Reflection & Dialogue: The power of the Holy Spirit and of grace within us is stronger that our human weakness.
Sometimes Jesus is accused of having had little understanding of the weakness of human nature, as for instance in his total ban on divorce. In one sense the mission he gave to his followers to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth was also a difficult one. The early Church understood this mission exactly as Jesus had intended it. The Church, the Christian community, in its teaching and in its following of the Gospel, was to be a new light for the surrounding pagan world. Writing to the Corinthians Paul well describes this noble mission, as well as the human weakness of those who bear witness to it (2 Corinthians 4:6-7): “For its is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us”. Similarly, when writing to the Philippians (2:12-13), he reminds them how Christ humbled himself, taking on the form of a slave, going on to exhort them to work out their salvation in fear and trembling, because the work of salvation is a cooperation between the believer and God, and it is God who is at work in believers enabling them both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Salvation is not just through human endeavour. In the letter to the Romans, as is clear from today’s second reading, Paul lays stress on the weakness of human nature and its inclination to sin, but only to highlight Christ’s victory over sin and its deadly power, a victory of the Holy Spirit over human weakness. Where sin increased there grace abounded all the more.
Turning from Paul to our own day, the Church is often criticised for its numerous rules, as if rules were everything. Such a criticism if often justified, but sometimes the censures are directed not against specifically Church rules as such but directives which are part of the teaching of Christ and of the Gospel. In this case, when it is a matter of the message of the Gospel being proclaimed by the Church, what is involved is not the rules as such but these as part of the Christian way of life, a life to be lived under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and with the grace of God. The life of the Church, even given its human limitations, cannot be understood without the dimension of the Church as part of the mystery of salvation being taken into account.
Among a number of Catholics today there probably is an element of Pelagianism, which really never left the Church. What is meant here by Pelagianism is the reliance on the power of human nature alone, unaided by grace, to live the moral Christian life. Christian living requires recognition of human weakness, of the inclination to sin, and of the need of God’s grace. It calls for humility and for prayer to recognise what God’s will is in given circumstances and for the strength to act accordingly. Paul stresses this point again and again, and we would do well today to listen to his voice.
With regard to dialogue with the world of our own day, with its occasional calls for reform in the Church and such like: the reforms in question at times are in matters relating to Catholic teaching which is considered out of date, not in conformity with perceived values of our day, or with human freedom as perceived in a secular society. In the discussion of such questions, points made above could usefully be borne in mind, centring around the light of the Gospel, the power of the Holy Spirit and of grace.