Primary Purpose of the Church

(Homily for Third Sunday of Lent, Year C)

When I run into people who were brought up Catholic, but subsequently left the Church, I brace myself. More often than not they feel a need to explain or justify their present position. That of course is not surprising. However, what seems strange is that although they express little regard for the Church, they still have suggestions for how she should conduct her business – stand up for some cause, soften certain teachings, link up with some program, group or individual, etc. “Maybe young people would be attracted to the Church, if only she did such and so…”

I try to listen politely. For every complaint an institution receives, fifty people simply walk. It is good to hear criticisms and to take them seriously.* At the same time, if it seems opportune, I will ask them a question: In the years you went to Catholic schools or religious education, did anyone tell you what is the primary purpose of the Church?

If someone did tell them, inevitably they cannot remember. Before a person can ask the Church to do something or to make some change, they need to know what her primary purpose is. I once belonged to a gym, but for various reasons let my membership expire. As a former member, how much sense would it make to criticize them for, say, not offering seminars on family therapy? They might respond, “Well, that is a nice idea, but our primary purpose is to help people become physically fit.”

Today’s Gospel, perhaps more than any other, illustrates the primary purpose of the Church. Jesus receives news of a bloody and sacrilegious massacre in Jerusalem. Pilate had murdered a group of Galileans, mixing their blood with the Temple sacrifices. Jesus might have responded in a variety of ways: He could have organized his disciples to provide grief counseling – maybe even a relief fund – for the widows and orphans. He could have led a peaceful protest. He could have supported those working to overthrow an unjust political regime. However, the Gospel does not record him taking any of these actions. Rather, he turns to his listeners and says:

If you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!

In this response we see the primary concern of Jesus – and therefore of his Church. Yes, we must show compassion to those who are grieving, care for the poor, do what we can to better our society. However the primary purpose of the Church is something much deeper, namely, the salvation of souls. Everything we do must relate to that end and nothing can supercede it.

The great challenge here in the United States (and many other countries) is to keep focused on the real bottom line. The U.S. Church has so become hyper-organized and hyperactive that we can easily lose our vision. We see this dramatically in light of what is happening in California. As is the case in other states, there is great pressure for the Church to provide contraceptives as part of workers' health plans. On March 1, the California Supreme Court ruled that Sacramento’s Catholic Charities must offer prescription contraceptives in its employee health insurance. If this judgment is upheld, the Church will face this dilemma: What comes first – her teachings or her works of charity?

For many people the teaching on contraception does not seem worth defending. However, more is at stake than meets the eye. To begin with, many chemical forms of birth control involve the possibility of early abortion. Although they may not tell it to their patients, most medical doctors and pharmacists will admit that the Pill, Norplant, Depo Provera, “emergency contraception,” etc. sometimes work by preventing the implantation of a newly conceived human embryo.** For us - and for most Evangelical Christians - this is abortion.

The fact that chemical birth control, as well as the IUD, are potential abortifacients is a matter of grave concern. But even the act of preventing conception has problems. What it says to the other person is this: “Do something about your fertility. I want you to be available any time I desire you.” Birth control has been called “the silent killer.” Like high blood pressure, people usually don't realize anything is wrong - but it eventually takes it toll. It is hard to ignore the correlation between the introduction of the Pill in the late 50's and the subsequent increase of divorce rates in our society.

Some people think that contraception and Natural Family Planning (NFP) are the same thing. They are not. NFP is based on appreciating fertility, making observations to recognize when that singular gift is present and when it is not. Contraception, on the other hand, seeks to do away with fertility, to banish that gift. While overall divorce rates have sky rocketed, it is significant that mong those who use NFP, the divorce rate is very low. This true even for couples who practice it not for religious reasons, but for health considerations.*** Sure, it involves some work - and maybe even some derision - but it brings real benefits.

We need to face a hard fact. Our acceptance of birth control has paved the way for other things. In vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, frozen human embryos, cloning, gay marriage, all involve a similar breaking of the bond between procreation and the marital embrace.

A person who absorbs the contraceptive mentality has little ground to object when two men or two women demand equal rights for their radically infertile union. If there is nothing wrong with birth control, it is hard to say what is wrong with same sex marriage - or, indeed, any sexual activity outside of marriage. We risk becoming like King Lear. He gave away his kingdom, and then could only impotently rage about what the new rulers did with it.

The present push for “gay marriage” should be a wake-up call. The first step has to be an examination our own consciences. It's easy to condemn others, easier still to simply drift with the current. But it takes courage and an open heart to ask the following questions: How have I used - and abused - the gift of sexuality? And what can I do to help set things aright?

