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All Sinners Are Welcome!

Does the Church’s welcome imply that everyone is fine just as he or she is? Here we have to answer with a rather resounding no.

(Image: Edwin Andrade @theunsteady5 | Unsplash.com)

While I was in central Georgia, filming the Flannery O’Connor episode of my Pivotal Players series, I saw a sign on the outside of a church, which would have delighted the famously prickly Catholic author: “All Sinners Are Welcome!”

I thought it was a wonderfully Christian spin on the etiquette of welcome that is so pervasive in our culture today. In a time of almost complete ethical relativism, the one value that everyone seems to accept is inclusivity, and the only disvalue that everyone seems to abhor is exclusivity. “Who am I to tell you what to do?” and, of course, everyone gets inside the circle. What I especially liked about the sign in Georgia was that it compels us to make some distinctions and think a bit more precisely about this contemporary moral consensus.

Is it true to say “everyone is welcome”? Well, yes, if we mean welcome into the circle of the human family, welcome as a subject of infinite dignity and deserving love and respect. Christians—and indeed all decent people—stand against the view, pervasive enough in the supposed culture of inclusion, that the unborn, the aged, the unproductive are not particularly welcome. If by “all are welcome,” one means that all forms of racism, sexism, and elitism are morally repugnant, then yes, the slogan is quite correct.

But let’s consider some other scenarios. Would we claim that everyone is welcome to become a member of the college baseball team? Everyone is welcome to try out, I suppose, but the coach will assess each candidate and will then make a judgment that some are worthy of being on the team and others aren’t. Like it or not, he will include some and exclude others.

Would we claim that everyone is welcome to play in a symphony orchestra?  Again, in principle, anyone is invited to give it a go, but the conductor will make a fairly ruthless determination as to who has what it takes to make music at the highest level and who doesn’t, and he will include and exclude accordingly.

Would we argue that everyone is welcome to be a free member of our civil society? Well, yes, if we consider the matter in abstraction; but we also acknowledge that certain forms of behavior are incompatible with full participation in the public space. And if misbehavior is sufficiently egregious, we set severe limits to the culprit, restricting his movement, bringing him to trial, perhaps even imprisoning him.

With this basic distinction in mind, let us consider membership in the Church of Jesus Christ. Are all people welcome to the Church? Yes of course! Everyone and his brother cites James Joyce to the effect that the Catholic Church’s motto is “here comes everybody,” and this is fundamentally right. Jesus means to bring everyone to union with the Triune God, or to state the same thing, to become a member of his Mystical Body the Church. In John’s Gospel, Jesus declares, “When the Son of Man is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself.” Bernini’s colonnade, reaching out like great in-gathering arms from St. Peter’s Basilica, is meant to symbolize this universally inclusive welcome offered by Christ.

Is the Church, as Pope Francis says, a field hospital where even the most gravely wounded are invited for treatment? Is the Lord’s mercy available to everyone, even to the most hardened of sinners? Yes! And does the Church even go out from itself to care for those who are not explicitly joined to Christ? Yes! In fact, this was one of the reasons the Church was so attractive in the ancient world: when Roman society left the sick to fend for themselves and often cast away the newly-born who were deemed unworthy, the Church included these victims of the “throwaway culture” of that time and place.

However, does this mean that the Church makes no judgments, no discriminations, no demands? Does the Church’s welcome imply that everyone is fine just as he or she is?

Here we have to answer with a rather resounding no. And that Georgia sign helps us to understand why. The Greek word that we translate as “church” is “ekklesia,” which carries the sense of “called out from.” Members of the Church have been called out of a certain way of life and into another one, out of conformity with the world and into conformity with Christ. Every ecclesiastical person, therefore, is a welcomed sinner who has been summoned to conversion. She is someone who is, by definition, not satisfied with who she is.

