The Need for Moral Preaching in the New Evangelization

To fail in preaching moral truth is not an act of mercy, but an act of malpractice.

Detail from "St. Peter Preaching" by Masolino da Panicale (c. 1383 – c. 1447) in Brancacci Chapel [commons.wikimedia.org]

In this article, I would like to offer an argument for the prominent inclusion of moral preaching as part of the ministry of homiletic preaching in the new evangelization.

The Archdiocese of Detroit, to which I belong, has taken as a motto for its new evangelization initiative, “Unleash the Gospel.” Borrowing this motto, the idea of which is rooted in 2 Timothy 2:9—“the word of God is not chained”—my proposal is a simple one: that the whole Church is called to “unleash the Gospel” in its entirety. Put another way: what could it possibly mean to “unleash the Gospel” if we leave Our Lord’s moral teaching very much on the leash?

To some readers, perhaps the idea of “leashing” the moral component of our Catholic faith sounds far-fetched. It has been my experience, however, that many voices these days seem to downplay the role of moral preaching at this moment in the life of the Church. Some experts on the new evangelization, which has generated its own particular rhetoric, emphasize that the Church is not “about rules” and that we must “lead with love”—i.e. offer an essentially positive message—before doing any moral preaching.

Such voices express much that is true and they can claim substantial papal support for their general idea, if not for every particular way this idea is being expressed in today’s conversation about evangelization. And this trend in papal thought is not merely about Pope Francis’s emphasis on mercy. Pope Benedict XVI has famously written, “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”1 Among his many statements about showing mercy, reaching out with kindness to those on the margins of the Church and society, and similar themes, a text from Pope Francis’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on evangelization encapsulates much of the Holy Father’s thought on the topic: “The salvation which God offers us is the work of his mercy. No human efforts, however good they may be, can enable us to merit so great a gift. … This principle of the primacy of grace must be a beacon which constantly illuminates our reflections on evangelization.”2

This article is in no way intended as a criticism of the important and edifying points made by recent popes or by those who serve the Church as teachers of evangelization theory and strategy. My purpose, rather, is to argue that these insights can be preserved and even advanced while remaining faithful to the example of Our Lord’s preaching and the mission He has entrusted to His Church of sharing the entire “splendor of truth”3, including the truth of the moral life. A further purpose is to warn against the exclusive use of a form of evangelization rhetoric that, while including some truths, may easily give the wrong impression when insufficient attention is paid to other important points that would balance the message. For example, to speak only of such ideas as “leading with love” or about the Church not being “about rules” at a time when preaching about the Commandments is quite rare may be imprudent and harmful to the faithful. 4

In the Gospels, we see Jesus engage in moral preaching from the beginning to the end of His public ministry. Our Lord begins His preaching with a moral exhortation: “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15).5 His final instructions to His apostles also have a moral component, as He enjoins on them the duty of “teaching them to observe all that I have command you” (Mt 28:20). Not only does Jesus preach moral truth throughout His public ministry, but He commands His apostles to carry-on this work as they evangelize the world.

The Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7), which St. Augustine describes as “a perfect standard of the Christian life”6, is full of preaching on the moral life. From the Beatitudes to the teaching on the Law, from Our Lord’s words about anger, purity, truth-telling, to those concerning integrity vs. hypocrisy, worrying, and judgment of others, Our Lord’s listeners hardly get a break from moral exhortation in this hallmark example of His preaching!

Those who propose that the new evangelization requires a delay before the Church engages in explicit moral preaching might argue that the moral elements of the Sermon on the Mount—and of the whole corpus of the preaching of Jesus—are never separated from other significant themes related to Christology, ecclesiology, soteriology and the theology of grace, Christian discipleship, etc. And they might further argue that moral teaching is subordinate to a number of these other themes.

I wholeheartedly agree with this view, and believe it supports rather than detracts from the thesis of this essay. I trust no orthodox Catholic would argue—and I certainly do not argue—for a moral preaching performed in radical isolation from those larger truths about God, salvation in Christ, and communion with the Church to which moral truths are indeed subordinate. I do argue, however, that these larger and higher truths also ought not to be preached in isolation from those moral truths which give them shape in the lives of the faithful, which express for our lives the consequences of God’s identity, of salvation in Christ, and of what it means to live in the communion of the Church.

Many Catholic evangelizers emphasize the importance of having a “living relationship” or a “personal relationship” with the Lord. Some use these personalistic terms in contrast to what they call “following the rules”.

