If you trawl through blog comments, you may notice that one phrase crops up rather often, namely: “When did you last hear a sermon about… X?” where X is some vital point of Catholic doctrine. I must say I rather sympathise with the question’s implied point of view.
I once asked an old faithful Catholic why so few people went to confession these days, and he replied at once: “Because we are never exhorted to do so from the pulpit.” This set me thinking, and as a result I made a resolution that I would from then on exhort people, from the pulpit, to go to confession. Imagine my horror when someone who heard me preach on the necessity of sacramental confession some time later published an article in a theological journal to the effect that I was completely wrong to do so! The article is not online, but you can see the edition of the journal here.
It all goes to show that if you do pick the sort of topics that people want you to preach about, there will be another group that will very much not want you to preach about those subjects.
On another occasion I ventured to show up what I considered to be some of the deficiencies in Professor Dawkins’s position. This provoked a furious and borderline rude correspondence which claimed that I was denigrating science and discouraging children from wanting to learn science. I considered this to be untrue, but it was clear to me that my correspondent saw any criticism of Dawkins as a criticism of the whole scientific community, on the grounds that Dawkins was a poor representative of scientific method.
Again, woe betide the preacher who ever strays into the territory of saying anything less than complimentary about other religions. Our present Pope has had the courage to speak his mind, both in the Regensberg address, and back in 1997, when he made some comments on Buddhism that upset a few people. I am not for a moment suggesting that we go round hurting the sensibilities of other believers just for the sake of it, and neither would the Pope want us to do that; what I am saying is that when teaching Catholic truth we will have to use terms that others do not accept. Any real dialogue will depend on the Catholic side being true to Catholic tradition. But this riles some people. Quite often I am asked whether I believe in the ordination of women. My answer is always the same. I do not. If I did, I would be an Anglican. I cannot truthfully answer in any other way, but I see the eyes of the people who have asked the question clouding over with disapproval as I give them my answer.
So, let us be clear about this. You may not have heard a sermon recently on whatever subject is dear to your heart because the priest in the pulpit knows that certain subjects are best avoided, for the sake of a quiet life. It takes a courageous pastor to tackle head on subjects that may encounter dissent. Moreover, as the reaction to the Regensberg address proved, many of those who disagree with what you say may not play fair. It was remarkable how few non-Catholics (and even Catholics) stuck up for the Pope during that largely manufactured furore. So priests may avoid certain subjects, not because they are cowards, but because they know that they will be misrepresented and misinterpreted, sometimes deliberately so.
Incidentally, while not claiming to be a brave pastor, I still do point out what is wrong with Dawkins from the pulpit, because I think people want to hear it and need to hear it (and need to argue these points with their neighbours); and I still preach about the necessity of regular and frequent confession, despite being rebutted in print from on high.