To return to the Pope’s famous image, a field hospital receives not those who are doing just great but those who are deeply, even gravely, wounded. The problem is that anytime the Church sets a limit or makes a demand or summons to conversion, she is accused of being “exclusive” or insufficiently “welcoming.” But this cannot be right. As Cardinal George once put it, commenting upon the famous liturgical song “All Are Welcome,” all are indeed welcome, but on Christ’s terms, not their own.


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About Bishop Robert Barron 186 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

30 Comments

  1. With all respect Bishop, what world are you living in to state the Church states with a resounding No that everyone isn’t fine as they are? In the Truth of what the Church is it states that but in the practice of what the Church is that couldn’t be further from the truth or what is taught on a large scale.

    All we here is “all are welcome”. Rarely if ever do we hear “go and sin no more”. Adoration is discouraged, the Rosary is hidden, and the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith is treated like a potato chip by most of the laity and priests being tossed about with no second thought. You mention newborns being discarded? How often is abortion talked about by Bishops??? Never with a few exceptions. You all will bang every drum you can about immigration and the poor families being separated. Never a tear is shed for the ~3000 babies that are ripped from their wombs and ripped from life a day.

    At the seminary in your area, unless it has changed within the past 2-3 years, it is not even taught anymore that a priest is a shepherd of souls! Salvation is the last thing that is taught or concentrated on but that priests should be buddies and social workers. I don’t see many shaking the gates of hell with their virtue at least not here.

    Our shepherds in large part, the cardinals and bishops, have abandoned their sheep and seem to care more for political power and prestige and forget they are not supposed to be princes of this world but princes of the Kingdom of Heaven.

    Please get offline and quit self-promoting and get to work being a shepherd. Get your fellow bishops, with seemingly rare exception, to practice what you preach.

    • Jeremy – Maybe I’m just fortunate in the parish I belong to or the ones I’ve visited, but I can give witness, many times over to the message of redemption as part of the welcoming act. Not every Sunday mind you, but I hear it, so find a traditional parish and stick with it. You may need to move to the South.

    • Reflecting on what I posted, I realized I may have been more uncharitable than I should. I am sorry.

      As others have posted, many of us have had experiences with priests saying or preaching that everyone goes to Heaven. Sin is no big deal. Let your conscience decide if it really is a sin. This is especially dangerous in the confessional when you are told that you are worrying over nothing, and it’s no big deal, for what is considered a mortal sin. For those of us, thanks be to God, that know better it is hard enough but for all of those who don’t know better, how much more damaging for their souls to be taught in such error.

      As a convert, sometimes my passion or zeal gets the better of me, knowing that the Catholic Church is the Church that Christ built regardless of the flaws of the men that make it up.

    • Did your grandmother never teach you that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar? We do live in a tough time and some points you make are valid, but Bishop Barron is on of the good guys speaking the truth with love and his Word on Fire ministry has done great work. Is there more to do? Yes. Until He comes again there always will be and each of us needs to do what we can in our sphere of influence every day and then offer it up to Him to make it all work out for the salvation of souls. God bless you and keep you and grant you His peace.

    • Thank you, Jeremy, for your trenchant comment. Bishop Barron is the very model and prototype of the emetic self-promoting Pope Francis-stein airport and TV gasbag bishop.

    • Jeremy – in my diocese, we, too have clergy that have made shipwreck of the faith. I travel 40 minutes to a different diocese for Sunday Mass just so I can have confidence that my children will not be subjected to heresy preached from the pulpit. In many parts of the country, the clergy have simply betrayed the the laity and our Lord. We need men of prayer and strength to fill the ranks of the clergy. We need men who will speak clearly but with charity. We need men who will sacrifice in order to help lead souls to Christ. Pray that the Lord gives laborers for the harvest. Work on growing closer to Christ so that you may be a light for others. And pray that the unfaithful clergy either undergo a conversion of heart or are removed from positions of influence.

      • I hope you’re praying fasting and doing mortification for the sanctification of the clergy as we all are.