First, I wonder what those who disparage “the rules” without qualification think when they pray Psalm 119, which is a veritable love song in praise of God’s law and its life-giving effect on those who know and keep it. Or what do they think Our Lord means when he says, “Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me” (Jn 14:21)?7

Secondly, I think by analogy of my other living and personal relationships, and the degree to which they are informed by the observance of law, custom, and etiquette. I dare say that I have a living and personal relationship with my mother, for example. But that relationship also has a very specific shape, and there are concrete words and actions that enhance that relationship, while other words and actions damage it. If I started skipping Mother’s Day visits for no good reason, for example, my living relationship with my mom would very quickly become a dying relationship.

Then there is the question of the homilist’s responsibility. Perhaps some will see it as begging the question to invoke canon law in an argument for the value of the moral law’s inclusion in preaching, but I believe it is worth noting that the 1983 Code of Canon Law, among other sources, makes clear the homilist’s responsibility to preach comprehensively, including moral doctrine. I hasten to add that by “comprehensively” I do not mean “exhaustively”. I also want to emphasize that homiletic preaching must always be not only “part of the liturgy itself”8, but also part of a parochial program of evangelization and catechesis. Homilies cannot carry all of the weight when it comes to teaching the Faith.

Yet there are a number of canons that explicitly include moral doctrine among the thematic categories that make up the substance of homiletics. For example, Canon 767 §1 states:

Among the forms of preaching, the homily, which is part of the liturgy itself and is reserved to a priest or deacon, is preeminent; in the homily the mysteries of faith and the norms of Christian life are to be explained from the sacred text during the course of the liturgical year.9

Canon 768 is about preaching in general, and not specifically homiletic preaching, but nevertheless gives us insight into what the content of all preaching is supposed to be:

§1. Those who proclaim the divine word are to propose first of all to the Christian faithful those things which one must believe and do for the glory of God and the salvation of humanity.

§2. They are also to impart to the faithful the doctrine which the magisterium of the Church sets forth concerning the dignity and freedom of the human person, the unity and stability of the family and its duties, the obligations which people have from being joined together in society, and the ordering of temporal affairs according to the plan established by God.

Canon 747, which introduces Book III of the Code, entitled “The Teaching Office of the Church”, includes in its description of the duties of this office, “to announce moral principles…and to render judgment concerning any human affairs insofar as the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls requires it” (§2). Homiletic preaching, and the whole teaching office of the Church, includes those moral truths which are meant to shape our lives and our relationships with the Lord and with each other, all for the ultimate purpose of the salvation of souls.

The three canons cited above are only examples of the ecclesiastical texts that could be invoked in support of a moral component to homiletic preaching. A final example comes from the Sacred Liturgy itself. After proclaiming the Gospel, the priest or deacon prays, “Through the words of the Gospel, may our sins be wiped away.” It surely means something that this is the first grace for which the Church prays after the Gospel and before the homily. Cleansing from sin, the repentance that makes the reception of such cleansing possible, faithful discipleship as members of the Church, and above all the salvation of souls, our own and those of others—these are the effects the Gospel and the preaching of the Gospel ought to have on us.

My point is not that the effects I have just mentioned are the only effects one could possibly mention. Rather, my point is that those entrusted with the ministry of homiletic preaching have a blessed duty to proclaim the Gospel in its fullness, including its moral dimension. To fail in preaching moral truth is not an act of mercy, but an act of malpractice, to borrow a medical term. The question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” requires an answer in every age, and yet all-too-often it goes unanswered in our churches.

Certainly, moral preaching by individual bishops, priests, and deacons is extremely difficult today. Were it not for the surpassing power of God’s grace it would be fair to say it is overwhelmingly difficult. The combination of cultural opposition to, and often even hatred for, the Christian moral message and the silence of so many in the Church when it comes to moral preaching means that it is typical only for homilists of heroic virtue to broach the more complex and controversial topics on today’s moral landscape. Yet these challenges make it all-the-more critical that a “coalition of the willing” make a beginning. Or rather, it is critical that more of us who are entrusted with this ministry join those homilists who have already been persevering in preaching moral truth, even when it was most difficult.

Balancing the many challenges of preaching moral truths in today’s difficult circumstances is the great opportunity homilists have before them. In a world awash with relativism and a general “live and let live” attitude, there are many people who feel adrift and yearn for the solidity of an authentic, well defined code of life that is rooted in truth. What we offer is the harmonious beauty of God’s law, which is the very architecture of love, the path to union with Him, and is rooted not only in truth but in the Truth, the Person of the Son of God in whose Flesh the law has found its definitive fulfillment. He invites us, and all those we evangelize, to share in His life and to inherit the glory to which God’s law directs us.

