Repentance and the Synod

Has the Church, in its 'welcome wagon' approach, lost a sense of sin?

I’ve been writing a lot about the upcoming Synod on Synodality and the obsession of some prelates with the Church’s “welcoming” attitude. The gist of my argument is that these folks are pushing a notion of “welcome” that is alien to Scripture and the Church’s Tradition, though it may resonate with the emotional mindsets of modern people. (See “How the Church Used to Welcome People,” in NOR online, here.)

More precisely, I maintain their idea of “welcome” starts in the wrong place. They seem fixated on “where people are” and then figuring out the Church’s “welcome committee” message. What’s fuzzy — whether as the result of theological incompetence or a hidden agenda — is the idea that the Church’s received teaching needs to be tailored to that “welcome” message, rather than vice versa.

Yes, people start in all different places, but they have one thing in common: they are sinners. And that reality they cannot fix themselves; that common truth is the one thing they all bring to the Church as the only place for a remedy. Deny that and you’re a Pelagian.

So, yes, the Church must meet people “where they are,” just as a doctor must meet his cardiac patients “where they are,” which isn’t the same place as his diabetics, cancer patients, or stroke victims. But they all need cures.

For millennia, the Church has had a constant and effective “welcome” message: “Metanoiete!” We translate it as “repent.” It’s the very first word John the Baptist says (Mt 3:2; Mk 1:4; Lk 3:3; J 1:23, 29). It’s the very first word Jesus speaks when He begins His public ministry (Mk 1:15). And, in both cases, that message is called the “Good News” (Mk 1:1, 15b).

“Repent” is a good translation, but the Greek original literally means “to change one’s mind” or “to change one’s way of thinking.” That is what is essential to repentance: changing one’s way of thinking about or seeing reality. Last Sunday’s Gospel reinforces that idea: Peter is rebuked because “you are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mt 16:23).

I stress the etymology of μετανοεῖτε because this is precisely what I think the synodal process gets backwards: Moderns do not want to change their way of thinking to respond to the Gospel call but seek to shoehorn the Gospel into modernity and its Zeitgeist, allegedly in the name of some updating (aggiornamento) and against backwardness (indietrismo). Every generation of patients knocking at the field hospital door were asked to change their way of thinking in light of the Gospel. Why, suddenly, is their way of thinking the new norm to which the Church’s message is to be nipped and tucked?

This point particularly struck me in last Sunday’s Second Reading. An indirect consequence of the adoption of a three-year rotating Sunday Gospel lectionary in which the Second Reading runs in a continuous reading independently of the Gospel is that the latter is often neglected, at least in preaching. The Gospel and its usually related First Reading assume pride-of-place (as the Gospel should), with allusion to the independent Second Reading often forced.

But last Sunday’s Second Reading (Rm 12:1-2) would be a perfect reading for the opening of the Synod. In it, Paul pleads for the Roman Church to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.” Paul does not want that local church to immerse itself more in the sensual but, in fact, to measure its sensuality by spiritual, sacrificial terms. That message is wholly fitting to a Synod in which sexual ethics figures increasingly prominently. Paul warns, “Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,” i.e., adopt the mind of Christ, not the times — again, another pertinent caveat for this Synod. In that way you “discern what is the will of God,” something not constantly invented de novo but which, as Paul often repeats throughout his writings, is “what I have received and handed on to you.” This renewal of one’s mind tallies perfectly with the Gospel passage where Jesus identifies Peter’s problem as thinking on human, not divine, terms. That is not “ideology.” That is the Gospel, and it is quite capable of incarnation. It incarnated in the Person and Teaching of Christ, of which these texts are parts.

As a priest-friend observed, we usually think on human terms not because we have some fundamental disagreement with Christian teaching but because some aspect of that teaching pinches our comfort. We, therefore, want to retailor that point of teaching to accommodate us, fit our comfort zone. Jesus rejects that strategy: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself” (Mt 16:24). He must surrender his self-image and his “identities,” real and contrived, in order to “put on Christ.” In other words, following Christ means checking one’s baggage, real and imagined, in order to be reformed in the mind, heart, and image of Christ.

Recent popes have cautioned against a “loss of the sense of sin.” In today’s “welcome wagon” approach to the Church, one must ask: Has the Church lost a sense of sin? In downplaying metanoia in favor of a focus on the more morally ambiguous phenomenon of “experience,” is the Church shying away from speaking the truth to people about what it is that makes them feel unwelcome, in Church and in the Kingdom of God, namely, the dissonance of their lives with its demands? That perhaps they feel “unwelcome” is not necessarily a bad thing; it reflects a living moral conscience that recognizes that gap. The question is: Do we fix your dissonance or do we accommodate our message?

And that is not some process that the Church is just discovering; it’s been its mission for about two millennia. Those indietrisi Americans have an expression for the situation: “if it ain’t broke, don’t ‘fix’ it.”


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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