  2. Please stay online Bishop Barron. You are doing a world of good. And I’m sure you’re an excellent Bishop, as well. Thank you for all you have given us! Excellent article, by the way. God bless you always.

  3. Excellent thoughts, Bishop Barron. But I am afraid that I tend to agree with Jeremy. In most parishes what you claim is a resounding no, is anything but. Let’s look at the Sacrament of Penance for instance. If you have a church with a thousand people in it, and only 45 minutes a week prior to one mass for people to confess their sins—what does that tell you? Oh, yes, there is a disclaimer that you can come by appointment; but some of us are still ashamed enough of our sins to desire anonymity. I don’t recall often even hearing the word sin from the pulpit except perhaps in the context of exclusivity—we can’t exclude anyone (and rightly so), but it seems as if we are not allowed to even suggest that while we can come to the Lord as we are, it is not Jesus’s intention to leave us as we are. And yes, Bishop, I have heard preached from the pulpit that the church makes no demands and no judgements. In fact I have heard that God makes no demands. So while Jeremy may have been a little blunt in asking you “What world are you living in”, I can’t really blame him because I am wondering the same thing.

  4. Thank you, Bishop Barron. The Catholic Church is where a sinner may become a disciple of Christ on the road to salvation.

  5. My belief is both the Bishop and Jeremy are both correct….why? Because we are all looking for a ‘right path’ to salvation.
    My daily actions are always divided through human experience and past behavior behavior and how to walk towards our savior. I do not think I’ve ever met a perfect role model in a priest or other human friend I encounter. But when I listen closely I see a way to improve my relationship with Our Lord through all friends and foes.
    Denise

  6. While I agree whole heartedly with the Bishop’s words, I also have to agree with Jeremy & Kay on the reality. I’m not sure we need to revert to ‘fire & brimstone’; but in my experience the Catholic schools are teaching that children don’t ‘need’ to go to confession. It’s certainly unlikely that they’ve committed a mortal sin. When I questioned this, I was told that they only needed to go when they felt that they had ‘violated their relationship with God.’ There’s an abstraction for a 2nd or 3rd grader! It seems we’ve gone overboard on the ‘warm fuzzy’ side, to the exclusion of talking about sin. It strikes me that getting children to acknowledge even their venial sins (I tripped my brother, I didn’t do what my Mom told me to do, I lied to my teacher) is the beginning of accepting responsibility for their actions. That seems to be one of the things sorely missing in modern society.

  7. Just a thought: of all the folks who try to teach the catholic faith, bishop barron is one of the finest. It may be just my opinion, but I don’t think he preaches and teaches without knowing the failings of the church. He teaches and preaches, I think to show us the ideal church, the church we can be, the church Jesus envisioned. It should be no surprise to us that we “Adams” fall short. But god please forbid the thought that because we fail, that bishop Barron should silence his hopeful teaching of what Jesus calls us to be. For my part, what he has shown me brings my sinful self into a place where I can see and feel the light of heaven. Don’t let our failure deprive me of that succes. God bless you bishop.

  8. Here are just a few of the many NT verses that speak to this issue.

    ROM 16:17-18 I appeal to you, brethren, to take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by fair and flattering words they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded.

    1 COR 5:1-2 It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.

    1 COR 5 11-13 But I now write to you not to associate with anyone named a brother, if he is immoral, greedy, an idolater, a slanderer, a drunkard, or a robber, not even to eat with such a person. For why should I be judging outsiders? Is it not your business to judge those within? God will judge those outside. “Purge the evil person from your midst.”

    EPH 5:6-8 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not associate with them, for once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.

    2 THES 3:14 If anyone does not obey our word as expressed in this letter, take note of this person not to associate with him, that he may be put to shame.

    2 TIM 3:1-5 But understand this: there will be terrifying times in the last days. People will be self-centered and lovers of money, proud, haughty, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, irreligious, callous, implacable, slanderous, licentious, brutal, hating what is good, traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, as they make a pretense of religion but deny its power. Reject them.

