Summary: The Church loves sinners but abhors sin; instead of accommodating itself to the world, and tolerating sin, it should adopt a habit of inculturation as a means of spreading the Gospel.
10 September 2012
Monday of 23rd Sunday in Course
One of the most abused words in the English language is “tolerance.” These days it is often wedded to the word “diversity.” We live in a diverse culture, we are told, and so we are to understand and tolerate those differences. Some go so far as to say we should “embrace” them. To do otherwise is to be a bigot.
I work in a school in a district that counts over five dozen different languages spoken at home, so I get to tolerate and even embrace diversity every day. When a student speaks with an accent in very slow English, I slow down myself and look for the nonverbal signs of understanding or confusion. We accommodate differences as part of our mission. We must do that in our religious practices, too. The Church, a famous Irish poet once said, means “here comes everybody.”
The Church of Corinth, sitting on an isthmus where boats were unloaded on one side, carted to the other port, and reloaded on ships, was in one of the great diverse cities of the Roman Empire. Well, big, anyway, if not great. Lots of sailors coming through every day of the year, with a couple of days to kill, meant lots of immoral conduct. In fact, for a woman to be called a “Corinthian girl” was one of the worst of insults. So the brand-new Christian church of Corinth had lots of members with shady backgrounds. They had listened to Paul and Apollos and Peter when they stopped to preach, they were convinced of the saving power of Jesus, and were baptized. They were singing and praying in tongues and laying on hands for healing and seeing the power of the Spirit working among them. It must have been a lot like coming off an Acts retreat.
But the living out of the Gospel in the nitty-gritty of Corinthian life had to be difficult. They were still surrounded by vice, so if this brother or that sister slipped back into a troubled lifestyle, surely the others could tolerate that? If Marcus got drunk with his old shipping buddies, or Sylvanus was seen coming out of a house of ill-repute, how could the others judge that? Didn’t Jesus Himself say “judge not, lest ye be judged?”
Tolerance for evil had gotten so bad that Paul, hundreds of miles away, heard that one man was in an incestuous relationship with his stepmother. One commentator says: “Pride has tempted the Corinthians to take an ‘enlightened’ view of a very basic disorder, namely, incest. They are ‘inflated with pride,’ no doubt thinking themselves possessed of a knowledge that transcends ethical norms (see 8:1–2; also 4:6–18). They consider themselves above the ordinary taboos related to marriage and family, taboos which characterize even the most primitive civilizations. The Corinthians rejoice in their own broadmindedness. Paul forcefully admonishes that the man guilty of incest must be excluded from the community . . .Impressed that they are already living a supernatural life that frees them from sin, they seem to delight in the sophistication that suggests that they cannot be harmed by the desires of the flesh. Behavior to the Corinthians does not seem important; only spiritual enlightenment matters.”
We live in a society that tolerates and even embraces similar sexual evils, which I don’t need to enumerate. Any use of the sexual faculties outside a life-long, faithful marriage between one man and one woman open to procreation is outside God’s plan and harmful to the people involved and society in general. By way of contrast, the Holy Father teaches inculturation, not tolerance: Here too we come to appreciate the importance of the inculturation of the Gospel.2.  The Church is firmly convinced that the word of God is inherently capable of speaking to all human persons in the context of their own culture: “this conviction springs from the Bible itself, which, right from the Book of Genesis, adopts a universalist stance (cf. Gen 1:27-28), maintains it subsequently in the blessing promised to all peoples through Abraham and his offspring (cf. Gen 12:3; 18:18), and confirms it definitively in extending to ‘all nations’ the proclamation of the Gospel”. For this reason, inculturation is not to be confused with processes of superficial adaptation, much less with a confused syncretism which would dilute the uniqueness of the Gospel in an attempt to make it more easily accepted. The authentic paradigm of inculturation is the incarnation itself of the Word: “‘Acculturation’ or ‘inculturation’ will truly be a reflection of the incarnation of the Word when a culture, transformed and regenerated by the Gospel, brings forth from its own living tradition original expressions of Christian life, celebration and thought”, serving as a leaven within the local culture, enhancing the semina Verbi and all those positive elements present within that culture, thus opening it to the values of the Gospel.
We are to be a leavening agent in the world, day by day working for its conversion and healing.