Dan Burke is an award-winning author, writer, and speaker on Catholic spirituality. He has written and/or edited nine books on faithful Catholic spirituality and is the Executive Director and writer for EWTN’s National Catholic Register. Dan is the president of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, and the creator of Divine Intimacy Radio and SpiritualDirection.com.
One reason that Pope Francis rattles the cages of many faithful Catholics is that the emphasis of his message is prying at our disordered attachments. It is not that he is seeking to strip us of our commitments to critical social causes like the abolition of abortion or pornography, but that he wants us to move these important things to their proper place.
To illustrate this, we can imagine a target with concentric circles and a center bull’s-eye. The bull’s-eye would contain the single most important thing, and each ring out from the center would reflect things that are in degrees of descending importance.
So, what would be in the center? Before we answer this seemingly obvious question, it is worth noting that disordered attachments (which cause us confusion and a lack of peace, among other things) secure their hold on us when we put things in the center that don’t belong there. These can even be very good things, virtuous things — essential things like, for instance, the battle to save innocent children from the horror of abortion.
I believe that the Pope recognizes something that has yet to set in with those of us who have fought these challenging battles all of our adult lives. It is something I came to see after two decades of work with the evangelical “Moral Majority.” During this period, the Moral Majority was valiantly fighting the same battles that are before us today and, in general, using the same basic line of attack.
If you recall, it was the Moral Majority that helped to elect President Reagan and began what many saw as a conservative revolution in our country. It is an unfortunate reality that the movement quickly faded and failed to achieve many of its central goals, all the while alienating many who might have otherwise embraced Christianity. Serious mistakes were made — and we run the risk of continuing in that failed legacy.
It is no shocking revelation that we live in a climate that is increasingly hostile to our faith. We have a culture that no longer accepts the morals and virtues of years gone by. Yet many of us feel like it is giving up the fight if we acknowledge that we are in a new America — one that will not likely be restored to what it was for our parents. In this holding on to the past, we then forfeit our ability to personally deal with and engage the America that is, which, I believe, was one of the key mistakes of the Moral Majority. If we don’t get this, what little influence we have will fade as quickly as did their voice.
We cannot bring the communication and battle strategies from the past America into the present one. These messages and means of communication not only fail to advance the cultural causes we care about, but they actually are destructive to the souls of those who are not yet convinced that we have anything to say to them about the most important issues of time and eternity.
I believe this reality is at the heart of what Pope Francis is calling us to: He’s asking us to focus on the message in the center of the bull’s-eye.
The message has a thousand variations, but goes something like this:
“God created you for one purpose, an eternal relationship of love with him. He knows your pains, your struggles, your emptiness. He even knew when he created you that you would reject him, deny him the love he deserves, and violate what it means to honor him with the gifts he has given you. Even so, he sent his only Son to die on your behalf to enable a cleansing of your soul — the ability to reconcile with him through the provision of his very life in the sacraments. No matter what you have done or what you are, he loves you and desires to restore you to a relationship with himself.”
Living and delivering this message is the central purpose of the Catholic Church. It’s in the center of the bull’s-eye. And this is the message of Pope Francis. Until we heed this message ourselves and begin to work in our culture with this message as central, we will continue to be marginalized as a political enemy, and our culture will continue to slide at an alarming rate. We will repel more souls than can be counted.
When Jesus met Nicodemus in the middle of the night, he said to him, “You must be born anew to see the Kingdom of God.” In a culture that is predominantly — or at least practically — godless, a public proclamation and discourse focused on a morality that people cannot and will not understand, is the height of insanity.
Instead, if we first lead people to the truth by reclaiming the centrality of the Gospel message of mercy and forgiveness, we then have the opportunity to teach them the entirety of what it means to live in a covenant relationship of love with God. And living in that relationship does mean devoting ourselves faithfully to what lies in many of the other important rings just outside of that bull’s-eye.
When we get this right with enough of God’s people, then, and only then, will we see a shift in America. I know that it is not too late for any one of us individually, but I pray that it is not too late for our country.
Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.