There are several caveats I could offer at this point about how to go about including moral doctrine and exhortation in homiletic preaching, but the purpose of this article is to deal with the question of whether and not how we engage in preaching moral truth in our homilies. An article on sound strategy and tactics for moral preaching in today’s homilies would be a most welcome supplement to my small effort here. I simply conclude by saying that we can look to Scripture, to an entire constellation of saints among the preaching clergy, and to myriad magisterial documents for motivation, sound instruction, and excellent models of effective moral preaching. May today’s homilists, imitating Our Lord and the saints of every age, help those to whom they preach turn away from sin and to build their lives on the rock foundation which is Jesus Christ, so that they might “have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

(This essay originally appeared on the Church Life Journal site in a slightly different form.)

Endnotes:

1 Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Deus caritas est (25 December 2005), AAS 98 (2006), at n. 1. English translation from the Vatican web site vatican.va.

2 Francis, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, (24 November 2013), AAS 105 (2013), at n. 135. English translation from the Vatican web site www.vatican.va, 112.

3 See John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Veritatis splendor (6 August 1993), AAS 85 (1993). English translation from the Vatican web site vatican.va. John Paul II writes of the duty of the Church’s pastors “of speaking with love and mercy not only to believers but to all people of good will” and adds, “The Church knows that the issue of morality is one which deeply touches every person; it involves all people, even those who do not know Christ and his Gospel or God himself. She knows that it is precisely on the path of the moral life that the way of salvation is open to all” (3).

4 It seems to me that general preaching about the two “Great Commandments”—love of God and love of neighbor—is much more common today than concrete and challenging preaching on the Ten Commandments. Yet the Ten Commandments help specify what it means to love God and neighbor, and that violations of the Commandments represent rejections of this call to love. In the end, however, I speak from my own experience and the experiences of many people with whom I am acquainted. There may well be, of course, some regions where direct, specific, and concrete moral preaching is much more common.

5 NAB translation used for all quotations from Sacred Scripture. It will be noted by some that Our Lord’s first words are “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.” Leaving aside the moral implications of biblical concepts such as the “time of fulfillment” and the advent of the “kingdom of God”, my concern here is only to point out the inclusion of moral exhortation in the first preaching of Jesus, not to assert its priority over the announcement of the coming Kingdom.

6 On the Sermon on the Mount, Book I, Chapter I.

7 1 John 2:3-4 could also be added here: “The way we may be sure that we know him is to keep his commandments. Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” Surely, a “personal relationship” involves knowledge of the person with whom one is in relationship, and here it is divinely revealed that personal knowledge of the Lord requires morally upright living.

8 See CIC, 767 §1 and the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council Sacrosanctum concilium, 52.

9 Emphasis added here and in Canon 768. The most important antecedent text to canon 767 §1 comes from Sacrosanctum concilium, 52: “By means of the homily the mysteries of the faith and the guiding principles of the Christian life are expounded from the sacred text during the course of the liturgical year” (emphasis added).


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About Fr. Charles Fox 42 Articles
Rev. Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. He holds an S.T.D. in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome. He is also chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren, MI.

21 Comments

  1. I totally agree with Rev. Fox. I have many, many years going to mass without hearing the word “sin”; homilies becaume absolutely “love & peace”. I live in El Salvador, where we desperately need to return to our Lord because sin is flooding our society. I will share this article, hopping that it will start some changes among our priests. Thanks, Rev. Charle Fox.

  2. Fr Fox “to speak only of such ideas as ‘leading with love’ or about the Church not being “about rules” at a time when preaching about the Commandments is quite rare may be imprudent and harmful to the faithful” says it all and is most important issue for the universal Church. We presbyters are the preacher to the faithful, although I’m convinced the vast majority of bishops shirk this necessary Apostolic role exemplified by bishops like Athanasius of Alexandria and Augustine. It’s up to us to deliver to the faithful what’s being withheld exacerbating the confusion disillusionment and failing away.

  3. Wow, Father you really are hesitant to go against the norms of today’s moral benchmarks of the disreputable society as worshiped and demanded by the Democratic party. I am sure Jesus would not have been as hesitant and cautious as you seem to be to “turn over the tables” of the morally bankrupt in today’s society. I think the bible asks us to declare the truth as it has been since the Ten Commandments. Truth does not change with time. The monetary marriage between the Catholic Church and the USCCB has created myriad disinformation pronouncements from them and Confuses the faithful as to what we are called to do. As President of the American Life League of Arizona I and my followers have been disappointed many times at the Diocese and Parish level when it comes to homilies and directives distributed in voting years. I believe that any Catholic that votes for the Party of Death (Abortion) and all the Catholic politicians who vote for it are committing mortal sins and should be denied communion. This parameter also applies to the rest of the Democrat platform that promotes: gay marriage, transgenderism, sodomy and a plethora of other moral sins. I think Pope Benedict became Emeritus because he was forced out by the demand for a more accommodating teaching that would bend to the will of societal moral changes and away from the true teaching of the bible. I am quite sure this entire comment will be edited out by the reviewers as that is what happens to the truth in the Catholic Church today. I hope Fr. Fox at least gets to see it. I will pray for some character and backbone by the editors.