    TITUS 3: 10-11 After a first and second warning, break off contact with a heretic, realizing that such a person is perverted and sinful and stands self-condemned.

    2 JN 9-11 Anyone who is so “progressive” as not to remain in the teaching of the Christ does not have God; whoever remains in the teaching has the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him in your house or even greet him; for whoever greets him shares in his evil works.

  9. I like the idea of “all are welcome”. That’s as it should be. However, I would also like to hear more preaching of what sin is. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” should be dealt with a little more often from the pulpit. In my parish there is an openly gay couple sitting front and center every Sunday, holding hands as they walk down the aisle to take their seat, and receiving communion in front of the whole parish. This does not set a good example to the rest of the parishioners. I’d love to hear more from my very good pastor and associate priests about what constitutes sinful behavior and why we cannot disguise it under the banner of “alternate lifestyles”, for instance, or just being welcoming. All are welcome, but then it’s our job to transform ourselves to Christ’s standards, with some help and guidance from our shepherds.

    • Leslie – if you would like your pastor/priest to tell you what sin is, and I agree it is a very important topic, why not make a time to discuss it with him. 20 mins of his time should be do-able. I am in New Zealand, and doing a 10 week course on the 7 Deadly Sins, and find it fascinating. The course is run by a priest.

  10. I have to agree with Jeremy. Anything goes (except withholding Communion from pro-abortion politicians and preaching on the evils of contraception/divorce) even if, especially if, a person is a member of the clergy.
    .
    It should not be that way, but it is.

  11. +Bishop Barron you pose two disconnect options for the Church. One that “all are welcome” the other is “all are welcome BUT or with the following exception(s)…”
    The three examples you suggest are actually a template for sifting out those “sinners” we do not want in our Church. Christ Jesus never refused ANYONE. The Church is in fact a field hospital for the wounded of the world and as such the only triage should be who need us first, or who needs us the most. St.Paul in his letter to the Church at Rome wrote: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel. It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” (Romans 1:16 NAB) Now Bishop do you really think that Paul believed that because a sinner could not pitch a no hitter that they would wold not be allowed on his team? Or in the Church? Christ Jesus said he came not to call the reighteous but sinners. Therefor I for one cannot go against the word of God and reject anyone, or keep only the ones who meet my personal biases, or my personal stringent requiremnts and hope the others find another Church.
    Blessings,
    +Jack

    • Your comment is confusing on several counts; it’s as if you didn’t even read the column.

      The basic point of the column is Catholicism 101: all are welcome, but the call comes with criteria. Even your quote from St. Paul contains the most basic criteria, which is faith: “… of everyone who believes.”

      Christ Himself calls everyone—and provides criteria, begging with an emphasis on repentance: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15). He insists on a specific form of self-denial and radical discipleship: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23). The Sermon on the Mount, of course, is filled with strong calls to avoid lust, adultery, divorce, hypocrisy, greed, idolatry, and more.

      “Therefor I for one cannot go against the word of God and reject anyone, or keep only the ones who meet my personal biases, or my personal stringent requiremnts and hope the others find another Church.”

      Again, you don’t seem to have read the column, nor do you seem willing to acknowledge that welcoming all is not the same as saying, “There is no need to change, or repent, or confess, or strive for holiness with the aid of God’s grace.”

      The image of the Church as a field hospital has some helpful qualities, if it is presented correctly. But we are not called just to be healed, but to be fully holy, as St. Peter makes very clear: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9).

      And note that Peter emphasizes, in the next verse, that this is the work of God’s mercy: “Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.” And that the head apostle and first pope then emphasizes purity and self-control: “Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul” (1 Pet 2:10-11). We may live in a “modern” or “post-modern” time, but human nature remains the same, and the nature of salvation does as well.

