In Catholicism the Liturgy of the Eucharist has been more central to the Mass than the Liturgy of the Word. As a result, seminaries traditionally gave less attention to the Homiletics course and Catholic sermons were often lacking in quality. Thankfully, that deficiency has been largely corrected.
But alas, a new deficiency has arisen—the avoidance of vital controversial issues in sermons. One reason is no doubt the perceived danger of alienating parishioners. Another is the (largely unfounded) fear that speaking about such matters from the pulpit will violate church/state separation and threaten tax exemption. In either case, the silence has deprived parishioners of the Catholic perspective on important issues and left them at the mercy of media commentary.
Here are six sermon themes that would not only benefit Catholics spiritually but also help the Church regain its position as a meaningful contributor to public discourse. For each, I have included key points and references to Catholic teaching.
Theme 1: Respecting Police and the Citizens They Serve
Inappropriate police behavior makes headlines. And that is understandable. Police must be held to a high standard of behavior because they are tasked with protecting citizens’ rights that are given by God and affirmed in the Constitution. Any violation of citizens’ rights undermines law and order. But citizens also have a responsibility—to support the police and help them carry out their duties effectively for the public good. Such support includes understanding the dangerous nature of police work and the need, in many cases, for officers to take prompt, decisive action to protect themselves and others. Such support also includes judging police conduct fairly, with careful consideration of circumstances that can make forceful actions unavoidable.
Theme 2: Building Racial and Ethnic Harmony
The two greatest commandments, Jesus teaches us, are to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves. And He makes clear that neighbors are not limited to members of our family or racial-ethnic-cultural group: All who are created in God’s image are our neighbors. We are to live in harmony and good will with everyone. Unfortunately, recent history reveals frequent failure to achieve that goal. So what can we do to overcome that failure? First, avoid oversimplification and scapegoating—that is, pretending that one elected official, political party, race, or ethnic group is responsible for all disharmony when, in reality, all groups are responsible to some degree. Next, we should do all we can to increase mutual respect among all racial/ethnic groups and to overcome injustice toward any group. Finally, we should remember that violence, theft, and the destruction of property are never legitimate forms of protest, but are instead sinful behavior!
Theme 3: Civil Rights of Minorities
Much is said and written about guaranteeing the civil rights of minorities. Yet government policies created to do this have in some cases done just the opposite. The most notable example is the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which hurt black families by taking fathers out of the home, thereby increasing poverty, weakening the education of black children, and making inner-city neighborhoods unsafe. Catholics, who believe that everyone is created in the image and likeness of God, should support legislation that strengthens the black family and improves educational and employment opportunities in the black community. Such support differs from paternalistic entitlements in that it respects the dignity of African-American citizens.
Theme 4: Protecting Unborn Children
Although abortion is legal in this country, the Catholic Church continues to regard it as a serious sin—the unjustified taking of innocent human life. Moreover, it is a sin that in the U.S., this can be traced to the Eugenic belief of Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Higgins, that African Americans and other minorities are inferior human beings and should be, at very least, discouraged from reproducing. It is hard to imagine a more blatant form of racism than this. Yet to this day the great majority of Planned Parenthood clinics are found in minority neighborhoods in the inner city. No one who supports abortion, particularly “on demand” or “late term” abortion can be considered either a faithful Catholic or a friend of minorities.
Theme 5: A More Catholic View of Immigration
For more than a half-century, many Catholic authors have regarded opening the border to everyone as the only meaningful way for the U.S. to meet its moral obligation to the poor. That view distorts Catholic teaching and common sense. To begin with, the moral obligation to help the poor applies primarily to individuals and only secondarily to governments. Moreover, the government’s obligation is contingent upon the fulfillment of its prior obligations to its citizens. For example, U.S. government has a prior moral obligation to its citizens to protect their lives, constitutional rights, and property. Any treatment of immigrants that conflicts with that obligation is not virtuous—rather, it is immoral. This does not mean that immigrants are not our neighbors; neither does it mean that our government should turn its back on them. It simply means that we should find other ways to help them—for example, using our influence to end corruption in their country, develop its economy, and make its leaders more respectful of its citizens.
Theme 6: Deciding Which Candidates to Vote For
Many Americans see politics much as they see sports. They have a favorite “team” and show their loyalty by faithfully supporting them, never wondering whether the opposing “team” might be more worthy of their support. Others just vote for the candidate with the cleverest ads, never bothering to find out whether the message is fair or accurate. Still others—a growing number it seems—vote for the person that the media depict most favorably in their news stories. But voting is too important to be treated so casually. The people who we put into office impact our country and its citizens, and even the world, for good or for ill. That is why voting responsibly is a moral obligation.
The best guide in voting is the Gospel. Jesus taught his disciples, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father . . .(Matt 7:21). He later reinforced that message with parable of the man who told his two sons to work in his vineyard. One refused to do so, but then felt regretful and obeyed. The other said he would obey but then didn’t. Jesus asked his disciples which of the two they thought “did the will of his father?” (Matt 21:28-32) The answer, of course, was the first son. These passages should guide us in deciding which candidates to vote for—not the ones that make wonderful promises and promptly forget them, but those who keep the promises they make.
There was a time when themes like these were common in Catholic homilies. Those who attended Mass regularly were not surprised by them. Some might have felt a twinge of conscience from one theme or another, but all were moved to apply their faith more fully in their daily lives. Equally important, such sermons made Catholics confident that their priests and prelates served a single Master—not political correctness, psychological fad, or sociological fashion, but Jesus Christ. I pray that the Church will, in God’s good time, merit that confidence again.
Copyright © 2020 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved