Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
Nineteenth Sunday: Relativism and Reality
A number of years ago, I used to meet with every candidate for confirmation and ask them two simple questions. The first was, “What is Pentecost?” and the second was, “What is confirmation?” I thought the questions would be simple for anyone who had spent two years preparing for confirmation. Particularly because their teachers spent a great deal of time in presenting Pentecost and in explaining what confirmation was. Many of the Teens provided the answers that they were taught, but a significant number of them answered the second question by saying, “Well, to me confirmation is....” My immediate response would be, “I am not asking you what you think confirmation is. I am asking you what it is, period.”
I suppose that the “To me it is....” answers reflect the effort of educators to lead children to look into themselves to find a relationship between their lives and the world around them. That is acceptable in the area of psychology. It is not acceptable in considering reality. No math teacher wants to know the child’s opinion on what the square root of four is. No history teacher wants to hear the child’s opinion on who was the general of the confederacy who surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox, and so forth.
Sadly, it seems that when it comes to religion, many people resort to relativism. They decide that they can determine what is a teaching of the Church, or what they feel is moral or immoral. You see this reflected in today’s Gospel. In this the third of five weeks on the Sixth Chapter of John, people who have heard Jesus say that He is the bread that has come down from heaven do not want to listen to his teaching. Now this is after they had witnessed his multiplying the loaves and fish. This is after they heard about his walking on the water. This is after they had learned about the great signs Jesus worked in healing people. He had a wonderful teaching for them. He was offering them the gift of His Body and Blood.
But they did not want to hear it. They had decided for themselves who this Jesus was. “To me, the Jesus is just one of us. He can’t be giving us a new teaching,” they said using the Ad Hominem argument, the attack on the person instead of considering the statement that person made. And so, they refused to hear Jesus explain that their prophets had predicted that they would be taught by God. They would not consider that Jesus’ wonders were signs that He had come from the Father. They were not open to hear that those who believed in Him would have eternal life. They scoffed at His declaration that He is the Bread of Life. They did not want to hear that those who eat this bread will live forever. They had decided for themselves what they would believe. As a result, they rejected Jesus, His Teaching, and His Gift of eternal life.
Many people are held captive to what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called the Dictatorship of Relativism. They decide for themselves what the truths of our faith are or what they should or should not do to live the Christian life. They may not say those words, but we witness this in people who treat communion as a sacramental instead of as a sacrament. A sacramental is a devotional object or practice to remind us of some aspect of our faith. Signing ourselves with holy water is a sacramental. It reminds us of our baptism. Receiving ashes at the beginning of Lent is a sacramental. This practice reminds us of our dependence on God. Sacramentals are useful, but are totally optional. The Eucharist is not a sacramental. It is a sacrament. It is the real presence of Jesus Christ uniting His Body and Blood to us and presenting us with Him to the Father. Communion is the Bread of Life that we need to eat to have eternal life. Yet, some people will treat communion as a sacramental, an option that may or may not be received. So they say, “To me communion is something I do when I go to Church, but it is not necessary for me to receive communion; so I do not attend Mass every Sunday.” People simply relegate the teaching of Jesus Christ as inferior to their own perception of the truths of the faith. They are bound by the dictatorship of relativism.
This also takes place in the Church’s teachings on morality. Some people will say, “To me there is nothing wrong with two people who love each other having marital relations outside of marriage even though they are married to other people.” They refuse to accept the Church’s teaching on fidelity in marriage because it does not fit their own perception of morality.
The “to me this teaching means.....,” or “to me this or that is moral or immoral,” are the same faulty ways of understanding and living the faith that are reflected in today’s Gospel. Simply put, it is not up to us to decide what faith and morality is or is not. It is our obligation to learn what the Church teaches and to follow these dictates. In doing this we are protecting ourselves from the relativism that renders all teaching superfluous, even that teaching which emanates from Christ Himself.
It takes great leap of faith to believe in the Eucharist. It takes courage to be Catholic. We pray today for faith.