    • To add on what to Carl said: I certainly hope you don’t expect people to meet your “stringent requirements” nor your personal preferences because the Church is not your Church: It is Christ’s Church. We are a Creedal church,to be a member you must profess your belief in the Church’s and Christ’s teachings. Those who have reservations should not enter the Church or, if already a confirmed member, should spend considerable time learning why the Church teaches what she does and he should also refrain from presenting himself to receive the Eucharist.

      The Church is not a homeless shelter where people come for community for an hour a week: we are called to radical conversion. Yeah, Christ knew prostitutes and ate with tax collectors and Calle call of them to repent and, I am quite certain, he didn’t have active prostitutes plying their trade whilst following around he and the apostles nor were their tax collectors making collection stops while traveling with them. I understand instead that he ate with them, told them the truth and told them to repent. If he didn’t tell those people to repent, if he told them to carry on, then the whole idea of the Church is null and void: all she would have to tell us is that God loves us no matter what so do whatever you like.

      And if that is true or you think it is then you ought to have the intellectual honesty and courage to leave the priesthood.

    • In addition to my other comment, please confirm if you are the Father Jack Cunningham who is has no faculties in any diocese but has started an “independent, ecumenical, non-denominational” church called CelticCatholicChurch? The “Father” Cunningham who gushes about Teilhard and who blasphemously had an Anglican pastor co-preside at a wedding Mass. The “Father” Cunningham who is such a fan of Jung.

      If so, have the decency to identify yourself so people don’t feel a false sense of reverence for a schismatic,

      • Thank you Carl Olson and Brian for your replies to “Fr. Jack”. I could not find the words that would not have gotten me permanently excluded from this forum. The only thing is, there are many priests out there who quietly think like “Fr. Jack”, but will never express their thoughts in a public forum (except the pulpit, where they will be consumed like candy).

      • Thanks for that information, Brian. We will see if he replies. In any case, the “Celtic Catholic Church” website is a primer for heterodoxy (and a few chuckles.)

    • Father Jack – Have you read the verses I posted above? The ones that say of persistent, public, unrepentant sinners or dissenters from doctrine: “avoid them”; “reject them”; “do not associate with them”; let them be “removed from among you”; “purge” them from your midst; “break off contact” with them; do not “receive them in your house or even greet them”; and “reject them”? Could you explain how you harmonize these verses with your view that no one may ever be excluded?

    • Fr Jack — didn’t Paul say that if some of the members of the Christian group fornicated or got drunk, etc, and would not repent after being given multiple chances, they should be ejected from the group?

  12. Bishop Barron affirms the requisite definition to All Sinners are Welcome! If you love me keep my commandments!

  13. Come to Ireland for the church without a cross!
    I attended an anniversary Mass some months ago at which the Archbishop of Dublin asked us to be more inclusive with regard to what constitutes a family. He seems most enthusiastic about the invitation to Fr James Martin to speak at the WMOF shortly to be held in Dublin. He referred on a couple of occasions to the fact that Catholic doctrine is ‘riddled with error’ a fact he discovered as a young seminarian during Vatican 2.
    There are several Catholic Churches in my area so I tend to move around. At one, the parish priest, some months before the referendum to remove the right to life of the unborn, said he was ‘not taking sides’! At another, in the aftermath of the landslide victory for pro choice, the priest said that both sides voted out of a sense of love and compassion. To say that those of us who canvassed for a no vote are totally demoralized is an understatement. There is simple no leadership from the hierarchy, apart from a handful of bishops, and their brother bishops all but apologise for them.

  14. “All are welcome”, if they desire to overcome their disordered inclinations , ( including those men and women who have developed a disordered same-sex sexual inclination), and become transformed through Salvational Love, God’s Gift of Grace and Mercy.
    Only Perfect Love can drive out evil.
    To deny that it is possible for all persons to be transformed through repentance, reconciliation, and accepting Salvational Love, God’s Gift of Grace and Mercy, is the sin against The Holy Ghost.

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