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Beyond the Pale

by Msgr. Robert L. Stern

A friend of mine once told me about how he and his wife resolved differences with their teenage children – for example, whether they had to go church on Sunday.

The parents would discuss it with the children and try to persuade them to do the right thing. But if the family couldn’t find some common ground, my friend felt it was up to him to decide the issue:

“For me, it’s simple – the rule in this house is that everybody who lives here goes to Mass. When my kids are living independently, they can make their own decisions about what they choose to do.”

Generally, the father’s norm for his children’s behavior was that, while they lived under his roof, they had to live within the boundaries their parents set for them.

Was this a diminishment of the children’s freedom? Of course. It was part of the price they had to pay for being members of a family and living at home as minors.

Similar things happen in the Church. As in all big families, there is always a fair share of internal disagreement and feuding – and name calling – among the Church’s members.

Also, as children often vie for their father’s attention and approval, so do individuals and groups in the Church, for the attention and approval of the Holy Father. They want him to be on their side.

For example, Pope John Paul II recently extended a few disciplinary canons of the Church’s law to clarify for its members their obligations to adhere to certain categories of church teachings.

There were exaggerated reactions both applauding and bewailing the Holy Father’s action.

There were expressions of delight by some that the “liberals” were being made to tow the mark. Others reacted as though the decree represented a victory of the “conservatives” in the Church.

The loving task of the father of any family is not to pick or place one child over the other, but to maintain peace and order so that all his children live harmoniously together.

As in the family, the Holy Father tries to resolve difficulties and persuade the Church’s members to do the right thing. But, if this fails, it’s his responsibility to make clear norms of belief and behavior that must be observed by those who want to remain part of the Church family.

Is this a diminishment of their personal freedom? Of course. It’s part of the price they are willing to pay for being members of the family of the Church and living in it.

The Holy Father’s special responsibility is to keep the Church together in unity. As he presides over that diverse, international and dynamic assemblage in the Spirit, which is the Church, from time to time he has to set boundaries.

When the Anglo-Normans conquered sections of Ireland in the 12th century, those who chose to live outside Anglo-Norman governance were considered to be “beyond the pale.”

With the Church, too, alas, some are unwilling to pay the price of unity and choose to live “beyond the pale.”

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Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA



Tags: Unity Msgr. Stern Pope John Paul II