    • “Wow, Father you really are hesitant to go against the norms of today’s moral benchmarks of the disreputable society as worshiped and demanded by the Democratic party.”

      How did you get this from Fr. Fox’s essay?

    • “. I believe that any Catholic that votes for the Party of Death (Abortion) and all the Catholic politicians who vote for it are committing mortal sins and should be denied communion. This parameter also applies to the rest of the Democrat platform that promotes: gay marriage, transgenderism, sodomy and a plethora of other moral sins.”

      How exactly would this been forced, as we vote by secret ballot?

      • Perhaps instead of “vote,” it should be publicly support–yard signs, letters to the editor, etc. Plenty of Catholics in our area do this, even belonging and holding local party positions.
        .
        I do not know if cannon law really allows for excommunication for that, though.

        • It is possible to support a (D) candidate for reasons other than abortion. I may disagree with their evaluation of a (D) candidate but support for a (D) candidate doesn’t merit exclusion from the Sacraments. It does merit political consequences though.

  4. A good point made rather timidly it seems to me. With the widespread moral apostasy in the church, I don’t know that it needed all the cautious nuancing.

  5. Fr. Fox is absolutely correct. Priests and bishops do not preach on the moral teachings of Scripture even when they are in the readings for the day. If Jesus thought it important enough to talk about, maybe we should think it important too.
    Is it any wonder so many Catholics are ignorant of Church teaching? Mercy and forgiveness are a part of the Christian message, but not the whole thing. Mercy is not God’s only attribute, according to Scripture. He is a just God who will judge us someday.

  6. When I read or hear these phrases like “lead with love”, “the Church is not about rules”, “speak the truth in love”, etc. and carefully examine the actual intentions behind all of it and its results, for some reason it all reminds me of my days, far in the past, when I was part of the New Age False Religion, long before it became as popular, virulent and as insidious as it is today (Coronavirus is bad but New Age is much worse and much more infectious).

    These “new” emphasis in the Church is somewhat similar to New Age in that they split spiritual realities that are not to be split (it is easier to confuse people when you split and overcomplicate everything, away from the simplicity that is in Christ (2 Corinthians 11:3)). While it is true that we inherited the Greek mind in compartmentalizing (splitting) thought, it is way overdue that we balance it with the wholistic (synthesis) thought of the Bible’s Hebrew mind.

    While some may call a big gap and difference between the Love of Jesus and his Morality, the TRUTH is that that split is IMPOSSIBLE, and only “possible” in dis-incarnate belief, abstract theory and dehumanizing practice. Not only did Jesus say that those who truly love him will obey His commands (John 14:15) but St. Paul makes abundantly clear that the greatest of all the greatest encounters with Jesus LOVE, the Eucharist, cannot be done in moral impurity: “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself”, (1 Corinthians 11:29). Why are we splitting Jesus?

    What is the ultimate purpose of that sentimentally sounding theology and practice? Why didn’t Jesus and all the Saints of 2,000 years never ever engaged fully into it? How are we so much better that all that Cloud of Heavenly Witnesses (Hebrews 12:1)? Are we just too great and too modern? Also, why didn’t all of those Saints fall into the trap we are now being SO scared away from of promoting “the Church as nothing but rules” (using a great fear on us while they tell us not to use fear)? Because the Saints and all good Catholics preached Jesus as the ONE and ONLY PERSON in which all the Moral Rules that make REAL Love possible exist. He IS the Morality just as He IS the Truth. Personal. Real. You can’t have True Love without Reality and Jesus IS Reality.

    I am not saying that the Church is now preaching New Age Doctrine but the similarities are undeniable. Another thing that is undeniable is how easy is for New Age to infiltrate the mind, heart and MORALITY of any human person, community, society and/or church (making True Morality disappear, as you can see everywhere). Tell me about it, I fell for it hook, line and sinker! Infinite thanks to God for making me a MORAL, therefore COMPLETE Catholic! Again, why are we stubbornly splitting Jesus?