The Church, if she is faithful to Jesus, will not “move with the times.” On issues such as birth control and the sanctity of marriage, her message must be the same as his:

If you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!


*There is no criticism shortage in the Church. Groups like Call to Action and Voice of the Faithful mail out their solutions. A plethora of Catholic weblogs ("blogs") give free advice for bishops and priests. And the secular media is full of nominal or fallen-away Catholics like Andrew Sullivan and Maureen Dowd who consider the Church as irrelevant as the Norwegian monarchy, but still get curiously emotional about her persistence in certain teachings. While various critics undoubtably have important things to tell us, one cannot help remember Shakespeare, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."

**The Planned Parenthood website gave this information about oral contraceptives:

The "Pill" is the common name for oral contraception. There are two basic types– combination pills and progestin-only pills. Both are made of hormones like those made by a woman's ovaries. Combination pills contain both estrogen and progestin. Both kinds of pills require a medical evaluation and prescription.

Both pills can prevent pregnancy. But they work differently. Combination pills usually work by preventing a woman's ovaries from releasing eggs (ovulation). Progestin-only pills also can prevent ovulation. But they usually work by thickening the cervical mucus. This keeps sperm from joining with an egg. Combination pills also thicken cervical mucus. Both types of pill can also prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus.

What they call a "fertilized egg" is what you and I once were - a tiny human being complete with the genetic information it has taken the Human Genome Project over a decade to map. Different from its mom or dad, it already has a dynamic life of its own.

Germaine Greer stated it this way, “These days, contraception is abortion, because the third-generation Pills cannot be shown to prevent sperm fertilizing an ovum.”

***NFP could - at least in theory - be used selfishly. However it has built-in mechanisms (the discipline of periodic abstinence, respect for woman as woman and for the integrity of the human body, the constant attention to life giving aspect of sexuality, etc.) which help prevent such abuse.

Spanish Version

From Archives (Year C homilies for Third Sunday of Lent):

First Things: Confession (2016)
The Stakes Are High (2013)
Purpose of the Church (2010)
What is His Name? (2007)
Primary Purpose of the Church (2004)
If You Do Not Repent (2001)
You Stink! (1998)

Homilies for Year A Readings for RCIA Scrutinies:

Prayer and Spiritual Combat Week 3 (2014)
Thirst (2011)
Why So Dissatisfied? (2008)
The Scent of Water (2005)
What She Desired (2002)
The One You Want (1999)

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From Christianity Today:

Engage in social ministry without discrimination and you may be giving up your religious rights. That's the basic message of yesterday's California Supreme Court ruling, which said that Catholic Charities is not a religious employer and therefore isn't exempt from a state law requiring businesses to pay for employees' contraception.

Statement by Ned Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference: Today’s action by the Supreme Court is a bitter disappointment to everyone who believes that freedom of speech and freedom of religion are the cornerstones of our society

A Pro-Life Atheist

Pat Robertson Lectures Catholic Church

A Guide to the Passion Continues to Rocket into the Publishing Stratosphere

George Will on how declining birth rate affects entitlements:

On Jan. 31, 1940, a check, numbered 00-000-001, for $22.54 was issued to Ida May Fuller of Ludlow, Vt., making her the first recipient of recurring monthly Social Security payments. Then, in an act of dubious citizenship, she lived to 100, dying in January 1975, having received $22,000 in benefits. That did not matter because in 1940 there were 42 workers for every retiree. Today there are 3.2 to one. In 2030 there will be 2.2 to 1. Nowadays, parents have fewer children than they used to, the children are geographically more dispersed and their sense of obligation is attenuated by distance and divorce.

Since 1963 medical costs have grown faster than the economy. And given the dynamism of medical science that is multiplying expensive diagnostic and therapeutic technologies -- pharmacological and others -- medical costs are likely to grow even faster relative to the economy

From an article on same-sex marriage by Sally Jacobs of the Boston Globe:

Virtually all the nearly 50 studies on the children of gay and lesbian parents--who number between 6 [million] and 14 million in the United States, according to various studies--have found no significant differences between children raised by heterosexual or homosexual parents.

According to a sidebar to the same article (on the left side of the screen; scroll down to "misc. material"), "The 2000 Census estimated there were about 19,000 gay couples in Mass., and about 659,000 nationwide, or less than 1 percent of households."

If 659,000 gay couples have between six million and 14 million children, that means the average gay couple has between nine and 21 children... The 2000 census also reports that the total number of Americans under 18 was 72.3 million, so if Jacobs is right, between 8% and 19% of all American children have gay parents.

Note: Opinion Journal Best of the Web Today questions the arithmetic while others say if it is in the Boston Globe, it must be true.

MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru