ages?” I am not aware of any in the last three thousand years anyway. (2) Are there any corporations, which operate under a hierarchical arrangement in great secrecy and do you find this sinister? (3) It is not only hierarchys that have a secrecy component, but individuals also claim a right to “privacy.” (4) Most all institutions are hierarchical, unless the members are all anarchists. (So what are you trying to say?)

  2. June 20, 2012 at 14:46

    Rehmat, your typos seem to me to be artificially inserted. Not a good sign if true.

  3. M. J. Nolan Kelly
    June 20, 2012 at 14:38

    I think that his reference to the Vatican as contemporary Pharisees is spot on.

  4. Morton Kurzweil
    June 20, 2012 at 13:36

    The Christian churches speaks for Jesus. It is necessary for maintaining their authority.
    The Muslim Churches speak for Muhammad. It is vital for maintaining their authority.
    Every church is an organized political bureaucracy requiring absolute behavior control if it is to
    survive the economic competition of other churches.
    What a prophet says is not as important as the interpretation and authority of the church
    to influence its followers.

  5. Hillary
    June 20, 2012 at 11:14

    What has changed ?

    “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

    Seneca over 2000 years ago?

  6. Karen Romero
    June 19, 2012 at 17:45

    Thank you for such a good article Mr. Paul Surlis!

    I will say this…Jesus was and still is the Divine Physician. Always has been, still is, and always will be. If Jesus says and he does say this…an abortion decision is between the woman and God. Furthermore, he doesn’t want woman that are going to have an abortion whether it be legal or illegal to do that herself with the potential of bleeding to death. Do you not recall how non judgmental Jesus was when he was here on our earth so very long ago?

    Anyone in the medical community would be wiser not to judge those seeking medical care, and that includes abortion. With the exception of righteously judging the money changers and throwing them out, he was not one to judge in a negative light. So the medical community and a bunch of politicians who have not removed the speck out of their own eyes should not be making decisions for woman and their bodies!

    Not to long ago back in the 1970’s in the State of ignorant Idaho, a husband actually had to sign the consent form if his wife wanted to have a hysterectomy. There was actually a case where a husband, although his wife was symptomatic…would not allow his wife to have a hysterectomy. Think about this…does that not sound ludicrous at this point in time?

    I think it may have been Mr. Leon Panetta that said the Catholic church needs to update themselves. Please don’t quote me on that. Those were not his exact words, but the gist of what he was saying.

    To Consortium…Ray writes many wonderful articles for Consortium and he is a Jesuit. He is so honest and so good. Unlike some other Jesuit’s. For instance Louis J. Freeh, the former fifth Director of the FBI. A very bad man and I will say allegedly bad, but he knows the horrific crimes he has done, so too bad for him! He is now under the karmic law and finding that to be most unbearable. But as for Ray, I would like to make a special request to read an article written by him about his faith and belief’s in todays traumatized society and how we can make a better world. The way back in my not so humble opinion is to make a concerted effort on a daily basis to be as honest as one can possibly be. To get back to good morals, good values, good ethics. You know…to do the things the Catholic religion shoves down people’s throats but don’t always follow their own moral teachings.

    I went to Catholic grade school and the things they taught, I so often thought why are they telling me this…I already know this stuff.
    So in conclusion I sure would like to see an article written by Ray on this very subject matter. I have great respect for him. It is easy to sense he stands firm in integrity. (I stole that line from a brochure I read today, and I just love that line)!

    Thanks Consortium for publishing another really good article.

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