Sunday, July 31, 2011

When preachers confuse faith with certainty and evangelism with terrorism, they invite hostility, misunderstanding and hurt feelings.

I’ll have what the Freethinkers are having

By: Father William C. Graham, Duluth News Tribune

Remember “When Harry Met Sally”? The most memorable scene in the movie was set in Katz’s Delicatessen in New York City. Sally’s enthusiasm is heard by everyone when she is loudly enthusiastic during a meal shared with Harry. Another diner, played by the director’s mother, then tells the server, “I’ll have what she’s having.” When Estelle Reiner died in 2008, the New York Times noted that she “delivered one of the most memorably funny lines in movie history.”

I thought of that scene after joining in a deathwatch as a local, faithful Christian prepared to meet the Lord surrounded and supported by family and friends, comforted by the family’s religious practice. A local minister, hearing from one of his congregants about the impending death, sent word to the bedside that the dying person belonged to the wrong denomination of Christianity. The minister wanted to visit and help the dying person profess true belief; otherwise heaven would not be a possibility. And hellfire is even hotter than July 2011 in Duluth.

Hearing this outrage, I had renewed sympathy for and fellow feeling with our local Freethinkers and their desire for freedom from religion. In imitation of Estelle Reiner, I decided, “I’ll have what they’re having.”

Freedom from religion, as I understand it, does not mean I would no longer be free to practice Catholicism or discharge priestly duties. It would mean, I hope, freedom from the tyranny and bad behavior of individuals or congregations whose idea of evangelism is to discourage others, demean other churches and assume an air of infallibility that no pope could ever match.

No Catholic or Orthodox priest, ELCA Lutheran, United Methodist, Presbyterian or mainline protestant minister would be as outrageous as the preacher cited above. We have greater respect for human freedom and dignity and for the Word of God dwelling richly in each of us and in our churches.

Why would someone whose church dates to 1914 or 1988 feel an authority and a certainty that supersedes all others? And what, we might ask, happened to believers who lived and died before his church was founded? Have they all been consigned to hell? They may claim a biblical mandate to issue such claims, but no real student of the Bible or faithful follower of Christ could support such a claim in a way that could be reconciled with the compassionate teaching of Jesus.

When preachers confuse faith with certainty and evangelism with terrorism, they invite hostility, misunderstanding and hurt feelings. They inflict wounds on the Body of Christ that is the Church.

Pope Benedict XVI has expressed his desire that the “Gospel reawaken in all the baptized the awareness of being missionaries of Christ, called to prepare the way for him with words and with the testimony of their lives.” And the Catholic Church routinely prays to God for “all your people and all who seek you with a sincere heart,” as is stated in the Fourth Eucharistic prayer.

No one is outside God’s saving power. That inclusive vision shared by the mainline churches mentioned above, it seems to me, is preferable to the idea that only a certain few can be saved.

When we are confronted with the mean-spirited antics of ministers and the divisive ideas of their fringe groups, which have a dangerously limited grasp of God’s mercy, let’s take Estelle Reiner as our model and respectfully assert, “We’ll have what the Freethinkers are having.”

The Rev. William C. Graham, Ph.D., is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Duluth. He directs the Braegelman Program in Catholic Studies at the College of St. Scholastica. His latest book, “A Catholic Handbook on Sex: Essentials for the 21st Century,” will be released in September.

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