  7. I joined the RCC in 1996; we started attending the Byz Rite about 16 years ago. About one month ago, the priest (the 10th one we have had in all our years) mentioned about the evils of contraception and abortion. This was the first time I had heard this at a Sunday parish Mass, as opposed to one celebrated at a conference, etc. He has talked about guns not being the problem as much as bad behavior. He has talked about the need to stand up for our Faith.
    .
    Not that I have not heard moral preaching before. During our years with the RCC, I had it thoroughly drilled into me that the rich go to Hell and the poor Heaven. That I must vote for higher taxes to help the poor. That Jesus would not sit with the congregation were He to suddenly appear, but be found . . . well,somewhere other than our lily white, middle-class congregation. And divorce? Well, that is why there is the annulment process.
    .
    I am quite confident the RCC in our area is preaching about the evils of opposing (illegal) immigration and voting for any person who denies “climate change.”
    .
    It seems to me moral preaching is going on quite regularly. It simply depends on the flavor one prefers.

    • Dear sister Kathryn, I am positive that Father Fox, when he talks about Morality, he is talking about TRUE Catholic Morality and not the Made-Up-Sentimental-Imaginary Morality so popular in the general society and that, like a New Age Coronavirus or Ebola, is now infecting the Catholic Church. True Catholic Morality makes us humble and ready and very willing to engage in the long, difficult, sacrificial and totally self-giving path that leads straight to God in holiness, and to endure any trial and tribulation, repenting quickly when we fall, the greatest adventure ever.

      False, Cotton Candy, let’s-save-the-world-while-we-condemn-our-souls-forever morality, leads to a very false, highly addictive sense of quick, easy, fast “perfection’ and “sanctity”, with no real sacrifice of our sinful egos and no growth whatsoever, remaining as spoiled, never satisfied, spoiled children. When Jesus said, “be like the little children”, He was calling us to be child-LIKE not child-ISH (which is what False Morality makes us). When we are Catholics in True Morality, we grow ever more complete, joyful, peaceful and empowered (John 4:14)).

      In false childish morality we become ever more fractured, resentful, rebellious and weak, falling for whatever false identity and ideas the corrupt world offers us. We have to choose wisely which Catholic Church we go to and which morality we choose! The consequences are not political, they are very personal and absolutely eternal! The world offers us a trillion flavors of morality, but we need to choose only Jesus and His Holy Cross, the Holy Bridge to Total Joy (John 15:11)!!

  8. Thank you Father Fox. How many priests/deacons preached on the evils of divorce a few weeks ago when the gospel was a perfect lead-in, or how many priests “edited” the phase condemning divorce out?

  9. The author says it all with this statement:

    “To fail in preaching moral truth is not an act of mercy, but an act of malpractice, to borrow a medical term. The question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” requires an answer in every age, and yet all-too-often it goes unanswered in our churches.”

    How often do we hear the words “social justice” without any mention of abortion. Mother Teresa once said “Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use violence to get what they want. That is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.”

    Suicide, a symptom of a secular society, has been on the increase for over a decade, especially among the young. How often do we hear from the pulpit about issues that are destroying the family, particularly the sexual moralities associated with our secular society. Divorce, which is devastating to children, is at an embarrassingly high rate. Gay marriage, co-habition, and transgenderism are issues that are devastating to family unity. These issues are roadblocks to the love and peace that was handed down from our Lord.

  10. Before Vatican II in my home Archdiocese, there was a 3-year schema of catechetical homilies. An outline of a homily was given by the Chancery, and all priests followed it. The entire catechism was covered in three years: the Creed, the Sacraments, the commandments and moral teachings of the Church, prayer and the sacramentals. We will probably have a Holy year in 2025. A similar three-year series of catechetical sermons might be an excellent preparation for the universal Church? If it has become too threatening for individual priests to teach the Church’s faith, maybe the homily could be more or less provided by the appropriate ecclesiastical authority and be read to the people as would be done with a pastoral letter.

    • Alas, I am not sure “the appropriate ecclesial authority” would do a better job of preparing a homily with sound moral teaching than his priests.

  11. Amen. The primal screams of abortion deranged women should keep priests up at night wondering whether their sermon could have prevented such agony. We need 50 years off preaching humanae vitae every week to make up for the fifty years of silence.

  12. Father, the church in the canon’s instruction seems so vague in years past the priest gave a sermon now we get a homily just as vague as the canons of the church

  13. About time too! Moral theology needs to be TAUGHT to the laity. Morals, ethics, compassion, benevolence, Christian fraternity, etiquette in Church, virtues —- all need be TAUGHT properly within the Catholic Church before it is in a position to evangelize the world! Oh, and don’t forget dogma. No one ever preached the Assumption in the Catholic high school I attended. Shocking!

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